At a multi-stake conference in Berlin in 2010, Area President Erich W. Kopischke quoted Joseph Smith as having declared that “England, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium have a considerable amount of the blood of Israel among the people which must be gathered out.” It was surprising to be reminded of that doctrinal concept.1
Older members who grew up with the “doctrinal answers” of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie are no doubt well acquainted with the notion: scores of Europeans, especially in northern countries, are literal descendants of the House of Israel through the lost tribes, in particular the tribe of Ephraim. That would explain why so many British and Scandinavian citizens in the 19th century were willing to accept the gospel, for their “believing blood” recognized the truth. As these thousands of European converts heeded the call to emigrate to Zion, first to Nauvoo and then to Deseret, it became common to say these “Israelites” saved the fledgling church in America, injecting it with their sheer numbers, their goods, tools, skills, and knowledge. In 1890, two-thirds of Utah’s population consisted of such immigrants and their children.2 Genetic studies confirm the ancestry of white Utah Mormon residents: 61% British, 31% Scandinavian, with Swiss and German for most of the remainder.3
In the 1960s and 70s, lost tribes, Israel’s blood in Europe, as well as somewhat implausible explications in popular Mormon books, slowly faded out of official view. Church manuals and magazines turned to what correlation emphasized as the more central tenets of the faith, fit for an expanding, worldwide church. The 1978 lifting of the priesthood ban also led to a growing awareness of the racist backdrop that had crept into the church more than a century before. The relation between racial lineages and degrees of faithfulness in the preexistence became an awkward topic. To refer to that relation as justification for the priesthood ban is now simply “not done”, as Randy Bott found out. The Church reacted strongly to his faux-pas: “The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding. We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”4
So how can this notion of Europeans’ electivity based on blood composition still be understood without racialist innuendoes? In this article I first give some background on the origin of the notion before portraying the present situation. Next I suggest positive aspects of the notions of “believing blood” and “lineage.” Finally I discuss also some drawbacks of the present references to Israelite blood in Europe.
Origin of the notion
From the early days of Mormonism two doctrinal approaches appear side by side, one expressing a high regard for Israel’s elect lineage, the other emphasizing the gospel’s universalism which directly includes all mankind. The relation between lineage and universalism is an issue that also the early Christian church had to confront, as various events and discussions in Acts and Epistles demonstrate. Both approaches can be found in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, hence the possibility of selecting verses that give more support to one position or the other. Joseph Smith frequently stressed universalism, but within it he could simultaneously see the literal gathering of Israel and the restoration of the Ten Tribes. In the original perspective, white Europeans and Americans were considered Gentiles who could through conversion be adopted in the House of Israel. But the recognition of literal Israelite descent, which was first applied to Joseph Smith and his family, became gradually applied to all Latter-day Saints. Such literal descendency could be explained by the mixing of “remnants” of scattered Israelites with Gentiles somewhere in their ancestry.
During the decades after Joseph Smith’s death, in that creative period of doctrinal expansion, differing explanations on the process and timing of gathering and conversion led to an array of viewpoints. Important for our topic are two developments which fed on elements present in the Scriptures and in initial Mormonism.
First, there was British-Israelism (or Anglo-Israelism). Promoted by some marginal Protestant movements, it reified romantic myths about the biblical ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons. Widely popular became the story of the migration of the “lost” ten tribes of Israel. Authors scrutinized in “scientific fashion” the possible ancient paths of such tribes across the continent to the British Isles. British-Israelism tied in with a glorification of Anglo-Saxon cultural superiority, which became racialist in tone as it contrasted its achievements with primitive populations elsewhere is the world. Similar romantic pride in mythological ancestry and national glory arose in the Germanic and Scandinavian realms. In the 1880s Mormon leaders integrated the assertions of British-Israelism into the Mormon framework of Israelite descent to illustrate how the “believing blood” of Ephraim had permeated Britain. They added Scandinavia and Germanic countries, as also part of these people responded to the preaching of the restored gospel. By the start of the 20th century, the concept of Israelite blood in Northern Europe had become an integral part of Mormon doctrinal (and often plain racist) rhetoric. The lack of success of the church in European Latin countries was attributed to a lack of Israelite blood. After World War II the whole notion started to fade as the Church grew in other continents, while conversions in Europe had already slowed down since the end of the 19th century.
Second, there was the expanded conception of preexistence. The original scriptural basis (mainly D&C 29:36–37, 93:23–33; Abr. 3:22-28) limited comprehension to a premortal existence of all individuals, the calling of the Savior, the exercise of choice with the resulting “war” that cast one third out, and the presence of “noble and great ones” who would be chosen as “rulers”, with Abraham as the prime example. In the 1850s Mormon authors extended this idea of superior premortal value and election to all church members and to their children yet to be born: these noble spirits had been set apart to be born in these last days and in privileged circumstances. The connection with their physical ascendance next fused with British-Israelism and its racialist blood rhetoric: the most “valiant” in the preexistence were to be born in the royal lineage of the House of Israel, while the less valiant ended up in other races and dire circumstances, including the priesthood ban for blacks. In the first half of the twentieth century, influential leaders strongly articulated and confirmed this doctrine of premortal categories, blood lineages, exceptionalism, and “unintended” racism. At the same time, as prospects for missionary work increased in more and more countries, Mormon leaders found reasons to affirm the presence of Israelite descendants in other parts of the world – as long as they were not black.
The preceding summarizes, in general lines, the analysis provided by Green and by Mauss. Both provide numerous sources.
Where do we stand now on lineage issues?
I look first at lineage related to the preexistence and next at the issue of Israelite blood in Europe.
On the one hand, the notion that “the people of Israel were a distinct and noble people in the premortal existence” and that “foreordination determined, to a large extent, an individual’s placement among tribes and nations” seems to remain official doctrine, as e.g. taught though current CES Institute material, with ample quotations from Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, but leaving out the parts about the “less valiant.” The quotations further confirm that “Israel is an eternal people. Members of that chosen race first gained their inheritance with the faithful in the pre-mortal life.” And: “The great majority of those who have come into the Church are Ephraimites. It is the exception to find one of any other tribe, unless it is of Manasseh.”7
On the other hand, specifically since 1978, members of the First Presidency and of the Twelve have repeatedly emphasized universalism, which is attested in both ancient and modern scriptures and which had never been ignored in previous decades either. I point to a few examples that also refer to race – which seems interesting in view of the notion of premortal “chosen race” versus others. Howard H. Hunter decried the “stifling traditions based on race” and stated:
Race makes no difference; color makes no difference; nationality makes no difference. The brotherhood of man is literal. We are all of one blood and the literal spirit offspring of our eternal Heavenly Father. . . . Our common paternity makes us not only literal sons and daughters of eternal parentage, but literal brothers and sisters as well. This is a fundamental teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.8
James E. Faust affirmed that “no race or class seems superior to any other in spirituality and faithfulness,”9 a statement possibly implying a rejection of more spiritual and more faithful categories in the preexistence. Boyd K. Packer exclaimed: “However many generations in your mortal ancestry, no matter what race or people you represent, the pedigree of your spirit can be written on a single line. You are a child of God!”10. Gordon B. Hinckley gave a stern warning: “We all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given to President Kimball … I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ … Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.”11 In 2006 a clarifying Ensign article about “life before birth” strictly limits information to the Scriptures, without any mention of a premortal chosen race or lineages based on merits obtained in the first estate.12
At the same time, in conformity with Joseph Smith’s dynamic incorporation of both lineage and universalism, church authorities continue to use the imagery of the Abrahamic covenant and of the House of Israel, with emphasis on its all-encompassing nature. In Mormon doctrine, indeed, universalism does not exclude the continued recognition of Israel as a separate people, hence in the Book of Mormon the predicted fruitful interaction between the Gentiles and the scattered House of Israel for the salvation of both, as illustrated in Zenos’ allegory of the olive trees (Jacob 5). James E. Faust declared: “Believing Gentiles, even though not of the blood lines or genealogical ancestry of Israel, become adopted into the house of Israel.”13 Dallin H. Oaks said: “The Book of Mormon promises that all who receive and act upon the Lord’s invitation to ‘repent and believe in his Son’ become ‘the covenant people of the Lord’ (2 Ne. 30:2). This is a potent reminder that neither riches nor lineage nor any other privileges of birth should cause us to believe that we are ‘better one than another’ (Alma 5:54; see also Jacob 3:9).”14 Note the dismissal of “lineage” and of “privileges of birth,” which are features in the expanded conception of preexistence.
Just like in the days of Peter and Paul, it is not always evident to balance the advocacy of chosen lineage and the acceptance of a totally deracialized humanity. Peter identified the Church contrastively as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9), while Paul focused on universalism: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28–29). Hence the need for clarifications, such as Daniel H. Ludlow was invited to give in the Ensign.15 Hence also the tensions when some authors, who uphold the doctrines of a preexistent House of Israel and of the subsequent chosen bloodlines based on premortal merit, feel that these insights are now being “untaught” and “ignored.”16
As to the notion of Israelite blood in Europe, where does it stand now after its extensive use in former decades? Its occurrence seems rather rare, but it tends to turn up at weighty conferences and meetings in Europe, raised by eminent church leaders, in order to boost the faith in church growth. In 1969, when the first British stake was organized, Spencer W. Kimball visited Malvern Hills and declared: “This is a place where the blood of Israel is richly concentrated, and there are many still to gather.”17 In 1971 Harold B. Lee testified in a regional general conference in Manchester that a temple had been built in Great Britain “because of its great contribution to the early and continuous growth of the Church, which gave evidence to the great outpouring of the blood of Israel among the people of these great British Isles.”18 In 1987 British General Authority Derek A. Cuthbert proclaimed that “these [British] islands have a divine destiny . . . Yes, the blood of Israel is richly concentrated in these islands and the promised blessings will all be fulfilled.”19
Next to Britain, the presence of Israelite blood had also been recognized early on in Scandinavian and Germanic countries. As the church slowly expanded in European Latin countries (Italy, Spain, and Portugal), they too became included in Israelite descendency. In 1995, at a seminar for European stake and mission presidents held in Paris, Jeffrey R. Holland strongly reemphasized the notion:
The Church in Europe must live again. The work of the Church has run on the backs of its European saints since the beginning. Don’t think that you are just minding the shop waiting for the Savior to come. Don’t think that the great days of gathering in Europe are over. This is our time. Europe is the richest composition of the blood of Israel we’ve known. The blood of Israel out of these lands saved the Church. They left behind family members, children, grandchildren, and friends. They are still here. And we must find them. The blood of Israel is here.20
In 2010 in Berlin, as mentioned at the onset of this article, Elder Kopischke referred to Joseph Smith as having declared that “England, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium have a considerable amount of the blood of Israel among the people which must be gathered out.” One should remark that this quotation comes from the White Horse prophecy, which has been identified by Church leaders and by experts as a late nineteenth-century document, of which the content cannot be verified as authored by Joseph Smith.21 But it is telling that more than one document in the second half of the 19th century tried to foist later Mormon beliefs upon Joseph Smith. The mention of “a considerable amount of the blood of Israel” or “the richest composition of the blood of Israel” in these countries vastly amplifies the early Mormon idea of only “remnants” of scattered Israelites who had mixed with Gentiles.
Of course, the core message each of these dedicated leaders wants to convey in our time is not the precise measurement of Israelite blood in European veins, but that significant church progress is still possible in Europe, through the traditional imagery of the chosen lineage that will recognize the restored truth. The aim is to foster hope and confidence. But there are also some drawbacks that I will discuss later.
Positive views on “believing blood” and “lineage”
The preceding discussion may give the impression that concepts such as “believing blood” and “lineage” are better seen as obsolete because of their position within the doctrinal perspective that later also harbored racist beliefs. That should not be the case as long as the concepts are clearly circumscribed and remain within their proper scriptural realm. Also, sometimes some critics throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Bruce R. McConkie defined “believing blood” as “the aptitude and inclination of certain persons to accept and believe the principles of revealed religion.”22 That sounds quite satisfactory if applicable to any individual from whatever background or race. Scriptures such as “my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:26) or “mine elect hear my voice“ (D&C 29:7) support the notion that a number of people readily react to the message and others not. The factors that contribute to conversion are also an interesting object of sociological and psychological research which helps us understand the complex framework that facilitates or hinders that drastic mental step.23 The concept of “believing blood” only becomes problematic with the rest of McConkie’s explanation: “In general the Lord sends to earth in the lineage of Jacob those spirits who in preexistence developed an especial talent for spirituality and for recognizing truth. Those born in this lineage, having the blood of Israel in their veins and finding it easy to accept the gospel, are said to have believing blood.” Such an appendix to the definition makes us enter into a speculative realm with the racialist implications of past add-ons. No, it is clear that “believing blood” can be found equally in any culture or race.
The concept of “lineage” as tied to the House of Israel is deeply ingrained in Mormon doctrine and in the Scriptures. As mentioned supra, it is very possible to combine it with a universalist perspective, without referring to premortal classes. The pivotal principles of scattering and gathering can be interpreted on various levels and in various locations, including their extension to multiple Zions. “Lineage” can continue to have special significance in the patriarchal blessing which, since the dawn of Mormonism, has become a treasured once-in-a-lifetime experience for Latter-day Saints. In earlier times, when nearly all members were of North European descent (including the American-born white converts), it seemed uncomplicated to assume literal tribal descendency from Ephraim, in line with the beliefs of scattering of the lost tribes. For American Indians, as supposed descendants of Lamanites, the physical lineage was evidently traced to Manasseh. But in view of expanding the church to all countries and races, as well as of advancing insights in demography, adjustments in rationale and formulation help smooth the attribution to a certain tribe, such as through adoption, assignment to a tribe, bestowal of the blessings of a tribe upon an individual, or by simply accepting that over some three millennia, the blood of Israel, literally or figuratively, spread to all corners of the world, even to Pygmies and to Aboriginals. Whether literal or spiritual, the determination of tribal descent is meant as an emotional confirmation of belonging to the House of Israel.24
Both the concepts of believing blood and of lineage can fulfill a beneficial role in strengthening family bonds and in raising the expectations of children and grandchildren about their loyalty to the gospel. Conversely, it should be added, disaffection from the ancestral faith can also cause greater pain in such tight relationships. We should also be sensitive to the fact that worldwide many converts stand alone, without any or hardly any kin in the Kingdom. Assertions that stress the blessings of belonging to a first-rate pedigree of Mormon ancestors and of having scores of faithful children and grandchildren make the concept of lineage sometimes needlessly ostentatious and distressing to others.
Potential drawbacks to the notion of Israelite blood in Europe
1 – Depression after unfulfilled promises
When a prominent church leader, addressing European leaders and members, mentions the rich presence of Israelite blood in Europe, it is not a simple factual assertion. It has always been part of a stirring call to do more and better missionary work. It has been part of a solemn promise to members and missionaries that if they increase their efforts and are obedient in all things, the number of members would double in five years25. That promised growth of the church in Europe is glowingly presented as the “second harvest,” parallel to the first harvest of the nineteenth century. But when after five years and more of increased efforts and sacrifices, nothing happens, depression follows. One day the Netherlands mission president called me to help solve such a mission-wide crisis when the firm promises were not being fulfilled. For years members and missionaries had strictly obeyed the precise conditions tied to the promises, firing each other up, only to see convert numbers sag even further. Many blamed themselves for being deficient in some unidentified way. Former missionaries who served in Europe speak of the crisis they experienced when the sacred guarantees that their faithfulness and diligence would yield results led to nothing: “Hard-working missionaries who fasted, prayed, believed with all their might, tracting their guts out, still never had any success. There is only so much of the negative reactionary blaming that one can take when he or she knows they ARE doing all they can do.”26 Similar reports and echoes came from other European countries.
2 – Unwelcome speculations
The notion of literal blood lines is known to open doors to speculations, encouraging some members to dig deeper into the rich imaginative literature of the lost tribes. I don’t think our present leaders want us to go there. Not to speak of the trouble we’re inviting from critics who can slam such theories with genetic and other studies, causing more controversies.
3 – Different conversion reality
There is little doubt that the traditional “blood of Israel” refers to Caucasians, in line with the stories of ancient migration and with the way it has always been understood. But since the 1990s the majority of converts in Europe are immigrants from other nations, mainly from Africa and Asia. Even with those immigrants, conversion numbers are very low compared to fields outside Europe. In 2011, two-thirds of new converts in Europe were born elsewhere.27 Chapels in Europe, in particular in the larger cities, now welcome a multicolored and multicultural population. In that perspective, the strong and urgent call to find “Israelite blood” can be interpreted both as a rebuke to missionaries that they succeed in only finding “foreigners,” and as a signal to these “foreign” converts that they were not the intended converts and remain second choice. That leads to the following and probably most serious drawback.
4 – Racial undertones
Especially in the European context, home of British-Israelism and its imperial and racist past, the affirmation of preeminence through blood lineages can still imply the notion of inferior races. The old beliefs of the less valiant or fence-sitters in the preexistence are begging to filter through. In this peculiar context, blood lineages as determinants of divine election or restriction still reek of the discrimination the Church wants to definitely leave behind.
Mormon parlance still seems to struggle with its transition from racialist perspectives to universalism. How to best present the concepts of House of Israel and lineages, which remain central and precious in old and new Scriptures, is one of the challenges of changing times.
- Kirche Jesu Christi der Heiligen der Letzten Tage. “Bericht über die Multi-Pfahlkonferenz am 21. Februar 2010 – Elder Kopischke: Die Verheißungen werden sich erfüllen.” 2010. http://www.hlt.at/kirchenliteratur/pfahlkonferenzen/multi-pfahlkonferenz-21-februar-2010.html (accessed September 19, 2012). Text in German: “Joseph Smith habe einmal gesagt: “England, Deutschland, Norwegen, Dänemark, die Schweiz, Holland und Belgien haben in ihrer Bevölkerung eine erhebliche Menge vom Blut Israels, das heraus gesammelt werden muss.” ↩
- Jensen, Richard L. “Immigration to Utah.” In Utah History Encyclopedia, edited by Allan Kent Powell, 270–273. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994. ↩
- O’Brien, Elizabeth, Alan R. Rogers, Judy Beesley, and Lynn B. Jorde. “Genetic structure of the Utah Mormons: comparison of results based on RFLPs, blood groups, migration matrices, isonymy, and pedigrees.” Human Biology 66, no. 5 (1994): 743–759. ↩
- Newsroom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church statement regarding ‘Washington Post’ article on race and the Church. February 29, 2012. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article (accessed September 22, 2012). ↩
- Green, Arnold H. “Gathering and election: Israelite descent and universalism in Mormon discourse.” Journal of Mormon History 25, no. 1 (1999): 195–228. ↩
- Mauss, Armand L. All Abraham’s children: Changing Mormon conceptions of race and lineage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003; “In search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon conceptions of lineage and race.” Journal of Mormon History 25, no. 1 (1999): 131–173; “Mormonism’s worldwide aspirations and its changing conceptions of race and lineage.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 34, no. 3–4 (2001): 103–133. ↩
- Doctrines of the Gospel – Student manual – Religion 430 and 431. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church Educational System, 2010, 2nd edition, 56. ↩
- Hunter, Howard W. “All Are Alike Unto God.” Ensign (June 1979), online. ↩
- Faust, James E. “Heirs to the Kingdom of God.” Ensign (May 1995), online ↩
- Packer, Boyd K. “A few simple lessons.” Ensign (August 2002). online. ↩
- Hinckley, Gordon B. “The need for greater kindness.” Ensign (May 2006), online. ↩
- “The Fullness of the Gospel: Life before Birth.” Ensign (February 2006), online. ↩
- Faust, James E. “Your patriarchal blessing”. New Era (November 2005), online. ↩
- Oaks, Dallin H. “All men everywhere.” General Conference (April 2006), online. ↩
- Ludlow, Daniel H. “Of the House of Israel.” Ensign (January 1991), online. ↩
- Millet, Robert L and Joseph Fielding McConkie. Our destiny: The call and election of the House of Israel. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft 1993. ↩
- Quoted in Cuthbert, Derek A. “Breakthrough in Britain.” Ensign (July 1987), 28–32. ↩
- Lee, Harold B. “The way to eternal life.” Ensign (November 1971), 10. ↩
- Cuthbert, Derek A. “Church growth in the British Isles, 1937–1987.” BYU Studies 27, no. 2 (1987), 20. ↩
- In Brewster, Hoyt W. The Promise. The prophesied growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Netherlands and Belgium and Western Europe. Amsterdam: Netherlands Amsterdam Mission, 1998, 4. ↩
- Cobabe, George. “The White Horse prophecy”. The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (2011). http://www.fairlds.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/cobabe-whitehorse.pdf ↩
- McConkie, Bruce R. “Believing blood”. Mormon Doctrine. Online. ↩
- Among dozens of recent studies: Gooren, Henri. Religious conversion and disaffiliation: Tracing patterns of change in faith practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; Martin, Peter E. Religious conversion: A critique of current major social science models of conversion and a Christian anthropological response. Doctoral dissertation. Arlington, Virginia: The Institute for the Psychological Sciences, 2009; Rambo, Lewis R. Understanding religious conversion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. ↩
- See Ludlow, “Of the House of Israel”; Mauss, “In search of Ephraim”, 168–169; Faust, “Your patriarchal blessing”. ↩
- See the quotations in Brewster. The Promise. ↩
- Kim. “My experience in France”. http://www.exmormon.org/mormon/mormon154.htm. (accessed July 9, 2011). ↩
- Decoo, Wilfried. “The International Church: Europe.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, edited by Terryl L. Givens and Philip Barlow. Oxford: Oxford University Press (in press). See also Lobb, C. Gary. “Mormon membership trends in Europe among people of color: Present and future assessment.” Dialogue 33, no. 4 (2000): 59–68. ↩