When the LDS Church’s Gospel Topics essay “Race and the Priesthood” was released in late 2013, large numbers of my fellow Mormons — particularly moderates and progressives — rejoiced that the Church had, among other things, finally distanced itself from its long-standing claim that the Church’s pre-1978 priesthood and temple ban was divinely inspired. They pointed to the fact that the essay inundates the reader with historical information and context that grounds the ban in 19th Century racial ideas, suggesting such ideas were its cause.
Other LDS Church members weren’t so sure. Some insisted that the Church wasn’t throwing divine authorship under the bus, per se, since the race essay doesn’t technically claim the ban WASN’T inspired. (It repudiates earlier LDS leaders’ theological explanations for the ban, but that’s a different issue). There’s no smoking gun, no unambiguous declarative sentence that definitively settles the question. Ergo, claims of divine origin have not been discarded, they argued. They are still alive and well, very much a part of the Church’s truth claims.
Still others read the essay as intentionally ambiguous on the matter — the essay neither endorses divine origin nor repudiates it. It is strangely silent on this crucial question (just as the new introductory paragraph to OD-2 released earlier in 2013 was also silent). This was sometimes interpreted to signal a “We don’t know” response to the question of divine authorship. That the Church was neither willing to embrace nor jettison the notion that God was behind the ban.
My own view is that while the essay was CLEARLY written by someone opposed to claims of divine origin, and structured accordingly, an undeniable (and regrettable) ambiguity really does remain. It’s like the essay takes you all the way up to the edge of the cliff of “no divine origin” but then declines to push you off. You have to decide to jump yourself … or not. I’m a militant advocate of jumping, myself, but I wish the essay had violently thrown everybody off the cliff en masse so nobody had to. 🙂
Anyway, with all that as background ….
We now have a new and unexpected development in the ongoing saga of how to best understand the priesthood ban!
Take a look at the “Prophets and Revelation” chapter from the Church’s new “Doctrinal Mastery New Testament Teacher Manual”, the official resource LDS youth will be taught from this coming school year. The chapter focuses, in part, on the nature of “God’s laws”, and it distinguishes “eternal laws” from “laws of priesthood administration and Church management”. This division seems to track the “doctrine/policy” distinction that has been so popular in Mormon discourse in recent years, and it strikes me as not unreasonable (as distinctions go). But notice how the chapter describes the similarities and differences between these two kinds of laws:
God’s laws include doctrine, principles, commandments, ordinances, and covenants, as well as Church policies and practices He reveals through His prophets.
The “policies and practices” of the Church are necessarily REVEALED BY GOD, according to this sentence. Not just the “doctrines” and other weightier categories of teaching. The “policies and practices” too. There’s no mention of policies that might be something less-than-revealed, like the result of executive decisions made by God’s authorized leaders that weren’t necessarily personally dictated by the Almighty Himself. Nope. Even “policies” are necessarily direct products of revelation, we’re told.
When the text elaborates on the differences between the two types of laws, the “revealed” nature of both is still maintained:
Explain that some laws the Lord reveals are eternal, such as those associated with the plan of salvation. These laws do not change. However, the Lord may at times emphasize certain eternal laws because of social changes and the needs of His Church or the world. Write do not change next to “Eternal laws” on the board.
Point out that there are also laws in the Church that may change as directed by the Lord through His prophets. These include laws that direct the priesthood administration of the gospel and its ordinances and relate to the organization and management of the Lord’s Church and His people. Some of these laws may also be referred to as Church policies or practices. As prophets and apostles seek the Lord’s inspiration and counsel together, they may make adjustments to these laws according to the Lord’s will. These changes allow the Church to expand in an orderly way throughout the world and to address varying conditions and needs on the earth. Write may change next to “Laws of priesthood administration and Church management” on the board.
Again, notice how the quoted text draws various distinctions between the two types of “laws” — including their ability to be “changed” — but it doesn’t make room for either type to be anything less than “revealed” truth. The divinely-dictated nature of both categories of “law” is a similarity between them, not a difference.
The tendency to believe “policies and practices” are every bit as “revealed” as doctrines or “eternal laws” is not unusual in the church. But I’m dwelling on the issue because it has implications for how the priesthood ban fits into this larger scheme. Might the ban fall outside both categories? Might it have been something LESS than a revealed “policy or practice”, LESS than a revealed “law of priesthood administration and Church management”? Behold, the manual tells you:
Next, divide the students into small groups or pairs, and give each student a copy of the following worksheet. Ask them to work together and complete the matching activity.
For each item, identify whether it is an example of (A) eternal laws (which do not change) or (B) laws of priesthood administration and Church management (which may change).
_____ 1. For all who are accountable, baptism by immersion and confirmation are required to enter God’s kingdom.
_____ 2. Under the law of Moses, only men of the tribe of Levi were ordained to the Aaronic priesthood.
_____ 3. Before 1896, monthly fast and testimony meetings were held on Thursdays rather than Sundays.
_____ 4. From the mid 1800s until 1978, men of black African descent were not ordained to the priesthood.
Anyone care to guess what the answer to question #4 is? No need, for the manual tells you this too:
Answers to the handout activity: (1) A; (2) B; (3) B; (4) B; (5) A; (6) B; (7) A.
So there you go. The priesthood ban was a “law of priesthood administration and Church management” — which isn’t obviously offensive as a description, since there’s no denying the reality that it WAS a church rule for many years — except we know from the definitions and descriptions given earlier in the chapter that it was therefore “revealed”, something that God Himself must have originated.
There’s a lot more to say about the content of this chapter, but there’s no denying that it UNAMBIGUOUSLY claims that THE PRIESTHOOD AND TEMPLE BAN WAS OF DIVINE ORIGIN. The ban fits in the category of policies-and-practices-that-can-be-changed, rather than eternal, unchanging laws (of course), but that category is unambiguously described as containing teachings whose author is God.
What a mess. In sum, we’ve now got a Gospel Topics essay that appears to say one thing (or at least to leave interpretation open), and curricular materials that unquestionably say a different thing.
You know what would be nice? Reading an official statement — no, even just an official SENTENCE — from senior LDS church leaders that unambiguously declares that the priesthood ban either WAS divinely inspired or WASN’T divinely inspired. Really, just ONE SENTENCE, that’s all. It wouldn’t be hard to write. It wouldn’t take hardly any time to compose. It could go into a First Presidency letter. It could be inserted into the race essay. Lots of possibilities here. (I’m obviously partial to one particular outcome, but there’s something to be said for clarity, regardless of which outcome emerges).
And it would also be nice to make both official curricular materials and other official online resources perfectly consistent with that sentence, whatever it ends up saying.
Is this really too much to ask?
I think the Church needs more correlation 🙂
I am not sure we hear anything that is clear these days from HQ for fear that it will either paint the church into a corner or heaven forbid say that a church leader was wrong. The essay on the temple and race ban is the only thing I can think of that says something along the lines of a prophet messing up.
But then you have the receint ensign article saying you don’t have to practice polygamy to get into the c kingdom.
So which is it?????
I thought questions were honored
The distinction these materials make between what can and cannot change is useless and misleading. It would only be useful if it were evident from the beginning that something was subject to change. Instead, their examples refer to this that have changed, after the fact, rather than to things which can or could or might or will change in future. It’s sort of like predicting the future, but only claiming to have predicted it after it has become the past.
Example 2, about the priesthood and Levi is also obviously included only because of the growing trend to use the Levite example to rationalize the priesthood restriction of this dispensation. It’s nonsense in the context of what can and cannot change. The Law of Moses was a fixed thing, not subject to amendment as if it were the US Constitution, and altering such a basic element would have made it no longer the Law of Moses, but some new law. It is still accurate to say that under the Law of Moses the priesthood was restricted. That Law has not changed, even though it is no longer in effect and the priesthood is no longer restricted. Somebody just wants the ancient practice to be subtly present in the minds of students so it can be used to make the modern priesthood restriction appear to be analogous.
A nice comment, Ardis. This stuff confuses me. In the 19th c. church leaders said that black people were “cursed.” By the late 19th/early 20th c. the rationale moved to “less valiant.” In 1969 the church line was “we don’t know” why black people couldn’t hold the priesthood. In the early 21st c. church leaders called the rationales for the ban “folklore”–trying to distance themselves from uncomfortable teachings from their predecessors. Then, with the 2013 “Race and Priesthood” essay, we learn that the ban was really a product of the racism from Brigham Young’s day (which presumably means it wasn’t divine in origin). Now, we’re back to it’s divine again with the new doctrinal mastery manual. I’m confused. LDS racial doctrine seems to be a moving target. What, exactly, is divine about the ban? The fact that black people were “cursed”? Or sinful in a pre-earth life? Can someone help me?
Agree 100%, Ardis. Thanks.
I find it interesting that an attempt is being made to justify the Priesthood/Temple as being divinely instituted. The implication of such an attempt is that God inspired the ban policy but yet did not provide any guidelines as to how it was to be implemented. He allowed prophets and apostles to make denigrating remarks regarding an inspired policy and did not do anything about it? And these denigrating statements were actually considered OK (inspired) by the previous prophets and apostles and yet they are disavowed by today’s leaders? Patriarchal blessings which were way off the mark (lineage for some africans were stated as descendants of Cain) were given, and yet these blessing blessings were supposed to be inspired? How could you even implement the policy without looking at external features (skin color) and yet we know that God looks on the heart and not on outward appearance? I find it so difficult to believe that an inspired policy can be so messed up in its implementation.
As for the Levi example a careful reading will indicate that their responsibilities (and note that it was only in the temple) is what we may consider today as a calling and not necessarily a priesthood office/ordination. Think of it as a group of young men who have been given a specific assignment – it does not mean the other young men are under a restriction, or one man is called as a Bishop – it does not mean other men are not eligible to be called. When work has be done some one/people need to be assigned to do it and that is what happened with the Levites.
After all several prophets in the Old Testament did hold the priesthood and yet were not from the tribe of Levi. Furthermore the entire Book of Mormon had no Levites and yet they lived the law of Moses and had priests and teachers and prophets.
Are there really patriarchal blessings of black people that proclaim descendency from Cain?
Patriarchs pre-1978 did one of three things when they gave blessings: They pronounced the “curse of cain” on black folks, or told them they were from the Tribe of Israel (a big no-no), or didn’t pronounce any lineage at all. The point is, they were all over the place with lineage because Patriarchs didn’t receive much guidance from Salt Lake.
I think that one of the greatest parts of scripture are when prophets reveal their own weakness (either by stating it or through behavior in the story). We so often celebrate these things and discuss how Alma the Younger, for example, is such a great model for all of us. And yet, as a culture, we seem to be really afraid of this same trait in modern prophets. I see that fear from friends inside and outside the church – those who have left because they have discovered Joseph’s weaknesses, for example, or those who refuse to read about said weakness for fear that it will “ruin” Joseph. What a shame that is. I prefer to think of Prophets and other church leaders as men and women who are fallible. Who have, for whatever reason, been asked to serve in this way. They are mighty examples of righteous living, but they are not perfect, and I think that hiding such things (especially after so long, and after many people involved in, say, the Priesthood ban, are dead) is counterproductive.
Nice comment, Joni. I think the fear you identify is a product of the implied prophetic infallibility that has become an ingrained part of Mormon culture, along with the notion that the church never has anything to apologize for. It is also grounded in the belief that if Christ is really at the helm and guiding General Authorities in everything they do, then they simply can’t make mistakes. If you admit they do, then the whole house of cards collapses.
My respect for a church official only increases if, when he makes a mistake, he, like Alma the Younger, would acknowledge his error. I will follow to hell and back an ecclesiastical leader who concedes his missteps. Whenever, however, a church leader assures me that he is incapable of leading me astray, I count my spoons.
This schizophrenic state is the byproduct of a church that needs to change to stay current (true) by changing hard set ideas that no longer have any social currency … it’s always about bums in seats … and making those bums feel secure.
Of course it was all revelation, divinely inspired in every sense of the word. If it wasn’t, then that would mean one or more church leaders made a big mistake, and we know that’s impossible! Big mistakes can lead people astray and we’ve been told the Lord would atomize any church official that even thought about making a big mistake.
The notion that a church official (or manual) can clearly and unequivocally articulate which of God’s laws can never change and which ones are subject to revision is absurd. Since our understanding of God’s laws is barely at the elementary level, how can we presume to know what He can and cannot change?
Nice post. Thanks.
Don’t you see the similarity between #2 and #4? God revealed unto Moses that only the Tribe of Levi would be ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. That changed. That doesn’t mean it had not originated with God.For reasons He does not feel a need to share with us (I believe it was for the protection of the black men in question), God did, for a relatively short time, restrict the priesthood ordinations in our day, too.
If I was an earnest black man or woman during the period of the LDS priesthood and temple ban, and I heard the reasons stated by the prophets, seers and revelators of my day, I would probably conclude that the leaders of the Church were leading me astray. That seems reasonable. I postulate if I was truth-seeking white and consequently not cursed, I too might reasonably conclude that this exclusion for skin color might fall under the category of leading the church astray. What if I were a white LDS church member, who was groomed from birth to accept that blacks are less-than, inferior or ill-equipped to be given the equal privileges (like priesthood and temple blessings)? Would that not influence a conclusion that the church denied the priesthood and temple from blacks as a PROTECTION to them? It’s not my intent to stir up anger, but for the love of god, don’t you see the sick-thinking in that. Follow your logic further and consider the LGBT Mormons who are killing themselves to get away from this culture that similarly demeans, restricts and discriminates against them. Is the church’s homophobia PROTECTING these fellow humans. What a messed up church!
Perhaps unlike you, I actually knew blacks who were members of the church before 1978. They were humble people who loved the restored Gospel, and were grateful for it. I think they would be embarrassed by the post-modernist groveling, and would look at the participants oddly. Did they think their lives were blessed? Absolutely!
Unfortunately for us all (especially me), they’re not around today to give their thoughts.
I wonder. It is written all are alike unto God, both male and female, bond and free, black and white, and that he denies none who come unto him (2 Nephi 26:33).
So if the “priesthood ban” was of divine origin, might the explanation be that God was demonstrating to all who believed the Book of Mormon that the Church’s priesthood is not God’s priesthood?
And if the “priesthood ban” was not of divine origin, might the explanation be that men were demonstrating to all who believed the Book of Mormon that the Church’s priesthood is not God’s priesthood?
Seems the conclusion is the same either way, if the Book of Mormon is true – but, then, if the Book of Mormon is true, then there appears to be many many many problematic teachings springing up from the leadership. It is difficult to find a principle or precept in the Book of Mormon that isn’t contradicted by the leadership in their teachings.
Don’t even try to use logic and reason to evaluate the doctrine and history of this church anymore. The TBM leaders and members will not and cannot even try to utilize logic and reason in 2016. The LDS train is now so far off the tracks that a fiery crash is the only possible outcome. 99.96% of the worlds population consider this tiny group of people a joke. The church could close up shop and less than 1% of humanity would even notice or care. Those of us with family and friends who remain enslaved in the bunker can only symbolically don safety goggles and hope to protect our eyes from the blast.
This is another example of the LDS church’s institutional dishonesty. My wife and I have disassociated ourselves from the LDS Church in the just the last year. We are in our 60s. Reading the essays was disorienting enough but rereading them again and considering the details including analysis such as this makes my head swim. It shows (again) that church leaders today promote deception. This church is so far from the “house of order” it has proclaimed itself to be. These so-called prophets, seers and revelators don’t enlighten the world or promote truth. Today, the LDS church leadership’s primary role is not to enlighten minds or promote truth-seeking, it is preserving member obedience by sewing ambiguity. That, and sewing seeds of fear and guilt.
This racist claptrap was why I jumped ship and refused to become a Priest in 1966. Never regretted it.
I think our church (the LDS church) is the best ‘man-made church’ on the earth today. It’s a good, healthy lifestyle. Promotes morality. But, it drops off pretty quickly for me where doctrine is concerned as I learn more about the ‘church’ and its historicity. This after 40+ years as a believer. I’m disappointed and sad. But I’ll keep on living the lifestyle because I think there is wisdom in many of the principles. I put too much of my faith “in the arm of man”. I’ll never do that again. Still, I’m grateful for my experiences in the church. Love to y’all!
Here is my question. Can God lie to his prophets? If we accept that:
1 – Surely the Lord God will do nothing save He tells his servants the prophets
2 – That both unchangeable eternal doctrine and changeable policy is the result of divine revelation
It is clear that LDS prophets claimed not just doctrinal explanations for the policy (IE – curse of Cain, laziness in pre-existence) but that these LDS prophets in fact believed and taught that blacks not having the priesthood and being inferior was revealed doctrine. (See first presidecy letters to George Romney and Dr Lowry Nelson)
It seems to me that one can not trust niether God not his servant prophets as to if or when any doctrine may by necessity of finances, science, or political pressure actually be declared a changeable policy.
It’s a logical mess that screams out “man made.” I think the challenge now and in the future is to come to grips with it, then demand change while keeping the good.
“The ‘policies and practices’ of the Church are necessarily REVEALED BY GOD, according to this sentence.”
While I dislike what little I’ve read of this manual quite as much as indicated by some of the posted comments, the blog statement I quoted in above in this comment is simply not correct. The sentence referred to does NOT say all Church policies and practices are revealed by God. Instead, it refers to those policies and practices God does reveal through his prophets [maybe there are some], leaving room for the existence of Church policies and practices that are not revealed. Please don’t make the manual worse than it is.
p.s., I think Ardis’ analysis is correct
I think you’re nit-picking. It would’ve been very easy for the manual to reference a third category — “unrevealed policies” — but it didn’t. You’re technically correct that the manual doesn’t absolutely foreclose this category, just by virtue of not mentioning it, but how do you think most youth leaders will portray the categories, in light of the way the lesson is written? I doubt most will think to mention your third option.
The fact remains that the priesthood ban is placed squarely in the ” revealed policies” category. And that’s the problem.
Yes, Aaron, that is a significant problem. I did not say it wasn’t. Nit-picking or not, the sentence quoted does NOT say that policies and practices are necessarily REVEALED BY GOD. It silently leaves the third category open — a very important “nit” for those few youth leaders who will notice and be able to deal with the matter differently than the manual does. For the sake of the few, it is an important “nit” and we do not need to make the extraordinarily bad manual worse than it is by claiming it denies the existence of a third category on which it is silent.
I think that God has a sufficiently knowledgeable and comprehensive understanding of All Things That Be (including our nature, our failings, what counts and what doesn’t) that he will certainly support and sustain his prophets in their decisions, and when there’s a correction needed, it will come. We understand that if a prophet is going to lead the church astray, that prophet will not be allowed to. We also know that he can take anything that we think is bad, or something that is actually Bad (like The Fall) and turn it into something good, or Good. He watches us to see _how_ we respond as well. The modern view that we are the final generation to look at the past with “the perfect lens” is hubris that will repeat every generation.
This grinding of the gears to reach the final, ultimate granny gear that will allow us to reach a “final” examination on this topic is wearying, and one we know will never end. Next year, someone will grind it even finer, and the year after that. This is in the past. Let’s move on.
Put differently, let’s “move on” by acknowledging the ban was a mistake, just as the race essay strongly suggests it was. That would be “moving on”.
The only folks who can’t seem to “move on” are those like the writer of this manual, who can’t seem to resist holding on to noxious ideas from the past.
Why is it so important to you for it to be a “mistake”? What does it give you or establish for you?
Bishops, RS presidents, EQ presidents, Primary presidents, Laurel presidents, stake presidents all are allowed latitude in making decisions. Does the Lord sustain them? Yes. Do they make mistakes? Yes. Will the Lord be able to turn their decisions into something good? Yes. Suppose they follow the Spirit when recommending someone to a calling, and — for whatever reason — the person bails. Guess what? You have to just deal with it and move on. Why was the leader moved on to make that decision? Time may tell. The Lord doesn’t always tip his hand to everyone.
There are unanswered or unanswerable questions.
I appreciate this article very much. It explains the difficulty that church leaders have had with owning their doctrine. They seem to put the onus on we–the members–to determine what is and what is not doctrine; but it would be better if they just clearly stated it, similar to other churches. Too often we’re left guessing what is policy, what is doctrine, and I’d like to see that improve. Another difficult issue are the scriptures that discuss whiteness. In the 19th and throughout much of the 20th c. leaders taught that when black folks joined the church their skin would get whiter. They used this in both a spiritual sense (i.e., their souls would be cleansed from sin) and a literal, physical sense (i.e., their skin would actually change to a lighter shade, even white). Obviously the church doesn’t teach this today, but many, many leaders taught this for years.
It appears church wants to be vague about the origin of the priesthood ban. It’s a carefully worded equivocation as opposed to a carefully worded denial.
Check out Jana Reiss’s article “Watch the Mormon Seminary Curriculum Change Before Your Very Eyes” on religiousnews.com. Church committees still struggle with this. Why does this remind me of politicians in denial?