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.
You’ve heard about it by now, I’m sure—the LDS Church’s new explanation on the previous ban that existed for African members of the church preventing them from holding the priesthood and participating in certain ordinances in the temple. Though not accompanied by the signature of any general authority, nor being read in general conference or over the pulpit, the commentary (expounding on a previous statement) nevertheless has the gravitas of an official statement by being published on the church’s website under its “Gospel Topics” study section. It is meant to clarify history and contextualize a controversy.
A couple things stand out to me in this article. While noting the church’s embrace of “the universal human family” and that God is “no respecter of persons,” regardless of their race, the text explains that the church’s establishment in 1830 came “during an era of great racial division in the United States.” This repugnant reality “influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.”
“People” includes, of course, members and leaders of the fledgling church. While Joseph Smith supported abolition and ordained black men to the priesthood, other “Mormons” both then and since did let the color of one’s skin affect their religious views and actions.
“In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood,” the text reads. We are not told whether this action was a result of revelation or society’s “racial division… influenc[ing]” Brigham’s behavior. This subject has been heavily debated by apologists and critics since that time, with no concrete answer. We simply don’t know. And this commentary leaves the door open for the possibility of a divine mandate, though with the qualifying text regarding racism affecting one’s religion, it appears that a subtle message is suggested, namely, that it’s more likely that Brigham had no revelatory experience instructing him to act as he did.
Whatever the reason for the ban, it carried on for over a century. Naturally, given the intimate way in which it affected the lives of God’s children, church leaders made authoritative attempts to explain God’s reasons for withholding his power from black people. This commentary, however, is now rejected outright:
Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
What’s interesting about this is that at the time, such statements carried a weight of authority. But this is as much the fault of church members as it is the leaders who advanced such theories—the cultural perception that every word spoken or written by a general authority is The Will and Mind of God (a perception debunked by many past church leaders) leads God’s children to deny their own ability (and mandate) to discern truth from error, and act accordingly.
Brigham Young himself advocated for personal revelation regarding instruction given and policies implemented by church leaders:
I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation… Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.
More recently, the church has issued this statement relative to establishing church doctrine:
Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.
While many might suppose that members are merely encouraged to receive their own confirmation while presuming that the teaching or policy is true and divinely approved, the new statement regarding race and the priesthood suggests that this may not be the case. But more important than the issue itself is our own reaction to it, as Henry Eyring once wrote:
The Lord uses imperfect people… He often allows their errors to stand uncorrected. He may have a purpose in doing so, such as to teach us that religious truth comes forth “line upon line, precept upon precept” in a process of sifting and winnowing similar to the one I know so well in science.
Over the years, many Latter-day Saints have abandoned their faith, some of them disillusioned by a racist policy. They conclude, incorrectly in my view, that because a fallible prophet instituted an incorrect policy, that therefore everything the prophet said and did is suspect and worth rejecting. In the process they not only throw the baby out with the bath water, but they take a sledgehammer to the entire bathroom. This is an unfortunate reaction to an admittedly complex issue.
God’s leaders are not infallible, and despite a cultural near-deification of the church’s general leadership, ours is the obligation to “prove all things.” While it may be theologically safe, and intellectually comfortable to operate on a general presumption that anything said by church leaders in an official or quasi-official venue is The Will and Mind of God, this simply is not true.
That does not mean that the gospel is not true. It does not mean that church leaders are being deceptive. And it doesn’t give cause to be critical. As one writer has put it, such fallibility should elicit compassion more than criticism:
I generally believe that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. I believe that church leaders are authorized by God to direct the church and the administration of our salvific liturgies. I also believe that these authorized agents of God at the general, local, and personal levels, like all of us, can be mistaken. I hope that we can be charitable and empathetic with our leaders and coreligionists, past and present.
Whatever his children end up doing, God is still at the helm.