The Office of Presiding Patriarch : The Primacy Problem
Journal of Mormon History
Salt Lake City, UT
Mormon History Association
[1989 Mormon Historical Association Winner for Best Article]
Smith discusses the question as to whether, in the beginning, there were 'primal characteristics' (i.e. primacy over other offices) to the Church Patriarchy, and, if so, what were their characteristics? He traces the reverberations of those questions through the history of the Patriarcy, suggesting that they also played a role in the demise of the office of Church Patriarch. He says that, when the office was created, it was thought of by some, including Oliver Cowdery, as having certain primal aspects, though the documents leave some confusion on the matter. There were both proponents and opponents of the idea that there could exist two 'first' offices--that of Patriarch over the whole Church and that of President of the Church. In looking at the intentions of the Smith family, it is clearly that 'something more . . . was intended for and embodied in the Patriarchy as it was held by Joseph Smith Sr. and Hyrum Smith than it its succeeding generations,' but in function Joseph Sr. mainly gave individual blessing and the primal charactristics of his office were mostly honorary. Isaac Morley was the first local patriarch (1838), and the only one Joseph Sr. could have supervised, but in 1834 Joseph Sr. became an Assistant to the President of the Church so he had jurisdictional authority through this office that apparently was not his by virtue of his primary office. When Hyrum came to the office, he apparently had more primal rights than his father... he was given certain rights 'by blessing and also by right,' and the author provides consdiderable evidence that the office was to hold some kind of independent presiding authority. It is assumed that Hyrum would have succeeded Joseph in the Presidency of the Church, if he had lived, but when he died he left only a small son to inherit the office of Patriarch. William Smith then became involved, and successfully demanded at least the office of Patriarch. But conflict arose, and 'what had worked between brother simply did not work any longer. Either office [i.e. Brigham Young as Pres. of the 12] or lineage could lead the church, but not both.' In the ensuing debate, William claimed that the office of Patriarch did not supercede of the Twelve, but that it did give him the right to stand as a father to the whole churuch in giving blessings. Later, in an article, he claimed primacy even over the Twelve. John Taylor then published an article, on behalf of the Twelve, which 'created the suddent and permanent demarcation between the Patriarch office as it had been during the life of the Propeht Joseph, and how it has been, more or less, since.' It simply redefiend the office to eliminate any trace of primaly authority. Taylor made it clear that the office was Patriarch TO the church, not Patriarch OVER the church, as it had been thought of previously. William was later excommunicated for aspiring to the church presidency, and the office remained vacant for two years. After Joseph F. Smith became President of the Church (1902), there was a partial renaissance of the prestige of the office of Patriarch. President Smith's suggestion that the Patriarch be sustained in conference ahead of the President was never implemented, but he did have the Patriarch (his brother, John) set him apart as President. This did not set well with some of the apostles, and this was the last time this happened. Pres. Smith also had the Patriarch, John Smith, speak in general conferences, and John was the first Patriarch since Hyrum to be sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. His successor, Hyrm G., presided over local patriarch, signed their ordination certificates, and ever ordained some to thier office. He also did many other things that the Twelve did. He was also aware, however, of the discrepancies between the sustaining order set out in Section 124 of the D&C and the prevailing sustaining order, though he discouraged someone from publishing the list of General Authorities with the Patriarch ahead of the apostles. In 1919 he discussed the matter with the First Presdiency, who made it a matter of record that the 'presiding Patriarch of the Church ranks in the order of office between the Council of the Twelve and the First Council of the Seventy.' Other ramifications continued to be discussed. The office remained vacant for 10 years after the death of Hyrum G. Smith in 1932. This was the result of an impasse among the general authorities. Pres. Grant wanted to abandon primogeniture in favor of getting someone in the office who was closer to the President and who could join with greater rapport in the councils of the First Presidency. This would restore some of the primal aspects of the Patriarchy. The Quorum of the Twelve, however, reasoned that primogeniture was too established to abandon, but the dimensions of the office should be officially defined so as to remove all possible primal charactersitics. . . such as no administrative responsibilities, and being subject to the Twelve. Finally a compromise was reached that allowed the President to call any descendant of Hyrum Smith to the office, not just the eldest son, and the office would be circumscribed in authority. So, neither primacy nor primogeniture remained intact When Hyrum Mack Smith was called in 1942, the name of the office was changed from Presiding Patriarch to Patriarch to the Church, and most administrative functions were eliminated. The office continued to have diminished authority through the administration of Eldred G. Smith, beginning in 1947. In 1979 the office was formally retired, when Eldred G. was designated Patriarch Emeritus because, it was announced, 'of the large increase in the number of stake patriarchs and the availability of patriarchal service throughout the world.' The more probable explanation, says Smith, was the troublesome nature of the office. 'It is not a surprise to students of Mormon history that leadership roles and offices have not always developed smoothly or consistently in the church. The office of Presiding or Church Patriarch is an extreme, and perhaps unique, example. Part of the explanation lies in ambiguous revelations, and part lies in the inability of an institution to deal with such ambiguities. In the not unnatural tension between lineage and office, the institution found accommodation of the two ultimately impossible, and the tension spelled the doom of an office grounded in the church's lineal beginnings.'