It has now been a year since the church first released the Gospel Topics essay about race and the priesthood. The following is a transcript of the EQ lesson in my ward on the first Sunday in December. I thought it was a great discussion and is a interesting case study in how such lessons might play out. I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading it. If instead you’re in the mood for more Christmasy stuff, I have the music from my ward’s Christmas program at the bottom, so just scroll down and enjoy.
Instructor: So, like I said, the essay we’re going to talk about today is the one on race and the priesthood. This is a difficult topic. As recent events in the news have made painfully obvious, it continues to be a general problem for American society as we see in Ferguson, MO and NY. It seems like every week we get a new and unfortunate reminder of the race relations problems in the United States.
The church essay specifically deals with the issue of the priesthood restriction which was in place starting at some point in the 1850s until 1978. So for most of the church history there was this ban. As I said, I sent out an email with links which I’d encourage you to read. It covers the history of developments on this topic. It talks about the black men which Joseph ordained when he was Prophet of the church. Elijah Ables, and, who was the other one…
Commenter #1: There were a few. There was one who went by ‘Black Pete’ and there was one in Massachusettes but his name isn’t coming to me right now. ((Editors note, his name is Walker Lewis))
Instructor: Yeah, so at least two, and potentially more were ordained to the priesthood in Joseph Smith’s day. Then the essay talks about how there seems to be this statement in the 1850s made by Brigham Young which implemented the ban. The rest of the essay talks about that. I want to highlight some points from the essay. The bulk of the essay talks about the role of the broader culture and the interaction between that and the church. So there’s a section on the essay if you’re following on your device, that’s called “The Church in an American Racial Culture.” It goes through the history that a lot of you are familiar with. It talks about slavery, which was still in effect when the church was founded. It was an extremely unequal society in those times. So let’s examine the role that that plays in possibly informing the ideas we have about race the the priesthood.
I want to spend a few minutes talking about that, and what that means for us. A few weeks ago in Sunday School the teacher posed an interesting thought experiment: What would have happened if the church had been restored in China in 1830, or Europe in 1830? It makes you think of the different cultural baggage that may have been in place in those locations. I think that is an interesting exercise to go through. What does that mean for us when we’re trying to separate doctrine from culture? We talk about that a lot in the church, but how can we make those distinctions when we’re so throughly seeped in it?
I want to open that up for discussion.
Commenter #2: Well, I think one of the most important, most evolutionary, and most difficult doctrines of the church to understand is this idea of continuing revelation. If we get too comfortable with the way that things are in the church then when it changes it can shake our testimonies a little bit because we’re used to things being a certain way. So the doctrine of continuing revelation is an extremely uncomfortable doctrine, or can be. We tend to think of it, I think, in terms of ‘oh, we have a living prophet, they speak at General Conference, and isn’t that wonderful?’ and it is wonderful, but there’s really a lot more to it than just that. So, can we look at the way things are done in the church today and can we point to a doctrine ((audio unclear)), or is it a little fuzzier? If there is a change there can we say ‘I would be comfortable with that change’ ? I think that’s one way to… well whether we do it or not, that’s going to be the way that separates the culture from the doctrine is this idea of continuing revelation. Because changes are happening right now in the church.
Instructor: Thanks. I think that’s really important. President Uchtdorf’s great line “Don’t sleep through the restoration” because it’s ongoing and I think we need to aware of this as we’re going forward.
Commenter #3: I think it’s also something that requires a lot of humility on a personal level. You kind of have society’s influence on the culture, but you also have the Mormon culture. You know, like in Sunday School with movies like the Single’s Ward we kind of make fun of the lighter sides of Mormon culture. I think the other interesting aspect to it is that there is a good side in having that Mormon culture. There are a lot of cultural things that, because of the gospel and things that we teach, we sort of ingrained that into our culture. I think it is really a challenge trying to separate out what is really the gospel sometimes from what is something that we kind of just end up doing. It may not necessarily be doctrine, but sort of an auxiliary there. Being able to separate the two, I think requires some type of personal, ongoing revelation. To accept that requires a lot of personal humility to see “just because this is the way that things are doesn’t mean that this is the way we should continue doing things.” There’s always this potential that things might be changed.
Instructor: Yeah, I like that too.
Commenter #4: I was just going to give some practical advice and say what Commenter #2 as the historian was too humble to say. In order to separate culture from the doctrine, you really have to pay attention to how continuing revelation has carved out some truths that don’t change. Looking at what hasn’t changed, and what has changed, and realizing that that isn’t essential to the gospel.
Commenter #1: A quote I really like from President Uchtdorf that hits on all of these topics is from a Leadership Training where he said “How many times has the spirit tried to tell us something, but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew.” It’s this idea where we have so many things that we just assume ‘this is the way it’s supposed to be.’ I think that happens frequently in the church. Maybe we have some spiritual confirmation (say of the prophet being the prophet, or of the church being true) and for ease we go out of the way of having to investigate every aspect of things and find out if its true or not. We say “OK, this is true. Now I’m done. I don’t have to think about it anymore. Everything with the church I assume is good and true. Everything is the way it is supposed to be.” I think as a result we can end up with this culture in which tradition is treated as divine revelation or divine will. Like “it’s always been done this way and this is the way it is supposed to be.”
Instructor: Yeah, that’s difficult. I mean, we’re left in this spot where maybe ideally we all go through this Cartesian deconstruction and deconstruct everything and start from some one true premise and work outward. But I think in practice we’re just going to leave the vast majority of things unexamined, but without being willing to accept continuing revelation we’ll always be stagnant.
Commenter #5: I think to some degree continuing revelation could actually contribute to the problem. As an example, maybe a stake president receives a revelation about something that he should do in his stake, and it gets implemented. Then someone in that stake mentions it to someone in another stake who says “That’s a great idea!” and then it gets implemented over there. Eventually the need for that program goes away, but people have been living with it for so long (even in stakes where it wasn’t a part of continuing revelation) that they resist any attempts to change.
Instructor: So we want things to be true for now and always. Maybe it was true for them, but not us.
Commenter #6: This idea that we’re constrained by our culture and it’s hard for us to understand, improve, and receive revelation because our culture affects us. We’re saying we do that, but I think the real remarkable lesson to me reading about this race and the priesthood issue is that that’s true even all the way up to the top. Even the prophet is constrained by his own upbringing, his own prejudices, and in fact Spencer Kimball said as much. His search for truth on this matter was hindered by his own upbringing and his own deeply engrained beliefs. I grew up wanting to think that the prophet has a direct line of communication with the Lord and so everything he says or does is always going to be the right thing. I think it’s an uncomfortable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that that’s just not true.
Instructor: Yeah, and I want to come back to that idea of maybe differing kinds of revelation, and I think that’s really important.
Commenter #7: So we’re aware, when we read the Official Declarations, it says this–I think we need to distinguish between leading in doctrine and leading in opinion–it says this about the prophet: “The 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 programme. 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.” So I totally agree, but I think in principles of doctrine the prophet is right on.
Instructor: Yeah, so
Commenter #6: I’m sorry, but that’s the quote that we always hear, and it’s simply not true. Brigham Young said many things that simply weren’t true. So, maybe you mean a different thing, but to assume that prophets can never say things that are wrong, I think is wrong.
Commenter #1: It would deny their agency.
Instructor: I don’t think there’s as much disagreement it might seem.
Commenter #7: I’m just saying doctrine vs. opinion.
Instructor: Yeah, doctrine and opinion. That’s really the hard part, right? Is that
Commenter #6: What Brigham Young said about this, it wasn’t opinion; it was like “I’m saying this in the name of Jesus Christ.” If the prophet said that today would we call it his opinion?
Commenter #1: And therein is the issue, right? If you want to still hold and have both statements be true, then you have to go through the act of figuring out what it means to be lead astray. Because obviously they can say something is doctrine that doesn’t pan out as such. Maybe that’s because of, as we talked about, their upbringing and their thoughts. Revelation is never a fax machine from God where you just have exactly what God wanted. It is always filtered through the person receiving it. The interesting and difficult part is then figuring out which of this is divine and how much of it is from their influence. That’s the difficult question we have to address with all of this.
Commenter #2: Which reminds me of a great J. Golden Kimball quote. He said “Sometimes I speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, and other times I speak by the power of J. Golden Kimball. It’s up to you to figure out which is which.”
Commenter #5: I think this would at least partially resolve what we’re talking about right now. When the Official Declaration was given and that particular quote was stated, there was a major doctrinal change happening. You know, it wasn’t Brigham Young saying that people live on the sun, it was “this is what we’ve been practicing for decades, and we’re going to stop.”
Instructor: But if you look up the quote that Commenter #6 was citing…
Commenter #5: I know, I
Instructor: …it was major doctrinal stuff. We don’t need to get into it. So it becomes fuzzy, right? So let’s talk through the particular case study at hand. The change in the priesthood ban. I think this is a really interesting example of how we go through this painful process of separating culture from doctrine.
In one of the emails I sent out, there was a lengthy article by Lester Bush that was extremely influential in persuading members of the First Presidency to reevaluate their positions on this issue. I wanted to talk about that. In this last conference there was a talk by Elder Cook in which he made this extended analogy about Athens and Jerusalem. There is a place in Acts where Paul goes to Athens from Jerusalem and all the people there want to know some new thing. Elder Cook was making this distinction between intellectualism/the world and the doctrine of the church. I think actually with this race and the priesthood issue there is an interesting reversal of that. The essay goes through how in the broader society integration was increasingly the norm. It was harder and harder to understand how the race restriction on priesthood could be a thing in 1977 or 1967. And so it was this moment where Athens had it pretty good. It was that pressure, that outside influence, that was leading to these reevaluations that we’ve talked about. I think that is an interesting thing to ponder about. I’m going to move on unless there are any comments on that.
So we talked a little bit about the difficulty in knowing what we mean by revelation. We talked about the polygamy issue. I think that’s a really interesting case as well. There’s an essay dealing with polygamy and the implementation of it. It seems like we have at least two different types of revelation that we’re dealing with. I was talking with Commenter #2 before, and he mentioned that Elder Bednar gave a talk about revelation being like the gradual dawn of light or like the flipping on of a light switch. We can point to examples in our church history where it was the light switch. It was the angel with the flaming sword. It was God and Jesus coming to Joseph Smith. It was some very dramatic and clear representation of the will of God. I think the race and the priesthood is a good example of a dawning, of a gradual and slow opening process. Amongst the hundreds and hundreds of things that were written about this essay when it first came out, one of the greatest analogies I found was by Kristine Haglund. She’s a Mormon scholar and she talks about the analogy of Lazarus coming forth from the tomb. I think this is great. She said that a lot of times in the church when we talk about miracles, we think about the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and we think of the dramatic healings that Christ was involved with, but we also have this other miracle of Lazarus coming forth from the tomb. Lazarus had died and was in the tomb for three days, and Jesus says “Come forth Lazarus.” He comes out and Jesus has his disciples unwrap him from the grave clothes. He’s still in the wrappings that the dead were put in. Rather than Jesus just magically making whole again, there was some activity that the church had to be involved in. Mary and Martha had to actually unwrap him and bring him back to the fold. This particular incident has sparked the imaginations of a lot of people. I think that’s important for us to remember. We are involved in this process. We are the church. To move forward on this issue or any other issue we’ve got to be on board and actively engaged in it. So when Commenter #6 was talking about how we make distinctions when prophets are saying things in the name of the Lord and it feels like we really want to grab onto that. How do we know if it’s a light switch or if it’s part of this slower, gradual change? I want to throw that out to you.
Commenter #1: With regard to the issue of prophets saying “thus saith the Lord,” there is a great quote from Charles Penrose, who was part of the First Presidency. When he was talking about President Woodruff and he said something like “He’s a wise man. We love him and respect him, but when he says something we don’t just take it for granted.” He said “Even when ‘thus saith the Lord’ comes from his lips, the saints investigate it. We don’t just swallow it down like a pill.” It gets to this idea of us investigating for ourselves.
With regards to some of the other stuff you just finished saying: If you look at the name of our church, I actually like the way the church ultimately settled in on a name. We’re the church of Jesus Christ, but we’re also the church of the Latter-day Saints. We have this co-ownership type relationship with Christ in the running and management of the church. We all have our role to play. It is a partnership that we have to be involved in. It’s the same idea with Zion. It’s not going to come about until we do our part to help make it happen. So, there is legitimacy to the fact that if the members aren’t on board with something, it’s not going to happen. The First Presidency tried to start Family Home Evening in the early 1900s and the church didn’t do it. Then about 20 years later they brought it up again and it still didn’t take hold. Then about another 20 years later the church members finally started practicing it and it became a more permanent fixture of the church. It was something that was definitely on President Kimball’s mind in the lead-up to the 2nd Official Declaration. He was reading and praying. He was reading Lester Bush’s article and had it marked up like crazy. As he was considering it, some of his biggest concerns that he did voice to some people around him were that he wasn’t sure how it would be accepted. He was worried about some push back from some members of the Quorum of the Twelve and membership, especially in the south, on how they would react to this. Would they just reject it? Would there be a fracture in the church as a result of this. It’s definitely something that was on his mind as he was praying in the lead-up to the revelation.
Instructor: I think that’s really important. When we’re talking about all of this, we’re often times left with a lot of ambiguity. The essay does a great job of saying that the theories which were advanced in the past as to why the restriction was in place, we reject. As a person who had been taught those things by my father, by seminary teachers, by well-meaning gospel doctrine teachers, that was good to see finally in print. We reject those theories. I want to spend the last few minutes talking about: What are we to do when we’re left in this ambiguous place where you can understand why people create theories about the way things are. We want to know why it is, especially as we become less and less like the people around us, we want to explain it. There’s a certain logic behind the theories that were put forth. But what are we to do when we’re left in this place where we need to move forward, but it’s not the light switch (let me put it that way).
Commenter #2: I think this is where faith really comes in. It comes down to faith. Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s blacks and the priesthood, whether it’s gay rights or anything that is jarring in our culture today where the church takes a firm stand. Or did take a firm stand. We see our behavior so different from the world’s. We look at our values and maybe we see some contradictions in how we’ve been taught as far as how you love, how you don’t judge, how you do these things, and our behaviors as a church were, or as a people, to reconcile them. I think this is where you get people who create theories. I’ve sat down and I’ve thought up all kinds of theories for why.
Instructor: That’s one things I love about Mormonism. It gives us a lot of space to explore.
Commenter #2: But hopefully… I think in my own life when I’ve had those moments (well, they’re longer than moments, call them weeks, months, or whatever) where I’m really struggling with an issue. That’s when I’m most humble and most earnestly seeking. More often than not, the answer is just “you don’t need to worry about that right now. This is what you need to do.” And it is very hard to accept. But being able to have the faith that this is my answer for now is not the full thing. I don’t get to see the full picture. I don’t understand how this is all going to shake out, but that’s ok.
Commenter #4: This is sort of skirting the issue, but I think for me it’s ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ and that kind of stuff. In the end it has to do with me. It’s got to be my question. The various issues popping up, what do they do to me? What do they cause me to do? When it comes to almost all of them, even though there are things that cause this space of ambiguity, they cause me to think. They cause me to ponder, they cause me to pray, and they cause me to wonder. They cause me in the end to either reject something or accept something that makes me a more kind and loving person, or that makes me worse, unfeeling to others. I think, for me… people might say “why was this ban…” whatever. In the end, it’s made me constantly think about it. It’s made me constantly flag up that issue again and realize that justice, or charity, I won’t ever understand, but love is something that I can understand. So I have to figure out how I can err on the side of love in every situation and in every sort of question. That was a long rambling thought, sorry.
Commenter #1: I probably just misunderstood some of the comment, but I think that we can just so easily say “well, this is just something that I don’t know. We can’t know. I don’t need to know. I just need to worry about what I’m doing in my life.”
Commenter #4: Well that’s not what I’m saying.
Commenter #1: Yeah, yeah, I probably just misinterpreted it. I mean, even just defaulting to “Ok, I’m just going to make sure that I’m making the best choices I can make.”
Commenter #4: No, what I’m saying is that the answer has… you ultimately have to realize that whether you can understand what is happening and why it happened in some sort of doctrinal sense, is that your Lodestar should be the idea of love. So that if this is something that affect people, if this is something that was a substantive injustice to people, then you should strike it down. You should speak against it for that reason, because of love. Because you can’t understand why, so you have to be true to yourself and what you understand as justice and righteousness, and say “well I don’t understand that. If it’s for this reason or that reason then I think it’s wrong and that is right” and go with the one you think is right and has to be with love.
Commenter #2: I think the comment was also directed at mine. The idea, that you do the personal searching and personal investigation. You don’t default. But sometimes when you do the personal searching and the personal investigating and you don’t get a satisfactory answer, that’s when you have to take it on faith. This is what I’m given at this point and this is the best I can do.
Commenter #1: Yeah, the only reason I even thought about it–and thanks for clarifying– was just that I think that if you’re a white, American male it’s a lot easier to say “Well, I don’t think we get the full picture, but that’s ok.”
Commenter #4: Well that’s what I’m trying
Commenter #1: And I know that’s what you’re saying, that we shouldn’t do that
Commenter #4: I’m saying you shouldn’t say “that’s ok”
Commenter #1: yeah
Commenter #4: What I’m saying is that I look at people who left the church over issues like this and I say “You know what? That person is true to their conscience and I think that the Lord is going to smile at them for that.” My sister left the church because of gay issues. Because if I was a person who said “I’m just going to stick around because of…” whatever swallowing of the pill, I think He’s probably going to frown at me for that as opposed to my sister who stood up for people who she feels are oppressed.
Commenter #1: Yeah, and that fits with more or less with what I was trying to get at. If you’re not in the demographic that’s being affected, it’s a lot easier to arrive at some position where you just sort of continue on with the status quo. Even if you silently disagree with it or whatever the case may be, it’s easier to do that. It is a luxury that many of us in this room have when it comes to dealing with difficult issues like this.
Instructor: Thank you. So we’re out of time.
Commenter #5: I can be quick. One thing that concerns me about myself in how I approach these kinds of issues is that I’m more interested in achieving cognitive consonance instead of finding out what’s true. That is something that I have to actively work against, being willing to put my emotional satisfaction aside sometimes and try to find out what really is the truth.
Instructor: That’s actually a great note to close on. I think in all of this that we need to remember that it’s not always up to us to figure everything out. This is a great thing about being a church and community is that we can have different points of view. We can work these things out together. As the church expands and we have a variety of different experiences, the beautiful thing about it is that it seems to point towards Zion (as you said before). The trouble for us is that we’re in the middle of the messy part. That’s probably going to be our state from here, I suspect into the eternities. It will never really be all worked out, and that’s the great thing. It’s going to be something we can always work on. So thank you for the discussion. I think it was good and a good place to start. I encourage you to keep thinking about these things. It’s something that’s of essential importance to our experience as members of the church being led by prophesy and working out what that means. So, I’ll say those things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
If you just scrolled down for the music, or even if you read the whole thing, I hope that you will enjoy the music from my ward.