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Friday, March 15, 2013

False Constructions Upon a True Church: A Response to a Friend

One of my dear fellow Mormon friends lately has called me out for posting an article by BYU professor, author, and Mormon race relations scholar Margaret Blair Young. The substance of the article by Professor Young (who I very much admire on a personal level and whose scholarship and literary contributions I think are a blessing to the Church) was celebrating the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have recently updated their scripture headings in the Doctrine and Covenants, a couple of which are very important, including this one about at the top of Official Declaration Two (which was the statement made by the Church in 1978 rescinding its previous policy of denying black people the blessings of the priesthood and the higher ordinances of the temple):

The Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regards to race that once applied to the priesthood.
I, like Professor Young, think this is a wonderful change for the Church to make in the scripture heading. It's still not a perfect statement (for example, historical records actually do offer up some insights about where the ban came from, which history authors like Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray have written a whole series of books about black Mormon pioneer called Standing on the Promises), but I don't want to quibble too much about that. This is a beautiful thing! This is a wonderful thing! The Church is for the first time officially recognizing some of these complicated aspects of the history behind the former ban (like the fact that Joseph Smith ordained black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis to the priesthood offices of Seventy and Elder and that the ban didn't come into place until the leadership of Brigham Young). The Church is recognizing that the ban was contradictory to scriptures like 2 Nephi 26:33 which the heading quotes, thus putting into question the racist folk myths that sprang up around the policy.

But in the process of celebrating and congratulating the Church, Professor Young said some things which my friend found disturbing, and which he was very bothered that I was endorsing. In giving context of how the Church could go back on their previous policies Professor Young states in the article:
Finally, let me make a  bold suggestion.  I suggest that we Mormons have chosen the wrong paradigm to describe how the church functions under prophetic leadership.  We seem to have gone with the Wilford Woodruff statement used to defend the manifesto, since he was speaking to people who had suffered and even gone to jail over polygamy:
 [T]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty (Official Declaration 1).
Since we have multitudes of instances where one prophet contradicts another, it’s likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: “[T]his claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment” era after the 1960s to reinforce the ‘follow the prophet’ mantra that is now so familiar to us.”

Would we not all be better served by acknowledging that the Prophet is exclusively entitled to the mantle of leadership over the Church, and that he will always do the best he can to transcend his own culture and tradition in serving God, though not every utterance he makes will constitute the mind and will of the Lord?  I would far prefer President Lorenzo Snow’s description of Church governance:
 ”Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did  many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we  ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate  ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.” 6 April, 1900
Now I find nothing particularly wrong with this statement by Professor Young. In fact, I heartily applaud it. As I've written elsewhere, like my post on this blog "Expectations of a Prophet" , I believe not only is it healthy to recognize that prophets are human beings and have fallible beliefs at times, I believe it is vital to a person's faith. The LDS leaders, from Joseph Smith on, have consistently taught that prophets are imperfect, mortal instruments in the hands of a perfect immortal God. As the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni says on its cover page: "And now if there be fault, it be the mistake of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God..."  Elder Jeffrey Holland of the LDS 12 Apostles took it even a step further in discussing the priesthood ban in an interview with PBS. When they asked about the statements of previous Mormon prophets about the ban and the mythology that grew up around it to justify its the policy, Elder Holland said: 
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 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. ...
Elder Holland pretty unequivocally states here that he believes what his "earlier colleagues" (meaning I'm assuming the previous apostles and prophets) said about the priesthood ban to justify it were "wrong," or at the very least "inadequate."

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said something similar when placed in the awkward position of having to go back on things he had previously written about black people once the Church changed the policy. What he said, I believe was very courageous and insightful:
We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years [speaking of racially inclusive language such as 2 Nephi 26:33 and the book of Acts in the New Testament]. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, “Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.” 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, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And 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.
Some may find it contradictory for Elder McConkie is using the argument of following a prophet to deny the teachings of other prophets. But I believe the crux of that point is that line when he says that even prophets speak with "limited understanding." We believe that prophets receive revelations. That is their function. But prophets aren't receiving revelations all the time and when they're not, they are liable to error even in official Church business like the priesthood ban. When people, due to the prejudices of their time and culture, ignore the revelations they've been given (as Elder McConkie implied they did when ignoring injunctions like 2 Nephi 26:33 and when the New Testament said the Gospel was to go to "all nations"), then mistakes are definitely bound to happen. That's simply human, that's simply to be expected.  Joseph Smith said:   "I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities" ( History of the Church 5:181).

However, my dear friend took issue with Professor Young's and my beliefs here, and has quoted a great deal of other leaders of the Church who refer back to Wilford Woodruff quote. I believe he was doing this out of concern and love for me, and I deeply appreciate that love. He has been a man who has stuck with me through thick and thin, but on this matter he has deep reservations about what I've said and what that means about how I'm orienting myself towards the Church.

I understand his concerns, but I think he misunderstood me, just as I on many points have misunderstood my friend. In the end, I actually think as we've talked about it, I believe we have very similar beliefs about the Wilford Woodruff quote-- that the Church is ultimately leading us to salvation, despite the bumps along the way, and that it is a vehicle towards that goal, not the destination.

But, to be clear, I consider myself an active, believing member of the Church. I don't think people need to be afraid of the things the Church is currently doing in revising its policies and positions, and I don't think people need to be afraid of those who recognize those flaws, but celebrate the perfect music of God that comes through imperfect instruments. I have made many sacrifices for my faith, when it would have been easier in my field of study and social context to throw it away and join my more secular peers. I have done this because I am a devout, believing Mormon. True blue, through and through. Mormon and proud. So I recently wrote my friend back this response as a smaller part of our larger discussion (note that this section is much less formal and more of a "shooting from the hip" response, as it was part of a letter to a friend). I include it here as less part of my back and forth with him, but because it states some things which are pretty core to how I see myself and my relationship to my faith. It is in no way to be interpreted as a reflection on him or his beliefs for, again, I think he and I basically believe the same thing in its general sense, and even in most of the particulars. So here is what I wrote him as a kind of personal position:

I actually am very happy with the leadership of the Church. The current First Presidency, in my opinion, is wise, compassionate and very in tune with the Spirit. I sustain them with all my heart. President Ucthdorf, President Eyring, President Monson and apostles like Elder Holland are all personal heroes of mine and I take what they say very seriously and very prayerfully.

But what I do question is when people assume that anything that a prophet does or says in his office of president is and always will be the ultimate doctrine of the Church and that even past policies, such as the priesthood ban, should be seen as divinely instituted and should never be repudiated. That simply can't be, for prophets have often contradicted each other.

For example, Brigham Young said that the Adam-God theory was DOCTRINE. However, President Kimball said it was FALSE DOCTRINE. With a teaching as important as the identity of God, that's not small potatoes for a Church to teach either way, and they both felt equally passionate that they were right about their views on the issue, and said hard things to those in the leadership of the Church who opposed them on the issue (it was a major sore point between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt in their day, and Spencer W. Kimball called out Brigham Young on it).

So, if you mean that the Church won't lead us astray in the sense that the general direction of the good ship Zion is still pointing to God and that it has the priesthood keys and we should cling to the idea of modern revelation (personal and Church wide), I'm totally with you.

But, if you mean that a president of the Church can't teach something wrong (like the priesthood ban or at least ONE of the sides of the Adam-God theory debate in the Church...), and that we would be wrong to recognize that fact, then that's where we part ways, opinion wise. For, if one tries to adhere strictly to that rule, then it doesn't take very long with studying the history of the Church to lose your testimony, if that's the standard you are trying to measure the prophets by. By not recognizing their true, human nature (despite their ability to receive revelation for the Church), then we set them up for a fall, and that fall is hard and bitter. I've seen many people take exactly that hard line view of the faith and then they became disenchanted and left. THAT is what I'm fighting against. THAT is why I do what I do.

I know the Church is true, I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, I know that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, I know Jesus is our Savior, I know the Book of Mormon is a spiritual record of a people striving towards God. I'm not what is called a "New Order Mormon" who just hangs around for the culture of it, or because I feel like I'm some sort of DNA Mormon who doesn't believe the doctrine, but loves the heritage. Although I know many beautiful people who do qualify under that description and I feel they should have a place in the Church, too. However, my testimony runs long and deep and is rooted deeply in spiritual manifestations that I consider to be very sacred. These are things I've had some pretty huge spiritual witnesses about, they're not things I question in their basics.

But I do question mine and other people's assumptions about those important realities and I question how we perceive them in our imperfection and our humanity. And when I see people throw the baby out with the bathwater because they expected the Church and its leaders to be perfect because of something said by Wilford Woodruff or President Hinckley or any other leader in the Church, or because the leaders sometimes contradict and even argue with each other. The unrealistic expectations often set up about the Church has hurt more people's testimonies than any anti-Mormon tract or apostate's bitter rant. I have seen that, I have personal loved ones who have left because they discovered prophets weren't the near perfect demi-gods that we set them up to be.

In my play about Joseph and Emma Smith's family, The Fading Flower, I have Julia Smith say the following (in the context of the very real mental and spiritual breakdown that Joseph and Emma's youngest son David went through at the end of his life because of the disillusionment he experienced when he concluded that his father really did practice polygamy, unlike the version he had been told by his RLDS family): "David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn't had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one."

I do what I do in an effort to find that "real" world, that "real" Church and, most importantly, that "real" God. I make a lot mistakes in that effort, and in that way I, like everyone, occasionally construct that false world. If I keep building up that false world, but somebody knocks it down with some hard facts, then it would be easy for me to be disenchanted and bitterly believe that means that none of the things I was trying to understand were real at all and that I was wasting my time, talents and heart on the Church. That would be a mistake, and that mistake costs a lot of people their faith. However, many people are able to step back from what they were building and say, "Wait, sure, those things weren't quite accurate, and that's not what I was told, but look... look at this," and they can see the real thing behind what the false world was trying to build on.

I am convinced one of those "real" things is the priesthood. I am convinced another one of those "real" things is revelation. And so on with the Book of Mormon, theGospels , Christ, repentance, grace, the atonement, Joseph Smith, President Monson, etc. etc.

But what I don't believe is real, because it has proven false again and again, is that there are people in the world or even in the leadership of the Church who are never wrong, even about important things. That's simply not true and those who keep insisting it's true would do us great spiritual harm in the long run, in my opinion. The general direction, sure, we're headed towards Christ and he's our salvation. I think that's the substance and what President Woodruff is trying to say is that the Christ set up the Church one last time and there wasn't going to be another Great Apostasy. The prophets teach the important principles and the Church administers the saving ordinances. That's his point, in my opinion. But he saw first hand the flaws of prophets. Wilford Woodruff himself said (I hope I'm not butchering this quote, but this is the essence): "Yes, I saw the flaws in Joseph Smith. I saw them and I rejoiced. For if the Lord could use an imperfect man like him, then there was hope for me."

I love the prophets. I love them so much and take them so seriously that I've devoted hours upon hours upon hours of my life researching, studying and writing about their lives. I have put my private and professional reputation on the line every time I have very publicly written about their history and my fervent love and faith in the religious tradition we are both a part of. It's high stakes for me, as it is for everyone who puts their shoulder to the wheel. I read book after book about their lives, I study their teachings, I know the controversies surrounding them. And that hasn't destroyed my testimony, but rather strengthened it.

However, although it was not destroyed, it definitely transformed. I had to change. It's like that scriptural analogy with the potter's wheel. My testimony is the clay and the Lord is trying to shape it. If I cling to the way I want it to look, if I cling to the old forms and policies of the Church, even after the Lord has given revelations that have abolished those old forms, then my clay is useless under his hands. The Church isn't a static thing, it is a living Church. And I am a living soul who needs to progress and grow, just like the Church needs to progress and grow.

Joseph Smith said, "we have the revelation of Jesus, and the knowledge within us is sufficient to organize a righteous government upon the earth, and to give universal peace to all mankind, if they would receive it, but we lack the physical strength, as did our Savior when a child, to defend our principles, and we have of necessity to be afflicted, persecuted and smitten, and to bear it patiently until Jacob is of age, then he will take care of himself." The Church is still young. It hasn't "grown up" yet. To not expect it to go through growing pains and the mistakes of childhood is to set up that child for failure, and of course at that point it will certainly fail those kind of unrealistic expectations. But with patience, with love, with the progression of grace upon grace, line upon line, here a little and there a little, our Heavenly Parents are teaching that child, that Church to become an adult, and the time will come, like Joseph Smith said, when it is a child no more. And, frankly, I think the Church is strong and tall and smart for its age.

82 comments:

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This was balm to my troubled soul in regard to expectations of perfection from the church and it's leaders. I feel like I can take a step back from the view I've been trying to force and see a bigger picture. thank you for this post, and for your testimony. Much appreciated.

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    1. I am SO glad it was a help! This perspective has been vital in helping me keep the faith, so I'm glad that you found it useful, too.

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    2. My little brother is Sam Schofield, who has been influenced so much by your creative works. Fun when circles interlock together. Best of luck. Thanks again for your thoughts, truly they were something I needed to hear very much.

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    3. I love Sam dearly! He's done more for me than even he knows.

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  2. This is a beautiful representation of the experiences and thoughts that I have had over the past couple of years. For a time, I struggled when faced with issues such as this one... how could that ever be what God wanted? How could He ever desire to keep the fullness of His blessings from someone because of the color of their skin? In the end, it was easier for me to accept the possibility that for a period of time, the policies of the church were incorrect. I imagine our compassionate Father in Heaven, who loves all His children, smiling down upon us and saying, "YES! You've finally gotten it!" Perhaps the revelation was always there... but it simply took a while for us to be prepared enough to receive it. Furthermore, along these same lines, it frustrates me to no end when matters such as this are reason enough for people to abandon the principles of the Gospel in one unforgiving brush stroke.

    We expect perfection, for Mormons to have been miraculously far ahead of the social opinions and norms of the time in which they lived. I thought of this when I watched the movie Lincoln... those amazing, intelligent men that fought for civil liberty, that fought to end slavery, still thought it ridiculous for women to have the right to vote. A century later, though huge strides had been made toward equality, there were still states that required black children and white children to drink out of different water fountains, to use different books in school. It's abhorrent that this happened. I am not proud that this is a part of my nation's history. But I am proud of where the nation is today. I'm proud of the progress we have made, of the evolution of thought and the increased sensitivity that exists. I'm proud that in a country where black men were considered possessions, we now have a black man in the highest office of leadership.

    And I'm proud of where our church is today too. I believe that it is only natural for us to evolve and change as we all grow and learn and become more like Jesus Christ. So basically this is a really long comment to tell you that I wholeheartedly agree with you, and hope my comment isn't inadequate in that expression, as I know, with these matters it is easy to misinterpret one's meaning.

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    1. Not inadequate to say the least, Jenny! Thank you for your beautiful thoughts in return.

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  3. Mahonri, I agree with every beautiful, articulate word. Well written. Thank you for your courage and insight and testimony.

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    1. Thank you, Luisa! You know how highly I value your opinion!

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  4. I feel this statement is dishonest: "Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice." LDS scriptures and most of the church presidents, starting with Brigham Young, and apostles clearly articulated that it was doctrine and explained in detail why.

    I grew up before during the priesthood ban and time and time again I was told in Church, General Conference Talks, Seminary, and in Church published literature that the "negro race" was cursed because of Cain and his curse of the black skin. This also is also clearly stated in Mormon Scripture (The Pearl of Great Price). The ban did not just prohibit men from getting the priesthood, it also banned women and men from getting their temple endowments and sealings. Black children could not be sealed to black or other race parents. Black women could not be primary or relief society presidents or counselors.

    Since the ban was lifted 30 years ago, you and other younger members do not remember how it was before the ban and how racist and exclusionary the practices and teachings of the Church were back then.

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    1. Swittle, I totally understand, and addressed some of that in the post, like when I said, "...for example, historical records actually do offer up some insights about where the ban came from, which history authors like Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray have written a whole series of books about black Mormon pioneer called Standing on the Promises..." I'm aware of all the issues you are raising and they are legitimate and accurate concerns.

      And, frankly, I am so glad that I don't have to deal with the cultural baggage that you and other older members were forced to deal with. It allows a new start for the Church and a new day, just as successive generations of Americans didn't have the same cultural baggage that existed with those who grew up with slavery or segregation or any other kind of racial prejudice.

      However, that doesn't mean that there isn't "miles to go" before we sleep. Racial prejudice, gender prejudice, etc. are all very much alive and we need to keep progressing.

      Thank you so much for your comments! They're a very real and legitimate addition to the discussion.

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    2. Swittle Doodaa, the statement you quoted from the heading is very accurate. We can't even pinpoint with precision the date the Church-wide policy originated (between 1845 and 1848, IIRC), much less any pre-articulated reasons for taking the action.

      As for whether the practice was doctrine, do you have any examples of a statement from Church presidents clearly saying it was "doctrine"? I can't think of any. I think it's clear that they were sharing their thoughts on the matter, but sometimes they even disagreed, such as when Brigham Young discounted the "unrighteous in the premortal life" theory, countering that there were "no neutral spirits in heaven." I think you're criteria for what constitutes doctrine might be too wide.

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  5. This is a really thoughtful post with some great quotes. I had some concerns, though, about your approach to this topic.

    Mahonri: By not recognizing their [prophets'] true, human nature ... , then we set them up for a fall, and that fall is hard and bitter. I've seen many people take exactly that hard line view of the faith and then became disenchanted and leave.

    I agree with you that false expectations are frequently the root of lost testimonies (the quote from your play is fantastic). I also agree with you that the following is a false expectation:

    * "A president of the Church can't teach something wrong."

    However, you then said "... like the priesthood ban." You also say, "The ban was contradictory to scriptures like 2 Nephi 26:33," and, "People, due to the prejudices of their time and culture, ignore[d] the revelations they'[d] been given." I may be reading you wrong, but you seem to be saying that the priesthood restriction (1) was not inspired (2) because 2 Ne. 26:33 says, "All are alike unto God ... black and white, bond and free." In other words, you are setting up the following expectation:

    * "God could never treat people differently based on race."

    I believe that is another false expectation, and there is plenty of evidence in the scriptures that it is false. I worry that in using this assumption, you may again be contributing to setting up individuals for a different kind of crisis of faith. If a person really approaches the gospel with the expectation that God would never specifically direct his prophets to treat individuals and groups differently based on their race, ethnicity, or gender, they're going to be confused when they read the rest of 2 Ne. 26:33 where he says "male and female, ... Jew and Gentile." Like you said, "If I keep building up that false world, but somebody knocks it down with some hard facts, then it would be easy for me to be disenchanted and bitter believe that means that none of the things I was trying to understand were real at all and that I was wasting my time."

    For the record, I understand and agree that the conventional explanations for the restriction were not revealed statements, were never doctrine, and in some cases were logically inconsistent. However, I have never seen the Brethren say definitively that the restriction itself was not begun or maintained by inspiration. The practice itself and the explanations for the practice are two separate questions, and every statement I've seen from the Brethren is careful to make that distinction. We don't know for sure why the practice was in place, so I don't think we should repeat the earlier generation's mistake of pretending we do. Especially if that new explanation is based on the false idea that "God would never do that."

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    1. My personal belief is that it was a mistake, but that's rooted in personal experiences that are not binding on the Church. I think you're right in that the Church has been very careful not to put in stone the "why"... because they haven't received a revelation as to the why. I can see why they do this.

      But I am very wary of anything that discriminates against gender, race, etc. Of course, I'm open to oracles of God regarding those matters, but I'm also very hopeful that all such prejudice will someday cease in the world and in the Church. That's a personal belief, I understand, and not "doctrine." But, however you interpret it, 2 Nephi 26:33 certainly is canonized and I think we should strive for its ultimate meaning.

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    2. I agree with Nathan—the claim that "God would never do that" seems to me to be a kind of absolutism that equally sets us up for disappointment. God clearly does, for example, make distinctions based on gender. There were times in previous dispensations when distinctions were made based on nationality and lineage. And I'm not prepared—and I'm not convinced you are either—to claim that all such distinctions were human constructs overlaid on top of divine revelation.

      I appreciate the respectful tone you present in this article. I do, however, wonder if claiming knowledge that we just don't have (such as whether or not the priesthood ban was instituted by God or man) will simply lead to the same kinds of disappointments in the future. And, it's clear to me, that God could do such things. God clearly invites all nations, genders, and races to partake of salvation, but He historically hasn't done so for all nations while in mortality, and He certainly hasn't allowed all nationalities and races and genders to act in His name in the administration of saving ordinances.

      I personally wonder if God has higher priorities than egalitarianism, and wants us to as well—and although he is currently patient with our meticulous concern over equality, perhaps He wishes we would value instead a self-forgetful unconcern with how we stand in terms of mortal stewardship when compared with others. But these are things I don't know.

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    3. Let me be clear about something. I am in no way stating I know the mind of God in this matter and am always open to revision. That's the point of the post. I personally do find a lot that convinces me in the scriptures that lead to my beliefs. But those are personal readings, and the leaders of the Church have to worry about a world wide Church and all that entails, which is no enviable task.

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    4. Mahonri, thank you for clarifying your position. I think it's fine to lean toward one interpretation over another, as long as we clarify (sometimes with needed precision) what the Brethren have said, and refrained from saying.

      I guess I just want Latter-day Saints to know that there are more than two positions; it's not just "The restriction was inspired, and so are the old traditional explanations (involving premortality, Cain, Ham, etc.)" versus "The explanations are wrong, and so was the restriction itself." There are other possibilities, such as, "The Lord directed his prophets to maintain the restriction for His own purposes, which we cannot discern for certain without further information."

      I like Darius Gray's frequently-shared suggestion that the Lord might have done so simply to test how we treat each other under unequal circumstances. Other reasons might include forcing converts into a position where they urgently need to obtain and rely on a spiritual witness (I think polygamy serves a similar function), or to test our ability to withhold conclusions even under pressure from the world to choose one explanation or the other. I hope these examples illustrate that it's very possible to believe the restriction was divinely placed and/or maintained without necessarily accepting traditional explanations for it, and while also being fully in harmony with passages like 2 Ne. 26:33.

      When you say that you're wary of gender discrimination, do you think the current priesthood restriction to just men is gender discrimination? When you say we should strive for 2 Ne. 26:33's ultimate meaning, do you mean we should work toward having women hold the priesthood?

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    5. I am fine and open with those interpretations, Nathan, and have even held some of them myself at certain points. I am in no way trying to narrow one it to one explanation or interpretation, although I do believe personally that the restriction was wrong and not in keeping with how Joseph Smith originally set up the priesthood.

      As to your questions about gender, I base a lot of my assumptions on that matter on Joseph Smith's comments to the Relief Society, " [Joseph] said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul's day —" (http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book?p=19) leaves me open to the possibility of a female priesthood that he may have in mind before his death. There's different interpretations to this statement, I understand, so am open to disagreement on that issue. However, that said, that is neither my stewardship, so I will continue to support the priesthood, while praying that if there is further revelation regarding the matter, that the leaders of the Church will be open to it.

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    6. Major correction: Darius has NEVER said that the Lord put the restricton into place to test people. He does not believe that God was the author of the restriction, only that it was allowed (obviously, since it hapened) in the name of agency until it became too great an impediment. Darius himself believes that the restricton came during Brigham Young's time and was probably an accommodation to slave-holding Saints, whose human property represented the greatest wealth in the fledgling territory. Joseph Smith himself was absolutely opposed to slavery. As Jane Manning James said, "inasmuch as this is the fulness of times and throuh Abraham all nations of the earth may be blessed," a denial of the greatest blessings of the gospel for any reason other than unrighteousness was counter to prophecy. When the Savior said "Preach my gospel" to all nations, He meant it. When Joseph Smith restored the gospel, we did not revert to former restrictions but were instructed to invite ALL to come unto Christ and partake freely of ALL of the blessings of conversion.

      Margaret B. Young

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    7. Margaret, thank you! As usual, I find yours and Darius' comments particularly relevant, considering all the research you have put into the subject at hand. Thanks for being such a blessing to the Church.

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  6. I enjoyed your post (came here via a link shared by J. Cardon on FB). I particularly liked this:
    But, if you mean that a president of the Church can't teach something wrong (like the priesthood ban or at least ONE of the sides of the Adam-God theory debate in the Church...), and that we would be wrong to recognize that fact, then that's where we part ways, opinion wise. For, if one tries to adhere strictly to that rule, then it doesn't take very long with studying the history of the Church to lose your testimony, if that's the standard you are trying to measure the prophets by. By not recognizing their true, human nature (despite their ability to receive revelation for the Church), then we set them up for a fall, and that fall is hard and bitter. I've seen many people take exactly that hard line view of the faith and then became disenchanted and leave. THAT is what I'm fighting against. THAT is why I do what I do

    I think it's a hard and tiring battle to fight, to try and help turn the tide of the mainstream towards accepting inspired men with human foibles, so good on you. Good post.

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  7. Absolutely loved this post and I will refer to it time and again. Thank you for articulating what I've been thinking! And the gentleness and respect with which it's written is beautiful. Again, thank you!

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  8. Hooray, Mahonri. Will be back to read and comment more.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah! You and I seem like we're constantly on the same page. :)

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  9. We are still not talking about one big issue. The origin of the ban is written in cannonized LDS Scriptures:

    ...and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black and had no place among them. (Moses 7:22)

    ...but cursed him as pertaining to the priestood.
    Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham... (Abraham 1:26 - 27)

    These scriptural passages clearly show and explain about curse of black skin and the priesthood ban on the descendants of Ham, the African Race. This was revealed to Joseph Smith and was passed down from him to other prophets until the ban was lifted in 1978.



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    1. I also forgot to mention that these scriptures are not just some "mistaken policy" given by fallible prophets. The curse and ban were commanded by God who should be perfect and infallible.

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    2. Also in 1949 the First Presidency issued a letter to be read where they specifically state that the ban is doctrine and commanded by the Lord:

      August 17, 1949
      The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. 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. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: "Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to."

      President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: "The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have."

      The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.



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    3. Swittle Doodaa, there is nothing in those passages from the Pearl of Great Price that leads inevitably to a connection with the priesthood restriction. In fact, while traditional interpretations used them as support texts, the ties between the two are pretty tenuous.

      Moses 7:22 says nothing about priesthood. You're also assuming that "black" refers to skin color; that's reading it with modern connotations. It could just as easily refer to some other semantic use of the word, such as lacking light [of understanding], being dirty or stained [with sin], hostile ["black looks"], or unlawful ["black market"]. That interpretation also assumes modern African-Americans are clearly and without exception descendants from that tribal group; no canonized text asserts that.

      Abr. 1:26--27 makes that same last assumption, only about the tribal group of Ham. It does establish the idea that in some ages and places, priesthood can be tied to lineage, but that shouldn't surprise anyone who's read what the Old Testament has to say about birthright and Levites.

      You're correct that all these assumptions were made by individuals such as Bruce R. McConkie. We're just clarifying, like Elder McConkie did, that such assumptions are not on the same level as doctrine or canon.

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    4. Swittle, Mormons have never seen the scriptures as "perfect and infallible." Brigham Young and Joseph Smith both said things that contradict that assumption outright. The Book of Mormon says that the scriptures were changed and many "plain and precious" truths were taken out of the Bible. and Moroni said on the cover page of the Book of Mormon "And now if there be fault, it be the mistake of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God...," clearly leaving room for error even in a holy text.

      And I think Nathan is correct in saying that many people (including very human prophets) have read things into the Pearl of Great Price that are not explicitly stated. The truth is the man who translated those books saw no need to implement the policies that later leaders used to discriminate against African-Americans and other black peoples. I chalk all of that to the "mistakes of men" clause in the scriptures, as I do the First Presidency statement you quote. They were men of their time and place, just as we are people of our time and place with our own blind spots.

      Again, though, these are important things to bring up. Thank you for contributing so positively to the conversation.

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  10. Mahonri, I guess this caveat of modern day revelation and "mistakes of men" will let the Church continue to morph and adapt to modern society and political correctness. These same assumptions will be used when "future revelations" will allow gay temple sealings and women priesthood holders.

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    1. Nevertheless, "mistakes of men" written right there in the scriptures and we have to learn to deal with its implications instead of hiding our heads in the sand and keep ignoring things the Lord has already told us.

      True openness, true vulnerability to God (especially amidst an imperfect world) is really scary. Sometimes it requires a lack of surety as to what tomorrow will look like-- more plainly, it really does take faith in something beyond your own understanding or the understanding of any man or woman.

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  11. Thanks Mahonri great post. I think the Articles of Faith and the doctrine that children shouldn't be punished for parent's sins holds a lot of sway here also. Not to say that children don't suffer when parents fall away but I think Joseph Smith laid it out pretty clear since it is one of the 13 Articles of Faith which gives that doctrine a pretty up front and center treatment in my mind.

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  12. Mahonri,

    I don't think we have ever met, but we know a lot of the same people.

    I appreciate what you are getting at here, and I agree with a great deal of it.

    But I also think that it is highly questionable to claim that the notion that the prophets will never lead the church astray originated with President Woodruff and was meant not as a general doctrine, but applied only to his specific context regarding polygamy.

    While it is clear that the exact phraseology originated with Wilford Woodruff, I think that the notion that the members of the church can always trust that the presiding councils of the church will not lead them astray was well established in the church long before President Woodruff articulated it so directly, and that to claim otherwise is kind of a false narrative that is contrary to the history of the church.

    Joseph Smith Himself declared only months before he was murdered that "I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught."

    Brigham Young reportedly said that in Nauvoo Joseph Smith had repeatedly taught that "the very step of apostasy commenced with losing confidence in the leaders of this church and kingdom, and that whenever you discerned that spirit you might know that it would lead the possessor of it on the road to apostasy."

    Orson Hyde reports that Joseph Smith said "Brethren, remember that the majority of this people will never go astray; and as long as you keep with the majority you are sure to enter the celestial kingdom."

    Similarly, William Nelson reports Joseph Smith saying "if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray."

    This last one is especially clear. So the notion clearly has roots predating President Woodruff and was likely meant as a general principle of the church originating with Joseph Smith and not just for the context of the time.

    And since the same doctrine has been reiterated by many prophets and apostles since then, I don't think that it can be so easily, and conveniently explained away.

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    1. J. Max,

      I appreciate what you're saying here and I'm not disputing a lot of what you're saying. I think sticking with the Church will get folks to God and I believe that's the general intent of Wilford Woodruff's statement, as I thought I made clear in the post. The crux I think is with what you quoted Joseph Smith saying, "I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught."

      You'll note that I never disputed the revelations. There was never a revelation about the priesthood ban (except the one that rescinded it). In fact I believe it flies in the face of revelation, as Elder McConkie noted. It is my belief that Brigham Young's priesthood ban was rooted in his culture and place and went against what Joseph Smith had already established when he ordained black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis. Brigham Young wasn't "perfect," and I'm willing to believe that decisions he made were made with his humanity and not with revelation. Studying the history surrounding it and the absolute vacuum and absence of revelation concerning the decision is enough to convince me of that. I don't know why on earth we want to cling to the belief that it was inspired anyway... I see no justification for it, spiritually, morally, or historically. It's about time we clung to the modern revelation and abandoned the old folk lore.

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    2. I see myself as clinging to modern revelation, like you rightly advocate. No modern revelation that I know of addresses whether the initial practice was inspired, only the fact that the Lord did not desire the practice after June 1978.

      (I promise I'm not trying to be a broken record. I just wanted to respond to the notion that anyone here wasn't clinging to modern revelation, just because they think the practice might have been inspired.)

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  13. I do believe in continuing revelation, and future revelation can contradict, clarify, revoke, or correct prior revelations. I am glad the Church no longer, as it once did, offer up theories for the prior racially ("lineage") based temple/priesthood restrictions, but it no longer claims those prior practices were directed by God. If someone wants to believe in their heart of hearts that there is an unwritten revelation somewhere directing the previous practice, more power to them. I am glad that, to be a believing member of the Church, I do not have to (or no longer have to) believe that African blacks are descendants of Cain/Ham, that the descendants of Cain (until 1978) had always been prohibited from priesthood/temple power and rites, or that somehow the Church's prior practice was directed by or was pleasing to God. I simply don't believe that. But I am also glad that those who believe the opposite of me can also be faithful believing members of the Church--although the three mentioned points are no longer doctrine/teachings of the Church.

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    1. Just to clarify, DavidH's points 1 and 2 are very different from his point 3. A person can easily believe point 3 ("The Church's prior practice was directed by or was pleasing to God") without believing points 1 or 2 (traditional explanations or reasons for the practice).

      Also, I have seen plenty of statements from the Brethren clarifying that points 1 and 2 (traditional explanations) are not and never were doctrine and that they should not be taught in Church settings. However, I have never seen one statement saying that point 3 is not true or should not be taught. In other words, no Church leader has ever stated, in any venue that I've seen or read, that the restriction itself was not inspired of God.

      You're welcome to interpret things that way, but we should take pains not to leave the impression that the Brethren definitely have, or that it's the obviously correlated position.

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    2. Nathan, it's highly subjective to conjecture what "impression" the Brethren have. Their answer lately has been in the press release after the Randy Bott fiasco and the with this new OD2 Heading is "we don't know." They certainly haven't stated that it was inspired of God in any time that I know of since the ban. As you noted, they've avoided that subject quite deftly, but they have also (now officially) declared ignorance as to its origin.

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    3. I left a dangling modifier, which led you to misinterpret my sentence. It should read, "You're welcome to interpret things that way, but we should take pains not to leave the impression that the Brethren have definitely [interpreted things that same way]."

      I wasn't saying the Brethren have left a certain impression favoring one interpretation (you're right; there'd be some subjectivity to that). I was saying that DavidH might have left an impression that the Brethren have renounced the idea that "the Church's prior practice was directed by God." They have not renounced that idea.

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  14. Mahonri, I so appreciate the conversation that has been started here. The comments have been respectful and insightful. I don't read too many blogs anymore, but would appreciate a way in which I could keep up with your posts. Perhaps a subscribe via email option?

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    1. Jenny, if you press the "join this site" button on the sidebar, you can follow the site (publicly or privately, whichever you prefer). Thanks for the interest! I created the blog as a place to explore faith, while maintaining openness, respect, and good will. Hopefully it's working.

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    2. Indeed it is. Civil, thoughtful conversation about deep and difficult subjects is hard to find online and often hard to find offline as well.

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    3. Thanks, William! I think civility is going to be very important from here on out. Whenever I've let myself delve into contentious bashes, it never works out well. I'm very happy this discussion has maintained peace as an important factor, even during disagreement. :)

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  15. Nathan,
    I really enjoyed your thoughts here. It's an area that I've pondered quite a bit lately myself and really appreciate your thoughtful approach. I don't know if you've read David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, but I found some very similar things about the humanity of our leaders and also the struggle to understand the position of the Church regarding the priesthood for all worthy male members.

    I've had some friends leave the Church recently because of the humanity of our leaders, but I've found it to be a faith-promoting experience.That our Heavenly Father would allow us and other, as flawed as we all are, to shepherd our brothers and sisters is awe inspiring and humbling all at the same time. I think that the Church continues to grow is a testimony of its Divine head and not for its human leaders.

    Thanks again for your words!

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    1. David O. McKay and the Rise of Mormonism is a great book!

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    2. Thanks, Jeff Tingey. I haven't read Robert Wright's book yet, but I hope to get to it one of these days. I did get to edit Edward Kimball's second biography of his father, and I own Bush & Mauss's Neither Black nor White and have read it cover to cover.

      You're right that it's too bad when someone lets the humanity of Church leader's lead to his or her own disaffection---tragic because it's so unnecessary. I, too, find it very testimony-strengthening to see how the Church surges forward in spite of her leader's human weaknesses.

      I have only begun to understand in recent years how unique that part of our covenants is---to demonstrate loyalty to the Lord's anointed, even while being fully appraised of their mortal limitations. It's similar in a way to the marriage covenant---binding yourself to someone when you know they can disappoint you. Just as a mature adult has a different kind of love for their spouse than they did as a newlywed, so does a mature Saint for their prophet dear.

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  16. Thanks to all for a valuable discussion, all respectful and aiming at the spiritual health of the Church and it's members. I do not doubt that in some cases such spiritual health and understanding will be aided by considering that our church authorities are not infallible. But I really wonder whether our main imperative today should be to teach people not to follow the prophets too much. A blind spot often shows up in arguments concerning fallibility: we think we can measure fallibility against some "progressive" standard -- which we then are in fact assuming to be infallible.
    "However, that doesn't mean that there isn't 'miles to go' before we sleep. Racial prejudice, gender prejudice, etc. are all very much alive and we need to keep progressing." As if we were certain of the meaning and direction of "progress? and only had to persuade ourselves to be patient while the prophets learned to ... follow us! Prophetic teaching may be conditioned by given cultural circumstances -- but why wouldn't this be expected, after all. But the real question for LDS who take 1978 to be the true Meridian of Time is: how can we have a certain testimony of the truth of Progressive Egalitarianism (and of the moral relativism that logically accompanies it)??

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    2. Ralph, really appreciate your comments here. The main message to take away from this isn't that we shouldn't follow our leaders. That was never my intent and never will be. There is a reason that I have taken so many quotes from the Brethren in this context-- to show that our leaders themselves recognize the principles I'm discussing here and have taught them openly. Those sayings of theirs are just as important to take into consideration as the other principles they teach.

      As I stated numerous times here, I believe in the power of prophets. Their counsel is not to be lightly disregarded. No one has said here that any standard, "progressive" or otherwise, is infallible-- except for God's truth, and he doesn't exactly give his truth in one, hard dose. Line upon line...

      So I think you're unintentionally creating a straw man out of what I'm saying here and projecting upon me a system of thought I no more believe in than the one I'm criticizing. So let me clarify. What is important to me here is the rapid apostasy I'm seeing in the Church and how the belief in prophetic infallibility DOES hurt people's faith and DOES cause them to leave the Church. I have seen it time and time again and I do not think it is in anyone's interest to simply ignore that and privilege a kind of thinking that is doing so much spiritual damage and is the cause of so much apostasy and loss of faith. Downplaying the fact that near prophetic fallibility seems to be a belief in the culture of the Saints doesn't do anybody much good.

      However, I do not believe that somehow being egalitarian is akin to moral relativism, as you propose... that was the rational used against Civil Rights and the abolition of slavery and denying women the vote and I know you don't go against any of those things. I believe quite the opposite of what you said. I think true morality and charity is FOUND when we strive for the equality that 2 Nephi 26:33 demands. As the Lord says in Doctrine and Covenants 78:6: "For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be aequal in obtaining heavenly things..." I think equality is at the heart of morality.

      Thank you for your thoughtful and considerate comments, they have very much added to the discussion.

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    3. Ralph, I wonder if the problematic logical relativism you mention only becomes a problem because of our tendency to consider Church Leadership and the general Church Membership as separate entities rather than as part of the same body. People seem to fall away when they encounter fallibility because they seem to think the head must be "wrong" so it somehow must be separate from the body or we are somehow part of a different body with another head TBA at some later time. Is it possible that the words of the prophets are somehow limited to the attitudes of the people just like a head is generally limited to the attitude and capability of the body? If we've learned anything from Moroni and his military namesake, I think it's if the body is prepared, the head will lead to victory. Is it possible that Brigham Young and the subsequent prophets who perpetuated the ban weren't racists at all, but we (the body) were, so the prophets' instructions reflected as much? Is it possible that the entire ban could have been prevented if the body of the Church had been more prepared? It seems like thinking this way allows us to preserve both prophetic infallibility AND the pursuit for the Zionist egalitarianism we find in the scriptures without having to choose one over the other. Then again, maybe it's just a romantic idea since, like the simpleton that I am, I struggle to teach that the prophet is a prophet except when he's not a prophet...or "in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house" and I love the idea of approaching the celestial societies described in the scriptures. I dunno. Just a thought.

      -Arnold

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  17. Thanks, Mahonri. To be sure, some understanding of equality is certainly at the heart of the gospel, but I think many are too inclined to interpret this against the often unexamined background of a progressive egalitarianism heavily indebted to secular ideological categories. What else can be the resonance of your words when you say "we need to keep progressing." This clearly indicates that you have implicitly plotted a line of development that includes "civil rights" and the end of "gender prejudice" and that leads in a beyond these points on the progressive graph to... what exactly? I think there is here a pretty obvious tendency to impose a certain secular progressive narrative onto Church history and, particularly, onto its future.
    I grant you my shorthand was pretty abrupt when I went from progressivism to relativism. That would require further discussion. But it's really not so mysterious. The drift from equality to sameness (in understanding sexual difference, a.k.a. "gender") and to equivalence of "values" (e.g. regarding the very meaning of "family") is manifest all around us. See, for example, Elder Oaks on "Truth and Tolerance."
    As I said before, I do not disagree with you that there must be many saints who might benefit from a little more supple view of prophetic authority. But we probably disagree as to the relative importance of that concern. Are you really sure that more will fall away because of a too simple disposition to accept and obey than because of a pseudo-sophisticated confidence in being out ahead of the prophets? That is the question of rhetorical priorities I'm asking you to consider. The risk of "downplaying prophetic fallibility" must always weighed against the risk of downplaying the fallibility of ideas of progress that prevail among intellectual and media elites.
    Finally, I second in all sincerity your expression of gratitude for a thoughtful discussion informed by genuine interest in seeing the truth as clearly as we can and in serving the saints.

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  18. "What else can be the resonance of your words when you say 'we need to keep progressing.'"

    I don't know, maybe the very Mormon idea of Eternal "Progression"...? ;)

    Again, thanks for the civil tone and very informed viewpoint, Ralph. You're making real contributions to the discussion and are presenting very important points to consider.

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  19. I personally think that often it is not necessarily a lack of understanding of prophetic fallibility that is leading people to leave the church, but a too high a confidence in the secular ideals which prophets haven't always made a priority and have sometimes explicitly contradicted.

    For example, a number of my friends have left the church because of the church's support of traditional marriage and family norms. Others (who share their concerns) have urged them to stay, reminding them that prophets are fallible. These others have also said that they wish Latter-day Saints were more open to the idea of prophetic fallibility, and this would protect them against apostasy (such as leaving the church when prophets support causes and teach doctrines with which they disagree).

    I think that in these cases, it is not the fact that they pedestalize prophets that leads them to question their membership in the church—it's the fact that they pedestalize the progressive views they've imported from our surrounding society and culture. They exhibit an unquestioning support of the idea of same-sex marriage (in the name of egalitarian equality), but only (at best) a faltering allegiance to any prophetic direction that contradicts those ideals.

    Further, if these people were to simply say, "Prophets are fallible," and remain in the church (but in strong disagreement with church doctrines regarding chastity and the family), they may not be in any less danger of apostasy. Apostasy is not solely defined in terms of church membership, but also in terms of our personal loyalty to Christ and His teachings. If the prophets really are speaking for Christ in these regards (and I personally believe they are), then there are spiritual dangers in elevating a progressive vision of society over the teachings of prophets, even if we remain in full activity in the church.

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    1. I'm kind of annoyed that everything these days leads back to the gay marriage debate, even when it is not explicitly the subject at hand. That is not the subject I'm addressing, and have no clue about the particulars about the mind of the Lord on the subject. Recently it seems as if the Church leaders have been using more compassionate rhetoric and a position of understanding for its gay members and the gay men and women who outside of the Church (as evidenced by the Church's new Gays and Mormons website: http://www.mormonsandgays.org/). If anything, their recent movements show a much more important message than divisive political positioning and societal definitions... even when people disagree, the more important message is "love one another," as it boldly declares on the Church's Gays and Mormons website. That is what they have been emphasizing since the fallout of Prop 8.

      But as I said, this post is not about that. It is about how to view the struggles of the past, not the whatever struggles may be ahead of us in the future. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

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    2. Thus I don't want anybody to misconstrue the purpose of this post. Those who feel they have me pegged on any issue outside of what I discuss here is assuming too much. My feelings about gay marriage, for example, are complex and conflicted (especially as I have a lot of friends and loved ones who are gay) and I don't have a particular stand on that issue yet. Until I feel the confirmation of the Spirit towards a particular direction, I'm more than fine with both sides stating their case in the legal and spiritual framework. And the Church has a perfect right to follow its conscience, as do those who feel differently. We all must do what we think is right, even when conflict occasionally arises. Hopefully we deal with that conflict with love, respect, and understanding, and don't resort to bullying either side, or pushing people out to the fringe because their opinions are different than ours.

      I do, however, believe the Church is doing a good job on softening its rhetoric in the current climate and extending a hand of love, even while they exercise their religious freedom. However it pans out, I think this compassionate course is much more Christ-like.

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    3. Without laboring the point, while the rhetoric the church uses has had more precision and clarity, I'm not convinced that it's more compassionate than it has been before. This is because I don't see the Church's support of Proposition 8, or the teachings of the prophets about the immorality of same-sex activity, as uncompassionate, nor do I see that they've backed off in any way whatsoever on those teachings.

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    4. Oh, I hope we're always getting "more" of all good things in the Church. The point of Eternal Progression. "Shall we not go forward in so great a cause?" But now we're just mincing words. My point is that I really like the new things the Church is doing (for the website is definitely new). We're definitely better than when BYU was doing shock therapy. To totally ignore the changes the Church has made in recent years in its rhetoric, in its teachings, and its attitude on the subject would be to ignore facts. For one thing, the Church now recognizes its not something that can be "cured," which is different than their previous position. It even had to edit some of Elder Packer's comments in the published versions of his most recent talk on the subject to make it more in line with the Church's new position. Change has happened in the Church on the subject, that's impossible to honestly ignore.

      But, again, this wasn't the point of the post.

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    5. Mahonri, I know that you very well may not have had same-sex marriage in mind as you wrote this. It may surprise and distress you, then, to discover how many who have read your post have picked up on undertones you may not have intended.

      Ideas have consequences. The conceptual templates we use to make sense of the past are inevitably used to make sense of the present and the future. We learn history only to make sense of the present and the future. That's what history is for. We cannot avoid that.

      And so if we make sense of the past in terms of the prophets being "behind the times" when they defended policies or doctrines that were rejected by surrounding society (such as, perhaps, the priesthood ban, polygamy, or women in the home), and if we make sense of the past in terms of the progressive vision being ultimately vindicated and prophets ultimately discredited on those regards, it is all but inevitable that we will apply that same conceptual template to current events and expect it to happen again in the future. For that reason, I'm not sure you can be surprised or dismayed that people read such undertones in your post. That, I believe, is the spirit of Bro. Hancock's question: to what end? What is the final trajectory of this progressive, conceptual template for interpreting the past?

      I personally believe that the conceptual trajectory we are heading towards is a position in which 15 men whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators can express their united voice on a topic they are intensely concerned about—but because their stated direction contradicts the progressive worldview we've been taught by the world, Saints will respond by saying, "[We have] no clue about the particulars about the mind of the Lord on the subject" (as if the collective teachings of prophets don't actually count as such a clue). Our concerns that this perspective will contribute to apostasy of a whole different—and perhaps even more dangerous—kind have been supported by real experiences with many, many people who think precisely this way, who use this conceptual template to rationalize a wholesale dismissal of family norms in the face of explicit doctrinal teachings from Church leaders.

      And that is concerning to many of us, particularly when there are conceptual templates that we can use to make sense of church history (conceptual templates that have at least equal support in evidence) that don't tempt us to prioritize secular ideas over contemporary prophetic direction in the here and now. Conceptual templates that allow us to rejoice in the change in church policy but don't lead us to assume that the policy itself was one great big mistake or that we can or should question prophet direction today that doesn't quite jive with what society takes for granted. And I'm not sure you can easily dismiss those concerns by saying, "I'm not talking about that, and I wish others wouldn't apply what I say to the subject."

      We appreciate your humility in not jumping to conclusions on the issue of same-sex marriage. We would like to invite you to consider, however, how the conceptual template you are espousing to make sense of the past will affect our present willingness to respond to prophetic counsel today. And I'm personally not at all sure that we have a surplus of following prophetic counsel, but a surplus of reservations about following prophetic counsel, and that these reservations are going to continue to grow.

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    6. A point of clarification: I love the respectful and civil way this discussion has unfolded, and I hope you know that there is no ill will intended in these comments. I hope that you'll see my previous comment as an issue that at least needs to be considered when talking about ways of making sense of church history—particularly in light of the fact that your stated goal is to reduce the stressing incidence of needless apostasy amongst our members (something we are in complete agreement on).

      We can both agree that prophets are fallible, and we can both agree that much apostasy is needless (and perhaps could be prevented if we realized this). I just think we need to at least address the issue of how these interpretive templates will affect the way we respond to contemporary prophetic direction, since the issue at hand is, indeed, one of (unnecessary) apostasy.

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    7. Jeffrey,

      You said: "We can both agree that prophets are fallible, and we can both agree that much apostasy is needless (and perhaps could be prevented if we realized this). I just think we need to at least address the issue of how these interpretive templates will affect the way we respond to contemporary prophetic direction, since the issue at hand is, indeed, one of (unnecessary) apostasy."

      Noted. I certainly am not trying to give people excuse to reject inspired counsel. Although I do believe that a compassionate stance towards homosexuality IS part of the current counsel, so I think you may be privileging one part of the message over another... of course the same could be said of my emphasis, as well. ;)

      And I don't think I'm as worried about "templates" or other similarly constructed systems... one of the problems with allowing people to go along and believe that prophets are pretty much infallible is that it, in my mind, such a view encourages ignorance and blind obedience. I liked when Elder Perry cited (appropriately) Brigham Young in his 2003 Conference Talk "We Believe All Things That God Has Revealed": "Brigham Young is reported to have said that the greatest fear he had was that members of the Church would take what he said as the mind and will of God without first praying and obtaining a witness of the same for themselves."

      Obedience to the truth is anything but blind. It ought to be full of the sight of revelation, and as I have already stated, I do not believe that revelation has ceased to the Lord's prophets.

      Like Article of Faith 9 says: "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

      I believe God had revealed his will about prejudice before the ban, and when the ban was obliterated. I think the scriptures are plain about that, at least with my own interpretation and what I feel my own personal spiritual experiences have led me to. That's my personal belief. To accept that, at least within my own personal context (which is obviously not binding on anyone but myself), I personally believe I have to accept that something went wrong to implement the ban, and I believe what some of our best (and perhaps inspired) historians have uncovered helps shed light on that, and I think the Brethren are wise to have implemented so much of that history into the new OD2.

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    8. "Although I do believe that a compassionate stance towards homosexuality IS part of the current counsel, so I think you may be privileging one part of the message over another..."

      I'm actually rather confused as to how anything I've said can be connoted as a lack of compassion towards those with same sex-attraction. If you are referring to my referencing of Proposition 8 or my defense of marriage norms, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve signed their names to a document addressed to the Supreme Court defending Proposition 8 last month. So unless they too are privileging one part of the message over another, I'm not sure how I am. I am weary of people assuming that a defense of moral norms and traditional marriage is somehow incompatible with "compassion," and that the church has somehow softened its stance on traditional marriage (which it has not in any way).

      Further, I've had direct experience with a large number of my friends who have expressed a sincere wish that the prophets would catch up with the times and admit that same-sex activity is not a sin, and that same-sex marriage should be normalized. They outright reject the Proclamation on the Family as an inspired document, and openly flout their objections in internet forums and others. This concerns me, and I think it concerns the Brethren too.

      I interpret Brigham Young's comment and Elder Perry's quotation of it differently than you. God doesn't want blind obedience—but He does want obedience. He just wants us to gain a personal testimony of it as well. Personally, we can all agree that God will yet reveal many things. But we cannot and should not use that article of faith to justify ignoring current prophetic direction, which is what I see many people doing (and using that article of faith to justify their dissidence).

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    9. Again, Jeffrey, I am not the one who contorted this essay to fit the gay marriage debate. In fact, I am not arguing with most of what you have said here. I have not come out against the prophets' counsel about homosexuality and have not claimed they softened their stance against gay marriage. You are projecting your friends' arguments on mine. They are not one and the same. My concern is that you're letting the supposed boogeyman of gay marriage color the discourse on every other issue. It's like cantaloupe. Once you add cantaloupe to fruit salad, then all the other fruit tastes like cantaloupe, too. So I'm not letting in anymore cantaloupe into this discussion and, as moderator of my blog, will delete any further stray melons that are trying to dominate the rest of the salad. This is in no way a reflection of you or your arguments--which have been very well wrought and I recommend anyone who wants some cantaloupe to eat the comments above-- but I'm going to steer us back to the topic at hand.

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  21. You apply a lot of negative connotation to the word "progressive." I do not. I see a lot of "progressive" things happening in the Church right now. The I'm a Mormon Campaign. The Mormons and Gays website. These new changes to OD2 and the Church's distancing itself from the offensive mythologies that Randy Bott was espousing about the ban. Lowering the age for sister missionaries. The Church's re-emphasis on political neutrality. The Church pushing for compassionate immigration reform instead of the hard line approach that many members I've encountered (especially here in AZ) want to push. The Church's more open view of its history. The Joseph Smith Papers are a far cry from the old "not all facts are useful" mantra. Rather the current approach seems to be more in line with John Adams' famous saying, "facts are stubborn things."

    I'm not afraid of progress. I don't exactly know what progress looks like yet, but I'm assuming it will look pretty different than what I currently assume. I don't believe secularists are always wrong (otherwise we would have never listened to heretics like Thomas Jefferson) or that the religious right is always, well, right. I believe truth is scattered and we can find pieces of it all over the place, especially within the revelations and oracles of God. I'm patient as to see what the article of faith's "we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" will yield. I do know, whatever the case, I don't want to ignore facts along the way (even the pesky, "stubborn" ones... especially the stubborn ones!). For one prophet was the greatest Prophet and he said: "The truth will make you free."

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  22. Thank you so much for the article. You bring up a good point about prophets not being perfect. As you read through church history and thought the scriptures, you will find accounts of prophets making mistakes. For example, Joseph Smith let others look at the book of Lehi after he was instructed not to by the Lord. Another example was Moses. God instructed her to command the rock to bring forth water. Instead he hit the rock twice with his rod, thus disobeying God.

    Although mistakes are made, I believe that things happen for a reason. Look at perhaps on of the biggest mistakes known to mankind, Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. We all know that was for a very important reason. I'm not saying that the priesthood ban was good in any way, but because of it, there were amazing people who were able to show forth great faith in Africa. Because of the faith of these man and women, I believe they were greatly blessed. They are all a huge inspiration to me.

    If you have never heard the story, look form the documentary called Pioneers of Africa. This is one of the most amazing stories I have ever heard. A minister in Africa found a Book of Mormon not knowing what it was. Once he read it, he knew it was true. Before you know it, he had large numbers of people coming to hear the gospel. Then unofficial branches of the Church of Jesus Cherish of Latter-day Saints started popping up all over Africa. They begged the church for missionaries to come teach them and to baptize them with the proper authority. It was a very long drawn out process, and they had to wait years. But they show great faith. They understood they couldn't have the priesthood but didn't care. They only thing they wanted was salvation. All of their faithful letters to Salt Lake had a lot to do with the church rethinking this rule. I'm not saying anything good came from the priesthood ban, but I think it allowed many, many people the opportunity to show their great faith and devotion to God.

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    1. Mike, I have seen Pioneers of Africa and enjoyed it very much. There is also a book of interviews of African Mormons and their conversions called All Are Alike Unto God (collected by E. Dale LeBaron). The spiritual pentecost that happened in Africa previous to the ban is very inspiring to me and shows to me how much the Lord loves all people.

      Thank you for your great comments.

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    2. I came to this site from a link in Times and Seasons. I enjoyed your post, Mahonri, and agree with you. I also enjoyed all of the comments. Good food for thought.

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    3. Thanks, Sharee! I'm very happy to have some Times and Seasons folks over here! :)

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  23. Well written, sir. You seem to be a Mormon cut out of the same cloth as me.

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  24. There are several pieces to this puzzle that I just cant grasp, and would like to hear anyones thoughts on the matter.

    1. How is it that the same prophet that received the revelation or communication from God to perform sealings, endowments, baptism, etc, also did not receive the instruction to perform these ordinances to all? If God first instructed them of the ordinances, then second showed how to perform them, wouldn't you think he would at least say, "make sure everyone gets a chance"?

    2. Church leaders wrote handbooks, instruction manuals, and made decisions that would affect an entire race of people for almost 150 years, or more than 11 prophets, with many more apostles, and at no time during that 150 year period, while God saw that a massive amount of his children were being deprived of eternal, celestial kingdom saving ordinances, and basically DAMNED here on earth of all progression and blessings from heaven, that He would not mention at least once to his "mouth pieces", "hey, make sure everyone gets a chance".

    If this great injustice was happening to women, how long do you think God would allow it to happen, especially with His kingdom on earth?

    3. One of the major pillars of the church is its ability to state that it is a "living church", that it receives direct communication and revelation from God... If thats the case, why did it take over 11 prophets and almost 150 years to finally get around to receiving this insanely important revelation, cutting off a whole race of people from his kingdom here on earth, and potential celestial glory.

    This now puts into question everything we are ever taught about priesthood, marriage, husband and wife, as it could all change at any time, and no matter what the prophets are telling us now about gay marriage, or women not having the priesthood, that on April 6 we could find out that God actually is okay with gays, and also wants women to have the priesthood, as finally we got around to asking, and thats what He's always wanted.

    Finally, how is it that a church that states it is a "living church", that has a mouth piece of God on earth, can state that "church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice"? So, is the church basically stating that it lived almost 150 years damning an entire race of people from celestial glory, with no one ever asking why, or how this occurred--at least through 11 prophets and 150 years? That just seems incomprehensible for a church that is supposed to have a living prophet on earth, communicating with God. Otherwise, based on the above, it sounds just like any other man organized church.

    Please excuse my writing abilities, as I know it is heavily flawed. I am definitely not an award winning playwright, but would like to be apart of this discussion.

    Thanks!
    Jean

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    2. Jean, despite the somewhat harsh tone you are establishing here, I understand your concerns. They're concerns a lot of people have shared. I think I have already answered a lot of my views on these questions with this post and my "Expectations of a Prophet" post: http://mahonristewart.blogspot.com/2010/11/expectations-of-prophet-keeping-faith.html

      That said, however, first of all it didn't take 150 years for the Lord to reveal the equality of the races. That had already been revealed in 2 Nephi 26:33 and in the book of Acts when Peter is commanded to abandon the old practice of denying the Gentiles the Gospel and to bring it to all the world. We, as flawed human beings, however, were a little thick and let our prejudices cloud our judgment. Joseph Smith, for his time, was actually quite progressive and ordained black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis, and he and Emma wanted a black woman named Jane Manning "adopted" into their family be being sealed to them. So, apparently, Joseph Smith had already set a pattern. But in Utah the 19th century politics surrounding the Civil War, Southern converts importing racist beliefs from other religious traditions, and the isolation that Utah experienced from the rest of the nation (it did not have to go through the crucible that the Civil War was to the rest of the nation), all contributed to the formation of what I consider to be a culturally based belief that led Brigham Young to reject the Church's (and his) previous stances of racial inclusion. It was a shame, but I don't think the Lord called Brigham Young for his revelatory abilities... Brigham Young himself often said that he did not have the same kind of spiritual gifts that Joseph Smith had... I think Brigham Young was called for his grit, his loyalty to the Church, and his pragmatic abilities, which were essential in establishing the Saints in Utah. I definitely think that "Brother Brigham" was called of God, but I also believe God emphasizes the journey as much as the destination. Granting agency to individuals, as well as to the Church, is paramount to Christ and our Heavenly Parents. It's the very reason they allowed 1/3 of the hosts of the pre-existence to leave... they valued the agency of their children that much. It's a core definition of why we're here, and if our Heavenly Parent's children ignore and do not search through what has already been given them concerning pressing issues like gender fairness or race relations, then they are going to let us stumble.

      Our Father and Mother are not helicopter parents. They are not just going to lean over and do all our homework for us. The experience is part of the revelation, the process a part of the Grace filled cleansing, the fall a part of the ascension. I believe it was as part important for God to let us stumble in these matters; to be humiliated in the world's eyes like the Prodigal Son was; to learn the humility that comes after pride; like the Prodigal Son, ask and implore our Parents for forgiveness; and gain new revelation and insight through experience instead of lecture.

      I believe this was part of our process of cleansing, part of our process of learning, part of the experiential aspect becoming like our Heavenly Parents. To me, it is part of core of Mormonism for God to allow us to Fall.

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    3. Excuse the number of typos above... how embarrassing! ;)

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  25. Thank you for the response, it is much appreciated.

    My concern with just brushing off over 100-150 years of suppression against an entire race of people by calling it human error or just us humans being humans, is we're not talking about poor bank investments, or their roughness around their edges, but the salvation of every black person that ever came in contact, or could have come in contact with an LDS member for those 100+ years, plus not to mention all of their children, and children's children. Sure when these people died, they were given the opportunity (we think), and will potentially be allowed into the celestial kingdom (based on their judgement), but this church is supposed to be God's kingdom on earth, and you would think that out of all the things it should be correct on, is its saving ordinances--as that is really what a church boils down to. Outside of the social, auxiliary programs, etc, the most important aspect of the church is its saving ordinances to get us back to heaven, and for God to allow his church to be run astray for over hundred years, and run through many prophets (more than just Pres Young), and no one ever receiving the revelation from God to correct this huge error, questions their communication with the All Mighty altogether.

    So how far do we believe this church is guided by God? Do we believe that God actually calls the men to lead the church, or do we think that men call other men to lead the church, and God only intervenes when we ask? If we believe that God actually calls the men, and is guiding this church, like his church of old, dont we think he would correct the massive errors, like he did to his apostles when on earth? This isnt just a bad investment, its the salvation of all blacks for 100+ years, and turning them all away, telling them sorry, their not getting into the celestial kingdom. This wasnt just one prophet, it was more than 10, that communed with God, as well as many apostles, for over 100-150 years, and never once did this ever come up.

    If we chalk up the suppression of black people as a cleansing process, or as a prodigal son, or growing pangs, what do we count as important?

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    1. "And never once did this ever come up..." It actually DID come up.
      John Taylor struggled with the issue and had meeting with the Brethren about it, where there were conflicting reports about how the policy came to be.

      David O. McKay struggled with it and believed that it was a "policy, not a doctrine," but there was enough conflicts within the 12 about the issue. Hugh B. Brown was pushing for more rights for the Blacks members of the Church, while apostles like Ezra Taft Benson were resisting-- in part because Elder Benson thought that the African-Americans were too associated with communists (he was a little paranoid about that issue, as we know). I believe its because there wasn't consensus in the quorum that I think President McKay received the answer he reported, "Not yet." Joseph Smith had previously set up that when the majority of the 12 were behind an issue, the Church could rely on that... so I believe Pres. McKay may have been waiting for that. That's my theory anyway.

      But the point is that you're accidentally simplifying the history here. This was something that came up with the prophets and apostles and they struggled mightily against their cultural inclinations before there could be consensus on the issue.

      As to the salvation of the black people who were excluded... I think section 137 of the Doctrine and Covenants answers that concern:


      1 The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.

      2 I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;

      3 Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.

      4 I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.

      5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;

      6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.

      7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;

      8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;

      9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.

      10 And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.

      Salvation is not even ultimately subject to what Church a person belongs to, although through proxy work every one will have a chance to go through that
      "straight and narrow gate." Ultimately we are judged by our "works, according to the desire of their hearts," and the Lord's grace will cover the rest. A couple of hundred years seems a long time to us for injustices to go unchecked (although there are many injustices which have existed much longer than that). To the Lord and our Heavenly Parents, however, I believe those wrongs done in that time are but moments to them, and their power and grace can heal all those wounds. They have a much wider perspective.

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  26. Another way to look at it, is that over 10 prophets for over 100 years lead all blacks astray from the true salvation of God on earth. Not allowing them to receive the saving ordinations to return to God here on earth, and not allowing them to receive the blessings of heaven here on earth. Once again going back to the previous point, sure prophets are human and can make mistakes, but over 10 for over 100-150 years, leading an entire race astray from the true word of God?

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    2. I'm not saying that the process is always fair, or even that the results are always good, but I do say that agency and experience are so important that they become the primary concern. A benevolent dictator would yet still be a dictator, and that's not how our Heavenly Parents lead. It would dash the WHOLE POINT of our existence (at least from a Mormon perspective) if they inserted themselves unbidden in the ways you are suggesting. Agency and experience are a laborious and even a timely process, especially when it involves whole communities, races, and competing groups. The time involved to allow that agency and experience to unfold is necessary. There is no quick ticket to salvation.

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