What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
On June 8, 1978, the First Presidency of the LDS Church announced that blacks would be eligible for the priesthood. Two months after the announcement, Elder Bruce R. McConkie spoke on the subject and sought to bury the previous statements which seemed to contradict what had happened.
“There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren,” he said, “which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality.” He continued:
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.
It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles. (emphasis added)
Imagine a Latter-day Saint in the early 1970s who believed that the Church’s position was wrong, and who read the scriptures and concluded that blacks were not under a curse, and that they should therefore not be ineligible to hold the priesthood. Would this individual’s position have been tolerated, or would he have been criticized for not following the prophet? Would he have been considered out of line for believing something that later occurred as he thought it should, or should he simply be seen as being a little “ahead of his time”?
Indeed, because we all progress line upon line, as Elder McConkie noted, might it therefore follow that in some issues, in some circumstances, a lay Latter-day Saint might be a step ahead of his leaders? Of course, this is not to say that the individual has the authority to rebuke his leaders and point out to them the (purportedly) proper position. But would he be off base for affirming a belief that at the time was contrary to church counsel, but in fact later proven true?
The Church itself has even self-corrected, dismissing previous statements by church leaders to the contrary as uninformed and misguided personal opinions:
For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
Though not known precisely how the restriction began, previous church leaders affirmed that it was the will of God. In 1951, the First Presidency issued an official statement on the Negro question, saying that, “It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of a 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 “attempts” being referenced by the Church’s recent statement were a set of authoritative statements (even if sometimes softened as qualified opinions) declaring how blacks were cursed as descendants of Ham, and some claims that spirits born to black bodies were not valiant in the pre-mortal existence. For example, Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
When they [the rebellious spirits in the pre-mortal realm] were cast out, there were many who did not join the rebellious forces, but who were not valiant. Because of their lack of obedience, they were not deprived of receiving bodies, but came here under restrictions. One of those restrictions is that they were denied the Priesthood.
It is generally well known and accepted that many of these statements were exactly what Elder McConkie said they were: based on limited understanding, and unworthy of further adherence. But the underlying issue presented by this situation is larger than just the priesthood question.
Consider the topic of interracial marriage. In the very same issue of the Church News where the revocation of the priesthood ban was announced, an article titled “Interracial marriage discouraged” was printed containing some counsel from President Spencer W. Kimball discouraging Latter-day Saints from entering into mixed-race marriages. This counsel was not new.
Brigham Young once stated, “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” Of course, that use of “always” makes one question whether Brother Brigham was speaking with limited understanding.
In more recent times, Elder Mark E. Petersen warned of interracial marriage in worrisome terms:
The discussion on civil rights, especially over the last 20 years, has drawn some very sharp lines. It has blinded the thinking of some of our own people, I believe. They have allowed their political affiliations to color their thinking to some extent. I think I have read enough to give you an idea of what the Negro is after.
He is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people eat. He isn’t just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. It isn’t that he just desires to go to the same theater as the white people. From this, and other interviews I have read, it appears that the Negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage.
That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for Negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that we used to say about sin, ‘First we pity, then endure, then embrace’…. (emphasis added)
In a 1947 letter to the head of Utah State University’s Department of Sociology, the First Presidency reiterated the same concerns:
Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and white races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. . . .
We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.
In later years, the Church stepped away from such claims of doctrinal support for an interracial marriage ban. Even as the priesthood ban was lifted, President Kimball softened the previous positions to revolve not around sin and doctrine, but around the importance of compatibility between spouses. He wrote:
…we must discourage intermarriage, not because it is sin. I would like to make this very emphatic. A couple has not committed sin if an Indian boy and a white girl are married, or vice versa. It isn’t a transgression like the transgressions of which many are guilty. But it is not expedient.
The interrace marriage problem is not one of inferiority or superiority. It may be that your son is better educated and may be superior in his culture, and yet it may be on the other hand that she is superior to him. It is a matter of backgrounds. The difficulties and hazards of marriage are greatly increased where backgrounds are different. For a wealthy person to marry a pauper promises difficulties. For an ignoramus to marry one with a doctor’s degree promises difficulties, heartaches, misunderstandings, and broken marriages.
My point in providing these examples is not to be critical, nor to suggest that I or anybody knows better than church leaders on any given issue of spiritual import. I am not encouraging rebellion against current church policies on grounds that leaders are wrong, and that surely in time they will “see the light”—though this may very well be true, as is the case for us all.
My purpose is merely to raise the subject of prophetic fallibility. History suggests that church leaders have said things that later proved to be untrue, or were later overturned and disregarded as being uninformed. Logic dictates, then, that this possibility exists for current policy positions, and that changes in the future may overturn what is now emphatically declared to be The One True Way.
And I’m okay with that.
When I read Rough Stone Rolling, I was impressed with Joseph Smith’s progress and productivity. I was amazed at how God took an ignorant boy and turned him into an influential leader. I loved seeing one example after another about how Joseph did or said something wrong—not to magnify the problem and criticize him for it, but to recognize that despite these deficiencies, God was able to turn him into something spectacular. It gave me hope that even somebody like myself can have great potential despite mistakes and imperfections. The same holds true for each of God’s children. We are all fallible. We are all imperfect. And we can all learn and progress and improve.
I believe that God exists. I believe that during his mortal ministry, Jesus Christ organized an institution to provide ordinances and spiritual direction to his followers. I believe that after corruption and apostasy, that institution was restored in recent years by Joseph Smith. I believe that individuals called of God still direct the church and that God’s will can be made manifest through counsel and revelation these people pass on.
But I do not believe in “blind obedience” nor that every utterance by said leaders represents The Will of God.
And I don’t think that’s a radical idea. Many of these same leaders have emphasized the importance of not simply assuming that any given statement by a General Authority represents God’s will. One of the most potent examples of this line of thinking appeared in an 1852 editorial in the Millennial Star.
Because of these facts, and the apparent imperfections of men on whom God confers authority, the question is sometimes asked,—to what extent is obedience to those who hold the priesthood required? This is a very important question, and one which should be understood by all Saints. In attempting to answer this question, we would repeat, in short, what we have already written, that willing obedience to the laws of God, administered by the Priesthood, is indispensable to salvation; but we would further add, that a proper conservative to this power exists for the benefit of all, and none are required to tamely and blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the Priesthood. We have heard men who hold the Priesthood remark, that they would do any thing they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong: but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God, who seeks for the redemption of his fellows, would despise the idea of seeing another become his slave, who had an equal right with himself to the favour of God; he would rather see him stand by his side, a sworn enemy to wrong, so long as there was place found for it among men. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty (!) authority, have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the Saints were told to do by their Presidents, they should do it without asking any questions.
When the Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience, as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves, and wish to pave the way to accomplish that wrong; or else because they have done wrong, and wish to use the cloak of their authority to cover it with, lest it should be discovered by their superiors, who would require an atonement at their hands.
Joseph F. Smith similarly stated:
Not a man in this Church, since the Prophet Joseph Smith down to the present day, has ever asked any man to do as he was told blindly. No Prophet of God, no Apostle, no President of a Stake, no Bishop, who has had the spirit of his office and calling resting upon him, has ever asked a soul to do anything that they might not know was right and the proper thing to do. We do not ask you to do anything that you may not know it is your duty to do, or that you may not know will be a blessing for you to do.
Again, I believe extreme caution should be exercised when considering the degree of applicability this idea has. If one disagrees with a statement made by a prophet or apostle, it can become easy to indulge similar notions on a variety of other issues, leading into a general rejection of the people God intends to lead his church. While blind obedience can produce a form of slavery, a casual disregard for the counsel of God’s chosen leaders can produce a good deal of pride.
Still, I think it is important to seek confirmation of our actions and beliefs through prayer. The Holy Ghost reveals truth, and even though we may want to read into our impressions the bias we want confirmed, we must seek to understand things as they really are.
The Lord’s leaders are fallible, but so are we. We all learn line upon line, and each of God’s children, be he a General Authority or a new convert, has grown up in a world of cultural tradition, propaganda, and opinions long held as fact. Ours is the task to sift through the varied voices and seek God’s will, whatever it may be. Recognizing that church leaders have stated things in the past which were later proven untrue does not mean that the gospel is false or that God does not reveal his will to his leaders. It simply means that human error can cloud our judgment and frustrate our path toward perfection. So long as we continue to look to Christ and attempt to align our lives with His will, we will be alright.