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
Early statements by Joseph Smith suggest that he was once pro-slavery (Messenger and Advocate, April 9, 1836), but it’s clear that later on he renounced those beliefs and became an abolitionist. This change came in part from exposure to abolitionist literature, which led Joseph to firmly declare that “it makes my blood boil to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?” (History of the Church 4: 544). In 1844 Joseph announced his candidacy for President of the United States on an abolitionist platform. He proposed the sale of public lands to buy the freedom of slaves and end slavery by 1850, denouncing the notion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should be denied to men because of skin color (History of the Church, 6: 197-198).
Joseph’s evolving and progressive views on slavery were certainly also influenced by the revelations of the Lord, who told him that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose I have established the Constitution of this land” (D&C 101: 79-80). In addition to being against slavery Joseph taught that blacks, if given equal opportunity with whites, would be their equal: “Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites and they would be like them. They have souls and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places (Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 269). At least one black man, Elijah Abel, was ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s time.
Succeeding Joseph as President of the Church was Brigham Young. I have no doubt that President Young was the right man, chosen by God, to lead the Church at that particular time. He was a true prophet. He was strong-willed and determined, possessing the faith and grit necessary to lead thousands across the unforgiving wilderness and establish settlements in the harsh desert. His teachings are full of practical wisdom and eternal truths that draw me nearer to the Savior. The flip side of his hardy personality, however, was that he was strongly opinionated, somewhat hotheaded, and occasionally spoke out of turn.
One thing critics of the Church hone in on, and a good example of the topic at hand, is Brigham Young’s statements on members of the African race. Brigham taught that Africans were a cursed race, the descendants of Cain, and would not receive the priesthood until everybody else had. He said that death was the penalty for whites procreating with blacks (there are several interpretations, well worth reviewing, of what he meant). It’s true that Brigham strongly condemned slave owners for their abuses, teaching that Africans should be treated with respect and not like animals (a fact often ignored by critics); however, he nevertheless believed that the role of black people was to be servants. Well-treated servants, he said, but servants nonetheless. (Brigham Young’s controversial remarks on this matter can be found in the Journal of Discourses Volume 2 page 184, Volume 7 pages 290-291, and Volume 10 pages 110-11).
Race in Mormon History
In the decades following Brigham’s time Church leaders were divided on the subject of race. Some said horribly offensive things, such as the oft-cited teaching that Africans were less valiant in the pre-Earth spirit existence and were therefore cursed in mortality (McConkie, Mormon Doctrine  p. 527). Similar statements, regrettably, were made about members of other races. Other leaders, however, aligned more with the Book of Mormon teaching that “thus saith the Lord: ye shall not esteem one flesh above the other, or one man shall not think himself above the other” (Mosiah 23:7) as well as “a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins” (Jacob 3:9).
President Joseph Fielding Smith, in the 1950’s, taught that “no church or other organization is more insistent than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the Negroes should receive all the rights and privileges that can possibly be given to any other in the true sense of equality as declared in the Declaration of Independence. They should be equal to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ They should be equal in the matter of education. They should not be barred from obtaining knowledge and becoming proficient in any field of science, art or mechanical occupation. They should be free to choose any kind of employment, to go into business in any field they may choose and to make their lives as happy as it is possible without interference from white men, labor unions or from any other source. In their defense of these privileges the members of the Church will stand” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol.2, p.185).
During the era of the civil rights movement, prejudices held by society at large were challenged and church leaders questioned the Lord more earnestly on the matter. Even before the priesthood was extended to blacks, the brethren spoke in favor of racial equality and denounced racial hatred. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that “racial prejudice is of the devil. Racial prejudice is of ignorance. There is no place for it in the gospel of Jesus Christ” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 237). In 1963 President Hugh B. Brown called for “full civil equality for all of God’s children.” He said that “it is a moral evil…to deny any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship” (Improvement Era 66:1058.)
One might ask how it is that the brethren could lobby for racial equality while maintaining that black males could not have the priesthood. In 1972 President Kimball declared: “A special problem exists with respect to blacks because they may not now receive the priesthood. Some members of the Church would justify their own un-Christian discrimination against blacks because of that rule…but while this restriction has been imposed by the Lord, it is not for us to add burdens upon the shoulders of our black brethren. They who have received Christ in faith through authoritative baptism are heirs to the celestial kingdom along with men of all other races. And those who remain faithful to the end may expect that God may finally grant them all blessings they have merited through their righteousness. Such matters are in the Lord’s hands. It is for us to extend love to all” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 237).
As was the case with the Gospel going to the Gentiles, the prophet of God would change nothing without the direction of the Almighty. Another insight from President Kimball clarifies this principle. Speaking specifically of the priesthood ban, he taught:
“Admittedly, our direct and positive information is limited. I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But to me, it is enough. The prophets for 133 years of the existence of the Church have maintained the position of the prophet of the Restoration that the Negro could not hold the priesthood nor have the temple ordinances which are preparatory for exaltation. I believe in the living prophets as much or almost more than the dead ones…
The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that he will do, I am sure. These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball pp. 448-449, emphasis added).
Notice that President Kimball was open to the notion that the priesthood ban was a mistake. It truly may have been brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion. It must be said that this teaching is completely in line with the biblical pattern, as exemplified earlier in the cases of the prophet Nathan and the apostle Peter. Confusing personal opinion with revelation or being influenced by the prejudices of the day happens, even among the servants of the Lord, but it is the Lord who does the correcting through divine revelation.
However, it’s also possible that the priesthood ban was the intent of the Lord. President Kimball taught, in the quote above, that the ban originated during the time of the “prophet of the Restoration,” i.e. Joseph Smith, not Brigham Young as many have supposed. The Pearl of Great Price teaches that Cain and his descendants were black (Moses 7:22), though contrary to popular belief the mark placed on Cain was not a curse, but a merciful protection from the Lord to keep others from killing him (Moses 5: 39-40). We read that “a blackness came upon the children of Canaan” (Moses 7:8), who were denied the blessings of the priesthood, though notably they weren’t necessarily wicked or rejected of God. In fact, the record describes their king as righteous, blessed, wise, and just (Abraham 1:21-26). Some have speculated that this ban continued through the generations to the African race. If that is true then, like the denial of the gospel to the Gentiles, it was the will of God. Once again, however, hatred and assumptions of superiority were definitely not. [Since this article was written in 2012, the church’s Race and the Priesthood essay has shed more light on this issue, strongly implying that the priesthood ban was the result of prejudices of the day].
Whether the ban was the Lord’s doing or an error of imperfect men is not for me to say. All I know is that in 1978 he revealed to a living prophet that priesthood blessings were to go to all races (Official Declaration 2).
“All Are Alike Unto God…”
We can certainly reject, without having our faith shaken, racist and offensive teachings from past church leaders. Though critics demand that the Church formally denounce those teachings, they somehow overlook that it already did. In August 1978, two months after the revelation extending the priesthood to all races, LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie spoke on the subject. Elder McConkie himself had been known for questionable statements about the African race. Regarding those who clung to erroneous past teachings on the subject, he said:
“…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 anymore.
“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.” (Elder McConkie’s discourse, entitled “All Are Alike Unto God,” is well worth reading in full; emphasis added here).
Black members of the Church are an inspiration to the rest of us. I imagine that it’s not easy to follow the witness of the Holy Ghost into a church with our racial history, nor to face the criticism of loved ones and the prejudices of some church members. I stand with President Gordon B. Hinckley, a prophet of God, who told the men of this church:
“Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.
“…I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children. Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such” (“The Need For Greater Kindness,” April 2006).
I also echo with all of my heart the words of President Spencer W. Kimball, who conveyed this clear commandment to church members regarding members of another race: “I ask not for your tolerance, your cold, calculating tolerance; your haughty, contemptible tolerance; your scornful, arrogant tolerance; your pitying, coin-tossing tolerance. I ask you to give them what they want and need and deserve: opportunity and your fraternal brotherliness and your understanding; your warm and glowing fellowship; your unstinted and beautiful love; your enthusiastic and affectionate brotherhood” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, pp. 239-240).
A Word on Interracial Marriage
A few members of the Church continue to hold to the idea that interracial marriage is somehow frowned upon by the Lord. Enemies of our faith latch onto statements by past church leaders on the subject. I will address the three statements that I’ve seen cited. The first comes from Joseph Smith, who said: “Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species and put them on a national equalization” (Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 270). The context of this statement was a private conversation between the prophet, Elder Hyde, and Elder Richards (presumably Orson Hyde and Willard Richards). Go back and review the wording. It’s clear that Joseph was sharing his personal opinion on how he’d resolve the slavery issue if it were up to him, not speaking for the Lord. It was an opinion influenced by the biases of the day. Notice, however, that he wanted to give African-Americans equal rights.
Brigham Young taught that death was to be the penalty for the “mixing of seed” between races (Journal of Discourses Volume 10, p. 110). I will not dwell on this, as I’ve already established here that this idea is either misunderstood or is the result of the prejudices of the time, not revelation. It has been refuted by later prophetic teaching, as seen below.
That leaves us with a quote by President Kimball which states: “We are unanimous, all of the Brethren, in feeling and recommending that Indians marry Indians, and Mexicans marry Mexicans; the Chinese marry Chinese and the Japanese marry Japanese; that the Caucasians marry the Caucasians, and the Arabs marry Arabs.” The frequent use of this supposedly damning quote to charge Mormons with racism is dishonest and misleading. Pulling back to see the quote in context, its meaning is very clear: “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… But it is not expedient. Marriage statistics and our general experience convince us that marriage is not easy. It is difficult when all factors are favorable. The divorces increase constantly, even where the spouses have the same general background of race, religion, finances, education, and otherwise. The inter-race marriage problem is not one of inferiority or superiority…It is a matter of backgrounds. The difficulties and hazards of marriage are greatly increased where backgrounds are different (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 303).
President Kimball clearly taught that interracial marriage is not a sin. God does not frown on it. It was a loving recommendation from church leaders who wanted marriages to endure. They saw cultural differences as setting up more obstacles for couples. It had nothing to do with racial superiority nor was it forbidden, as seen in the case of Robert Stevenson, an African-American convert and student body vice-president at Brigham Young University. Brother Stevenson met and married a white Mormon woman before the 1978 revelation (Don L. Searle, “Four Who Serve,” Ensign, February 1992).
Returning to President Kimball’s quote, the reason this advice is not much circulated among the Saints these decades later is quite simply that it no longer applies like it did before. It doesn’t need to be retracted because it was not a doctrine or commandment. Though couples should certainly be mindful of cultural differences and remaining prejudices so that they can deal with them, interracial marriage causes less difficulty today than it used to. Recent research by the Pew Institute shows that societal acceptance of interracial marriage is at an all-time high, as is the percentage of marriages between couples of different ethnicities.
We are given living prophets to speak to the needs of our day. Challenges that would prove insurmountable to many couples 30-plus years ago no longer warrant comment by church leaders. We live in a wonderful era when people of different races can marry without the same level of persecution they had to endure before. Also, increased appreciation of diversity is leading to greater understanding and acceptance, as well as the blending of traditions and cultures. I am reminded of the Book of Mormon passages that describe the Americas after the ministry of the resurrected Christ: “The people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them…And they were married, and given in marriage, and were blessed according to the multitude of the promises which the Lord had made unto them…neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1: 2, 11, 17).
“Follow the Prophet…”
Marion G. Romney famously reported a childhood conversation with President Heber J. Grant: “Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray’” (Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78). I think that it’s safe to say that that statement, in its entirety, is true. God blesses us for following His prophet. Though rare, when prophetic mistakes happen the Lord will correct them.
It is clearly His place to do so, not ours. Taught President John Taylor: “Do not think you are wise and that you can manage and manipulate the priesthood, for you cannot do it. God must manage, regulate, dictate, and stand at the head, and every man in his place. The ark of God does not need steadying, especially by incompetent men without revelation and without knowledge of the kingdom of God and its laws. It is a great work that we are engaged in, and it is for us to prepare ourselves for the labor before us, and to acknowledge God, his authority, his law and his priesthood in all things” (Gospel Kingdom, p. 166).
Though God commands that we heed the words of living prophets and apostles, this is not something we ought to do blindly, mechanically, or without thought on our own part. President Brigham Young gave us this wonderful instruction: “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, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 135).
I bear my personal witness that we are led by living prophets and apostles of God. I follow their counsel because the Holy Ghost has witnessed to my mind and to my heart that they speak for God, who guides, inspires, molds, and corrects them.
We return now to President Woodruff’s declaration: “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). Taken in the context of the scriptures, Church history, and teachings of the living prophets, it seems apparent that he wasn’t referring to honest mistakes but to a prophet apostatizing and intentionally bringing the church into error. If such were the case, God would take him out. Otherwise the Lord’s pattern of correction has been clearly established here.
I testify of all that the Lord has revealed, all that He continues to reveal, and that he still has many wonderful things yet to reveal (Article of Faith #9). I bear personal witness, in the name of the Savior Jesus Christ, that God loves all of His children equally and commands us to love one another. Allow me to finish with the testimony of Elder Joseph W. Sitati, an African and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He proclaimed:
“I have seen the good fruit of the gospel blossom in my home continent of Africa. After just 30 years, there are 300,000 Saints. In the doctrines and principles of the restored gospel, many are finding a sure anchor for their faith…The Spirit of the Lord is moving powerfully among the people. A new celestial culture is developing in homes, nurtured by the ready hearkening to the counsel of the living prophet…I testify of the Savior Jesus Christ, by whom we have the gospel and the promise of exaltation. I testify of our living prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, through whom we have the assurance of the Savior’s direction for continuing to extend salvation to all. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen” (Blessings of the Gospel Available to All, October 2009).
See also my article “Racial Equality in The Book of Mormon.”