This is a guest post from Rachel Cope, professor of religion at Brigham Young University.
As a Mormon, I believe, first and foremost, in the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, and I recognize my need to submit to his grace. I also believe that Joseph Smith—a prophetic figure—had visions, restored gospel truths, and translated a sacred text by the power of God. Consequently, doctrine seeps into my understanding of history, and history is intertwined throughout my doctrinal perspectives. Reverence and trust, rather than skepticism and doubt, dominate my view of the past. How history is written and interpreted, then, is important to me as a woman of faith who also happens to be a Professor of Religion at Brigham Young University.
And yet, my belief in prophets, revelation and a sacred history do not overshadow my ability to recognize human imperfections and the positive and negative consequences of personal and collective agency. I know sacred history can be messy history. This makes sense to me, because I believe Mormons are a people and a church that need a Savior, and that we are all called to be imperfect laborers in this church.
Because I teach Doctrine and Covenants classes, I have spent many hours reflecting upon ways to help Mormon students grapple with the complexities of the Priesthood Ban—between approximately 1849 and June 1, 1978, descendants of black Africans were not ordained to the priesthood—a topic that certainly illustrates the messiness of history.
Before coming to class on the day this particular topic is addressed, my students are required to read Official Declaration 2 in the Doctrine and Covenants (the revelation received by Spencer W. Kimball that removes the ban) and Edward Kimball’s BYU Studies article, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood” (if you have not read this article, I would strongly recommend that you look it up at byustudies.byu.edu).
We begin with a doctrinal discussion (i.e. what we do know): for example, God is no respecter of persons. The atonement is infinite and eternal. “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
The focus of our conversation then shifts into the dangers of speculation (i.e. what we do not know): we identify the differences between doctrine and folklore (“all are alike unto God” vs. the less-valiant spirit theories, etc). This inevitably leads to a discussion about the problems (perpetuating false doctrine and false history) that come when we read beyond the text, confuse cause and effect, and explain “why” when no “why” has, in fact, been provided.
After discussing the (disturbing and destructive) misconceptions about the priesthood ban, we turn to historical context, both broadly and narrowly defined. While there is no need to elaborate on the details here (you all know them, and there have been several posts on JI about this if you don’t), I do think it is important to note that this conversation helps the students make sense of this part of the church’s past, and how it connects to nineteenth-century American history and culture.
Finally, we discuss the process through which Spencer W. Kimball received an answer—searching, seeking, praying, fasting, hoping, waiting. He wanted to be sure he was following the Lord’s will, not his own. He explained, “Admittedly our direct and positive information is limited. I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity on the matter.” Kimball did not know whether to characterize the decision as a “doctrine or policy,” but acknowledged that it “has not varied in my memory.” He continued, quite powerfully, “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” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 448-49 (1963).
By the end of class, students see that an answer came over time. The limitations were finally lifted. God’s will was attained. I hope they also recognize the importance of historical and doctrinal accuracy, the dangers of speculation, the realities of a complex (and sometimes uncomfortable) history, the process of revelation (even for a prophet), the ever-present need for a Savior, and the love God has for all of his children, “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Indeed, all really does mean all.