If you have any copies of McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, please burn it. Now. Don’t let your kids near it. If you have Joseph Fielding Smith’s Answers to Gospel Questions series, burn that as well. In fact there’s a lot of material authored by LDS “authorities,” in the past that have just become not just dated, but officially shameful and embarrassing.
And that’s a good thing.
In the commercial media’s news cycle, nobody watches on weekends, so if a major public player wants to pretend to be open and “transparent,” yet not have anyone see what scandal or goof-up they’re “exposing,” they release the news on Friday afternoon. It makes a splash on the 6:00 news but everyone is out partying and never sees it. They might get some re-hash over the weekend on the car radio driving between the cabin up north and the ballgame, but by Monday it’s all ancient history and nobody is interested.
Likewise, the LDS church released this official statement on race and the priesthood on 10 December, 2013, in the middle of the holiday hustle and bustle. It made the local news in Provo, but out here in the hinterlands, where the bulk of the church now resides and expands, very few of us got a whiff of it, and then only those plugged into the internet. The entire two or three generations of Utah-folklore-era Mormons who really needed to hear it on this day, 2o January 2014, Dr. Martin Luther King Day, are indignantly and forcefully protesting it’s existence. Yet here it is in summary:
During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.9 According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel.10 Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin. Black servitude was sometimes viewed as a second curse placed upon Noah’s grandson Canaan as a result of Ham’s indiscretion toward his father.11 Although slavery was not a significant factor in Utah’s economy and was soon abolished, the restriction on priesthood ordinations remained.
The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.13
By the late 1940s and 1950s, racial integration was becoming more common in American life. Church President David O. McKay emphasized that the restriction extended only to men of black African descent. The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood and instituted missionary work among them. In South Africa, President McKay reversed a prior policy that required prospective priesthood holders to trace their lineage out of Africa.14
Nevertheless, given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy, and they made ongoing efforts to understand what should be done. After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.15
Brazil in particular presented many challenges. Unlike the United States and South Africa where legal and de facto racism led to deeply segregated societies, Brazil prided itself on its open, integrated, and mixed racial heritage. In 1975, the Church announced that a temple would be built in São Paulo, Brazil. As the temple construction proceeded, Church authorities encountered faithful black and mixed-ancestry Mormons who had contributed financially and in other ways to the building of the São Paulo temple, a sanctuary they realized they would not be allowed to enter once it was completed. Their sacrifices, as well as the conversions of thousands of Nigerians and Ghanaians in the 1960s and early 1970s, moved Church leaders.19
Church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings. In June 1978, after “spending many hours in the Upper Room of the [Salt Lake] Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,” Church President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors in the First Presidency, and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a revelation. “He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come,” the First Presidency announced on June 8. The First Presidency stated that they were “aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us” that “all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood.”20 The revelation rescinded the restriction on priesthood ordination. It also extended the blessings of the temple to all worthy Latter-day Saints, men and women. The First Presidency statement regarding the revelation was canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2.
Soon after the revelation, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, spoke of new “light and knowledge” that had erased previously “limited understanding.”22
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.23
The church has also released this statement to make the same point:
“The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”
I’m part of the first LDS generation who never bought into the “less valiant” pre-mortal warrior excuses for banning black priesthood holders, nor believed that the “mark of Cain” was anything but the mark of protection the scriptures clearly denote it to be. Sadly, I’m directing this argument particularly at Latter-day Saints, but the bulk of that congregation will blindly accept these changes (once it is proved some “authority” in the church is compelling them to do so) without wasting any amount of intellectual pondering or research on that decision. For far too many Mormons the doctrines themselves or the principles behind them are far less important than a warm cheery glow and the belief that if they do what they are told they will inherit the Celestial Kingdom. They seem to forget that the “Glory of God is Intelligence.”
I won’t go over all my old ground here by rehashing material thoroughly hashed in previous essays. But it is rewarding to spend as much time and thought and prayerful research putting my own troubled impressions regarding such a sensitive, volatile, and crucial topic into so many pages of forceful reasoning, only to have “the Brethren” in their more subdued fashion essentially agree with all my various arguments, officially, and in public. They have the advantage of simply reversing themselves un-dramatically from the bully-pulpit of prophetic and ecclesiastical seniority. I on the other hand have had to argue my arse off, and consequently my presentation of these questions are far less “cool” calm and collected.
Rank has its privileges. And I don’t have any of either.
I have to admit I often wonder what sort of trouble I’m getting myself into authoring these explorations. And the subject of Mormon racial policy is one of the most troubling “policies” I’ve felt obligated to deal with in this ongoing serial tome. It’s with a sigh of relief that I can now feel I have been sound and justified in essentially every position I’ve taken on the several related subjects included in the church’s longstanding Negroid priesthood restriction “policy.” And there have indeed been many connected doctrinal links forged and partially forged that have been weakened by this silly policy. Related concepts include Mormonism’s doctrinal schizophrenia on the notion of “Papal Infallibility,” as it applies to its “Prophets,” and the resulting squishy Mormon definition of “doctrine,” verses “policy.” Also related is the general need for harmonization of Utah Folk-Doctrines like the Negro priesthood ban, that were never actually canonized or even outlined in scripture, with other, conflicting, absolutely fixed and canonical doctrines like the innocence of all mankind at birth, the denunciation of “Original Sin”–the second Article of Faith:
We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
And also, the “Negro” question is entwined with the popular LDS notion that any single, even mid-level Mormon “authority,” for all practical purposes can promote his personal gospel insight as if it were canon. Dozens of solo-acts out of the General Authorities and others have put forth apologetic rationale for instance, attempting to reconcile Brigham Young’s pre-mortal sentence of 2nd class Mormonship to the “Negro” with clear statements of faith like the 2nd Article of Faith, or:
33 For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he ainviteth them ballto ccome unto him and partake of his goodness; and he ddeniethnone that come unto him, black and white, ebond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the fheathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
And you must understand the church’s 10 December statement in this context: that whoever or whenever in the past LDS authorities have promoted notions of a pre-mortal lack of committment that somehow finds these pre-mortal spirit slackers volunteering to come down as Negroes in a sort-of “trainee” position, they have been pulling that crap straight out of their backsides. There is not now or has there ever been anything in the LDS canon that even suggests that theory. There has never been any canonical source enforcing a priesthood restriction on the Negro, nor any connected waiting period till some distant eternity in which they are finally cleared for liftoff into Celestial, priesthood glory. All of the LDS canon expressly denounces any such notion.
Complicating these sorts of questions, is the unwritten law against one LDS “authority” criticizing another LDS “authority,” even if, as Dallin Oaks has said without a hint of sarcasm or subtle nod to the irony of it, “the criticism is true.” Hidden in that statement however, is the crafty, carefully obfuscated admission that sometimes criticism of LDS leaders is valid.
And obviously, weaving rationally and calmly through controversial doctrinal issues is only hindered by the contention by current authorities that it doesn’t matter what past authorities have said because current authorities speak living scripture that supersedes past living scripture, so the notion of “sustaining” current leadership therefore means anyone with any criticism of one or all of them on any given point is engaged in devilish contention designed to divide and destroy the Saints.
About the time I started this project, President Dieter F Uchtdorf became the face of the Monson-era LDS church. He has mentioned in several public addresses that it is indeed the “Brethren’s” job to sort out the Utah-culture folklore and pioneer bigotry from the actual canon doctrine of the church. (But never so directly or in those words of course…) Currently, Uchtdorf seems to be the go-to-GA when it comes to softening the blow of confessing LDS prophetic fallibility in general, and accepting the sometimes probing and “irreverent” examination of LDS leadership past and present by folks like me:
“Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple,” he said.
“Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past,” he said. “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”
He added that while God is perfect, God “works through us, his imperfect children.”
Uchtdorf also said:
We respect those who honestly search for truth…
Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.
My mission statement in this matter particularly, is directed at active LDS membership. In this context, occasionally, I’ve been very snidely treated by those who’ve written my efforts here off as ignorant, opinionated and self-serving. Such observations usually come from Mormon “establishment” apologists who see themselves and their work as “scholarly” and “important.” One of these jibes came notably from one particular pseudo-intellectual historical revisionist from the staff of the resurrected version of the once-notoriously racist Juvenile Instructor:
Not every young Mormon “scholar” cares to trade party-line pap for higher criticism. President Uchtdorf agrees:
“It’s natural to have questions — the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding,” he said. “There are few members of the church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.”
Regardless of one’s circumstances, personal history or strength of faith, he said, “there is room for you in this church.”
That means me too.
I think this statement of 10 December 2013 denouncing all previous versions of the LDS position on the Negro or “Curse of Cain” legacy, represents the first of many such clarifications of past Mormon “policy” or “folk doctrine. I believe it is one of the first steps in the establishment of a more clear doctrinal canon on many such previously popular Mormon cultural beliefs, many of which made perfect sense to pioneer Victorians, were clung to out of sheer tradition and inbred cultural bigotry in the big Mormon bunker of the Wasatch Front, and have yet to be seriously questioned.
Central to understanding the many interlaced troubles of making corrections on past doctrinal positions, is the perception of the general Mormon population that the way church “doctrine” comes into being is anything any General Authority says or writes at any time. This is again, unfortunately, at least until very recently, has been entirely reinforced by General Authorities of the day through several past generations.
There isn’t a serious Mormon scholar who will deny that even the Doctrine and Covenants was edited and massaged by Joseph Smith upon review of the first editing and whole paragraphs were edited, added, and word meanings changed in the process. If you’re a believer you take the prophet Joseph at his word and say he was correcting errors made by scribes and clarifying wording to better convey the intent of the revelation. He can do that. He’s the prophet. He’s the one giving the dictation. If you’re a Mormon detractor you’ll just say he was creatively backtracking on words allegedly sent from the very lips of God. But of course, this isn’t Mormon doctrine. Mormon doctrine holds that all men, prophets or not, all records kept by men are inherently flawed, weak, and subject to error and thus in need of correction from time to time.
The Book of Mormon was subject to similar “clarifying” edits:
|And [The LORD] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity.
For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint;
wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
22 And thus saith the Lord God:
I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed;
for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing.
And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.
note: 2Nephi was changed from ‘white and delightsome’ to ‘pure and delightsome’ in the 1978 edition of the Book of Mormon.
The phrase ‘pure and delightsome’ was actually in the original BofM manuscript, but got changed to ‘white and delightsome’ in one of the early editions and stayed that way until the corrections were made in 1978.
|BOOK OF MORMON 2 Nephi 5:21|
The truth is, though not clearly codified in one handy leaflet and published for public consumption, there actually exists a fairly consistent and perceptible order through which actual bona fide Mormon Doctrine is defined:
One of the best-kept secrets in Mormondom is “What is Official Doctrine, and how is it established.” Church leaders seldom discuss the process, because Official Doctrine is rarely introduced. Yet Church history reveals a clearly established procedure that has been carefully followed for over 180 years. D&C 28:13 explains “all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.” Since the Church was founded in 1830, new doctrine has been accepted six times. On every occasion, a three-step process was followed to add Official Doctrine: It requires the approval of the First Presidency, the concurrence of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and then it must be accepted in a sustaining vote of the entire membership.
Only then is it binding on the membership of the Church. The change will then be made to the body of accepted (canonized) scriptures. Those occasions are:
- 1830, Bible and Book of Mormon were officially accepted with the organization of the Church
- 1835, Doctrine and Covenants, first 103 sections were officially accepted
- 1880, Doctrine and Covenants additional 32 sections were accepted along with the Pearl of Great Price
- 1890, Polygamy was repealed (Official Declaration, p. 291)
- 1976, D&C sections 137 & 138 were officially accepted
- 1978, The priesthood was made available to all worthy males regardless of race (Official Declaration 2, p. 292)
Also, in 1921 the Church removed the Lectures on Faith from the Doctrine and Covenants, with the explanation that they were never presented to the Church as being divinely revealed scripture. As lectures and lessons, it was determined that they simply did not measure up to standard of Official Doctrine.1
Elder B.H. Roberts explained what Official Doctrine is:The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine.” 2
So, in short, various scribes and scribblers, and notably, Brigham Young Himself authored whole library shelves full of LDS journals and discourses. None of Brother Brigham’s
Joseph Smith however, had another perspective. He ordained several black men to the priesthood and they took up their endowments in the temple. Yet, he’s often cited as an avowed racist via this quote:
“Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization.”
In 2014 that sounds pretty racist. It’s a “separate but equal” argument as presented. It’s given today in the subliminal context of Governor George Wallace of Alabama on June 11, 1963 standing in the schoolhouse door blocking black kids from entering shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But frankly even the Jim Crow segregation and second-class citizenship of the south in the Civil Rights Movement era in 1963 was still an extremely liberal argument in 1843. What’s missing here is the motivation for Joseph Smith making that statement. George Wallace’s motivation was entirely different than Joseph Smith’s.
What Smith was actually doing in the much abused quote he noted in his journal, is developing a marketable political platform that would solve the issue of slavery short of a full-on Civil War. In the south or near-south, where he was making the argument, the question of nation-wide racial integration was no question at all. The answer was “never.” Smith was actually making a far less compromised anti-slavery argument than Abe Lincoln, still a national hero and alleged champion of Civil Rights, who said he’d preserve the Union with slavery or without it. Smith on the other hand, eventually proposed a far more liberal solution to the cessation of slavery via the federal purchase of all slaves to reimburse their “owners” for the resultant loss of their “property.” What to do with all the freed slaves? Well, Joe Smith (if he had anything to do with the question as he says) favored some way of setting them up in their own communities. Why? Well, that’s what he wanted for his own people for one thing. It generally worked out better for the Mormons being self-reliant and away from the opposition, than living among people who hated you and wanted to kill you.
What the invariably anti-Mormon quote-meisters who wield this highly snipped quote around at modern Mormonism don’t give you is the whole statement:
January 1843, Joseph Smith said:
“At five went to Mr. Sollars’ with Elders Hyde and Richards. Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine of many of those they brush and wait on. “Elder Hyde remarked, ‘Put them on the level, and they will rise above me.’ I replied, if I raised you to be my equal, and then attempted to oppress you, would you not be indignant and try to rise above me, as did Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and many others, who said I was a fallen Prophet, and they were capable of leading the people, although I never attempted to oppress them, but had always been lifting them up? Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization.” [History of the Church, 5:217-218]
The whole argument Smith is making consists of about 90% enlightenment, dimmed slightly by a little dab of pragmatism. In the time and place they were having this debate full racial integration was not possible, not do-able, not even debatable. But as Smith argued to Orson Hyde, a converted Jew, the only reason the “Negro” appeared to them now as an ignorant slave is the circumstances of his birth and his physical captivity and oppression. Smith clearly argues that if the circumstances were reversed it would appear the other way-’round, and the “Negro” would be just as civilized and educated and refined as those they now serve, and indeed, Joseph points out that in many places of the north where “Negro” slaves have been brought up in high society, they have taken upon themselves all the refinement of their masters. Hyde expresses concern that if the former slaves were all put on an equal social and legal status they would try to “take over” essentially. Smith agrees that this might be a problem, especially due to the generations of “white” oppression, and argues that it would be a natural and justified tendency–possibly a contributing reason for the inclusion of some legal separation of the two races. He cites as evidence of this possible social consequence, several religious lieutenants he’d appointed who, even without oppression, had sought to get the better of the Mormon prophet and steal his flock. Smith thus concludes, essentially, if he had anything to do with the issue he’d set the Negro up in their own communities, apparently so there would be no need to “take over” a competing “white” social structure, and where as he clearly implies, they would be free to grow and prosper every bit as much as “white” folk in similar conditions. I shouldn’t have to point this out, but the alternative the “segregation” solution proposed by Joseph Smith was for the Negro to remain generationally, perpetually, in their current bondage and forced into a perverted integration with “white” society as slaves.
Joseph Smith makes a tepid Civil Rights 1964. It’s downright embarassing in 2014. But Joseph Smith wasn’t living in 1964. He wasn’t living in 2014. What he was proposing was revolutionary enough to get him killed, and the people who killed him were all good Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and other wonderfully enlightened “Christians,” who believed not just that the “Curse of Cain” was a black skin and Negroid features, but that the Negro was inherently inferior mentally, spiritually, and physically, and in many cases that the Negro was incapable of salvation entirely.
Beginning in 1842, after he had moved to free-state Illinois, Smith made known his increasingly strong anti-slavery position. In 1842 he began studying some abolitionist literature, and stated, “It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?” In 1844 Joseph Smith wrote his views as a candidate for President of the United States. The anti-slavery plank of his platform called for a gradual end to slavery by the year 1850. His plan called for the government to buy the freedom of slaves using money from the sale of public lands.
So why pick on Joe Smith? It wasn’t Mormons hanging and beating and whipping and raping and torturing Negroes for the last 400 years of American slavery. It was the self-same “Christians” who now smirk at the LDS’s 10 December, 2013 statement and say, “better late than never,” as if the “enlightened” pro-slavery Calvinists of Smith’s era, the “Good Christian Patriots” like the KKK and the Southern Baptist Convention who openly warred with Mormonism specifically for Joseph Smith’s stand on slavery, and still do for a host of other bigoted reasons, are progressive organizations and always have been.
For the anti-Mormons out there, and certainly the non-Mormons in general: I’m not defending the bigotry in early LDS leadership at all. Just putting it into perspective. Neither am I defending the racism apparent in the writings and sermonizing of many LDS leaders over the generations. I can only offer that it was always ever based upon ignorance rather than malice, and that it never even slightly attained the level of contempt and hatred, the outright damnation of the “Negro” race as openly practiced and professed by most of “historic” Christianity over the last 2014 years. Not even slightly. It wasn’t the Mormons who brought slavery to America. That was “historic” Christianity. It’s hard to take criticism from Christian sects who were the religious arm of the KKK for generations, or tolerate the tongue clucking of other Christian denominations like the now often very liberal Lutherans, who’s founder Martin Luther (the original) clearly and openly denounced the Jews as a filthy, contemptable race that needed extermination. Or for that matter, compared to some pretty inane reasoning relative to the Curse of Cain over the years from various Mormon leaders, I feel no moral equivalence between that and a Holy Roman Empire that slaughtered “barbarians” and “savages” all over the globe, tortured generations of mankind through ruthless rule and Inquisition, and attempted to exterminate the Jews to “liberate” the Holy Land over the course of hundreds of years and a score of centuries. Brigham Young wasn’t invented in the hills of Utah. He came from respectable Quaker stock. He and his brethren brought the Curse of Cain and all its attendant racism and bigotry from “historic” Christianity–it was never an invention of Joseph Smith or his newly “restored” One True Church.
For the longtime Latter-day Saint, I have to testify that you need to do some re-calibration of your entire world view. Moreover, you need to look at the basis of your faith in Mormonism itself. I can’t witness to you any plainer than to say that the LDS church has clearly and unarguably thrown Brigham Young, John Taylor (who essentially originated the less-valiant pre-mortal spirits theory) Bruce McConkie, Mark E Peterson, and a lot of Joseph Fielding Smith et al under the bus on the issue of the Negro and the priesthood. The “church” has official denounced their “theories” as wrong. “Unequivocally” wrong. Read it yourself and weep if you must, all you old Mormon codgers. Then get you head around it and adjust.
Told you so.
Here’s a link to some extremely racist statements made by LDS leaders in various official and quasi-official capacities. Keep in mind that they have all now been denounced. If you are a faithful Latter-day Saint you must denounce them as well. There are many many other such racist statements from these and other LDS leaders. Excusing them away is no longer an option. And it’s hardly the same thing as “denouncing” them:
Here are the links to my previous related ramblings on the subject and related arguments:
And one of the best external explorations of the LDS or “Mormon” position on Black, African males and the priesthood is found here: