Timely quotes on the passing scene–Part 6: Doctrine and Covenants

D&C 134:10

We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them.  They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.

D&C 42:90-93: Why are some discipline matters announced publicly?

And if thy brother or sister offend many, he or she shall be chastened before many. And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed.  And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God. If any shall offend in secret, he or she shall be rebuked in secret, that he or she may have opportunity to confess in secret to him or her whom he or she has offended, and to God, that the church may not speak reproachfully of him or her. And thus shall ye conduct in all things.

D&C 41:5

He that receiveth my law and doeth it, the same is my disciple; and he that saith he receiveth it and doeth it not, the same is not my disciple, and shall be cast out from among you;

D&C 50:6-9

But wo unto them that are deceivers and hypocrites, for, thus saith the Lord, I will bring them to judgment. Behold, verily I say unto you, there are hypocrites among you, who have deceived some, which has given the adversary power; but behold such [those deceived by hypocrites] shall be reclaimed; But the hypocrites shall be detected and shall be cut off, either in life or in death, even as I will; and wo unto them who are cut off from my church, for the same are overcome of the world. Wherefore, let every man beware lest he do that which is not in truth and righteousness before me.

D&C 64:34-35

Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days. And the rebellious shall be cut off out of the land of Zion, and shall be sent away, and shall not inherit the land.

D&C 85:11

And they who are of the High Priesthood, whose names are not found written in the book of the law, or that are found to have apostatized, or to have been cut off from the church, as well as the lesser priesthood, or the members, in that day shall not find an inheritance among the saints of the Most High;

 

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Timely quotes on the passing scene – Part 2: The Abuse of Pelatiah Brown

It is popular, in certain circles, to invoke the case of Pelatiah Brown in early Church history. Joseph Smith said this:

Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me… was hauled up for trial before the High Council.

“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (History of the Church 5:339-340; see also TPJS, 288)

The implicit or explicit claim then made is that Joseph Smith would be opposed to subjecting those who teach and advance false doctrine, or who seek to undermine the Church, its leaders, or members, to Church discipline.

The First Problem

In the first place, this is absurd, because Joseph clearly countenanced–and participated in–the application of Church discipline to many who opposed the Church, fought against it, claimed its leaders were fallen prophets or frauds, or taught doctrines at variance with those he taught.

What, then, is going on in this case?

Well, those who invoke this episode don’t know (or count on you not knowing) the context.

The Second Problem–What Was Elder Brown Teaching?

Elder Brown advanced some ideas about the interpretation of the Revelation of St. John. You know the Book of Revelation–it’s that massively symbolic book at the end of the Bible that many Christian hobbyists have for millennia interpreted and applied to a vast variety of world figures.

The Beast, for example has been declared to be everyone from the Pope du jour to President Jimmy Carter. (Carter may have been many things, but he was not The Beast.)

In fact, you would know this immediately if those who quoted the above phrase had not omitted key text with an ellipsis.

An “ellipsis” is that little dot-dot-dot (…) mark they put in to show they’ve omitted text. So, I suspect that they did read this part, but omitted it because it undercuts their whole argument.

Let’s read the phrase with the text replaced, as in the original. I have bold-faced text that our helpful quote-miners have not included:

I will endeavor to instruct you in relation to the meaning of the beasts and figures spoken of. I should not have called up the subject had it not been for this circumstance. Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me, has been preaching concerning the beast which was full of eyes before and behind; and for this he was hauled up for trial before the High Council.

I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds wich a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.

The High Council undertook to censure and correct Elder Brown, because of his teachings in relation to the beasts. Whether they actually corrected him or not, I am a little doubtful, but don’t care. Father Brown came to me to know what he should do about it. The subject particularly referred to was the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders mentioned in Rev 5:8—”And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints.”

Thus, the high council has objected to one Elder’s interpretation of Revelation, and has disciplined him for it. Joseph says that he wouldn’t even bother to speak on this subject, if not for what they’ve done.

Core Revealed Ideas vs. Peripheral, Speculative Ones

Clearly, he’s not upset that Brown has been disciplined for his views about some core Church doctrine or for undermining belief in a core Church doctrine–like whether God exists, or whether Jesus was divine, or whether Jesus lived as a real person, or whether the doctrine of the atonement is absurd, or whether Church leaders are called of God with a unique and exclusive authority, or whether the Book of Mormon is a divinely-inspired volume. (These are all claims which the current crop of dissidents are being called to account for.)

No, he’s upset that a speculative matter–about which the high council knows no more of the truth than Brown may–is trying to settle a silly squabble over a gospel hobby-horse through Church discipline.

More Context, If You Need It

This becomes even clearer when you read Joseph’s rebukes to all involved (I here bring some snippets; you can read the whole thing at your leisure).

  • “I have seldom spoken from the revelations [of St. John]; but as my subject is a constant source of speculation amongst the elders, causing a division of sentiment and opinion in relation to it, I now do it in order that division and difference of opinion may be done away with, and not that correct knowledge on the subject is so much needed at the present time.” [This stuff doesn’t matter, but so you’ll stop arguing about it, I’ll tell you a bit.]
  • “The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention.” [If Brown sinned in insisting upon his interpretation a bit much, those who fought with him about it are in a worse state.]
  • “Father Brown has been to work and confounded all Christendom by making out that the four beasts represented the different kingdoms of God on the earth. The wise men of the day could not do anything with him, and why should we find fault? Anything to whip sectarianism, to put down priestcraft, and bring the human family to a knowledge of the truth. A club is better than no weapon for a poor man to fight with.” [Brown wasn’t exactly right, but his heart was in the right place–he was advancing a doctrine he believed in an effort to bring others to Christ. He was not striking at the foundations of belief or faithfulness.]
  • “Father Brown did whip sectarianism, and so far so good; but I could not help laughing at the idea of God making use of the figure of a beast to represent His kingdom on the earth, consisting of men, when He could as well have used a far more noble and consistent figure. What! the Lord made use of the figure of a creature of the brute creation to represent that which is much more noble, glorious, and important—the glories and majesty of His kingdom? By taking a lesser figure to represent a greater, you missed it that time, old gentleman; but the sectarians did not know enough to detect you.” [Joseph corrects the misunderstanding, but note how kindly–he acknowledges its good intention. In peripheral matters, intention counts a great deal. If Brown had continued to teach false doctrine when corrected by Joseph, the outcome likely would have been different.]
  • “Oh, ye elders of Israel, hearken to my voice; and when you are sent into the world to preach, tell those things you are sent to tell; preach and cry aloud, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.” Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone, lest ye be overthrown. Never meddle with the visions of beasts and subjects you do not understand. Elder Brown, when you go to Palmyra, say nothing about the four beasts, but preach those things the Lord has told you to preach about—repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.” [These are trivial and peripheral matters–so don’t preach them, and quit arguing about them! Surely don’t excommunicate an otherwise faithful member over them.]
  • “I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it. Don’t be afraid of being damned for not knowing the meaning of a vision or figure, if God has not given a revelation or interpretation of the subject.”  [And thus, one ought not to discipline Elder Brown, since no authoritative revelation or standard applies in this case–God has not revealed it.]
  • “we never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation. We may spiritualize and express opinions to all eternity; but that is no authority.”

John Taylor made perhaps the best remark after Joseph’s: “I have never said much about the beasts, &c., in my preaching. When I have done it, it has been to attract attention and keep the people from running after a greater fool than myself.”

Those who quote this (significantly edited) material either don’t know the context (and are thus ignorant) or know it and hope you don’t (and are thus dishonest).

Neither case suggests you should trust their reading.

So, if you know someone being disciplined because of a slightly-bizarre view of the Revelation of St John, quote this episode.

Spare us, please, the specious claim that this means that you can oppose repeated instructions from local and general Church leaders about public acts and teachings.


 

Tune in next time when we see the same treatment offered to a more modern figure: President Dieter F. Uchdorf of the First Presidency. These folks are equal-opportunity quote-miners–both the nineteenth and twenty-first century leaders are fair game, it seems.

(One Reason) Why I Love Brigham Young

I’ve let the ol’ blog go a bit to seed.

I’m really not what great bloggers are made of–too many seem to think that people want to read the least thing that drops from their lips.

(And, honestly, on the few blogs I follow that’s actually true–I do simply enjoy those writer’s company. They don’t have to be constantly dropping wisdom and bon mots; it’s a little like a college bull-session between classes. So, hopefully someone out there finds the same pleasure in a few minutes of my virtual company.)

Image But, it occurs to me that it is Brigham Young’s birthday today, and that has shaken me from my slumber. And, in stake conference we were encouraged again to engage in these types of conversations.

Brigham Young

Brigham was the second–and longest serving–leader of my faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He kept the Church together following the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and got them out of Illinois (and the United States) when citizens of that state and nation were trying to kill them, as other citizens had before.

Much has been said and written about and by Brigham–we have a much more robust record of his sermons and actions than we do of Joseph, for example. He was a powerful personality.

One thing that often gets lost, however, in accounts of Brigham is why he was as successful as he was.

Why was he–despite his rough edges, which were evident even to his contemporaries–almost universally supported, and even loved? Why did people follow him out into a desert, and persist despite persecution, famine, bad harvests, grasshoppers, Indian raids, US Army expeditions, and all the rest?

I found an account from my great-great-great-grandfather’s history that is little known outside the family, and I think it gives a window into part of the answer to that question.[1]

My grandfather’s background

He and his family lived outside of Nauvoo, and they were poor people:

My father was wont to go up to Nauvoo twice a year to attend conference, but never had the privilege of gathering with the saints until long after they were driven into the wilderness….The fact of our [327] being Mormons brought much persecution on our family of which I had my full share. Notwithstanding most of my playmates were relatives of one grade or another, mostly cousins on my mother’s side, I found myself early subjected to ridicule, taunts and many times to blows on this account. Our house was frequently stoned, the windows smashed in. Such was frequently the lawless and mobocratic spirit that prevailed in those days throughout the whole of the western country wherever a Latter-day Saint could be found….

…my father was taken with some disease which disabled him from working more or less for years, and we were as a consequence in poverty and distress, and this was the reason for not gathering with the Saints in Nauvoo….

Impending marriage

Isaiah discussed his love and impending marriage for a non-LDS woman, and noted:

[336] I had already caught the spirit of the gathering, and I knew that sooner or later it was my duty to gather with the Church….I at last laid my entire history before Elder Erastus Snow, one of the Twelve, and asked his counsel as to what I should do. He advised me to keep my engagement with Sarah, to marry her and leave the event with God….

Isaiah was teaching school in an area in which he was the only member. Despite being the only Mormon family, prejudice was sufficient to threaten his lifelihood:

[338]…Many of my patrons became highly incensed at the idea of their school teacher being a Mormon and began to withdraw their children from school and to clamor for my dismissal. I knew that eventually I should have to quit. About this time, an uncle of [my wife’s]…came on a visit….When he learned that I was a Mormon, his fury knew no bounds. Being a giant in physical proportions and strength, he seriously contemplated annihilating me utterly….[My wife] was afraid of him from the first, and when he threatened to follow me to the frontiers, if I started with her and to kill me wherever he found me, her mind that had all the time been wavering on the subject of accompanying me, was made up that she would remain. I told him flatly that I should go to Utah when spring opened and that I would take my wife with me if she wished to go.

In the meantime my once thriving school was now almost deserted, and I saw myself daily become more and more isolated from the community. Very few of my old friends stood by me in this trying hour. If my wife had been one with me I should not have minded it, for I had fully calculated on everything else; but she too was drifting away from me, and this it was that drove me almost to distraction. Still I labored on heartsick and weary until the 6th day of April when I went again to St. Louis to attend conference. While there I again sought the advice of Bro. Snow. After hearing me through he said, “You can have your choice of two things, either go on a mission to England to preach the gospel or go home to the valley. If you go to England your wife will likely repent while you are gone and be willing to go with you anywhere by the time you get back; if she sees you starting for the valley she may change her mind even at the eleventh hour and conclude to accompany you.”

After a night’s reflection on the subject, sleeping none, praying much, I decided to go with the emigration to Utah, be the final decision of my wife what it might. “Very well,” said Bro. Snow, “that is as I would have decided myself. It is the best thing you can do.”

Trip to Salt Lake

Isaiah’s wife did not decide to go with him.

[339]…when I came to part with my wife, my heart sank like lead within me. Henceforth, we were to see each other no more in this life…Hurrying away I entered the wagon that was waiting, buried my face in my hands, and looked not up again until [the town] and all its near and dear associations were left far behind. If I had not turned to a pillar of salt or ice, the sight of my beloved wife standing in the door would have melted my heart within me and I should have returned, and thereby braved the displeasure of the Almighty and perhaps have yielded little by little to the voice of the tempter until I, with her, should have been eternally lost and shut out form the presence of God and the holy Angels. The responsibilities resting upon me were too great. My father, brothers, and sisters tied hand and foot in Babylon with the iron chain of poverty, looked to me as a deliverer; they expected me to go ahead and open the way for them to come. A long line of ancestors who had died without the gospel in the ages past were calling to me with their spirit voices and bidding me go up and assist in rearing a temple wherein to officiate for them that they might come up and receive blessings equally with the living. And last, though not least was the consideration that I was obeying the voice of God and that I was taking a course that would secure my own glory and exaltation and that would eventually either in this life or that which is to come enable me to bind my wife to me in bands that could not be broken. She was blind then but the day would come when she would see….

[344] The year of my arrival in the valleys was one of hard times. The grasshoppers had preyed on the crops until starvation seemed to stare the people in the face. Grave apprehensions were entertained by many, of a famine. Being a thousand miles from the frontiers with no connecting railroad on which to bring supplies, we found ourselves thrown on our own resources of sustenance. Under the same circumstances any other people would have starved to death. But the Saints hearkened to the counsels of the prophet and were saved. A public feast was proclaimed every week and what was thus saved was distributed to the poor. Every man who had bread divided with his neighbor and thus the community was saved from the horrors [345] of famine. I heard of no instance of rich or well-to-do men taking advantage of the necessities of the poor. President Young himself set the example in this respect and dealt out to the people as long as any remained in his bins. Greens, wild roots, etc., were freely eaten by all classes so as to spin out the bread stuff until the harvest of [18]56….

Conclusion: Birth of a son and what followed

We come now to my point about Brigham. It’s taken a bit of time to get here, but you need the background to understand what comes next.

We’ve seen Brigham function on a broader scale–the territory-wide food shortage. But, he remains a somewhat remote figure, as he’d almost have to with thousands of members spread out over a huge area.

In spring of 1856, Isaiah learned that his estranged wife had given birth to his first child, a son.

…[345] I longed for the power of an immortal that I might transport myself in a moment to the side of my wife and babe. I felt as if I were caged, bound hand and foot and I struggled in spirit to free myself. And yet I was not sorry for what I had done. I could not however put out of my mind the intense longing to see my loved ones. It seemed as if I could not contain myself. While in this state of mind I one day met Bro. Erastus Snow and as he had always taken a very kindly interest in my welfare, I told him the news I had received and my feelings in relation to it. He advised me to go to President Young and lay the whole matter before him and then act on any counsel he might give me. I lost no time in adopting this advice.

During the whole of this recital [President Young] sat with one hand on my knee, looking in my face and listened attentively to what I had to say. At the close he took me by the hand in his fatherly way and said, “Bro. Coombs, you had better take a mission to the States this fall to preach the gospel and to visit your wife. Brother Snow had represented your case to me before. He is going to start on a mission to St. Louis in a few days and will be in charge. He would be pleased, I know, to have you as a co-laborer. Travel under his directions; visit your wife as often as you please; preach the gospel to her, and if she is worth having she will come with you when you return to the valley. God bless and proper you.” Such was the counsel of God’s prophet to me and I need not say that it sounded to my ears like the voice of my Father. It was sweet—-it was just what I had hoped he would say to me, and it was entirely satisfying to my soul. I felt as if I had suddenly been transported to the seventh heaven, so great was the joy that filled my bosom (emphasis added).

His wife never did accept Mormonism. Yet, Isaiah would love and honor Brigham for the rest of his life–and was eventually employed as one of Brigham’s clerks.

Here we have a young, poor member of the Church. He was not from Nauvoo; he did not move in the circles of Church power and influence. He doesn’t come in to the histories of the period.

His family was destitute, and still back in the east. He was, quite literally, a nobody—or, so you would think. But, Brigham evidently didn’t think so.

I think Brigham’s behavior and treatment of this troubled, unimportant young man speaks for itself. And, I think it shows why Isaiah and thousands of other Saints loved Brigham, and followed him to the ends of the earth.

So, whenever I hear someone criticize Brigham, I think of this story. And, I think my grandfather would have my hide if I ever turned on “Brother Brigham.”

—-

[1] Kate B. Carter, ed., Isaiah M[oses] Coombs from His Diary and Journal (Salt Lake City, Utah: published by Daughters of Utah Pioneers through Utah Printing Company, n.d.). Page numbers have been inserted into my citations in square brackets.

 

“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know”

The Church has recently released some excellent resources on Church history and doctrine. There is a good summary of various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, as well as the common canard from sectarian anti-Mormons claiming that we aren’t Christians.

The most recent release deals with the pre-1978 priesthood ban, which restricted blacks of African descent from holding the Church’s lay priesthood.[1]

The most unfortunate thing about the priesthood ban was the reasons which some leaders and members offered for the ban’s existence. This new resource repudiates these ideas:

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 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….

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.

This repudiation is not new—various Church leaders have said the same over the years, but it is wonderful to have it on an official webpage approved by the First Presidency.[2]

A slight downside

Nothing good ever seems to be without its potential for abuse, however. Some have recently used this web page to declare that “the Church has admitted that the priesthood ban was a mistake due to racism.” That is, they insist that God had nothing to do with the ban’s beginnings, and fallible mortals had to finally decide to get rid of it.

But, this is precisely what the page does not do. And, it seems to me, it is quite careful not to do it:

In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.

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.

Note the careful separation of two issues:

  1. The origin of the policy of the restriction;
  2. The justifications offered for that policy.

This distinction is made repeatedly in the Church’s on-line materials. For example, a Church newsroom article labeled as an “Official statement” writes:

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, but it has ended….

Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:

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.” (emphasis added)

Note again the separation between the “origin of” and “some explanations” for the priesthood ban. An earlier official statement said:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.[3]

When the Church says that “it is not known precisely why…this restriction began,” that would seem to disprove the claims of some, who say that the Church has admitted that the ban originated because of Church members’ racism and was thus “a mistake.” If we knew that, then the Church would not say that the origins are “not known” and “not entirely clear.”

If it was racism, does this mean God was not involved?

For a moment, however, let us presume that those enthusiastic to blame racism for the ban’s origins (rather than the explanations, which were clearly rooted in racism) are correct.

Does this mean that God was not involved in the process? I do not think we can draw this conclusion too readily, though those who offer it are often keen that we do so.

For the sake of argument, let us presume that the ban had its origins in Brigham Young’s and his contemporaries’ racism. (We are here engaging in speculation, just as those who engaged in the racist speculation of the nineteenth century did. So, tread cautiously!)

Even if the ban had its origins in leaders’ racism, it does not follow that God was not involved in the process. If Brigham and other nineteenth century Mormons were racists, certainly most of American and European society was as well. The dynamics of race relations (which would contribute to America’s bloodiest war within a decade of the ban) in the United States must be borne in mind.

The Church’s progress could have been affected by the innate racism of western society. And thus, while God may not have wanted the ban to be necessary, and would have been happy to have it lifted at any time, He may well have recognized that the weaknesses of mortals in and out of the Church made it necessary—or, at least, a viable option among many.

Simply put, it may have been that a Church with a lay ministry, which did not segregate its congregations, would have had even more difficulties in the racially polarized American 19th century if blacks exercised spiritual authority over whites. My experience with some in the American South even today—and what others have told me of their experiences from a generation or two ago—suggest that this potential difficulty persisted well into the twentieth century.

It is thus possible that God commanded the ban as a type of “lesser of two evils,” in the racist 19th century. Or, alternatively, God could have used a ban that he did not initiate as a means of managing the racism which instigated it.

Evidence from later in Church history suggests that one of these scenarios is correct.

Later evidence

President David O. McKay was inclined to dispense with the ban, and prayed about the matter. He told church architect Richard Jackson:

I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.[4]

This evidence account leads us to one of four conclusions:

  1. President McKay lied about revelation to silence critics on the issue of the ban;
  2. President McKay projected his own racism onto God, perhaps subconsciously, thus allowing him to keep the ban in place;
  3. President McKay was mistaken about his revelation;
  4. The ban persisted not entirely (and perhaps not at all) because of past or present leaders’ racism, since God here has a leader willing and even anxious to dispense with the ban, but he is told not to.

Most members, I think, would reject options #1, #2, and #3. That leaves us, however, with option #4—whatever the origins of the ban, God seems to have been using it for some purpose. And, in 1968–70, that purpose had yet to be accomplished, because he forbade the ban from being rescinded and told the prophet to quit asking about it.

There is a similar account from President Harold B. Lee, though it is less well documented.[5] We know for certain, however, that he had a similar view:

For those who don’t believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks….It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.[6]

Previous leaders’ statements

This same distinction between the ban’s origins and the faulty explanations for it has been made previously by LDS leaders.

For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley was interviewed as follows in 1998:

Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?

A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don’t think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There’s a reason for them.

Q: What was the reason for that?

A: I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.[7]

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said in 1988, and republished in 2011:

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 reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to [the priesthood ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that….

The lesson I’ve drawn from 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….

I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking….

Let’s [not] 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 (emphasis added).[8]

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in 2006:

One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated….

I have to concede to my earlier colleagues….

They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the priesthood ban policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong….

It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years….

At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along,…we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.[9]

Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy, when asked about the ban’s origins in 1998, replied:

We do not know.[10]

It would be strange indeed if the Church and its leaders were intending to repudiate these recent statements, as the claims of some would require.

An additional perspective

Interestingly, President Boyd K. Packer recently discussed how his perspective regarding the ban has changed in the present as the work flourishes in Africa:

We have had puzzling things. We had the matter of the priesthood being withheld from a part of the human family. That seemed so inconsistent with the rest of human life and humanity and the doctrines and tolerance. We couldn’t figure that out. That’s gone now, but why was it there? I’m not sure, but I do know this: it had the effect of keeping us out of [most of Africa] until we were ready and mature enough, and they were ready and mature enough. Looking back it is easy to see things that you don’t see looking forward.[11]

We see again how the ban’s existence is “puzzling,” “we couldn’t figure that out,” and even now he’s “not sure” why it was in place.

Yet, the ban’s existence also kept the Church from extensive missionary work in Africa until recently. There are significant economic and cultural challenges to working in Africa—a premature enthusiasm for work there might have resulted, for example, in many converts but an unsustainable infrastructure. I have had private discussions with those involved who describe the economic obstacles as something the Church could not have coped with even a few years ago—and they challenge us even today.

Thus, even a ban that was rooted in the difficulties of 19th century racism could ultimately serve God’s purposes, and so be either tolerated or implemented by Him.

God is, after all, the ultimate multi-tasker.

Conclusion

What I am suggesting, then, is that even if one insists or concedes that racism was the origin of the priesthood ban (a concession the Church has not made, and has been at pains not to make), this does not mean that its continuation and its cessation were not firmly in God’s control.

It was necessary to respond to the racism of members and leaders of the Church, as well as potential members of the Church, and the often-hostile societies which surrounded them. The ban is one potential option—though whether God instigated it directly, or whether he simply allowed it and declined to remove it when asked by President McKay, we cannot say.

“I do not know the meaning of all things,” wrote Nephi, but “I know that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).

It is easy—too easy, for some—to simply decide that this entire episode is all simply fallible mortal power plays or administration, with God lurking in the background (if he exists at all).[12]

One can draw that conclusion if one wishes. Many have and will. But, they ought not to be allowed to claim that the Church has admitted as much.

“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know.”

But, we do know God calls prophets, and that there is safety with them, notwithstanding the twists and turns of telestial complexity and mortal fallibility.


[1] The ban was rescinded by revelation in 1978. See Official Declaration 2.

[2] “The church’s First Presidency approves each of the enhanced topic pages….’ The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve both have been very supportive of this process,’ Elder Snow said.” – See Tad Walch, “LDS Church enhances web pages on its history, doctrine,” Deseret News (9 December 2013).

[3] See also Joseph Walker, “LDS Church condemns past racism ‘inside and outside the church’,” Deseret News (29 February 2012).

[4] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 183.

[5] Church historian Leonard Arrington, “asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord’s will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during’three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,…but the only answer he received was “not yet.” Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee’s son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.” – Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.

[6] Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published 16 November 1972.

[7] “On the Record: ‘We Stand For Something’ President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia],” Sunstone 21/4 (Issue #112) (December 1998): 71.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.

[9] Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.

[10] Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 24, page 4 (CD version); citing Alexander Morrison, Salt Lake City local news station KTVX, channel 4, 8 June 1998.

[11] Boyd K. Packer, “Lessons from Gospel Experiences,” new mission presidents’ seminar, 25 June 2008, disc 4, track 12, 0:00–0:54. I first cited this information in “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,”  Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011), footnote 72.

[12] As I will detail later, such a conclusion also provides the Church’s critics and complainers with definite rhetorical advantages in the here and now, so their enthusiasm should not surprise us.

Bearing false witness with footnotes—the D. Michael Quinn way.

Michael Quinn is a well-known (though now excommunicated) Mormon historian. He has been faulted by some for often misrepresenting his sources, and a review once evaluated the first chapter of his book Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power  and found several distortions.

I confess that I have often checked Quinn’s references, and often found them wanting.

I ran onto yet another “wonderful” little example recently.

In his volume Extensions of Power, he writes of late Church President David O. McKay:

“a First Presidency secretary acknowledges that [David O.] McKay liked his ‘celebrity status’ and wanted ‘to be recognized, lauded, and lionized’” (363)

The footnote gives as a source:

Francis Gibbons, David O. McKay: Apostle to the World, Prophet of God (Deseret Book 1986), 347, 263.

Now Gibbons was a secretary to the First Presidency. But, upon seeing this I was immediately suspicious. Why? For two reasons:

  1. I have learned by sad experience to be suspicious of everything Quinn claims that strikes me as a bit off, particularly if it is being used to malign or criticize a Church leader; and
  2. Francis M. Gibbons has written a number of books on Church leaders. These are not, by any stretch, books that are critical or “warts-and-all” biographies. They are almost hagiographical.

Now, you can debate about whether these sorts of biographies are really the best way to go (I don’t think it is) but that isn’t the point here—the point is that Quinn is appealing to these pages in Gibbons’ book to accuse McKay of craving celebrity status, wanting to be recognized and praised and all the rest.

So, let’s look at the source. Here are the relevant entries from the book:

[263] The encroachment on [McKay’s] private life that celebrity status imposed…as something President McKay adjust to with apparent difficulty. He was essentially a modest, private person, reared in a rural atmosphere, who at an early age was thrust into the limelight of the Mormon community. And as he gained in experience…as wide media exposure made his name and face known in most households, he became, in a sense, a public asset whose time and efforts were assumed to be available to all. This radical change in status was a bittersweet experience. To be recognized, lauded, and lionized is something that seemingly appeals to the ego and self-esteem of the most modest among us, even to David O. McKay. But the inevitable shrinkage in the circle of privacy that this necessarily entails provides a counter-balance that at times outweighs the positive aspects of public adulation. This is easily inferred from a diary entry of July 19, 1950….The diarist hinted that it had become so difficult to venture forth on the streets of Salt Lake City that he had about decided to abandon the practice. For such a free spirit as he, for one who was so accustomed to going and coming as he pleased, any decision to restrict his movements about the city was an imprisonment of sorts. But the only alternatives, neither of which was acceptable, were to go in disguise or to ignore or to cut short those who approached him. The latter would have been especially repugnant to one such as David O. McKay, who had cultivated to the highest degree the qualities of courtesy and attentive listening.

It was ironic, therefore, that as the apostle’s fame and influence widened, the scope of his private life was proportionately restricted….

[347]
Everywhere he traveled in Australia, or elsewhere on international tours, President McKay received celebrity treatment. Enthusiastic, cheering, singing crowds usually greeted him at every stop, sometimes to the surprise or chagrin of local residents. A group of well-known Australian athletes, about a flight to Adelaide with President McKay’s party, learned an embarrassing lesson in humility. Seeing a large, noisy crowd at the airport, and assuming they were the object of its adulation, the handsome young men stepped forward to acknowledge the greeting [348] only to find that the cheers and excitement were generated by the tall, white-haired man who came down the ramp after them (emphasis added).

It takes a certain talent to transform an account that praises McKay as a “modest, private person,” (whose privacy and personal convenience suffered because of how unwilling he was to appear rude or short with anyone) into an “admission” that McKay “liked” his celebrity. The original line cited by Quinn that deals with being “recognized, lauded, and lionized” is obviously intended to point out that such things are a danger to anyone because they appeal to the ego, and everyone would be tempted by them—but it is likewise clear that Gibbons does not think that McKay succumbed to that temptation.

So, Quinn has taken a section intended to praise McKay and point out his humility, and turned it into a criticism of McKay that makes him appear arrogant and proud.

It is really hard to think that this is accidental, or built on a misreading.

Instead, Quinn seems to count on the fact that few people will bother to check his footnotes. He has a note, and it is to a work by a secretary to multiple First Presidencies, so I suspect that most people wouldn’t believe that Quinn would have the sheer chutzpah (to say nothing of the dishonesty) to misrepresent it.

So, this is yet another exhibit for why I tell people—read Quinn if you like, but double check every citation that strikes you as funny.

You’ll be surprised what you can learn.

Bearing witness of evil — there is no statute of limitation

Nineteenth-century Mormons who had suffered extra-legal persecution were given an interesting set of instructions. They came as Joseph Smith languished in the almost inhuman conditions of the ironically-named Liberty Jail:

1 AND again, we would suggest for your consideration the propriety of all the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them by the people of this State;

2 And also of all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained, both of character and personal injuries, as well as real property;

3 And also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions, as far as they can get hold of them and find them out….

6 That we may not only publish to all the world, but present them to the heads of government in all their dark and hellish hue, as the last effort which is enjoined on us by our Heavenly Father, before we can fully and completely claim that promise which shall call him forth from his hiding place; and also that the whole nation may be left without excuse before he can send forth the power of his mighty arm (D&C 123:1-3,6).

This gathering of facts was to be an organized, systematized effort—names were named, damages tallied—and the results made widely public.

Some might have regarded this as a case of needlessly wallowing in tragedy, or refusing to move on to a brighter future. Yet, in a strange way it seems to have been vital for that future that such steps be taken:

13 Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven—

14 These should then be attended to with great earnestness.

15 Let no man count them as small things; for there is much which lieth in futurity, pertaining to the saints, which depends upon these things.

16 You know, brethren, that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves.

17 Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed (D&C 123:13-17).

A few points of interest:

  • Such a process must be complete: all the hidden things of darkness must be unmasked.
  • To dismiss such an effort as small, trivial, or not worth our time is to be in error. Injustice unacknowledged has its way of contaminating individuals and organizations.
  • The point is not to wallow in grief or anger: the approach ought to be a “cheerful” one.

Cheerful

The cheerful factor is the most intriguing, to me. Whence comes the cheer?

I think it derives simply from the speaking of truth, from casting light upon hidden evils. Forgiveness too flourishes best in honest soil.

The worst thing about unacknowledged evils is often that the perpetrators self-justify. They assure the victims that they had good intentions, or that what they did wasn’t evil at all. As I’ve written before, most people do not do evil for its own sake—they do it by convincing themselves that it is not evil.

Small wonder, then, that perpetrators do not like this bearing witness or the search for the truth—it threatens the comfortable illusions and safeguards they have built for themselves. On some level, they sense the hollowness of the rationales they have constructed, and so react with hostility and ridicule even if the truth be spoken by those powerless to bring them to account.

There is, quite simply, no statute of limitation for bearing witness of evil, especially when we have seen it worked against someone else.

Bringing the wicked to mortal justice may not be possible—they may be long gone, or beyond the reach of mortal judges. This was certainly the circumstance in which the Saints found themselves. They never recouped their lands and property. Few if any of those who stole, raped, or murdered suffered legal consequences. And yet, still they were to bear witness, all while trusting God to set these things aright.

Yet, the bearing of witness and documenting it must be done first, and “then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance” for God to intervene.