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Jonathan Decker
Friday, February 24 2012

Race in Mormon History

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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

Solomons Temple 2

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

go ye into all the worldThe 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

joseph-smithFrom the beginning of the restored Gospel, people of African descent have been welcomed into the waters of baptism as members of the Church. 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.


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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