A New Header, A New Day?

By March 1, 2013

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).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. To respond to your questions:

    (1) My guess is that President Smith believed he was setting forth the relevant, known doctrine on the subject, based on a foundation that he – and most everyone else — believed to have been laid by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young etc. I also like to imagine that had he been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in June 1978, and had participated in the revelatory experience that led to OD # 2, he would have subsequently done what Bruce R. McConkie did and repudiate his prior teachings and admit that he was working from an incomplete understanding.

    (2) Though we are getting better, Church members still love to “fill the gaps” when it comes to areas of Church doctrine where there is no clearly revealed truth. There are a lot of doctrinal areas where the offical church position is “we don’t know,” for which members, nonetheless, try to provide answers . After all, we are encouraged to try to learn the mysteries of heaven. This often leads to speculation and error. I think the desire for explanations and answers will persist with respect to the priesthood ban and many other areas of doctrine, despite the best efforts of the brethren to clarify the official church position.

    Comment by unknown — March 1, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

  2. 1) In response to Max’s first question (at the end of this post), and in part also to Unknown’s first comment: Having read much of Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith’s writing during my lifetime, on many different topics, I see no reason whatever to believe that Pres. Smith thought he was speaking only for himself, either on this topic or on any other. Certainly most of his readers, not least his son-in-law Elder McConkie, always regarded his teachings as fully authoritative, if not technically “official,” which explains the widespread adoption of those teachings by (now) three generations of Mormons. Furthermore, in their understandable eagerness to find early signs of apostolic recanting of traditional racist statements, many well-meaning commentators (including Unknown here in #1) have attributed far more than is warranted to McConkie’s “forget everything I have said” statement in August of 1978. That statement seems always to be cited out of context, for when the context is consulted, it becomes clear that McConkie was NOT actually referring to “everything,” but ONLY to his long-standing prediction that African Americans would never get the priesthood IN THIS LIFE. He never recanted any of the other racist suppositions that he had adopted and perpetuated from his father-in-law, and they continued to show up not only in his Mormon Doctrine but also in his later writings, as I tried to make clear in Chapter 2 of my All Abraham’s Children.

    2) In responses to Max’s second question, I predict that at least 95% of the Mormon membership won’t even notice the changes in question here, unless the Church leadership makes a concerted and continuing effort to highlight them in public arenas such as general conferences, stake conferences, the various auxiliary curricula, the various LDS websites, etc.

    Comment by Armand L,. Mauss — March 1, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

  3. Armand, in response to your response to the second question, I fully plan on making “a concerted and continuing effort to highlight them” within my ward, starting this Sunday. This is truly a case where the grass roots can help push this important change forward.

    Comment by kevinf — March 1, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

  4. It is true that Elder McConkie was talking in part about the timing of the priesthood revelation in his August 1978 address. But to be fair, he admitted that his earlier brethren were in “darkness.” He encouraged his listeners to: “Forget everything . . . that is contrary to the present revelation”. He noted that the revelation “erases all of the darkeness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past”. And, he conceded that “[i]t doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978”. If Church members sincerely applied this counsel in 1978, we might not be having this conversation now. Here are the relevant quotes in context.

    We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, ?Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.? There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, ?You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?? And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

    We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don?t matter any more.

    It doesn?t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles.

    I also don’t see how one can separate the “statements . . . by the early Brethren . . . interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality,” which Elder McConkie is told people to forget, from the folk doctrine upon which those statements were made. Many of the “statements” discussed not only the timing issue, but also the reason therefor. Thus, I think that you can read the admonition to “forget everything that was ever said” to include the folk doctrine as well.

    Comment by unknown — March 1, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

  5. I’m sorry, the last paragraph in my post above was not supposed to be part of the block quote. Those are my words, not Elder McConkie’s.

    Comment by unknown — March 1, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

  6. Since you linked your reference to Randy Bott’s “most celebrated” status to an article about the rating of teachers by students, I trust that you didn’t mean to imply that any serious scholars, in whatever field, ever took him seriously.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 1, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

  7. Mark B-

    Yes, absolutely. My reference to his status was more about being a “celebrity,” which the DN was, at least in 2008, happy to highlight. And the fact that he has taught many BYU students.

    A line that I cut (yes, I did do some self-editing!) referred to his popularity as being a result of his practice (if I understand it correctly) of allowing students to evaluate themselves (as in give themselves their own grades). That would make us all popular, I’m sure.

    Comment by Max — March 1, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

  8. I remember taking Randy Bott?s Missionary Prep class along with my cousin and recall her asking about the priesthood ban and hearing this response; unfortunately he is not alone in his thoughts and beliefs. But you grow up learning not to speak negatively about Church leaders no matter what, creating a legion of members to have blind faith (or is ignorance bliss?). After years of research I came to believe Bruce R. McConkie and many others have been/are and can be considered racists, especially when we view past leaders and apply modern ideas upon them. When I questioned Church leaders and educators about some of these behaviors, the common response was/is, ?THEY MEANT WELL!? But, what does that really mean? Racism within the Church is not surprising to me, especially considering that the Church was created in a nation of racism and incorporated many who did not like the ?other.?

    As a Native, people ask me about the Church and race, my response is: what does your Sunday school teachers and Church manuals say about it? The answer is, ?nothing.? And I say that there is a specific reason for this omission. I welcome additional information about the Official Declaration 2 to help fill in some of this void. As Max stated, ?Without fanfare, the Church is addressing the problem that the existence of troubling racialized justifications for the exclusion?? Does the Church need to officially apologize for its past behavior towards Blacks, Native Americans and Polynesians? Do you think the Church will ever ask for forgiveness? It seems to have gotten by pretty good without having to do so.

    Sorry, back to question 1: It makes me laugh when people share talks from BYU?s student Devotional and proclaim what was said to a specific student body is now considered doctrine for every member of the Church. This brings me back to an endless question I?ve had: what is the difference between ?Church Doctrine? and ?Church Policy?? Because Brigham Young argued that the Church was not sure about the priesthood ban, but said that from now on, it was ?Church Policy? that there would be a ban.

    On to question 2: most of its current members that I have come into contact with do not know their own scriptures, I don?t see that changing any time soon.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — March 1, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

  9. Brigham Young was not uncertain about the priesthood restriction in 1852. He said, “If no other prophet hath said it, I say it: the seed of Canaan are not entitled to the priesthood.” That was counter to what he had said in 1847, when he supported Walker Lewis in the priesthood and called him “one of our best elders, an African.” So, something changed between 1847 and 1852 for Brigham Young.

    I am personally committed to doing all I can to highlight today’s important step. Not that I can do much as a non-general authority. Therefore, I am announcing my candidacy for the General Relief Society presidency.


    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — March 1, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  10. Unknown:
    You might be right that I am making too narrow an interpretation of Elder McConkie’s remarks in 1981, but I do think that even the passages you quoted (e. g. his reference to “the present revelation” and, in his final paragraph, to “this matter” and “this subject”) make it clear that he is referring ONLY to the POLICY question of priesthood ordination, not to the more general racist doctrines promulgated throughout LDS history. All of his racist teachings about people of African origin are identical to those of Joseph Fielding Smith and the other early brethren. Even his 1981 treatise from which you quote (from Priesthood, p. 128) still describes black people as “the seed of Cain and Ham.” These teachings (and more of that ilk about differential lineages, etc.) appear again in subsequent printings of Mormon Doctrine (up to and including at least the 27th edition in 1991: pp. 108-9, 214,343, 479, 526-29, 616), as well as in some volumes of his Messiah series (1979-82) and in his New Witness for the Articles of Faith (1985). No – he really didn’t mean for us to forget “everything” — only that which was “contrary to the present revelation” on the priesthood policy and the timing (finally!) of its demise.

    Comment by Armand L,. Mauss — March 1, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

  11. […] I am generally pleased with the direction of the majority of the “adjustments” I have looked at so far. The new introduction to Official Declaration 2, for example, is receiving a lot of attention: […]

    Pingback by Mormon Mentality - Thoughts and Asides by Peculiar People » All Are Alike unto God? — March 2, 2013 @ 12:50 am

  12. Max, Thanks for wrapping things up. As for your questions:
    1: I defer to Armand on this, I think he is correct as to how Smith saw his ideas and McConkie after him. Even still, it is important to distinguish that Joseph Smith established a precedent the founding year of Mormonism, in relation to a competing seer stone, that only one person receives revelation for the entire church. In your question you refer to Fielding Smith as “a prophet” but he was not “the prophet” in 1931 when he published The Way to Perfection. As such it could not be considered “official” or “binding” on the church, but as Armand noted certainly carried the weight of his apostolic calling. In his Answers to Gospel Questions, published in the 1950s, he resorted to a less valiant in the pre-existence trope, not a curse of Cain trope. It was only after McConkie published his ideas in Mormon Doctrine that the hierarchy started to require general authorities to get permission to publish such books and started to include a disclaimer. I suspect that had Fielding Smith published the Way to Perfection after that period, it would have carried a disclaimer. Even with the disclaimers, however, folks in the pew give considerable weight to such publications, especially from leaders such as Fielding Smith and McConkie.

    2. Since I weighed in on the new heading to OD2 at BCC, I’ve had reason to rethink my concern over the clause to which you refer: ?Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.? As you note, certainly Mauss, Bringhurst, and Bush (among others) have established a compelling framework within which to understand the development of the ban and that framework was constructed from Church records. I now wonder if there isn’t an alternative way of thinking about the clause under question. In stating that there is no clear evidence on the origins of the ban, the Church is in essence acknowledging that there was no revelation that began it. In the absence of a revelation, it was unwise for them to weigh in on an historical moment as a definitive line in the sand, simply because the 19th century narrative on race is so messy, with black priesthood holders now officially acknowledged, complicating the issue at every turn.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — March 2, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

  13. In re: #12 (Paul):
    On the first point, it’s true enough that we should always try to distinguish between the “official” and the personal in the teachings and pronouncements of our Church leaders — even our highest-ranking ones. That is what we might call a “canonical” distinction. Yet there is also an “operational” distinction that might matter more in the daily lives of Church members. That distinction can be measured by the amount of flak that one gets in church meetings and classes for questioning a statement made by a Church leader in print or over the pulpit. Believe me when I tell you that during the retrenchment era (1960s on), publicly questioning anything JFS or BRMc said would bring flak — sometimes pretty heavy and long remembered, not only from other members but also from important leaders.
    On the second point, I agree totally. It’s a very important consideration.

    Comment by Armand L. Mauss — March 2, 2013 @ 11:36 pm

  14. […] LDS edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was a breath of fresh air (see posts and comments here, here, here and here for a sample), legitimizing a position already held and hoped for, but previously […]

    Pingback by Adjusting the Narrative: Introduction and Proposal — March 10, 2013 @ 7:01 am


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