By Jonathan Decker
Author's note: I have a great respect for the beliefs of others and have learned much from them. Although I am a devout Latter-day Saint, I do not impose my beliefs upon my clients, working within their worldview in therapy. I include this article here so that all of my writings can be found in one place.
This article, “Race in Mormon History,” originally ran in Meridian Magazine in 2012. Since then, many of its conclusions have been supported by the church's official essay “Race and the Priesthood,” while a few of my open speculations here were clarified and corrected by the same essay. My conclusion that church leaders, while inspired, have also made mistakes from time to time, is directly supported in President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's conference address “Come, Join With Us.” Five days after this article ran in Meridian Magazine, the church released a formal statement denouncing racism through its website.
Readers are asked to forgive the use of the word “negro” in historical quotations found in this article. Such was the vernacular of the era in which the statements were made. I do not own any of these images; they are used here for educational purposes.
A Different World
Several years ago, while attending graduate school at Auburn University, I went with two devout Christian friends to a Martin Luther King Day service at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. At this church the Rosa Parks bus boycotts were organized and Dr. King preached brotherhood, love, and racial equality. The service was standing room only; we barely got in. The fellowship and affection between blacks and whites, even as total strangers, was palpable and real. Afterwards, I went with my friends to the nearby Civil Rights Memorial, a museum of sorts dedicated to those who were killed fighting for equality.
I reflected with wonder on how the efforts of those Civil Rights pioneers had literally changed the world. While prejudice is not dead, it is nevertheless true that decades earlier my friends (who are black) and I could not have walked those same streets together without some form of persecution. Our friendship would have been societally forbidden. I was reminded of that wonderful Book of Mormon doctrine “all are alike unto God…black and white, bond and free, male and female…Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33), as well as the Savior’s assertion in The Bible that “by this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
“Our History is an Open Book…”
Though these scriptures, and others like them, have always been a part of our doctrine, as a church we have an unfortunate history with race that gives ammunition to our critics. It also fosters doubt in some members who stumble upon statements by past church leaders that are no longer accepted as doctrine. While we are not the only church with a history of racially-charged teachings, we are the only one that proclaims itself the true and restored Church of Jesus Christ, led by divine revelation to prophets and apostles (referred to hereafter simply as prophets).
Right up front, I believe in Jesus Christ, His restored church, and the validity of living prophets. Without apology I write from the perspective of a believing Mormon. It is not my intention to call our leaders into question or to upset anyone’s faith. But we live in the information age and enemies of the church, as well as genuine truth-seekers, are shedding light on aspects of our history that many of us would rather forget. The answer, however, lies not in ignoring them or pretending that they didn’t happen. President John Taylor said that “I think a full, free talk is frequently of great use; we want nothing secret nor underhanded, and I for one want no association with things that cannot be talked about and will not bear investigation” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 20, p. 264).
President Gordon B. Hinckley added “Well, we have nothing to hide. Our history is an open book. They [critics] may find what they are looking for, but the fact is the history of the church is clear and open and leads to faith and strength and virtues (2005 interview with The Associated Press). I absolutely agree, and I hope that you will trust me to be your guide, using scripture and teachings of modern prophets, through complicated history to the truth of God’s love for all and the beauty of the restored Gospel.
When Prophets Make Mistakes (Yes, It Happens, and the Lord Takes Care of It)
To be clear, when I speak of a troubled history with race I am not referring to misunderstood doctrine, such as the dark skin given to the Lamanites (more on that in another article), nor am I talking about prophets giving personal opinions during less-enlightened eras. Most Latter-day Saints are comfortable with Joseph Smith’s teaching that “a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such” (History of the Church, 5:265). In general we all know that prophets are imperfect human beings who have opinions which may or may not turn out to be correct (see Alma 40:20).
What I am referring to are statements made from the pulpit (or other circumstances when a prophet presumably speaks as the Lord’s mouthpiece) that have later been demonstrated to be flat-out wrong and denounced by later church leaders. I will address the race issue specifically, though the principles elaborated on here may be more broadly applied. Some have had their faith shaken, unable to reconcile these errors with the Savior’s teaching that “what I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken…whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38), nor with the famous assertion of President Wilford Woodruff that “the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands at the head 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” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church- Wilford Woodruff, p. 199). Understandably distraught, some unfortunately come to the conclusion that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is led by false prophets and leave the fold.
But is it unheard of in God’s biblical pattern for prophets, as prophets, to make mistakes? Is that the same thing as leading the church astray? If a prophet were wrong, who corrects him, and what are church members to do?
It is my purpose to demonstrate that, even in The Bible, the Lord’s servants weren’t infallible but nevertheless were chosen by God, spoke for Him, and acted in His name. Their mistakes were honest ones, and it was the Lord who corrected them while expecting the people to obey and sustain them. He still used these imperfect men to guide the people to salvation.
Though prophets are rightly regarded as our spiritual leaders, they are, like the rest of us, flawed human beings. One of them, the apostle Paul, taught the Corinthians “for ye see…how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-27). It will be shown that this pattern continues today. It will also be demonstrated that Nephi spoke truth when he said that “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God” (1 Nephi 17:35). I will address controversial teachings, the priesthood ban, the 1978 revelation, and interracial marriage in light of the Church’s current teachings of racial equality. But first, let’s take a look at the Holy Bible for insight and patterns.
King David, the Prophet Nathan, and the Lord’s Temple
In the Old Testament we read of David, slayer of Goliath and mighty king of Israel. David desired to build a temple, a house of God on the earth (1 Chronicles 22:7; 2 Samuel 7:1-2). Though he was the king, David deferred to divine authority on the matter, seeking approval from Nathan, a prophet of God, who told him to go right on ahead. Notice the confidence and surety with which Nathan speaks: “Go, do all that is in thine heart, the Lord is with thee” (2 Samuel 7:3). It’s clear that the prophet felt certain he’d just voiced God’s will. It’s also clear that he spoke in the office of a prophet, as the king had no need to ask him, as a man, for permission to do anything.
Later, however, the Lord visited Nathan to let him know that his proclamation had not been the mind of God. The Lord clarified that David’s son Solomon would build the temple at a future time, not David, who had seen too much bloodshed (2 Samuel 7: 4-5, 12-13; 1 Chronicles 22:8-10). Nathan returned to David and confessed that he had made a mistake. He delivered the message given to him from God. Notice the important lesson here: though prophetic mistakes are rare, the Lord’s servants can confuse their own thoughts and feelings with revelation, just like us. But when they are wrong it is the Lord who corrects them and nobody else.
Peter, The Gospel, and The Gentiles
The prophet Abraham received a divine promise that his descendants would receive the Gospel and be God’s chosen people. They became the Jews, the House of Israel, while those not of their bloodline were the Gentiles, to whom, for a long time, the covenants of the Lord were not offered. This continued to Jesus’ day. When a Gentile woman begged for His help, He conceded and praised her faith, but only after clarifying that He was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15: 22-28). The Savior likewise charged the Twelve Apostles to “go not into the way of the Gentiles…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10: 5-6).
The time came, however, for the blessings of the Gospel to be extended to the Gentiles. Many think that the precise moment for this came when it was revealed to Peter in a dream, as recorded in Acts Chapter 10. A closer look at the New Testament, however, reveals that the moment came some time earlier, when the resurrected Christ told the disciples “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature” (Mark 16:15). That was the moment. Christ told them to spread the Gospel everywhere and to everyone. But Peter didn’t get it. He didn’t understand. Neither did the others. A later vision was needed to get the ball moving. President Spencer W. Kimball explained that this was due to racial prejudice:
“Yesterday the super-race consciousness was so solidly rooted that it was necessary for the Lord to send a vision to his chiefest apostle before the gospel could go to the Gentile nations” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 238).
Peter, the chief apostle and earthly leader of Christ’s church, erroneously continued to deny the Gentiles the gospel because he was subject to the biases and prejudices of his day. It is true that, because of the Lord’s promise to Abraham, the Gospel went to the Jews before the Gentiles. That was God’s will. Ethnic prejudice, however, was not. Hence the Lord’s chastisement of Peter in the revelatory dream; referring to the Gentiles, the Lord said: “What God has cleansed, that call thou not common” (Acts 10:15). Peter got the message and opened the door to the world. Notice that though there were faithful Gentiles during the time of Jesus who would have embraced the Gospel, it was God, not social pressure, who effected the change. It happened in His time and in accord with His purposes. Indeed, Peter testified that “God hath shewed me that I should call no man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, The African Race, and The Priesthood