Sunday, October 12, 2008

Faith and Race

It seems to me that in the past several months my faith has been called into question more than ever before. It seems like every week I randomly encounter someone who has something to say about what I believe and how misguided I am. I'd like to think it is because God has great things in store for me and Satan is working hard on bringing me down. That may be a little presumptuous, huh?

In any case, tonight my sister called me and told me about a fireside she went to, in which the topic of "blacks and the priesthood" was discussed. For the random person reading this blog that previous sentence would be understandably weird. So for a point of reference, I will tell you that I am Mormon, and until 1978 the church, while granting blacks full membership, denied black men the ability to hold the priesthood. This has bred much controversy and misunderstanding from black people and members of the church alike. Up until tonight I had no idea of what the real story was. So....back to my sister. She was confused after leaving the fireside. She didn't know what to think. It was a church sponsored event in which church scholars came and spoke and basically said that the church's position on blacks in the priesthood was indicative of the prevailing thoughts and inclinations of the leadership of the day. Not the less valiant in the pre-existence, or descendants of Cain, or Ham myths that so readily find their way through our culture.

I went online and found some good resources. The website is a cool site that has an extensive side by side time line of US and LDS black history. I also read an intriguing article by Renee Olson a black Mormon convert who started out anti-Mormon. This article is what prompted this blog. Which is saying something considering I haven't written since February.

Her tone was very conversational. She spoke of strong black members of the church, even those that were ordained to the priesthood in the time of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young before and during the ban. Men and women who astonishingly remained faithful even until death. (A myth often perpetuated is that Joseph Smith stripped Elijah Abel of the priesthood once learning of a ban. Not so, Elijah died a faithful priesthood holder in Utah and even helped on the construction of the Salt Lake temple) The validity of the ban was questioned many times throughout church history but it seemed to be put on the back burner. In either case, the Lord allowed it to continue for some reason. Olsen suggests that it may have been because the Lord knew he could count on black people to come through in the end. They had already been through countless trials and tribulations including the horrors of slavery. She may be right. There are thousands of faithful black latter day saints. I recommend reading the last section of Olsen's article entitled "Moving Forward" which is what touched me the most.

I'm not prideful enough to think I know God's intentions or his reasons for doing things the way he does. But I do know that despite the foibles of humanity, the revelations from God to his apostles are real. God uses imperfect beings to relay his perfect message. I suppose some would say that this should weaken my faith or cause me to doubt. But these things do not change the Gospel message. Christ came to this earth. He died for us. Through Him we can return to live with our Heavenly Father. Living the gospel helps me understand the plan of salvation (Who I am, why am I here, and where am I going when I die), eternal families, mercy, joy, love. It makes me a better person. It gives me a personal relationship with Chirst and my Father in Heaven.

Dr. A.F. Mensah of Ghana found a missionary tract and recieved an answer from God that no man or science book could cause him to doubt. He knew the truth, despite the ban, despite constant opposition, despite what the world and those more "enlightened" than him would say, he stood firm in the higher truth that God had given him.

Ok...time for bed.


Michael Paul Bailey said...

I have a few problems with the whole blacks and the priesthood thing.

1. According to Spencer W. Kimball, the denial of priesthood rights to those of black descent was something that could only be changed through revelation. If that is the case, why is there no record of a revelation declaring that blacks cannot hold the priesthood? In fact, Joseph Smith even appeared to be confused and unsure if there was a restriction or not.

By that same token, if there was a revelation forbidding it, then why did the church ordain some black members to the priesthood (like the aforementioned Elijah Abel)? If God had truly forbidden it, then why permit it? Was there a revelation that Elijah Abel should receive the priesthood? If so, where is the record of said revelation.

Ultimately, it was probably a policy (which is now claimed by most Mormon leaders and apologists). If that is the case, why did they need a revelation? Policies are called policies because they are determined by men, under inspiration not revelation from God. Also, if a revelation was necessary, why did the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold votes on a few occasions on whether or not to repeal the ban?

2. You make mention of "...the less valiant in the pre-existence, or descendants of Cain, or Ham myths that so readily find their way through our culture." One must ask themselves from whence these myths originated. The answer is pretty easy to find. These myths originated over the pulpit from the mouths of church leaders and from the Book of Abraham. I am concerned that these ideas are being implied by many to have originated from the Mormon rumor mill. That's just not true.

So, are these teachings from Brigham Young and the like no longer true? Were they ever true? Were they just his opinion?

3. What are we to make of the clear racism that permeated the Mormon leadership in the 19th century and even (to a lesser degree) in the 20th century? What are we to make of Brigham Young's claim that those who racially intermarry should be killed on the spot, and other hateful teachings? I would also note that these teachings are not invented or taken out of context, they are very well documented. I encourage you to take a peek.

Will said...

I figured that since you are the only one faithfully subscribed to my sporadic and inconsistent blog that you would respond.

I must say after reading several more articles on the subject over the past couple days I almost feel a sense of relief. The whole issue of blacks and the priesthood is one of those things that just never sat well, it just never had a satisfactory explanation. It seemed to be one of those things that could only be understood with a lot of prayer and study that I didn't have the time to do. Now, I feel as if my eyes have been opened. There are many cultural things that members of the church hold on to because it's just easier for them to do so. It's almost a way of living the Mosaic law. A set list of things to do, and believe and check off in order to obtain exaltation. This is most likely the reason why Born Again Christians hold fast to the idea that we believe we can work our way into heaven. The first thing I thought of was my sister's music. She sings positive music, most of it contains religious themes and even mentions God and Christ. She is often shunned by Evangelicals because she is LDS. But more interesting is the opposition she receives from LDS people. Somewhere along the road the notion that any music outside of our own that says Jesus or God, especially music with any kind of contemporary beat or rhythm, is bad or irreverent. Why? How could it possibly be bad? Equally fascinating is the acceptance, by these same people, of secular music with disgusting lyrics and suggestive themes. I feel it is a cultural thing that has been embedded into them.

The first point you made was regarding the lack of a revelation instituting the ban on blacks holding the priesthood. From what I've read and what makes sense to me is that there was no revelation. It was indeed a policy. Interestingly, it appears as if Joseph Smith was not of this persuasion which is why he ordained Elijah Abel, and even ran for president on an anti-slavery platform. As for the the 12 voting on the matter, I feel that was decribed well by Armand L. Mauss in this article: Better than I could explain it anyway.

Your second point speaks of where the alternate explanations originated. Frankly, no one can deny these explanations came from the leaders of the church over the pulpit at General Conference and from misguided Sunday School teachers. That sucks. But like I said it's almost liberating to know that. It's like: Ok, now we can move on, we can accept this and get past this instead of trying to find ways to explain it.

I quote Bruce R. McConkie: "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… 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. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year [1978]. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this
subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the
gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles"

The author of the article that I pulled that quote from goes on to describe how the apostles of Christ's day believed that circumcision was required to become Christian. That belief persisted and was voted on and discussed amongst the ancient 12 for some time.

I suppose I just go back to the statement in my original post that God uses imperfect people to perform His will.

#3 Ultimately, the racism was just that, racism. The aforementioned article does a decent job of explaining how that fits into the history of the church. And there are a bunch of other good articles on there as well.

I think in the end it comes down to the gospel message. I just believe it to be true. But I think this has helped me to understand that the practice of my faith and my religion needs to be a personal devotion, not a check list of right and wrong. I feel that I've taken the path of least resistance for a long time. Which is what I think what most people in the church do. It's easier to believe in something that is infallible, so let's make it so and ignore any evidence to the contrary seems to be the prevailing thought.

I'm OK with the fact that God uses imperfect people who make mistakes. The scriptures are full examples where this was the case. So if we have living prophets in this dispensation (which I believe we do) then they inevitably would be fall victim to the same frailties.

In any case, thanks for responding.

Michael Paul Bailey said...

You make a lot of good points. I may not completely agree, but I respect your views and see them as quite reasonable.


You quote Elder McConkie as saying, "It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year [1978]." The problem with that statement is that it does matter, because many people suffered because of those teachings, and continue to suffer. I understand what he is trying to say, that we should ignore those teachings. The problem though is that such teachings did actual real damage to people. The teaching of circumcision didn't do much real damage (apart from... well... you know).

There's another worrying implication of Elder McConkie's words. What of the church's current stance on homosexuality, especially Prop 8? I see a direct analogy. Perhaps the current leadership of the church is wrong and require more enlightenment. And yet we will accept everything they say as the word of God, but at what cost? What happens if fifty years from now the church reverses its teaching there? Many would say, "Of course they won't." Well, people said the same thing about blacks and the priesthood.

D&C 1:38 states, "...whether by my own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same." What are we to make of that scripture? When Brigham Young taught these teachings was he wrong? Was he violating God's trust? When can we know that a prophet is speaking the truth and when he isn't? Is it by the spirit? If so, why didn't people know that Brigham Young was wrong? I'm quite confident that teaching against blood atonement or his other incorrect teachings would have gotten you excommunicated. But now we believe those teachings to be false.

Ultimately, what I would love to see in the church is people's views towards the prophet change. We are encouraged to believe him in every word. Take N. Eldon Tanner's famous quote, "When the prophet speaks, the debate is over." This is the sort of attitude that is expected out of members. I would love to see this change such that people respect the prophets and apostles as wise men who have a special relationship to God, but no more than that. I would love to see members start thinking for themselves rather than immediately obeying whatever the leaders tell them to do. It is clear from the history that even what the prophet teaches over the pulpit at General Conference may not be correct. So let's all use our own brains and own hearts rather than blindly accepting whatever they say.

That is something that would make me happy, and even consider coming back to church, to be completely honest.

BrettM said...

Good stuff, you guys. Good stuff.

Nathan said...

Hey doods!

It seems to me that this topic really involves three different questions: (1) Was the priesthood restriction begun by inspired revelation? (2) Was the priesthood restriction maintained by inspired revelation? and (3) Were the explanations frequently given for the priesthood restriction inspired by revelation?

1. The answer to the first question seems up in the air. Many revelations weren't written down, especially in Joseph Smith's day. But still, President Kimball allowed for the possibility that there was a misunderstanding.

“The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that he will do, I am sure. These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.”
(Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982])

2. The answer to the second question is an unequivocable, "Yes." Whether you believe the restriction originated through revelation or misinterpretation, at some point the Lord did command his prophets to not ordain or endow black saints (see also this article). That's one reason why it took a revelation to end the restriction.

“It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.”
(First Presidency statement, 17 Aug. 1949)

3. The answer to the third question is no, the explanations were not revealed doctrine. David O. McKay specifically said the Lord had not revealed his reasons, and Dallin H. Oaks emphasized that it's more important to put our faith in the commandment itself than in the reasons we sometimes come up with for the commandment.

“Negroes … were not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.”
(First Presidency letter, 15 Dec. 1969)

“If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, ‘Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,’ you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It's not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reason to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we're on our own. Some people put reasons to the one we're talking about here, and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that. The lesson I've drawn from that [is that] I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.

[Follow-up question: "Are you referring to reasons given even by general authorities?"]

“Sure. I'm referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon that reason by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking. . . . Let's don't make the mistake that's been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that's where safety lies.”
(Dallin H. Oaks, interview, Provo Daily Herald, 5 Jun. 1988, p. 21; cited)

Viper: What of the Church's current stance on homosexuality, especially Prop 8? I see a direct analogy.

That parallel has occurred to me, too. But it seems to me like there are some pretty clear differences. For one thing, it was always prophesied that blacks would receive the priesthood some day. It’s never been prophesied that homosexual acts would some day be authorized.

The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”
(Wilford Woodruff, quoted in the following statement)

“They are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.”
(First Presidency statement, 17 Aug. 1949)

Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the Priesthood.”
(David O. McKay, source)

“The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy.”
(Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982])

“Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God's eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood …”
(Official Declaration 2)

For another thing, imposing, altering, and rescinding lineage requirements for the priesthood has happened before (the firstborn son in Adam’s day, descendants of Aaron in Moses’s day, and no lineage requirements in Peter’s day). The Lord has altered marriage forms before, but even in polygamy, chaste sexual acts have always been between one man and one woman.

Also, there are several examples of exceptions to every lineage requirement in each age (Ephraim was not a firstborn, Joshua was not a Levite, and Elijah Abel was black). The Lord has never made exceptions to sexual acts only being performed between a man and a woman who are married.

I can see how at first it might look like there’s a parallel between the priesthood restriction and the same-sex marriage debate, but given the eternal nature of gender and marriage and the surrounding doctrines, they don’t seem like very similar issues to me. But that’s just me.

Will said...

Thank you for the obvious time you put into your response Nathan.

You bring up some great points, and I like how you broke it down. thanks again.