Thoughts About Baby Blessings

January 12, 2004 | 13 comments
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Last Sunday, I blessed Alison Edra Fox in sacrament meeting. It was a mob scene; for reasons far too complicated to go into here, all of my six brothers were present in the circle, as was my younger sister’s fiance, my father and father-in-law, a couple of friends and the bishop. We barely had room on the stand.

I’ve blessed three children now, and I’m still not sure what I’m doing, or why I say what I do. Am I saying a prayer, expressing my fondest fatherly hopes and wishes for my child with as much faith as I can muster? Am I, on the other hand, exercising a kind of patriarchal power, making certain promises (contingent upon my daughter’s obedience, perhaps?) on her behalf? A little bit of both?

Frankly, as may have come through in other contributions I’ve made to this blog, I’ve never been especially comfortable with the idea that I can make certain covenants, fulfill certain callings, perform certain acts, and be assured that the Lord will be bound to respond in a certain way. The Lord will do what He will do; that has always struck me (or at least, ever since I started thinking about these sorts of things) as a truer theology. But I’ve never wanted more to be a Grant von Harrison-”drawing on the power of heaven”-type believer than when I’ve stood in a circle, giving a name to my daughters. I want them to be happy, and sensitive to the spirit, and healthy, and free from depression and doubt and fear, and I want them to have good marriages and decent educations and be loving to all around them and to never grow up, ever. Broadly speaking, is any of that in my power? Can I seal anything upon my daughters’ heads? Or is the power to truly act as a patriarch–in the scriptural sense–to one’s own family lost when one assumes a “modern” family ethos, as I admittedly have?

I was struck by Jim’s comment, in his second Sunday School post, that we find in 1 Nephi statements about handing down records which are phrased in an intriguing way: Lehi wished to “preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children” (5:21). Normally we would simply say “for our children,” but the language here may be revealing. When I do something “for” my girls, I am interacting with them, setting something up for them, aiding them in a contemporaneous project, inserting myself in their lives; I am present to them. Were I to do something “unto” my children, on the other hand, it would make me think of delivering something to them, perhaps from afar, perhaps from the grave; I don’t think such a locution implies presence. For better or worse, that insight of Jim’s helps me express very well what little (or is it little?) I feel I can offer my children in blessing them. Melissa and I have recorded each of the baby blessings I have given, and typed them up to preserve them for our girls. When I have given them, I have striven to express, not necessarily my hopes (though obviously they are there), but principles and ideas that may be of some use to our daughters someday; most specifically, in perhaps helping them recollect our (and God’s) love for them, should any of them ever doubt that fact. So none of my blessings have ever mentioned temple marriage, mission service, callings or schooling or anything else particularly specific. That may very well be a real failure on my part: a failure to truly step up to the plate and put myself into my daughter’s life as her father. My talk about giving a blessing “unto” my daughter, rather than specifically making promises “for” her, may be a rationalization of my lack of patriarchal faith. But right or not, that is how I have always felt in those circles (even this most recent, very tight one): as if I am looking at an impossibly distant object, my child, grown and almost gone, and all I can do is offer up my heart and throw it upon the waters, and pray she picks it up someday: for she is already, even as an infant, so much larger and so much further away than anything I could ever hold.

13 Responses to Thoughts About Baby Blessings

  1. lyle on January 12, 2004 at 1:38 pm

    Russell:

    Thanks for the well thought out blessing puzzle. I’m not a father, and so have only barely thought about the issue…but are glad you bring it up so that I have the opportunity to do so beforehand. I guess I’ve always thought a baby blessing was “just” like a father’s blessing given before a child starts the school year (i.e. comfort/blessing) coupled with a public/family/church naming function. Now it seems like so much more.

    As a related thought, why are baby blessings done the way they are? i.e. why is it done on the 1st Sunday of each month? Why not the 1st Sunday that a baby is out of the hospital? Why at church to begin with? If it is a “blessing,” then I’d rather give my (future) children a
    blessing, as the family patriarch, at the hospital, right after they are born. It seems that a ‘baby blessing’ has alot more functions than perhaps can be comfortably be borne as done currently; i.e. naming/entry into church records, reception by the ward ‘family,’ a ‘blessing,’ a ‘naming’ ceremony, and a patriarch’s/fathers blessing.

  2. Gordon Smith on January 13, 2004 at 9:01 am

    Russell: I really appreciate your raising this topic in such a thoughtful and open way. I have done six of these blessings, and felt a similar sense of discomfort and uncertainty with each one.

    The “baby blessings” are peculiar because we begin the blessing by addressing God the Father, not the baby. To my feeble mind, this suggests a prayer on behalf of the baby. We are instructed to “add words of blessing as the Spirit dictates,” or something like that. But who is giving that blessing? I have always said mine as a prayer to God for a blessing upon my children, but I have met other priesthood holders who are adament that this should be a blessing from the father (or other person performing the blessing), like a blessing on a sick child. This places the person who is speaking the blessing in the awkward position of switching midstream from addressing God to addressing the baby.

    Despite my discomfort, we have had good experiences with the blessing-as-prayer model, but I don’t purport to have divine approval for making this the exclusive method.

  3. Kristine on January 13, 2004 at 11:31 am

    Maybe the instruction is deliberately imprecise–after all, other ordinances have pretty specific revealed directions. Perhaps part of the value of a baby blessing is for the father to spend some time thinking about what fatherhood means–how it feels to know something about what life will hold for this baby, to want to control or at least shape that life, and yet to be in awe of the potential and the individuality and agency of the little creature he holds in his arms for a while. I can’t think of a way to more nearly put an earthly father in the shoes of the Heavenly.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on January 13, 2004 at 12:55 pm

    Gordon,

    Thanks for your comments; I’m glad I’m not alone in some of my feelings and my approach to this ordinance.

    “This places the person who is speaking the blessing in the awkward position of switching midstream from addressing God to addressing the baby.”

    True. When we’ve typed up and saved our girls’ blessings, they really read like two distinct passages: an introductory/dedicatory-type prayer, then a break of a few lines (representing a pause on my part), and then the rest of my ramblings, addressed to her.

  5. Gordon Smith on January 13, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Kristine: That is a nice thought, but I suspect that you are making lemonade when the priesthood manual hands you a lemon. I think that the more likely reason the instruction is imprecise is that baby blessings are not saving ordinances. As a result, it really doesn’t matter whether you get the blessing “right.”

    By the way, I do not mean to imply that saving ordinances will only be valid if done exactly according to the instructions. God seems too understanding of our shortcomings for that. In my view, the purpose of having detailed instructions for saving ordinances is that God does not want them to degrade through innovation.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on January 13, 2004 at 1:01 pm

    Kristine,

    “Perhaps part of the value of a baby blessing is for the father to spend some time thinking about what fatherhood means–how it feels to know something about what life will hold for this baby, to want to control or at least shape that life, and yet to be in awe of the potential and the individuality and agency of the little creature he holds in his arms for a while.”

    When our first daughter was born, I was younger and more confrontational than I am now (I hadn’t outgrown my BYU experiences yet). I wanted Melissa, if not to be part of the circle, then at least to carry the baby forward, maybe hold her while we gave the blessing. Melissa absolutely refused. She said “I’ve already carried the baby; now it’s your turn to do something for her entirely on your own.” I’ve no idea if I really would have gone through with my plan, but I’m grateful Melissa put her foot down: she forced me to think about blessing our children in terms of my own (rather meager, if you think about it) male “offering” to our child, a perspective which has returned to me with the blessing of every subsequent daughter.

  7. Nate Oman on January 13, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    I am curious about the phenomena of people getting over BYU era confrontationalism. To a certain extent I understand what Russell is talking about. When I was in law school, I used to regularlly not shave and I even grew a beard on one or two occasion. I have now made peace with my demons, and I shave quite regularlly…

  8. Logan on January 13, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    This isn’t really what this thread is about, but I can definitely relate to what Russell says about BYU experiences making him more confrontational. I didn’t even go to BYU, but I grew up in its shadow (in Orem), and I still associate most of what I consider obsolete and bureaucratic about the church with BYU. I am perhaps not so far removed from those days as Russell, and sometimes find myself perhaps over-eager to defy authority that I see as corrupt because of it.

  9. Kristine on January 13, 2004 at 2:12 pm

    Wow! I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of making lemonade when handed a lemon before :) (esp. not in the context of a priesthood handbook!)

    Russell: almost thou persuadest me to get involved in another women in the church/women and priesthood discussion. The briefest possible version of my evolving thinking on the topic: I ended up having Steve bless our babies at church in the conventional way, rather than at home with more participation by me because I ultimately felt that the function of welcoming the baby into the community of faith was more important to me than my own feelings of exclusion.

  10. Anonymous on March 2, 2005 at 9:51 pm
  11. Sheri Lynn on March 2, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    I didn’t get to hear the blessings of any of my children. The people around me decided it was an opportunity to visit with one another and gossip. I wish I’d thought to have them recorded and typed up. I will be interested in this thread because I really thought that these blessings were primarily to introduce the baby to the Church and their wards.

  12. David Rodger on March 2, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    D&C 20:70 states that they are to be brought unto the elders before the Church and to bless them in His name.

    So giving them a name and a blessing has scriptural foundation. I don’t see any reason to get really worked up about this. You address our Father in heaven, say by what authority, give the child a name, add some words of blessing as the Spirit directs, and close in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a little awkward if you shift tenses in the middle, because “we bless her” works just as well as “we bless you”. It helps to sit up front, so as to be able to hear, particularly since some who give blessings seem to mumble for the baby’s ears only.

    I think the practice of including a cast of thousands in the circle, which seems to be the custom in too much of the Wasatch front (although I have seen it done as far north as Montana), is totally unecessary.

  13. Jason Bunting on April 30, 2005 at 2:31 am

    I am blessing my first child (daughter) this Sunday, and have done much thinking about this for a long time before we had even conceived (I am a convert of 9 years now (joined when I was 22) and tend to think hard about a lot of church practices and doctrine, because I care quite a bit about these things). When my brother-in-law was getting ready to bless his first a few years ago, he too was curious about how the whole thing was supposed to work, and whether or not it mattered. I personally felt that you address Heavenly Father at the beginning, and then, once the naming is done, seque into the blessing with something like “and now father we give a blessing as guided by the Spirit” and proceed to then give a blessing which amounts to a father’s blessing.

    I found information from previous church leaders that may be of use to others:
    http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/basic/organization/priesthood/ordinances/Blessing_Children_EOM.htm

    Having a ton of people in the circle is indeed unnecessary, and I personally think it is a little strange. I think traditions that have started within the culture here in Utah keep this practice alive. I didn’t see this much in other states. I suppose it is not that big of a deal, it is just one of those things . . . kind of like the unspoken, but seemingly requisite practice of shaking everyone’s hand after a blessing or setting apart or what have you. What is *that* all about?! I don’t remember the Lord specifying that as part of the deal (not that I mind, I just think it is funny to see, especially when a new convert is being confirmed and then they look confused as everyone in the circle expects them to shake their hand).

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