The Difference Between Fortune Telling and Patriarchal Blessings: a Lesson Learned from Janet Russon

I recently got into a discussion about the meaningful differences between fortune telling and patriarchal blessings with someone who wanted me to elaborate on that distinction. Since character limits were becoming a hindrance to achieving understanding, and because this is a comparison I've seen many Latter-day Saints making, I wanted to take advantage of this perfect opportunity with an LDS psychic whose name is becoming synonymous with Timothy Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad.

It's a comparison we can make on two fronts: patriarchal blessings to fortune telling, and patriarchs to fortune tellers.

Let's begin by acknowledging that there are many types of fortune telling and I can't possibly speak to them all. So for this discussion, I'm going to limit this discussion to what we know of Janet Russon, a medium who claims to consult with the dead (specifically, a Book of Mormon prophet named Nephi) to obtain information about missing persons.


Janet Russon's bio from an organization called Rod's Heroes

In her position with OUR, she was as the sole informant. Her information was purely supernatural in nature, with no supplement of criminal investigation, forensics, or reviewable evidence of any kind. According to the reporting from Vice, Janet Russon was also paid substantial amounts of money for her services to OUR. She received about $1500 a reading, with compensation that totaled over $100,000 a year. She was paid regardless of whether her information led to the recovery of any children. She provided affirmative statements on whether their subjects were living, where they were being kept, and gave those readings to expecting parents who were hopeful that she could provide an actual reunion with their children. And as part of the criminal investigation into Tim Ballard, including his reported sexual exploitation of the women who worked with him, documents have also revealed that the numbers representing their successful rescues of children have been largely fabricated.

To date, Janet Russon has declined to comment on the investigations and has made no statement to the press. In the event that these details change and more information comes to light, I wanted to be clear of the working knowledge I'm currently working from as the means for this comparison.

It's also significant that I've studied patriarchal blessings extensively for a book I've been preparing for publication for almost a decade now for Latter-day Saints that includes a comprehensive historical look at patriarchal blessings and the roles they've plaid in the lives of our people in a wide variety of contexts. I've consulted published patriarchal blessings in large numbers, as well as conducting interviews with current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about their lived experiences receiving and using their patriarchal blessings.I've also studied at length the relationship between the institutional church, its patriarchs, and patriarchal blessings as a form of church administration, the policies surrounding them, and the curriculum which has provided instruction on patriarchal blessings throughout the Church's existence. It's from much of that research that I'll be speaking today.

Let's get into it.

What do people mean when they say "fortune telling" in relation to a patriarchal blessing?

In my experience asking people to elaborate on this comparison, it almost exclusively refers to a patriarchal blessings' capacity, and the patriarch by extension, to accurately predict the future through the content of the blessings they give. When a patriarch doesn't provide specific details into a person's future endeavors and experiences--such as occupations, the character of spouse, the number of children, or some other material measurement by which the blessing's accuracy can be objectively measured--their blessings instead are called "vague" and "general."

Members who adhere to this comparison of patriarchal blessings expect a detailed outline in their of the good fortunes that will come to them in the future, in varying degrees of exacting detail. And if the description of that future doesn't match enough to the person's present vision of the good fortune they think they would most want and deserve, then those blessings get called "inaccurate." It's a label that can be (and has been) affixed to patriarchal blessings which have had no time or opportunity to come to fruition because the preferences of the person, not the possibility of change and growth, are the basis for the assertion.

Why is this significant? Because if a patriarchal blessing's purpose is to accurately predict the future, independent of the choices a person has and has not made, it provides an assurance of prosperity independent from the choices a person makes. A fortune either comes true, objectively as written, or it doesn't. Fortunes, by definition, are succeed or fail, rich or poor, favored or disfavored, whether through arbitrary luck or divine will. There is no room for variable or conditional outcomes when you're talking about fortune.

Janet Russon vs. Patriarchs

The fortune telling of Janet Russon typifies this description because in working with OUR, she said she could find missing children. She claimed to know whether they were dead or alive. She claimed to be able to see where they were being kept, and the capacity to know how to lead OUR operatives to them. These are categorical statements that are either true or false. She either possesses the exact knowledge she claims to have in that moment or she doesn't. And she offered to exchange this knowledge, and the outcome of finding these children and reuniting them with their families, in exchange for payment. OUR took donations from the public based her ability to reunite missing kids with their families. This was the service Tim Ballard and Janet Russon were offering to their donors: not that she would TRY to reunite kids with their families, but that they would succeed. And her success rate, which they manufactured, was given as a factual statement with the intent to deceive and defraud those donors.

The role Janet Russon was playing in this situation is more similar to Elizabeth Holmes than a patriarch. The effort to obtain money from investors independent of any guarantee of success, especially when that money is obtained through fraudulent statements, is in no way similar to a patriarchal blessing. And to be generous, it's not even fortune telling. It's a crime to take money from investors based purely on wishful thinking that you'll be able to provide what you promised them. That is the entire crux of the case against Elizabeth Holmes when she was convicted of fraud in the Theranos case. It didn't matter that she genuinely believed she could eventually deliver a product to market that was capable of delivering on all the promises she made. Her sincere belief did not excuse her from criminal liability.

No patriarch can ignore the bounds the Lord has set on his abilities and still serve with the power of the priesthood. They can't fraudulently misrepresent themselves, their capabilities, or their intentions. They can't provide patriarchal blessings in exchange for financial gain, for praise, or to magnify their influence over others. The point of the patriarchal blessing is not to highlight any particular knowledge, eloquence, or power in the patriarch. The only way for them to succeed in their callings at all is to remove themselves and their influence from the blessings they give as much as possible, making room for God to manifest instead. Their motivations can only be to serve God, to be a true and faithful conduit for what God wishes to communicate.

Patriarchs don't claim to have categorical, absolute information about anyone's future. Predicting and outlining a person's future successes and failures is not the purpose of a patriarchal blessing. It's not what the Church instructs them to do. Such instruction runs contrary to the guidance that patriarchs now receive and have received in the past on giving patriarchal blessings. 

Every patriarch I've spoken to, received insight from through their writings, or heard echoes of in the accounts and testimonies of others, tries to teach correct principles through the blessings they give and allow members to govern themselves. Rather than providing a strict set of directions for a person to follow exactly, a patriarch provides inspiration for the person to incorporate into the life they create for themselves. They illuminate possibilities that a person is free to accept, reject, or reshape in any way that suits them. 

Like an artist using a model to create a work of art, the choice remains with the artist on how they incorporate the model into their artwork. So to does a member of the church decide how a patriarchal blessing influences the life they ultimately create.

What are patriarchal blessings, if not fortune telling?

The theological framework of patriarchal blessings is to guide a person in their spiritual life back to the presence of their Heavenly Parents. It exists to point people to Jesus Christ every time they read it over a lifetime, in any number of circumstances where they could find themselves. It is a spiritual tool that is meant to be a comfort in times of hardship. It provides emotional and spiritual support during difficult decisions. While it may or may not provide direct answers in material decisions regarding employment, marriage, family planning, church service, or a variety of other temporal questions, there is no requirement for it to do so. It may or may not provide a reminder of a true principle by which a person can generally guide their actions. But the choice itself and the consequences remain with the person. There is no fixed, fated outcome that a person either succeeds or fails in obtaining. They control, through their own choices, how similar their lives are to the patriarchal blessing they received. At the heart of the theological framework of patriarchal blessings is the divinely appointed agency that God has given to all his children.

The importance of agency is apparent throughout the entire process of obtaining and using a patriarchal blessing. For a patriarch to perform a patriarchal blessing, they require consent from the person for whom they’re providing a blessing. Members indicate their consent for the patriarch to serve in their stake during the sustaining vote in stake conference. A key feature of the recommend interview process also formally documents the request of the member for a patriarchal blessing in writing, thereby providing a record of when they gave consent for the patriarch to seek revelation on the person’s behalf. Mormonism has an exacting structure with regards to stewardship, of who can serve in what roles and perform what functions for whom, either based on assignment from a leadership position or by familial relationship. This structure exists, at least in part, to prevent the misuse and abuse of divine power. No patriarch, by virtue of their office, can provide a patriarchal blessing where it hasn’t been requested and authorized. Where formalized consent has not been given by the individual receiving the blessing, no patriarchal blessing can be performed. The methodology behind how patriarchs give these blessings respects, first and foremost, the agency of the person receiving the blessing.

No patriarch can provide a patriarchal blessing in exchange for money, for praise, or to magnify his own influence over others. No patriarch can ignore the bounds the Lord has set on his abilities and still serve with the power of the priesthood. No patriarch can fraudulently present themselves or their capabilities and have the blessings from God to give a patriarchal blessing. And I’d daresay that any patriarch presenting themselves as the source of  knowledge or blessings they give would find themselves similarly cut off from any divine influence. The point of the patriarchal blessing is not to highlight any particular knowledge, eloquence, or power in the patriarch. Rather, it’s to remove themselves from the situation as much as possible. Their motivations can only be to serve God, to be a true and faithful vehicle for that which is holy to shine through.

The interpretive process for a patriarchal blessing belongs entirely to that individual. Patriarchs have no role, formal or informal, in prescribing meaning to any part of a patriarchal blessing. Church leadership and parents are also instructed not to provide any kind of interpretation for patriarchal blessings. How a person reads, interprets, translates, studies, or in any way uses their patriarchal blessing is a personal decision. The extent to which any of it is prophetic is theirs to determine, without the input of anyone else. Because only that person can receive revelation as part of their personal stewardship over themselves, no one else would ever be given revelation over someone else’s patriarchal blessing. The only instruction that is universally given afterwards is for individuals to limit with whom they share their patriarchal blessing, exactly to preserve the integrity of this personal right to interpretation. The act of discovering meaning in a patriarchal blessing is a personal act of worship, shared only between God and that individual.

Fortune tellers work for themselves. What they provide is an experience that exists solely for the purpose of making money. Patriarchs work for the Lord. What they provide is an experience that exists solely to enhance the worship of God in the lives of Church members. It's a difference that matters, but for many people exists only in the hypothetical. It's only in the practical, the rare opportunity for an actual comparison that the difference can truly be illustrated in the most stark terms. That's what Janet Russon, at least in part, represents to Latter-day Saints in this moment.

How long has the Church been trying to get Latter-day Saints to stop calling patriarchal blessings "fortune telling"?

More Posts from Me

The Unimpressive Origins of Anti-Queerness in the LDS Church

"Sister Collins, why don't you believe being queer is a sin like the rest of the righteous, obedient Mormons?" Because despite...