Saturday, June 8, 2013

An Apology Would Be Nice

Today marks the 35th anniversary of what Mormons generally refer to as the repeal of the Priesthood Ban. I remember that day well, actually. I was on my mission at the time, and we had just pulled up to visit with some members. The wife sent us out to the barn to find her husband, who was working on a tractor, and he had the radio on. That's when we heard the announcement. A combination of shock and excitement! Was this for real? Was it immediate? What about the Temple and everything else? These questions, of course, were eventually answered. But it was somewhat surreal to be listening to it in the moment.

What has not been answered in the 35 years since is the question of exactly WHY the Priesthood Ban was instituted in the first place? Why did we deny the Priesthood to those of African descent? And WHY did it take 120 years to end it? WHY? We have a pretty good idea, actually, of how it all started in Brigham Young's day. Nothing exact, but the forensics reveal enough evidence to be reasonably sure. The bottom line is that it was racist, and was justified by what many considered the "doctrine" of the Curse of Cain.  Here's a letter issued by the First Presidency in 1951 that gives a neat summation:

“The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said, ‘Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their father’s rejecting the power of the Holy Priesthood, and the law of God.’ They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the Holy Priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and receive all the blessings we are entitled to.’ President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: ‘The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.’ The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.”
                                              (Official First Presidency statement, August 17, 1951)

Since the end of the Ban, the Church has made a vain attempt to "move on" and leave this sad bit of our history behind us. In doing so, we have begun to whitewash the seriousness of our former docrtine, labeling it as simple "folklore", and claiming that we really "don't know" the origins of the practice. As you can see from the text I marked in bold above, this was hardly considered "folklore"!

Here's a recent quote from a General Authority. This now seems to be the official sentiment when referring to our previous practices:

“When you think about it, that’s just what it is — folklore. It’s never really been official doctrine… We have to keep in mind that it’s folklore and not doctrine… It’s never been recorded as such
(Elder Sheldon F. Child, “LDS marking 30-year milestone”, Deseret News, June 7, 2008).

See a disconnect between these two quotes?!

We also have the recent introductory paragraph added to the revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that ended the Priesthood Ban - known as Official Declaration 2. It offers only this by way of explanation:

"During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice."

I personally don't think this goes far enough. This is, again, whitewashing. I don't think you can ever really "move on" unless you face the issue head-on and own that history - all of it - no matter how ugly it may be. It is, after all, the truth. I like blogger Kevin Barney's take on this:

“We don’t know” was an interim strategy that worked well enough for its time. But the problem is, that mantra was meant to preserve the possibility that God ordered the ban from on high, and a lot of older Saints understand it in exactly that way. And as long as we try to leave that option on the menu, people are going to continue to fill in the doctrinal vacuum with the old, offensive ideas. Those ideas will not die under a “we don’t know” rubric; they will only die under a firm disavowal.”

So what do you think - are apologies in order? Do you think the Church should go further to disavow the Priesthood Ban?