Because I’m Big Mr. Stupidhead, I forgot to note that this past week included the anniversary of the revelation on Priesthood, the revelation granting the priesthood to all worthy male members of the Mormon Church. The official announcement was dated June 9 1978, and noted that the vote in the Quorum of the Twelve took place on the 8th. Count any of those dates as official; it’s still the greatest thing to have happened in Mormondom in my lifetime.
The policy of Priesthood exclusion never made a lick of sense. Black people couldn’t have the priesthood? Say what? Are you freakin’ kidding me? I remember vividly when I was in high school, hearing about it in Seminary, and hearing my seminary teacher’s defense of it–the old ‘they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence’ argleblargle. Anyway, it really bothered me, and I asked my Dad what he thought of that explanation. My Dad’s an opera singer, and a convert to the Church–not, back then, terribly well-read in LDS history and theology. But a good and decent and kind-hearted man. And he said, ‘I don’t know the answer to your question. But that pre-existence stuff doesn’t make sense to me. It just feels wrong to me.’
I really think that on that issue, that kind of response was the right one. In the Church, lots of really bright people were tying themselves in knots trying to figure out a way to reconcile a policy that prevented black people from having the priesthood with our Church’s doctrine and history. Meanwhile, a guy like my Dad, without much theological training, went straight to the heart of the matter. ‘Sorry, but that’s a terrible argument. I don’t believe that could be true. It feels wrong.’ His heart led him right.
You can’t really talk about the policy of priesthood exclusion without getting into the reason why it existed, and the various convoluted arguments for it. And the reason the policy existed seems to me perfectly clear. One word: racism. It was an expression of the residual racism of American society as it surfaced from the nineteenth to the mid-to-late twentieth century.
This seems to me an obvious point, but it sounds way more accusatory than I intend it. Was Brigham Young a racist? Well, he said lots of racist things. And he instituted a racist policy. But was he more of a racist than any other white American in the mid-19th century? No. I admire Brigham Young; I also admire Abraham Lincoln. I googled ‘Lincoln black equality’ and came upon this paper by a high school kid. Bright kid: “Lincoln . . . did not feel that black equality could ever be achieved, and was not fighting for it.” Quite so, and the kid’s paper cites good evidence for that assertion.
As far as I know, there was one white American in the mid-19th century who truly believed that black people were equal in every way to white people, equal in intelligence, moral instincts and capacity to achieve. I’m thinking of John Brown, and he was crazy. By ‘crazy’ I don’t mean ‘outside accepted social norms.’ I mean, ‘murdered people he disagreed with.’ I mean, John Brown was a terrorist. Fascinating dude, obviously. But nuts.
And yet he was a hero to many. And they wrote a song about him: ‘John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in his grave, but his soul’s a marchin’ on.’ Or ‘truth goes marching’ on. And that great abolitionist hymn got a new text, from Julia Ward Howe, a committed abolitionist, when she saw Union soldiers mustering outside Washington D. C, and heard them sing. Her updated lyrics came to her in a rush, overnight, and she later published them as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
And those revised lyrics, the Battle Hymn, became the greatest hit ever for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We all know that version, with the trumpets at the beginning, the basses chanting ‘truth is marching’ while the women sing the melody. I’ve sung it in choirs, so have you, probably, if you’re a choir person.
That version leaves out a couple of verses. We leave out this one, for example:
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel: As ye deal with my condemners, so with you my grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on.
What a great verse. ‘See these bullets? ‘Burnished rows of steel? Deal with that kinda grace, sucka. We’re coming, serpent South, to crush your head.’ Splendidly in-your-face. No wonder we leave it out.
But the most in-your-face verse in the hymn, is the one the choir slows down for. “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” It’s an abolitionist hymn, understood as such in Howe’s day. We see it as a patriotic song, and it is. We see it as a martial hymn, and it’s that too (Winston Churchill specifically requested it for his funeral, because for him, it symbolized victory over the Nazis). I’m sure the Choir still sings it because it’s a religious hymn, a Christian hymn, and it’s that too. But it’s specifically a hymn opposed to slavery. It’s specifically a hymn saying that Christianity must stand, always, in opposition to the enslavement of our brothers and sisters. And it’s a hymn–‘burnished rows of steel’–even suggesting the appropriateness of a national violent response to slavery.
It’s much the same sentiment that President Lincoln reflected in his Second Inaugural:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Slavery, in other words, is a moral evil sufficient to warrant the American Civil War, that level of destruction, that amount of death. And that’s essentially the same argument made by the Battle Hymn. Burnished rows of steel indeed.
And in 1960, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir won the Grammy for its recording of the Battle Hymn.
The cheap rhetorical trick here would be to point up the irony, and say ‘a choir from a racist Church won the Grammy for an abolitionist hymn.’ But the words ‘as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free’ could mean other things than abolition.
And yes, the policy of priesthood exclusion was racist. But nineteenth century American society was racist. So was twentieth century American society, through most of the century. So is American society today, actually, if all the “Keep the White House White” tee shirts at Tea Party rallies is any indication. Mormon culture reflected that racism–it would be naive to think that it wouldn’t. We participated in it, and we shouldn’t have, and that’s bad. And we had sun-down towns (towns where blacks were told to leave by sun-down, or face violent consequences) in Utah and Idaho. And restrictive covenants in mortgages. And anti-miscegenation laws. And Klan conclaves. All part of Utah’s history, all wrong, all worth our condemnation.
But in 1978, an elderly conservative man spent hour after hour on his knees, begging his Heavenly Father for guidance, as he struggled to overcome his own culture, and that culture’s past.
Reading Ed Kimball’s brilliant article, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” published in BYU Studies, describes how hard President Kimball worked to receive that revelation. Revelation doesn’t just distill, like dew, on the shoulders of prophets. Revelation requires work, discipline, hard study and hours spent kneeling in prayer. President Kimball had a lifetime of cultural conditioning to overcome. He had to study at the feet of the Savior, to learn that ideas breathed in through the very air of the society in which he had grown to manhood, that those ideas were wrong. That he had been wrong. That can’t have been easy. And we honor his memory.
We should also honor those of our black LDS brothers and sisters who continue to battle for equality, who continue to fight exclusion, who continue to set the historical record straight, and who lead the fight against silly folk doctrines like the fence-sitters nonsense, which continue to disfigure our culture. Margaret Young and Darius Gray and the Genesis group are among the heroes who keep alive the fight for historical truth, and doctrinal accuracy.
What the Priesthood Revelation reveals, though, is the capacity for change, for individual change, for institutional change. We can eradicate racism from our hearts. We can embrace all our brothers and sisters. And that’s what this anniversary celebrates.