Note: Yesterday’s release of newly revised and edited volumes of LDS scriptures—including the unprecedented header to Official Declaration 2—has derailed a bit our planned wrap-up of the posts from JI’s Black History Month series.
On the last day of Black History Month 2012, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) released a statement, “Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God.” The statement read in part, “The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”
This “official statement” came only a day after racist comments from Randy Bott—one of BYU’s most celebrated professors—were printed in a Washington Post story on members of African descent within the Church. Bott rehearsed well-worn theological rationales to justify the ban on black men holding the priesthood, a ban lifted in 1978 after the leading members of the Church hierarchy received a direct revelation to do so. Due to blacks’ supposed descent from the divinely-cursed Cain and Canaan, Bott said the ban was not racist, but a “blessing.” Blacks, he explained, had until 1978, not been spiritually mature enough to handle the authority of the priesthood. [i]
(Just a bit more on Bott, I promise…)
In the heat of the 2012 election season—with the first Mormon on a major party ticket hoping to unseat the country’s first black president—journalists and political pundits pounced on Bott’s comments. Bott also compared blacks to “a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car.” Misusing priesthood authority could have put blacks “in the lowest rungs of hell,” he told Jason Horowitz who wrote the Washington Post story. In this folksy, grandpa-like delivery, Bott’s comments might have been dismissed as arcane. If, that is, they didn’t also “represent a strain of Mormonism,” as I wrote at Slate, a racist folklore “that has persisted well past the 1978 revelation.”
Bott, who still does some teaching in BYU’s religious education department, got his ideas from somewhere. And that somewhere is the theological treatises published by leading figures (even prophets) within the Church during the twentieth century. Most notably, Joseph Fielding Smith, longtime Church historian and briefly LDS Church president, dedicated two chapters to theologically justify the ban in his very popular Way to Perfection (Armand Mauss analyzes this “church classic” in All Abraham’s Children, the definitive study on Mormon conceptions of race).
The Church hierarchy’s insistence for the past thirty years that Official Declaration 2 stands on its own—without the need for modern explanations for the origins of the ban—created a vacuum. And statements from the likes of Fielding Smith filled this vacuum for Bott, and probably for other Mormons searching for answers. Last year’s repudiation of racism spoke to Bott and, in directly, to Fielding Smith’s explanations for the ban. “These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine,” last year’s statement also read.
A year almost to the day (last year being a leap year), much of the same language of the Church’s statement has been included in the new header to Official Declaration 2. (The change was one among many important revisions, edits, and additions to LDS scripture announced yesterday. Our friends at BCC are going through these systematically as I write this). Both statements start with 2 Nephi 26:33, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.” Both statements acknowledge that in Joseph Smith’s lifetime some black men were ordained to the priesthood. And both statements demur on the question of why the ban was instituted in the first place (the new header reads, “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.”)[ii]
I interpret the inclusion of this new header as part of the LDS Church’s ongoing efforts to fill the vacuum that leaving Official Declaration 2 to stand on its own creates. Without fanfare, the Church is addressing the problem that the existence of troubling racialized justifications for the exclusion (often articulated by past prophets) presents to today’s increasingly global, multiethnic LDS Church. To note one example, last year at this time, A Way to Perfection was available as a Kindle download. But sometime last year, the e-book format of the title was removed.
This change to Official Declaration 2 is big news in the circles that many of JI’s readers run in. But, unlike last year, don’t expect these changes to make today’s headlines. Most media outlets are pointed to Washington or the Vatican, watching for metaphorical and actual white smoke to rise, signaling political and religious consensus.
During this year’s Black History Month, the task of analyzing the history of race and Mormonism has passed back to the historians. Thanks go out to today’s and tomorrow’s leading lights on this subject. J. Stapley, Paul Reeve, Connell O’Donovan, Edje Jeter, Quincy Newell, Armand Mauss, Margaret Blair Young, Amanda, thank for your wonderful contributions over this past month.
To these fine scholars—and to all JI readers—I offer two related questions about these new changes, and the legacy of the ban on people of African descent within the LDS Church.
First, I ask (perhaps sociologically speaking), does or did Fielding Smith’s statements carry the weight of authority beyond what the statement last year described as “personal” beliefs? After all, Fielding Smith was a prophet. Did he think he was only writing from his own “personal” perspective. And whether or not these treatises do carry the weight of church authority, how should the Church deal with the painful legacy they leave behind?
Second, what effect will this new header have on conversations in LDS churches and Mormon homes surrounding the ban? Will having such a statement in scriptures help put an end to the perpetuation of the “folklore” around the rationale behind the ban?
[i] It is crucial to note that belief that people of African descent were the progeny of the biblical anti-heroes Cain and Ham was shared by most Christians, even scientists, in the 19th century. See among others, Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[ii] Many JI readers, I suspect, might actually point to the great scholarship on the origins of the ban to assert that in fact historians (including Armand Mauss) have located and contextualized its history. See among others, Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984).