The LDS Church recently added a new page titled Race and the Priesthood to their website under the Gospel Topics section. It is by far the most informative piece the Church has released on the subject. And even though it is tucked away neatly on LDS.org, it has set the Internet on fire.
Now, if you didn’t already know, this subject is a sensitive one for me. I have written about blacks and the priesthood/temple ban here, here, here and here. While I really do think that the Church’s new release is a big step in the right direction, it’s evolution is still troubling to me.
“At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church”
– Official Statement, “Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God”, LDS Newsroom
“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.”
– Introduction, Official Declaration 2
“In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood”
– Race and the Priesthood, lds.org
Here’s a quick rundown of how things evolved in the less than a two-year time period shown above:
- “It is not know precisely why, how or when…” to
- “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins…” to
- “In 1852 Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black…”
The February and March statements were labeled by many as good steps forward. When I was critical about the change in the scriptures back in March I got pushback from many who said that it was a positive step and I should just ignore what was missing. But I couldn’t let it go because I knew that the Church knew!! And so now we have this new Gospel Topics page, just nine months later, leaving the scripture update looking pitiful, lacking, and empty. Which raises the question: did the Church really not know in February of 2012 why the ban happened? How about in March of 2013? Did they all of sudden discover all of the things revealed in the new web page over the last nine months? It is simply not possible. The next question is whether or not the Church will stop the printing of the new scriptures to reinsert a new introduction to the Official Declaration 2? Stop the presses!!
You can play with the language all you want or do the mental gymnastics to justify the statements, but the bottom line is clear to me – if you want to know something for yourself, you simply cannot rely on the institution. Why can’t we rely on the institution? Because any institution is about survival. The purpose of an institution is “to maintain themselves with a minimum of disorder” (The Institutional Church and the Individual, J. Bonner Ritchie). I really think that if you want to know truth, you have to roll up your sleeves, dig in, research issues out yourself, and find truth wherever it may lie – in or out of the institution.
“Every church member has not only the opportunity, right, and privilege to receive a personal witness regarding gospel principles and Church practices, but has the need and obligation to obtain such assurance by exercising his free agency, thereby fulfilling one’s purpose of his mortal probation.” (Elder Poelman, October General Conference 1984)
Now the gospel, on the other hand, is not about survival but is about helping and loving people. One must separate the gospel from the institution.
“There is a distinction between them which is significant and it is very important that this distinction be understood…Failure to distinguish between the two and to comprehend their proper relationship may lead to confusion and misplaced priorities with unrealistic and therefore failed expectations.” (Elder Poelman, October General Conference 1984)
(And yes I see the irony of quoting an Elder Poelman talk that was later heavily redacted by the institution.)
For me, the Church (institution) is a means to an end. It provides me with a solid community where I can serve and love. But again, because humans are involved with the institution there will always be room for error and people will get hurt. “All organizations are immoral, the only question is the degree.” (J. Bonner Ritchie—On Organizations, Individuals, and Pillars of Thoughtful Faith)
As we move forward, what can the Church do better? I want to share a paragraph from the Church’s new Gospel Topics page as a starting point:
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
Even after this strong statement there are still members (I have talked to them) that think the ban wasn’t racist, and some still think that God was behind the ban. Members believe that prophets can make mistakes, but somehow they can never lead us astray – not a lot of wiggle room there. In my opinion, the only way we can stop people from feeling the need to continually defend our racist past is through the following:
- Admit our leaders were wrong about the ban.
- Admit the leaders taught incorrect doctrine to which backed a racist policy. (See First Presidency message 1949)
- Apologize for the hurt these teachings caused.
- Come out with a statement regarding racist scriptures that are in our canon.
That last one could be a little tricky, but this quote from a past member of the Quorum of the Twelve, John Widstoe, could get the ball rolling in the right direction:
“The message of the scriptures is divine; the words in which it is clothed are human. Failure to make this distinction has led to much misunderstanding. Intelligent readers will separate the message of the scripture from its form of presentation. . . . Especially is it necessary in reading the scriptures to place oneself in the position of the people, thousands of years ago, for whom the writings were made. The customs, habits, and possessions of the people of that day are of necessity reflected in the expositions of the revelations of the Lord to His children on earth.”
Carrying out those four steps would certainly leave no doubt in the membership that God is not racist and that he loves ALL his children in EVERY time period. These steps would also confirm President Uchtdorf’s words that things were “said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” (Come Join With Us, Uchtdorf)
Even though the Church has made great strides in revealing our history, I’m still bugged when the institution acts like an institution. Stop hiding it and just come out with it already!! Let’s rip this band-aid off quick because it is pulling every arm hair that I have!!
DO IT, DO IT, DO IT!
Bravo! Well done.
You have successfully laid out a lot of the ideas that I have had swirling around in my mind the past few days but have not been able to articulate very well. Thank you.
I’m confused. I don’t see any contradiction in those three statements. I just stuck the three together and got this:
At some point early in its history, the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church, and Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. However, in 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced it.
What’s weird about that?
Yes and that’s why the Church has lawyers and a PR Department right?
The first two statements give no indication of who, how or when. They leave it purposefully open as to not throw anyone under the bus. PS there is no HOWEVER in any of those statements.
The new essay completely contradicts the first two statements! It outlines the origins of the ban and the who, how, when very clearly. Nine months ago it was all a great mystery.
I’m glad you brought the institution/individual tension up. That’s an important concept for anyone living in a world full of large organizations. Other ways of learning about that tension can be found by watching “The Wire” TV show or the early Kubrick film “Paths of Glory.” We need to learn how to protect ourselves from the grinding indifferent wheels of institutions.
Now to the “mental gymnastics” (as you might call it; I’m going to keep calling it “providing a reasonable interpretation in good faith to the statements of others”.)
“It is not known precisely why” is not the same as saying “There is a complete lack of historical facts from which conclusions could be inferred.” The keyword here is _precisely_.
“Church records offer no clear insights into the origins” is not the same as saying “Church records offer no trail of evidence leading anywhere near the origin of the doctrine/policy.” The key words here are _clear_ and _origin_.
Let me know if you think I should consider the two different versions are equivalent. I think you might be presuming them to be equivalent for this article because you say this: “But I couldn’t let it go because I knew that the Church knew”
How can you be so sure that the church knows clearly or precisely what the origins are for the priesthood ban. Many certainly appreciate their willingness to share the historical facts that have been collected on the topic, but the facts shared seem to fall short of being inconsistent with those previous statements on the subject. Thanks for reading.
Not knowing precisely… Yes they didn’t know the exact date or the minute or the hour – that means they didn’t know, right? What did they know? It started under Brigham’s watch and he made it official. I know that’s not precisely, and that’s exactly what the lawyers and the committee who wrote it were going for – it’s the truth, but conveniently not the whole truth.
I agree that the wording of the new Intro to Declaration #2 was chosen to cast as much haze over the origins of the ban as lawyer-ly possible. Yes, the authors of the new intro did not outright lie because those things are hard to know *precisely*. But Paul is right that a whole lot is/was known about this–the authors deliberately chose to emphasize what is *not* known and they could have just as easily discussed those things that are known with reasonable certainty. They hid a whole bunch under the phrasing emphasis (the word *precisely*). While I think the church (as individuals and institution) generally is trying to CTR, I see this as an amazing lawyer-speak success, and at the same time a huge failure in being straightforward–a missed opportunity, really.
There’s some lawyer-speak in the “Race and Priesthood” statement, too: “the Church disavows the *theories* advanced in the past” (emphasis added). So what exactly was disavowed? What is theory and what is doctrine and what is official doctrine in relationship to the Priesthood ban? This ambiguous phrasing explains why some members can easily still support the ban as being God’s will, while others so readily see it as being a complete condemnation of the ban–we are each applying our own interpretation as to what was theory and what was revelation or what was official doctrine/scripture.
Paul is right, IMHO: additional revelation/clarity/apology is still very much needed to make this right.
Thanks for commenting and I’m glad you liked the institution part.
Personally, I think the whatever committee put the successive statements together seemed to feel they had to ease the membership into it rather than soaking everyone the the naked truth right at first. I don’t think any of those statements is meant to be the end of story. I do feel a little bad that the leadership thinks us so fragile, or more likely, their authority so tenuous as to have to sugar coat but I don’t think their intentions are nefarious. A little study of D&C 121 would would be good for these folks, just to help them remember where real authority comes from.
Which is irrelevant. In 1852 there was a public announcement of it, but wasn’t when it started, that isn’t the origin of it. It was in place (although not announced) before 1852 and the records of the Church don’t give a clear picture of when or how it started. Don’t be so eager to find fault that you start seeing things that are just not there.
Could they have been more clear? The first statements sound like they didn’t know anything and was carefully worded by lawyers. When did it start? With Brigham Young. That’s all they needed to say. The first two statements are lawyer speak and disingenuous.
They hid a whole bunch under the phrasing emphasis (the word *precisely*). It was the emphasis and what they deemphasis that I find troubling and lawyer-isk
Perhaps the reason so many people have so many interpretations of the statement is due in large part to the authorship there of. Were this read in sacrament meeting or if it was posted on the front page of LDS.org and had the FP’s signature, there would be answers to many of the questions people are raising. I have no proof of course, but I read the three statements you mention as slowly building to what we have now. If the momentum for answers stops, this is all we will have. However, I would assume the momentum is there as the statements show a progression that has no option but to answer questions. There is probably more to come and we will look at this statement as equally vague as the previous ones. The bandaid analogy is great. It is not all the way off yet despite what some may think.
It gradual isn’t it! They have a lot of work to do!