The Church of Jesus Christ — Office of Church Patriarch
The word "patriarch” is defined as “the male head of a family or tribe” or “a man who is the oldest or the most venerable of the group.” In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (inadvertently referred to as the Mormon Church by the media and others) the term “patriarch” is used in reference to: fathers of families, prophet leaders of ancient times, and an ordained office in the Melchizedek Priesthood.
The Melchizedek Priesthood
In Latter-day Saint terminology, “priesthood” is defined as the authority and power of God. In the Church of Jesus Christ there are two main offices of the priesthood to which worthy male members are ordained – the Aaronic Priesthood (also referred to as the lesser priesthood), and the Melchizedek Priesthood (also referred to as the higher priesthood).
In the Old Testament book of Genesis we read of the patriarch Abraham’s encounter with the high priest, Melchizedek, and we learn that he paid tithes to him. In Genesis 14:18-20 are recorded these words:
- And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.
- And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth:
- And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
Scriptures used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which contain modern-day revelations explain why the Melchizedek Priesthood is named after the ancient patriarch and high priest. In Doctrine and Covenants 107:3-4 are recorded these words:
Before his [Melchizedek's] day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.
In his epistle to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul makes mention that Christ is “a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.” In Hebrews 7:14-22 we learn,
- For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.
- For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest:
- (For those apriests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:)
- By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.
The Office of Church Patriarch
A man who is called to serve as a Patriarch provides a vital function to the Church. It is his responsibility to give worthy church members special blessings known as patriarchal blessings. A patriarchal blessing contains the Lord’s counsel for the person receiving the blessing and declares that person’s lineage in the house of Israel. The blessing may also give the person a better understanding of their callings in life. The blessing is recorded and is retained by the Church. Fathers, as patriarchs of their homes, may also give special blessings to their wife and children, but those blessings are generally not recorded or retained by the Church.
In the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ, one man was called to be the Church Patriarch The call to serve in this office was based on heredity starting with Joseph Smith, Sr., the father of the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith. His responsibilities were to provide patriarchal blessings and bestow blessings to the fatherless.
Through the years the office has been known by many names: Patriarch over the whole Church, Patriarch of the Church, Presiding Patriarch, and Patriarch to the Church. Patriarch to the Church became the official title in 1845.
There was a period of about a decade when Acting Patriarchs were called who were not in the direct family line. Those Acting Patriarchs included: Nicholas G. Smith (October 1932 to October 1934), Frank B. Woodbury (June 1935 to October 1937), and George F. Richards (October 1937 to October 1942).
On 3 October 1942, with the calling of Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (1899-1964) as Church Patriarch, the call returned to the family line. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (not to be confused with Church presidents Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith) was a great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, the brother of Joseph Smith. He was released on October 7, 1946, at his request. In April 1947, Eldred G. Smith, the eldest son of Hyrum Gibbs Smith, was called to serve as Church Patriarch. He would serve as the last Church Patriarch.
The office of Patriarch to the Church was retired in 1979 “because of the large increase in the number of stake Patriarchs and the availability of patriarchal service throughout the world.” Eldred G. Smith was designated “a Patriarch Emeritus, which means that he is honorably relieved of all duties and responsibilities pertaining to the office of Patriarch to the Church” (Conference Report, Oct. 1979:25).
Elder Eldred G. Smith, the oldest known General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as, the oldest known Utahan, passed away at the age of 106, at home in Utah, on Thursday, 4 April 2013. During his 32 years as church patriarch, he traveled to every continent and gave more than 18,000 blessings.  Provo's Daily Herald reports he had five children, 24 grandchildren, 45 great-grandchildren and 19 great-great grandchildren as of 2012. He celebrated his 106th birthday on 9 January 2013.
- Joseph Smith Sr.—December 1833 to September 14, 1840
- Hyrum Smith (son of Joseph Smith Sr.)—September 14, 1840 to June 27, 1844
- William Smith (son of Joseph Smith Sr.)—May 24, 1845 to October 6, 1845, although never sustained
- John Smith (brother of Joseph Smith Sr.)—January 1, 1849 to May 23, 1854
- John Smith (son of Hyrum Smith)—February 18, 1855 to November 6, 1911
- Hyrum Gibbs Smith (grandson of the second John Smith)—May 9, 1912 to February 4, 1932
- Nicholas G. Smith (acting patriarch, not in direct hereditary line)—October 1932 to October 1934
- Frank B. Woodbury (acting Patriarch, not in direct hereditary line)—June 1935 to October 1937)
- George F. Richards (Acting Patriarch, not in direct hereditary line)—October 1937 to October 1942
- Joseph Fielding Smith (great-grandson of Hyrum Smith)—October 3, 1942 to October 7, 1946
- Eldred G. Smith (son of Hyrum Gibbs Smith)—April 1947 to October 1979; thereafter emeritus status until his death in April 2013
The Calling and Ordaining of Patriarchs Today
As the Church began to grow and to expand, having a roving Patriarch was no longer considered practical or feasible. Today, Patriarchs are called on the Stake (an administrative unit composed of multiple congregations, or wards, comparable to a diocese in the Roman Catholic Church) level. The ordaining of Stake Patriarchs was a responsibility that was originally assigned to the First Presidency or a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. However, as the Church has grown, that responsibility has been delegated by the Brethren to Stake Presidents when deemed necessary, however, the ordination of an individual as Patriarch must first be authorized by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The office of Patriarch is held for life. If the Patriarch is no longer able to function in his duties, an additional Stake Patriarch may be called.