Well just when I think I know everything about Mormonism, something like this knocks me off my feet. I saw a post at By Common Consent lamenting the loss of Eldred G. Smith, emeritus Presiding Patriarch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the remarkable age of 106.
I have taught D&C and church history for CES for early morning seminary and institute, I have taught gospel doctrine and gospel principles, and I served a mission, as well as being a member of the LDS church my whole life, and I didn’t know there was still a Presiding Patriarch on the Earth.
I knew that Joseph Smith Jr. had ordained his father to be a Presiding Patriarch, but I did not know that the office was intended to be a lineal office, nor did I know it had been filled as recently as 1978. Nor did I know that the office was once considered second only to the prophet, and that the Presiding Patriarch was sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator along with the 12 Apostles and First Presidency until the office was retired. In fact, I did not know until yesterday that several of my family members were given their patriarchal blessings from Eldred G. Smith’s own hand.
I was at first a bit embarrassed that I could go 29 years in the church without this knowledge, but after a talk with one Community of Christ historian that I am acquainted with, and a friend who teaches history at BYU, it seems to me that the church intentionally made this office a bit obscure. After Joseph Smith Sr. passed away, the position fell to Hyrum Smith, and after Hyrum’s martyrdom, the temperamental (and from his personal history I might guess emotionally unstable) William Smith got the job.
William Smith, a younger brother of Joseph Smith Jr., was a bit of a loose cannon. He frequently fought with his brother Joseph, sometimes physically, and seemed to be a gadfly to Brigham Young. When Young made his power grab during the Succession Crisis (okay, maybe a more neutral way to say it is, “When Brigham Young made his claim to the Presidency”), he immediately began to downplay the role of the Presiding Patriarch, particularly by clarifying that Smith was the Patriarch to the Church, not the Patriarch over the Church (kind of like being assistant to the regional manager rather than the assistant regional manager). It seems clear that Brigham saw William as a potential rival with a possible claim for leadership of the church – though it does not seem that William was ever charismatic or influential enough to take advantage of his position, and his unstable behavior did not seem to make him many friends.
Though the Brighamite church eventually excommunicated William (who joined the Strangites, then attempted to start his own Latter Day Saint church, then joined the RLDS), the office continued through various family members of Joseph’s family all the way into the 20th century, including a certain Joseph Fielding Smith (not to be confused with the Prophet of the same name) who had been relieved of his priesthood duties after it surfaced that he’d had an affair with a 21-year-old LDS man.
All this was news to me! I had thought of “lineal priesthood” as something that went away in Old Testament times, or an innovation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But no – this makes it quite clear that Joseph Smith Jr. had the idea that this priesthood was intended to be lineal. What the Patriarchal Priesthood actually was intended to be is a subject of some debate – the LDS church claims that it is simply a thread within the Melchizedek Priesthood (no doubt this is a way of subsuming the office of Presiding Patriarch firmly under the Prophet).
It is also quite clear that the office of Presiding Patriarch must have been seen as a threat to the institutional LDS church. First, any recognition that Joseph did in fact intend for at least one strand of the priesthood to be both in a position of power in the church and passed within his family would seem to strengthen RLDS claims. Second, the institutional church has, since Brigham, grown more and more bureaucratic, and strongly “chain of command.” Everyone answers to somebody all the way up to the Prophet. The office of Presiding Patriarch seemed to be both vestigial and potentially dangerous, in that the Presiding Patriarch might have at some point asserted a stronger role in the church.
So it would seem natural, though lamentable, that through the years the LDS church has quietly allowed the office to slip away into obscurity. Though from some second-hand comments at By Common Consent, and the Salt Lake Tribune article linked above, Eldred may have harbored a bit of bitterness by the fact that a man once sustained as prophet, seer, and revelator was retired from a noble office instituted by Joseph Smith Jr. himself.
The more I learn about Joseph Smith Jr. and the way he saw the world, the more I think that Mormonism was intended to be so much more than what it has grown into (another interesting example is the Council of Fifty, which seemed terribly important to Joseph but terribly unimportant to his Brighamite successors). It seems that the LDS church has settled into a bureaucratic lull, with few major doctrinal revelations in recent years, a watering-down of unique doctrines that made it special, and an unfortunate focus on PR and increasing the ranks at all costs. The RLDS/Community of Christ has maintained a different flavor of Joseph’s vision, and I know much less about them, but what I do know leads me to think that they have continued to distance themselves from the uniqueness of Mormonism and have become an organization that could be called a half-bland Protestant religion with unusual roots. Maybe no religion can maintain the fire of their beginnings for hundreds of years without some kind of creeping bureaucracy, but it does seem to me that the “fire that burned” in Joseph Smith might not be found fully on the Earth today.