It has now been 9 years since I first listened to the Mormon Stories podcast with Darius Gray and Margaret Young on blacks and the priesthood and temple ban. In it they put the priesthood ban into context of the surrounding culture. I learned that in the beginning, there was no ban, not while Joseph Smith was alive. I learned that the ban started under Brigham Young and came in increments. I learned we are really missing any smoking gun revelation from God instructing that it be so. I learned that many justifications that I grew up hearing, namely a curse as descendants of Cain, in my isolated whiter than white small Idaho hometown were related to the same folklore white protestants used to justify slavery and then adapted to the priesthood ban. It was a revelation to me. For the very first time I had an answer that made the slightest bit of sense to THE question about the church that had always most bothered me. Two years ago, much of this same information was put into the chapter heading of Official Declaration 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants and a year later went even further in the essay on the lds.org website. That podcast was wonderful and terrible at the same time. It gave me answers and opened my eyes and simultaneously shook the foundations of my idea of prophets, revelation and divine direction of the Church right to the core. It launched a whole new faith journey in which old understandings were torn apart and new ones had to be built up in their place. Never again could I accept the model of everything the Prophet says as being inspired. Never again could it be as simple as God’s mouth to the prophets ear. As I have mentioned before, I am able to say I came through this journey remaining a believer. I can honestly say I think I have a deeper and richer faith. However, it has been a monumental task to square the idea of a church led by God with a policy that was so very horribly wrong for 130 years. If it weren’t, I don’t think so many would still be throwing God under the bus, claiming he obviously did it and the reasons are his alone. This gets at a foundational issue of how we members generally understand and visualize the church today. Allow me to share my insight, weak and imperfect as it may be.
When the children of Israel were led out of Egypt into the wilderness they were full of incorrect ideas gleaned from their surroundings. God had a law to give them but we read they were just not prepared for it. So they wandered for 40 years, until the entire first generation, including the prophet Moses himself included, all passed the way of the world. Only then could they reach the promised land. The priesthood and temple ban lasted a lot longer than a generation. Because it was labeled over time as doctrine and “the will of God” it lasted a lot longer than it should have. It took the civil rights era led by its own kind of prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a kind of Samuel the Lamanite, to help bring America to its senses and become at least a little better than it was. He did so as apostle Ezra Taft Benson labeled him a communist. While Elder Benson was one of the 15 who saw fit to overturn the ban in what is described as a pentacostal temple experience, many others had to die before it could happen. It took a good deal longer for the Church to find its own truth and start the road to believing its own doctrine, that man shall be punished for his own sins and not Adam’s, nor Cain’s transgression. White America and the Church both have yet to come to grips with their racist foundations. As much as we would like it to be, racism is not dead in America and we are still complicit in it to some degree every day. My soul cries out still, wondering why, WHY couldn’t God just straighten out Brigham Young or any of his successors for over a hundred years? I don’t want to diminish those who struggle with that question. I am still wrestling with it. The truth is that while I don’t think they would have heard him, the membership was equally as racist. There are some things that come from the prophet that, as much as we proclaim belief in them, we just aren’t willing to hear. President Spencer W Kimball spoke of our reliance on missiles and tanks as a false God, and yet it did not take hold of the saints. The large majority of us are Republican and believe in a very strong military an exceptional America that can do what it wants because it is an infallible beacon of freedom to the world. He told us not to harm God’s creatures and yet many still hunt. As much as we want to believe our doctrine is top down, often it is bottom up. There is a back and forth and a dialogue between the membership and the leadership that shapes what the church is. We still have not come to terms with our collective sins. I believe until we do that together, we will still be wandering in the wilderness. It seems to me there may just need to be a generation that passes the way of the world before we really can enter the promised land.
I believe part of the reason we want God making all the decision for the church and revealing all we need to know is because it absolves us of the work of finding truth for ourselves. It absolves us of the need to ask questions and questing for ourselves to find God. For those that are disillusioned, it absolves them of any responsibility for believing things that turned out to be untrue. The truth is, our efforts to find truth will always be clumsy. It is far too easy to lift our silly mortal selves, so much a product of our own culture, above the prophets once we learn that their revelation and truth record is not spotless. I wonder if the reason we don’t lead on social issues is because we are just as stubborn as the Israelites coming out of Egypt. We are too sure of our status as a chosen people to ever consider ourselves on the wrong side of an issue and so prophets like MLK and Samuel the Lamanite will of necessity have to come from the outside unto us. Yet, I still dream of a day when we somehow cleanse the inner vessel. I dream of a day when we finally come out of the desert of the American West and realize the possibilities of a truly integrated worldwide church. I dream of the day when we are ready to receive new light and knowledge and so it bursts forth. You can call me naïve, cheesy, revisionist, apostate, “not in line with church teachings” or anything else you’d like. I remain an idealist. Through everything I’ve learned, this remains my hope and faith.
Thank you for the lovely post. I struggle with members who want to pin injustice on God (or the premortal life, or any other unknowable explanation that somehow justifies injustice). I’m glad to hear others voice believing views that also recognize our own fallibility. We all need to do better at admitting our own unpreparedness/unwillingness to hear God’s calls to compassion, mercy, and justice.
I have wondered before who are the Samuel the Lamanites for our generation of Latter-day Saints. I still wonder it, and appreciate that I am not alone in looking for them. Thanks for this reflection on Mormonism, racism, and prophets, Jeremy.
Thank you. That was very well stated and I will ponder it.
This was awesome Jeremy
This is an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing. I, however, struggle with the concept of the followers leading the leaders especially when the leaders censor, punish, etc. the followers for advocating the change that the leaders eventually accept all while claiming credit, inspiration, revelation for the progress. The following article at LDS.org is an example:
I believe adding women to the executive councils of the church would not have happened were it not for the agitation of Ordain Women, etc.
This was beautiful. Thank you!
one of the best posts I’ve read I a while…thanks for sharing Jeremy. It’s written in a way makes it “shareable”:-)
Wonderful essay Jeremy. Your article makes so many excellent points I feel awkward disputing the one that I don’t agree with. I believe if God, or even an angel with a sword, had appeared to President Young or President Grant, the the policy would have been changed. They weren’t dodos.
I agree God or an angel with a sword could have straightened him out as well. The bigger and harder question is why God didn’t. While I know my answer will be inadequate for many, it appears to me that on this one, God was willing to let us wander in the wilderness. I think it may have been because changing the racist hearts of an entire people is more difficult than sending an angel with a sword, polygamy parallel notwithstanding.
Yes the censoring is a problem and the leadership far too conveniently takes credit for changes they long fought against, but the fact remains that those changes WERE made and I, like you, believe it was because of leaders taking their cue from the membership.
Well written and packed full of insights. Thanks!