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Jonathan Decker
Friday, February 24 2012

Race in Mormon History

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[Note: 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].

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. Afterward, I went with my friends to the nearby Civil Rights Memorial, a museum of sorts dedicated to those who were killed fighting for equality.

dexter avenueI 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 of racism 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 have a testimony of Jesus Christ, His restored church, and the validity of living prophets. I write unapologetic 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 racist teachings I am not referring to misunderstood doctrine, such as the dark skin given to the Lamanites (more on that in an upcoming 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 superiors, 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).

1 Comment

  1. [About the ban of the priesthood] "RB : So, in retrospect was the Church wrong in that ? Président Hinckley : No I don't think it was wrong. It things, various things happened in different periods. There's a reason for them. RB : What was the reason for that ? Président Hinckley : I don't know what the reason was. But I know that we've rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at that time". (COMPASS Sundays nights on ABCTV - Interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley Nov 09, 1997).

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