Teaching Official Declaration 2

By February 29, 2012

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.

Article filed under Race Reflective Posts


  1. […] http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/teaching-official-declaration-2 […]

    Pingback by Priesthood Ban Issue | africanamericanhistoryatbyu — February 29, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  2. “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.”

    To me the bigger danger than the danger of speculation and reading beyond the text is the danger of taking the word of anyone, even a prophet, who can proffer no reasons at all for God’s will. Our judicial system requires judges to write an opinion, instead of just deciding who wins, so we all know that the judge had reasons and did not decide arbitrarily or based on his or her personal preference or bias. Granted prophets aren’t judges, but there is a danger in accepting God’s will without requiring it to be accompanied by reasons. The danger is in accepting arbitrary decisions or those based on personal opinion.

    Comment by metamormon — February 29, 2012 @ 11:19 am

  3. Thanks to Ms. Cope for sharing her method of teaching this difficult subject. I agree with metamormon: while I understand the importance of making sure that reasons for change are legitimate when such a change will affect an entire religion, it is astonishing to me that a leader would allow such an abhorrent policy to remain in effect while he remains in a state of uncertainty about God’s will regarding that policy. Instead, I would have thought a conscience-driven leader would reverse the policy immediately and *then* begin the long process of prayer and fasting and waiting to see what it is God really wants. The importance of not harming a group unless we’re sure God really wants us to trumps the importance of maintaining status quo until we’re sure God wants it to change.

    Comment by Devorah — February 29, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  4. Devorah and Metamormons comments clearly reveal you are not LDS. Dont speak about what you dont know about.

    Comment by Dante — February 29, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  5. As the first Latter-day Saint to comment after Dante, I want to disassociate myself from his (her?) logic about commenting. Commenters 1 and 2 have every right to offer comment regardless of their membership in the Church, and, I think, their comment motivates those of us who are both thoughtful and orthodox to do better in our explanation about who we are and what we’re about.

    Thank you, Rachel, for your write-up.

    Comment by Cameron — February 29, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  6. Rachel, thanks for this. It would be helpful if this was also the way that it was taught in Gospel Doctrine classes. Although, I will have to admit that our teacher two years ago came close. Not too much historical context, but the folklore was definitely labeled as such.

    Comment by kevinf — February 29, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

  7. Thanks, Rachel. It makes me rest easier knowing that you and others of a like mind are the future of the department. We need open discussion of these issues that educate young LDS kids about these more troublesome issues in our past and the significant changes that have occurred in recent Church history.

    Dante, this is not the place nor is it your place to determine whether commenters are LDS or not. Such comments will not be tolerated in the future. Consider this your warning and a warning to all future commenters.

    Comment by David G. — February 29, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  8. Thanks for the post, Rachel. I hope other members of the BYU Religion Department make public comments on this topic. It would do the members of the Church well to hear how the topic is explained and discussed by a variety of informed LDS scholars.

    Comment by Dave — February 29, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  9. I too would like to distance myself from Dante’s comment. They were very exclusionary when people likely just wanted to join the in discussion and antithetical to the purpose of the website and the discuss all mormons hope to have even with those outside of our faith.

    Also, membership in the mormon faith has very little to do with knowledge of the mysteries of God.

    Devorah, while I respect your opinion I disagree. I believe it was wisely handled and that before a policy is changed it should be ensured that the change was according to the will of the Lord.

    Comment by matt — February 29, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

  10. *wow, should have proof-read when I added sentences after I had written. Sorry about the typos!

    Comment by matt — February 29, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

  11. Cameron, David G., and Matt, thanks for your support, both implicit and explicit.

    Matt, I’m interested in learning the extent to which we disagree. I expressed the view that the priesthood ban was harmful to the people who were excluded from ordination. I would also hold that the longer the ban went on, the more harm it did. Do you disagree with me about that also? Because if so, then I could understand your disagreeing with my conclusion, but if not, I’d be puzzled about your value system.

    Dante, you’re correct that I’m not LDS. My spouse is LDS, though, and I have been grateful for the way my spouse’s family and friends have welcomed me into their community and been willing to engage with me on thought-provoking issues like these. I’m reminded not to take their kindness for granted.

    Comment by Devorah — February 29, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  12. @Metamormon,

    I can see your point and I know it’s difficult to believe in any form of validation other than straight reason, but the fundamental dynamic behind much of the Mormon faith is personal confirmation from God that an action or belief is correct. You ask God if this guy who claims to be a prophet is actually inspired, you receive a personal confirmation that he is, and from that point you follow what he says. This leaves Mormons in the uncomfortable position of not always being able to prove why they take a certain position or believe a certain thing — it’s a very personal process, and that’s why faith and conversion are personal and not always logical decisions.

    Comment by Ubruni — February 29, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

  13. These are difficult subjects and it is good that Rachel engages in the process that she does. There are other BYU professors who do the same but it will always be difficult with issues when we don’t have all the information. In today’s world we want to know everything right away. While I always believed that the ban was wrong, I chose to do what many others did and that is pray and asked the Lord for guidance. I did not shy away from expressing my ideas but I never let that be the central concern of my membership or my faith or even my confidence in the Brethren. I suffered internally for years for my black brothers and sisters as I come from a group that has itself faced my challenges within the church, but in the end I realized that I belong to a community of Saints that has its flaws, prejudices and misconceptions but that is fundamentally one that seeks to follow Christ. That allows me to accept my own flaws and to try to correct them. The story of the black saints is as heartbreaking and yet as inspiring as that of the pioneers who lost everything to reach Zion. These brothers and sister gave up even more for a gospel they know will allow them to go back to be with their Father in Heaven. We should teach about their lives to our children and our youth and remind ourselves what faith really is like.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — February 29, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

  14. Rachel’s one of the church’s moral and intellectual treasures.

    Comment by smb — February 29, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

  15. I appreciate a practical, proactive post like this one in the midst of all of today’s [justified, understandable, but not especially practical] outrage and emotionalism.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 1, 2012 @ 12:06 am

  16. Amen, smb. And well done, Rachel. If Bott represents the hairy tail end of an old era, you are a bright new future.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 1, 2012 @ 1:00 am

  17. Rachel, thank you for this post!

    Comment by Jared T — March 1, 2012 @ 1:14 am

  18. Thank you for your comments.

    Perhaps no lecture preparation (with the exception of plural marriage) causes me to shed more tears and to say more prayers. Clearly, this is a highly sensitive topic that needs to be addressed in the ways that fit our particular audiences/contexts. I hope my way(s) fits the needs of the BYU students (for a variety of backgrounds) who enter my classroom. And, I hope and pray that I can become a better teacher, scholar and Christian over the course of my career–one who can teach about the neat and the messy in a faithful and honest way.

    Comment by Rachel — March 1, 2012 @ 1:33 am

  19. Oops, make that from a variety of backgrounds, not for a variety of backgrounds.

    Comment by Rachel — March 1, 2012 @ 1:35 am

  20. This was thought-provoking to read in light of the recent press about the priesthood ban and revelation. I am not LDS, but do encounter the LDS in my work, and I, like Devorah, find the process of overturning the ban problematic — for many reasons. But the thing I have the hardest time coming to terms with vis a vis Kimball’s revelation and the role of revelation more generally is that it seems responsive, not anticipatory. Revelation on hairy issues seems most powerful when it precedes social change, making space for “outsiders,” the “marginal,” etc, and weakest when it follows in the wake of larger social change. That it took so long seems highly problematic to me, in terms of the Church handling race as well as in terms the role of present-day revelation. I recognize that as an outsider, my perspective is no doubt different, but I find it hard to believe that revelation would take so much time when the alternative is so hurtful.

    Comment by jaybird — March 1, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

  21. […] has been a lot of chatter about Prof. Randy Bott’s comments in the Washington Post offering a potential reason for why […]

    Pingback by What We Know about the Priesthood Ban on Blacks « Prolusion Six — March 1, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

  22. 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).

    That’s the part that rings truest for me. My personal belief is that this was an error in judgment from the beginning, starting with Brigham Young and continuing with John Taylor and Joseph F. Smith. I believe they, like us, were subject to the prejudices of their times, which clouded their judgment. I think it took a tremendous amount of courage for President Kimball to actually buck history, given the degree to which we attribute perfection to our predecessors, even if we know in our hearts its not true. All were inspired men, especially when it was clear they were speaking for the Lord. But they never did in this case until President Kimball’s revelation on the subject.

    Comment by Ron Barker — March 1, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

  23. Jaybird, I would suggest that you read the BYU Studies article I mention in my post. In addition to discussing the priesthood ban and lift, I think it provides insight into the complexities of how how revelation is received. In my mind, it makes sense to think of revelation as the process through which we are reconciled to God’s will.

    Comment by Rachel — March 2, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  24. […] 10:52 am: Guest post by BYU professor Rachel Cope on Juvenile Instructor mentions the controversy [added 3 Mar 2012 00:13 […]

    Pingback by The Bott Gaffe: A Chronology [Updated] | Times & Seasons — March 3, 2012 @ 12:14 am

  25. Ms. Cope,
    It was quite refreshing to read your post. I must declare that you appear very different than the College of Religion faculty I was exposed to 40+ years ago. You can just imagine what convoluted explanations we received. I must say that the recent Church newsroom statements clearly disavow much of what I remember hearing.

    Comment by Roger — March 3, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

  26. Thanks, Roger!

    Comment by Rachel — March 4, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

  27. […] on Blacks and the Priesthood: Guest Post: Professor Bott,Rachael: Thoughts on Gender inRachel: Teaching Official Declaration 2Roger: Teaching Official Declaration 2Shawn: Repudiating Racism: A BlackRFB: Repudiating Racism: A […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Resources on Blacks and the Priesthood — March 4, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  28. Thanks Rachel for this insightful article.

    In answer to those who speak of receiving an answer that there is a prophet and then following him no matter what, I would answer concerning my own experience. When important changes have been made, it has been my experience that I received a very specific spiritual prompting that the change was initiated by God. Those members of the church who remember June 8, 1978 (the day the revelation on the priesthood was announced) may have felt the same as I did. I was waiting at the Intersection of State St. and University in Orem, Utah at the time, and heard the radio announcement.These words came into my mind and heart (these specific words) immediately after the announcement: “The words you have just heard are true. Spencer W. Kimball is a prophet, seer and revelator, and this revelation is from God.”

    In the absence of such a confirmatory certainty, I personally would feel obligated to go ask God to receive an answer for myself.

    Comment by Mike Bennion — March 6, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  29. Thanks for sharing your experience, Mike. Powerful.

    Comment by Rachel — March 6, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

  30. Looking through the posts, I see that Professor Cope makes reference to her lecture preparations on “plural marriage”. Are any of her writing on this topic accessible? Her “faithful and honest way” of addressing tough issues might almost make me feel like King Agrippa.

    Comment by Roger — March 8, 2012 @ 9:06 pm


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