“Royal Families” in the Church and Spiritual Special Sauce

And think not to say within yourselves,We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

Matthew 3:9

The mythos of the Latter-day Saint royalty that I bought into while growing up in the Utah of Utah went something like this: some families happened to give rise to a lot of functional, financially successful church leaders because their family had some spiritual special sauce that was transmitted from generation to generation, and this special sauce leads to both occupational and spiritual successes as a natural outgrowth of being super spiritual. 

I’m not going to blame the Church for this childhood belief since one would be hard pressed to see it taught anywhere, but I do have the sense that this narrative is still in the cultural air even if it is less of a thing now than it was in the past, so it is worth addressing why and how it is false.

In his Mormon Hierarchy series Michael Quinn ran the numbers for how many early Church leaders were related to other Church leaders, and it does look like in pioneer-era Utah there were a lot of within-family appointments. If there was an era when dynastic, royal Mormonism was a reality it was then. Furthermore, the boundaries between the political, business, and religious were much more porous, so religious status often accompanied financial and political status and the “royalty” analogy was true in a number of different ways. 

Overall, an argument could be made that within-family appointments did not have the best track record: John Willard Young, who would have become Church President had they not modified the succession rules at the last minute, was a complete disaster after being appointed by his father to the apostleship when he was extremely young. While on one hand we had Brigham Young Jr., Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie, on the other hand John W. Taylor and two of the only three-generation sequence of  apostles in the Church (Amasa Lyman, Francis Lyman, and Richard Lyman) were excommunicated. [Correction: actually, there were two other three-generation sequences of apostles, see comments below].

Additionally, the cases of within-family succession and stability contrasted with those of leaders that had family members that were publicly antagonistic to the Church (Frank J. Cannon, Steve Benson, Ann Eliza Young, etc.), which additionally mitigates the “royal families” mythos. (Growing up in the Orem/Provo area I knew several grandchildren-of-Apostles families, and in my anecdotal, small sample, just as many left the Church as stayed in and did all the things.) 

Again, this isn’t a “gotcha,” it’s not like Church leaders themselves are promoting the idea that they have some special sauce in their family lives more than just striving to live the gospel like anybody else. Rather, the mythos is a natural outgrowth of some aspects of Latter-day Saint culture in some areas. When I was young I wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall of one particularly prominent three-generation church leader family,  but as I got older I realized that it probably wouldn’t be all that different from being a fly on the wall of any other family that had consistent family prayer.  

Nowadays there aren’t many royal families in the Church hierarchy. (I suspect some of this has to do with the fact that the Church is just a much larger and diverse place now). Of the top fifteen leaders, as far as I know only two of them come from what I would identify as “royal families,” and in both cases they are far enough removed from their family’s source of prestige that I doubt their family ties had much to do with their positions. On a non-apostle level, while there is the occasional two-generation streak at BYU and/or Church positions of cultural or administrative authority, even these are rather rare. Inasmuch as there is an occasional interrelation between temporal status, religious status, and family, I’m now more inclined to read that as evidence of networking or intergenerational transmission of privilege or cultural capital more than the result of some secret sauce of super spirituality. 

While this might seem like a cynical view, it is actually quite comforting. On our end, it reduces everything down to the basics; the gospel really isn’t that complicated. There aren’t any special tricks the elites have access to that we don’t. Additionally, a common riposte against church leaders is that they live in some kind of bubble and don’t know what it’s like to be in a family that doesn’t fit the template, as if they don’t know what it’s like to be in a part-member family (Elder Bednar), raised by a single mother (President Oaks), have an inactive father (President Nelson and Elder Holland), or have a gay child (Elder Gong). In terms of backgrounds I suspect that the Quorum of the 12 and First Presidency collectively have more in common with the family whose dad drinks beer and watches football during church than the multigenerational royal family of spiritual privilege with Del Parsons artwork all over the walls of their million dollar home. 

While we (somewhat understandably) put stable, functional families on pedestals in the Church, the fact is that the prophet God called to restore the Church came from a family that in many ways could be described as dysfunctional, and I wonder if Joseph Smith became Joseph Smith not in spite of his father’s drinking, William Smith’s violent temper, and his marital strains with Emma, but in part because of them.

12 comments for ““Royal Families” in the Church and Spiritual Special Sauce

  1. “Some people say a person receives a position in this church through revelation, and others say they get it through inspiration, but I say they get it through relation.” – J. Golden Kimball (1st Council of 70, son of Heber C. Kimball, A/K/A The Swearing Elder)

  2. My parents are converts and I grew up outside of the Jello Belt so I was completely unaware of the idea of family spiritual hierarchy in the church. Then my younger sister went to BYU and met a great guy whose family entirely objected to her because she didn’t come from ‘Believing Blood.’ The whole thing was one of the biggest cultural shocks I’ve ever had in the church. (They married anyway, but his family was just horrible to our family at the reception even though we’d never met them before.)

    I can’t agree that the current apostles understand modern dysfunctional families because of their own experiences. The way families worked in the 1930s to 1970s was WAY different than they do today. Just ask my Dad who loves to pontificate on this topic. But also, it was just a long, long time ago. In terms of setting policy and counseling individuals, I imagine the Q15 are way more influenced by the family they raised and church culture than their own childhood.

  3. A little correction, as I happenned to read the George F. Richards Wikipedia page last week:
    “After George Richards’s death, one of his sons, LeGrand, became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, thus making the Richards family only the third Latter-day Saint family in history with three consecutive generations with members in the Quorum (the others being the succession of George A. Smith, John Henry Smith, and George Albert Smith and of Amasa M. Lyman, Francis M. Lyman, and Richard R. Lyman).”

  4. Back in the early 2000s, one of my BYU religion professor was a great scriptorian, and I learned a lot about church history from him. He lost credibility though when he tried to teach the class that some families in the Church are blessed with “royal blood” and are watched over more closely by the Lord. Thankfully my classmates collectively rolled our eyes and dismissed this self-serving stupidity.
    The professor was Joseph Fielding McConkie.

    But to your point, several of the 15 are intimately familiar with the daily difficulties associated with living “like the rest of us,” and the Church is stronger for that contribution. Moving beyond royal blood, the next question though is why those with royal bank accounts end up leading the church….

  5. Thor, I also heard JFM teach that concept. But the term he and others use is not “royal blood” it is “believing blood.” Elder Ballard still uses that terminology when referring to the descendants of Hyrum Smith.

    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/divine-hand-evident-in-life-of-joseph-elder-ballard-says?lang=eng

    The term was also defined by JFM’s father Bruce R. McConkie:

    “What then is believing blood? It is the blood that flows in the veins of those who are the literal seed of Abraham–not that the blood itself believes, but that those born in that lineage have both the right and a special spiritual capacity to recognize, receive, and believe the truth. The term is simply a beautiful, a poetic, and a symbolic way of referring to the seed of Abraham to whom the promises were made. It identifies those who developed in pre-existence the talent to recognize the truth and to desire righteousness.”
    (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, pp. 38-39)

  6. There’s no question that a good number of apostles have been close relatives of other apostles. But to get to “all apostles” being related to other apostles, you have to go to 3rd, 4th, and 5th cousins, and include relatives by marriage. We all have tens of thousands, or more of such “relatives.” I don’t know any of my thousands of 3rd, 4th, or 5th cousins, aside from a handful that I met in some other context and only later figured out that we were related. If Apostle Jones’ wife is a third cousin twice removed from someone who was in the quorum in 1889, he didn’t get the position from nepotism. There’s a good chance that anyone with roots in Utah is related to some general authority if you go back far enough. That makes a good probability that anyone who is called will be related to someone.

    In addition to the Bushes, Roosevelts, Adamses, etc., a substantial number of US presidents are more distantly related to other US presidents. Obama is a distant cousin of LBJ. FDR is allegedly related to eleven other presidents. If you go back far enough, you can find a connection to almost anyone.

  7. Brigham Young’s family did produce, in the second and third generations, a large number of exceptionally talented people: military men, artists, musicians, businessmen. What’s less well known is the number of grandchildren who were criminals (including a murderer), insane, and suicides. People are just people, regardless of how filled with unjust ancestral pride they are.

  8. I’m somewhat convinced that there is a genetic component to faith (I’m not talking about nepotism). Is there a reason, besides environmental, that makes my 2 brothers and I skeptics? Our skepticism has served us well professionally, but has made religious belief almost impossible. Blind obedience is not an option.

    My children are all somewhat active. But I’m sure certain aspects of Church policy/doctrine are troubling to them. It will be interesting to see how the grandchildren evolve.

    On a separate note, at a recent GC, there were as many Hollands speaking as women. And the presidency at BYU-I has seen 2 Eyrings. I draw no conclusions from that.

  9. I have learned over the years that it is easier for some people to exercise faith, than it is for others. Not just vis-a-vis The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but toward any belief system. This faith or lack of faith seems to have little to do with environment, and seems to be very dependent on a person’s personality. Perhaps this is what rogerdhansen is getting at, when he speculates that there might be a genetic component to faith. He might very well be right.

    The scriptures acknowledge that faith, while necessary,
    Is difficult for some people:

    1. 1 Corinthians 12:9 to another (is given) faith by the same spirit. This is where Paul discusses different gifts of the Spirit. The implication is that faith is easier for some than others.

    2. DC 88:118 and as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another.

    3. DC 46:19 to some it is given to have faith to be healed.

    My favorite scriptural passage, though, is when Christ asks the father of the boy possessed by a devil, if he has faith for his son to be healed. The father said, Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.

    That was good enough for the Savior.

    I think that the “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt” culture in the Church actually damages faith. I have been a member for 48 years, and am still operating on faith and belief. I am not like the brother of Jared.

  10. “I’m somewhat convinced that there is a genetic component to faith” Some research supports the rogerdhansen assertion:

    “The God gene hypothesis proposes that human spirituality is influenced by heredity and that a specific gene, called vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2), predisposes humans towards spiritual or mystic experiences. The idea has been proposed by geneticist Dean Hamer in the 2004 book called The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes .”

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