It happened very quietly. I don’t recall any kind of press release or announcement for it. But on Friday, on LDS.org, an essay explaining the LDS Church’s stance on race and the priesthood appeared. Here’s the link.
It’s very clear, and although it’s certainly a gloss on the issue, it does say some things that have needed to be said officially and unequivocally for years. To me, this is the key paragraph:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
I know that this blog is read by lots of people who aren’t Mormons. Let me briefly explain. Mormonism has a lay clergy, and ‘the priesthood’, which we conceive as the authority granted by God to perform ordinances (baptism, other sacraments), and preside over local congregations, is given exclusively to men who meet certain worthiness requirements. But when I was younger, men of African descent were denied the priesthood. That policy was changed, we believe by revelation, in 1978.
When I was growing up in Indiana in the ’60s, I didn’t even know a racially based policy of priesthood exclusion existed. It’s quite possible that this is due to me not being very bright. But it certainly wasn’t something anyone talked about in sacrament meeting. It was sort of whispered about: ‘I heard that . . . do you think it’s possible that. . . .’ But one day a seminary teacher told us about the policy, and said black people were excluded from the priesthood because in the pre-existence (Mormons believe we all lived as spirits before being born on earth), they hadn’t been valiant. They’d sat on the fence in the war in heaven. So I went home, and asked my Dad what he thought about it. My Dad’s an opera singer, having previously been a construction worker–he was not then particularly well-read in Mormon theology. Which he admitted to me. But then he said something like this: ‘I don’t know why that policy exists. And I certainly don’t know as much as your teacher. But that can’t be true. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and it feels wrong.’
That conversation was a great relief to me. It seemed weird to me too, and I was glad that my teacher’s explanation wasn’t the only possible answer.
But then I went to college, to BYU, in 1974. And a friend of mine gave me a copy of a talk he’d read, and suggested I read it too. Said, ‘this is great. This is the best thing I’ve ever read.’ It was a talk by Alvin R. Dyer, a prominent Church leader. It was called ‘For What Purpose.’ Here’s the link.
I really debated in my mind whether I should link to Brother Dyer’s talk. He was a fine man, a good man, and many people today still hold him in high esteem. And this talk, well, it’s appalling. Three degrees of pre-existent spirits, with racial difference earned by spiritual indifference or rebellion before birth. It’s nonsense, of course. But it was prominent back in my youth–a version of it was published in pamphlet form available for sale in the BYU Bookstore. And I think there’s value in confronting our past. And persistent, omnipresent racism, even at this level, is part of our past, as Americans and as Mormons.
Culture is an incredibly powerful force. We are shaped by our cultures far more than we are even aware. We’re usually not even aware of how completely our cultures define us. And Church leaders, even prophets are no different. And it seems to me that struggling against one’s own culture to figure out God’s will must be hardest task of all.
The LDS.org article, “Race and the Priesthood” includes a link to an article on the BYU Studies website called “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.” It’s by Edward Kimball, President Kimball’s son and a fine historian in his own right. I can’t link to the BYU Studies article–don’t have permission–but here’s their website. It’s a tremendous article, describing how President Kimball struggled for months to receive the revelation on Priesthood. He’d go to the temple day after day, pray for hours on his knees. Day after day, he’d think ‘it’s impossible.’ And he’d pray, and day after day, it seemed ever so slightly less impossible.
Now, my initial reaction to that article was to wonder what the heck the problem is. Racism’s obviously wrong, the policy’s clearly insane and damaging; fix the problem, man. But that’s me, born to an academic family in 1956, coming from that particular cultural context. You read about President Kimball’s struggle, and he clearly knew he had to do something that he personally found very very difficult. What is that, but a man sloughing off his own cultural predilections? And even when he did it, even when he was finally able to say ‘yes, this is God’s will, we’re reversing the policy,’ he still couldn’t quite bring himself to embrace inter-racial marriage. That, for him, was that one final step he found himself unable to take, though obviously that’s changed today.
If church leaders shared the racist ideology of their day, that’s because they were human beings, breathing the air of racism, drinking the water of racism, eating crops grown in racist soil. It was all-pervasive. We forget that. We think of the American civil rights movement moving smoothly from triumph to triumph, mostly just combating a small group of racist redneck losers. But in the 60s, the consensus among American whites was that civil rights was moving way too fast. We needed to slow down. So, yeah, integrate schools. But at what pace? At ‘all deliberate speed.’ The one really vague phrase in Brown v. Board, which was taken to mean ‘take your sweet time.’ That was the early sixties, a time when all TV commercials featured white actors and all television programs featured white characters (with the occasional black maid or servant).
We live today in a culture that considers racism evil. I’m glad we do. I prefer drinking that water, eating that food. I consider it congenial. But I am as much a creation of America2013 as Joseph Fielding Smith or Alvin R. Dyer was of America1913. I undoubtedly hold deeply sinful and foolish attitudes too. I don’t really believe in Original Sin, in the idea that people today are sinful because Adam ate the apple. But I do believe in original sin in this sense–we’re, all of us, still ethnocentric. We inherit it, we inhale it, it’s in our air and water. And undoubtedly encounter the world in ways that are incompatible with God’s will.
So I’m glad that the Church has now officially repudiated folk doctrines like the ones espoused by Brother Dyer. I’m glad we have this, on LDS.org, this simple, clear statement. But I do note a kind of studied ambiguity about why the Church, in the 1850s, initially embraced priesthood exclusion. And I suppose that’s inevitable; a gloss; spin.
And yet, and yet. . . . When I attend my ward, in Provo, Utah, it’s wonderful to see the cultural, racial and ethnic diversity that so casually prevails, uncommented on, without tension or effort, just brothers and sisters worshipping together. Free, or maybe just a little bit freer, at last.