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Another Interpretation on Why the Mormon Church Banned Blacks from the Priesthood

This morning I read an article by Mahonri Stewart (I’ve copied and pasted it below as well). I am moved by his honest and exposed stance on why he believes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormon Church, LDS, Latter-day Saint Church) instituted a Priesthood ban on black people.

I am not certain if I entirely subscribe to his position, but I am open to it. There were two passages (one in the actual article and one in the comments after the post) that really stood out to me:

“If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one.”

“True openness, true vulnerability to God (especially amidst an imperfect world) is really scary. Sometimes it requires a lack of surety as to what tomorrow will look like– more plainly, it really does take faith in something beyond your own understanding or the understanding of any man or woman.”

Having a mindset that your world may be false, or at least the construction of it, helps to be open to other possibilities of truth. For me, I have had sacred experiences that have grounded me in the teachings that are found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, with that said, it doesn’t mean I understand the many nooks and crannies found within our history and doctrine.

For many, this may be scary (and, at times, it is for me), but I believe this is okay. I sincerely believe that not knowing in an uncertain and imperfect world doesn’t influence my salvation. It is important for me to continually seek and grow and let go of false assumptions, but regardless of my success in this endeavor, I believe in a loving God that will save all those who diligently pursue Him, no matter what their religion, gender, or race may be. ~Paul

False Constructions Upon a True Church: A Response to a Friend by Mahonri Stewart

Blacks & The Priesthood (LDS)One of my dear fellow Mormon friends lately has called me out for posting an article by BYU professor, author, and Mormon race relations scholar Margaret Blair Young. The substance of the article by Professor Young (who I very much admire on a personal level and whose scholarship and literary contributions I think are a blessing to the Church) was celebrating the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have recently updated their scripture headings in the Doctrine and Covenants, a couple of which are very important, including this one about at the top of Official Declaration Two (which was the statement made by the Church in 1978 rescinding its previous policy of denying black people the blessings of the priesthood and the higher ordinances of the temple):

The Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regards to race that once applied to the priesthood.

I, like Professor Young, think this is a wonderful change for the Church to make in the scripture heading. It’s still not a perfect statement (for example, historical records actually do offer up some insights about where the ban came from, which history authors like Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray have written a whole series of books about black Mormon pioneer called Standing on the Promises), but I don’t want to quibble too much about that. This is a beautiful thing! This is a wonderful thing! The Church is for the first time officially recognizing some of these complicated aspects of the history behind the former ban (like the fact that Joseph Smith ordained black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis to the priesthood offices of Seventy and Elder and that the ban didn’t come into place until the leadership of Brigham Young). The Church is recognizing that the ban was contradictory to scriptures like 2 Nephi 26:33 which the heading quotes, thus putting into question the racist folk myths that sprang up around the policy.

But in the process of celebrating and congratulating the Church, Professor Young said some things which my friend found disturbing, and which he was very bothered that I was endorsing. In giving context of how the Church could go back on their previous policies Professor Young states in the article:

Finally, let me make a bold suggestion. I suggest that we Mormons have chosen the wrong paradigm to describe how the church functions under prophetic leadership. We seem to have gone with the Wilford Woodruff statement used to defend the manifesto, since he was speaking to people who had suffered and even gone to jail over polygamy:

[T]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty (Official Declaration 1).

Since we have multitudes of instances where one prophet contradicts another, it’s likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: “[T]his claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment’ era after the 1960s to reinforce the ‘follow the prophet’ mantra that is now so familiar to us.’

Would we not all be better served by acknowledging that the Prophet is exclusively entitled to the mantle of leadership over the Church, and that he will always do the best he can to transcend his own culture and tradition in serving God, though not every utterance he makes will constitute the mind and will of the Lord? I would far prefer President Lorenzo Snow’s description of Church governance:

‘Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.’ 6 April, 1900

Now I find nothing particularly wrong with this statement by Professor Young. In fact, I heartily applaud it. As I’ve written elsewhere, like my post on this blog “Expectations of a Prophet” , I believe not only is it healthy to recognize that prophets are human beings and have fallible beliefs at times, I believe it is vital to a person’s faith. The LDS leaders, from Joseph Smith on, have consistently taught that prophets are imperfect, mortal instruments in the hands of a perfect immortal God. As the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni says on its cover page: “And now if there be fault, it be the mistake of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God…” Elder Jeffrey Holland of the LDS 12 Apostles took it even a step further in discussing the priesthood ban in an interview with PBS. When they asked about the statements of previous Mormon prophets about the ban and the mythology that grew up around it to justify its the policy, Elder Holland said:

One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. …

Elder Holland pretty unequivocally states here that he believes what his “earlier colleagues” (meaning I’m assuming the previous apostles and prophets) said about the priesthood ban to justify it were “wrong,” or at the very least “inadequate.”

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said something similar when placed in the awkward position of having to go back on things he had previously written about black people once the Church changed the policy. What he said, I believe was very courageous and insightful:

We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years [speaking of racially inclusive language such as 2 Nephi 26:33 and the book of Acts in the New Testament]. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, “Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.’ There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?’ And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

Some may find it contradictory for Elder McConkie is using the argument of following a prophet to deny the teachings of other prophets. But I believe the crux of that point is that line when he says that even prophets speak with “limited understanding.” We believe that prophets receive revelations. That is their function. But prophets aren’t receiving revelations all the time and when they’re not, they are liable to error even in official Church business like the priesthood ban. When people, due to the prejudices of their time and culture, ignore the revelations they’ve been given (as Elder McConkie implied they did when ignoring injunctions like 2 Nephi 26:33 and when the New Testament said the Gospel was to go to “all nations”), then mistakes are definitely bound to happen. That’s simply human, that’s simply to be expected. Joseph Smith said: “I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities” ( History of the Church 5:181).

However, my dear friend took issue with Professor Young’s and my beliefs here, and has quoted a great deal of other leaders of the Church who refer back to Wilford Woodruff quote. I believe he was doing this out of concern and love for me, and I deeply appreciate that love. He has been a man who has stuck with me through thick and thin, but on this matter he has deep reservations about what I’ve said and what that means about how I’m orienting myself towards the Church.

I understand his concerns, but I think he misunderstood me, just as I on many points have misunderstood my friend. In the end, I actually think as we’ve talked about it, I believe we have very similar beliefs about the Wilford Woodruff quote– that the Church is ultimately leading us to salvation, despite the bumps along the way, and that it is a vehicle towards that goal, not the destination.

But, to be clear, I consider myself an active, believing member of the Church. I don’t think people need to be afraid of the things the Church is currently doing in revising its policies and positions, and I don’t think people need to be afraid of those who recognize those flaws, but celebrate the perfect music of God that comes through imperfect instruments. I have made many sacrifices for my faith, when it would have been easier in my field of study and social context to throw it away and join my more secular peers. I have done this because I am a devout, believing Mormon. True blue, through and through. Mormon and proud. So I recently wrote my friend back this response as a smaller part of our larger discussion (note that this section is much less formal and more of a “shooting from the hip” response, as it was part of a letter to a friend). I include it here as less part of my back and forth with him, but because it states some things which are pretty core to how I see myself and my relationship to my faith. It is in no way to be interpreted as a reflection on him or his beliefs for, again, I think he and I basically believe the same thing in its general sense, and even in most of the particulars. So here is what I wrote him as a kind of personal position:

I actually am very happy with the leadership of the Church. The current First Presidency, in my opinion, is wise, compassionate and very in tune with the Spirit. I sustain them with all my heart. President Ucthdorf, President Eyring, President Monson and apostles like Elder Holland are all personal heroes of mine and I take what they say very seriously and very prayerfully.

But what I do question is when people assume that anything that a prophet does or says in his office of president is and always will be the ultimate doctrine of the Church and that even past policies, such as the priesthood ban, should be seen as divinely instituted and should never be repudiated. That simply can’t be, for prophets have often contradicted each other.

For example, Brigham Young said that the Adam-God theory was DOCTRINE. However, President Kimball said it was FALSE DOCTRINE. With a teaching as important as the identity of God, that’s not small potatoes for a Church to teach either way, and they both felt equally passionate that they were right about their views on the issue, and said hard things to those in the leadership of the Church who opposed them on the issue (it was a major sore point between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt in their day, and Spencer W. Kimball called out Brigham Young on it).

So, if you mean that the Church won’t lead us astray in the sense that the general direction of the good ship Zion is still pointing to God and that it has the priesthood keys and we should cling to the idea of modern revelation (personal and Church wide), I’m totally with you.

But, if you mean that a president of the Church can’t teach something wrong (like the priesthood ban or at least ONE of the sides of the Adam-God theory debate in the Church…), and that we would be wrong to recognize that fact, then that’s where we part ways, opinion wise. For, if one tries to adhere strictly to that rule, then it doesn’t take very long with studying the history of the Church to lose your testimony, if that’s the standard you are trying to measure the prophets by. By not recognizing their true, human nature (despite their ability to receive revelation for the Church), then we set them up for a fall, and that fall is hard and bitter. I’ve seen many people take exactly that hard line view of the faith and then became disenchanted and leave. THAT is what I’m fighting against. THAT is why I do what I do.

I know the Church is true, I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, I know that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, I know Jesus is our Savior, I know the Book of Mormon is a spiritual record of a people striving towards God. I’m not what is called a “New Order Mormon” who just hangs around for the culture of it, or because I feel like I’m some sort of DNA Mormon who doesn’t believe the doctrine, but loves the heritage. Although I know many beautiful people who do qualify under that description and I feel they should have a place in the Church, too. However, my testimony runs long and deep and is rooted deeply in spiritual manifestations that I consider to be very sacred. These are things I’ve had some pretty huge spiritual witnesses about, they’re not things I question in their basics.

But I do question mine and other people’s assumptions about those important realities and I question how we perceive them in our imperfection and our humanity. And when I see people throw the baby out with the bathwater because they expected the Church and its leaders to be perfect because of something said by Wilford Woodruff or President Hinckley or any other leader in the Church, or because the leaders sometimes contradict and even argue with each other. The unrealistic expectations often set up about the Church has hurt more people’s testimonies than any anti-Mormon tract or apostate’s bitter rant. I have seen that, I have personal loved ones who have left because they discovered prophets weren’t the near perfect demi-gods that we set them up to be.

In my play about Joseph and Emma Smith’s family, The Fading Flower, I have Julia Smith say the following (in the context of the very real mental and spiritual breakdown that Joseph and Emma’s youngest son David went through at the end of his life because of the disillusionment he experienced when he concluded that his father really did practice polygamy, unlike he had been told by his RLDS family): “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one.”

I do what I do in an effort to find that “real” world, that “real” Church and, most importantly, that “real” God. I make a lot mistakes in that effort, and in that way I, like everyone, occasionally construct that false world. If I keep building up that false world, but somebody knocks it down with some hard facts, then it would be easy for me to be disenchanted and bitter believe that means that none of the things I was trying to understand were real at all and that I was wasting my time, talents and heart on the Church. That would be a mistake, and that mistake costs a lot of people their faith. However, many people are able to step back from what they were building and say, “Wait, sure, those things weren’t quite accurate, and that’s not what I was told, but look… look at this,” and they can see the real thing behind what the false world was trying to build on.

I am convinced one of those “real” things is the priesthood. I am convinced another one of those “real” things is revelation. And so on with the Book of Mormon, theGospels , Christ, repentance, grace, the atonement, Joseph Smith, President Monson, etc. etc.

But what I don’t believe is real, because it has proven false again and again, is that there are people in the world or even in the leadership of the Church who are never wrong, even about important things. That’s simply not true and those who keep insisting it’s true would do us great spiritual harm in the long run, in my opinion. The general direction, sure, we’re headed towards Christ and he’s our salvation. I think that’s the substance and what President Woodruff is trying to say is that the Christ set up the Church one last time and there wasn’t going to be another Great Apostasy. The prophets teach the important principles and the Church administers the saving ordinances. That’s his point, in my opinion. But he saw first hand the flaws of prophets. Wilford Woodruff himself said (I hope I’m not butchering this quote, but this is the essence): “Yes, I saw the flaws in Joseph Smith. I saw them and I rejoiced. For if the Lord could use an imperfect man like him, then there was hope for me.”

I love the prophets. I love them so much and take them so seriously that I’ve devoted hours upon hours upon hours of my life researching, studying and writing about their lives. I have put my private and professional reputation on the line every time I have very publicly written about their history and my fervent love and faith in the religious tradition we are both a part of. It’s high stakes for me, as it is for everyone who puts their shoulder to the wheel. I read book after book about their lives, I study their teachings, I know the controversies surrounding them. And that hasn’t destroyed my testimony, but rather strengthened it.

However, although it was not destroyed, it definitely transformed. I had to change. It’s like that scriptural analogy with the potter’s wheel. My testimony is the clay and the Lord is trying to shape it. If I cling to the way I want it to look, if I cling to the old forms and policies of the Church, even after the Lord has given revelations that have abolished those old forms, then my clay is useless under his hands. The Church isn’t a static thing, it is a living Church. And I am a living soul who needs to progress and grow, just like the Church needs to progress and grow.

Joseph Smith said, “we have the revelation of Jesus, and the knowledge within us is sufficient to organize a righteous government upon the earth, and to give universal peace to all mankind, if they would receive it, but we lack the physical strength, as did our Savior when a child, to defend our principles, and we have of necessity to be afflicted, persecuted and smitten, and to bear it patiently until Jacob is of age, then he will take care of himself.” The Church is still young. It hasn’t “grown up” yet. To not expect it to go through growing pains and the mistakes of childhood is to set up that child for failure, and of course at that point it will certainly fail those kind of unrealistic expectations. But with patience, with love, with the progression of grace upon grace, line upon line, here a little and there a little, our Heavenly Parents are teaching that child, that Church to become an adult, and the time will come, like Joseph Smith said, when it is a child no more. And, frankly, I think the Church is strong and tall and smart for its age.

by Mahonri Stewart

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