I gave a sacrament meeting talk today in a neighboring ward about how God can give us the gift of faith as we accept continuing revelation that sometimes corrects previously incorrect ideas. I used the painful example of institutional racism within my church and the subsequent process of rooting it out as Latter-day Saints (Mormons) seek to follow Christ’s teachings about loving others.
In a recent general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said:
“We should not be surprised to know that those individuals called to do the Lord’s work are not humanly perfect. Stories in the scriptures detail incidents about men and women who were called of God to accomplish a great work–good sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father called to serve in their assignments in the Church, striving to do their best, but none of them yet perfect. The same is true of us today. Given the reality of our human weaknesses and shortcomings, how do we move forward in supporting and sustaining each other? It begins with faith–real, sincere faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in the Savior is the first principle of the doctrine and gospel of Christ.”
Faith is a precious gift bestowed on those who earnestly strive to receive it. That faith helps us accept and follow the revelations we receive, which are provided by a perfect God through imperfect people. In our most recent general conference, President Russell M. Nelson was sustained as the president of the church and announced a number of changes to some of the programs and structures of the church. Of course, I speak of the changes to home and visiting teaching to “ministering” and the combining of the Melchizedek priesthood quorums. Most members were excited about the changes as they allow us to minister to our brothers and sisters in a more customizable, flexible way. Combining the priesthood quorums will help break down the walls between older and younger men, helping us become more unified in our efforts. I believe we all felt that the Lord is behind these changes. Does this mean that the former programs of home teaching and visiting teaching were wrong? No, but it’s time to take the training wheels off; it’s time we take our gospel participation to the next level.
While these changes were indeed significant, as I think back through my lifetime, the biggest change that has come by revelation was the ending of the priesthood restriction for black members of the church in June 1978. The 40th anniversary of that historic revelation is coming up so I’d like to share some thoughts on this important topic.
This week the senior leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) met with and issued a joint statement with the LDS First Presidency. This is highly significant since the NAACP organized rallies in downtown Salt Lake in the 1960s protesting the church’s institutional racism.
In that joint statement, President Nelson said:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to affirm its fundamental doctrine—and our heartfelt conviction—that all people are God’s precious children and therefore our brothers and sisters. All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Today, in unity with such capable and impressive leaders as the national officials of the NAACP, we are impressed to call on people of this nation and, indeed, the entire world to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.”
On Friday, June 1, there will be a big meeting at the conference center to celebrate the many contributions of black Latter-day Saints and to commemorate 40 years since the revelation was received which lifted the priesthood restriction, which had limited full participation of people of African descent. This is another highly significant event and I’m looking forward to it.
While all this is very exciting, it begs the very legitimate questions: “Why was there a priesthood restriction to begin with? If all are alike onto God, why would He allow this discriminatory practice to exist in His church for more than 120 years?”
While our founding prophet Joseph Smith ordained some black men to the priesthood, the restriction policy was implemented under Brigham Young in the context of a country that practiced black slavery and viewed people of African descent as being inferior in order to justify such a terrible practice.
Today we know that this is not the case. All races, ethnicities and nationalities are equal in the sight of God; they are his beloved sons and daughters. As clearly stated in 2 Nephi 26:33 in the Book of Mormon:
“And 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 he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
And yet, the restriction policy persisted and many were harmed as a result. It is my opinion that the Lord would have gladly ended the restriction policy much earlier if members of the church had been ready for it. But we weren’t. Old habits die hard. Old beliefs and prejudices are difficult to root out. The Lord respects our agency and is patient with us because he has an eternal perspective.
It wasn’t until 1978, years after the civil rights movement had paved the way, when then church president Spencer W. Kimball pleaded with the Lord in the Salt Lake Temple over the course of several months, for revelation on this matter. He eventually received a strong confirmation that the time had come and the rest of the apostles (the youngest of which at the time was Thomas S. Monson) agreed. The news was announced to the media and immediately black Latter-day Saints began to be ordained to the priesthood and to enjoy the blessings of the temple. I was just three years old, so I don’t remember it personally, but I remember speaking to my father about the day he heard about the revelation. He said he and many others were elated. My father served a mission in racially diverse South America in areas where the priesthood restriction was keenly felt.
Unfortunately, we still deal with the negative effects of racism in our country and within the church today. During the years prior to the revelation, many doctrinal speculations arose to try to explain the restriction policy. Unfortunately, these explanations may have reinforced ideas of racial inequality within our culture.
Regarding these previous teachings, Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave a wonderful talk at BYU in August 1978, just two months after the revelation. He said:
“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever 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. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about it before the first day of June 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.“
Wow! This quote is especially remarkable as it comes from an apostle whose first edition of the book “Mormon Doctrine” had advanced several “folklore doctrines” regarding the restriction, including the idea that blacks were cursed because they were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence.
In 2006, President Gordon B. Hinckley said in general conference:
“Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.”
President Hinckley continues: “Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible? There is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.”
One of my heroes is a black Latter-day Saint named Darius Gray who joined the church prior to the revelation when he and his family were not allowed to enjoy all of the blessings of the restored gospel. But he had faith that the Lord would hear the prayers of his people and reveal His will to the prophet.
Brother Gray recently wrote a phenomenal article that can be found on the church’s website. He wrote:
“As we endeavor to heal the wounds of racism, it is critically important to understand that negative ideas toward others based on racial or cultural differences hurt not only those who are the focus of such an attitude; they hurt the practitioner just as much, if not more. We are Christians, disciples of Christ, yet when we allow the attitudes of the world to infiltrate our minds to the point of blindness about their existence, we limit our progress toward that which our Father expects us to become, and we enter into a sin that often has lasting consequences.
“I am black, an African-American convert who this year celebrates with millions of members the 40th anniversary of the priesthood being extended to all worthy male members. Since that time, Church leaders have fully disavowed past speculation for why the priesthood was withheld… unfortunately, racially insensitive comments and attitudes concerning persons of color have not all gone away yet.”
(Click here for Darius Gray’s full article.)
In 2013, the church published a landmark essay in the Gospel Topics section of its website. It is a wonderful, comprehensive and straightforward treatment of this subject. I love its concluding paragraph:
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
(Click here to read the full essay.)
We may think we are not affected personally by racism in 2018, but we must remember that animosity and discrimination can be directed to any group, not just blacks. Racism can be directed to any group FROM any group. The enmity that stems from pride also manifests itself in nationalism, sexism and other “isms” that cause us to feel superior to others. We must root these un-Christlike feelings out of our hearts.
Let me conclude by quoting once more from Brother Gray:
“How are we to judge when are our thoughts and comments might be out of line with gospel teachings? Consider how the following examples could represent racism. How would the Lord have you change your heart if you recognize that you:
- Prefer associating only with those of your own race and think others should too.
- Believe it’s OK to discriminate when selling or renting a home.
- Don’t initiate a friendship (or respond to friendly overtures) because of racial differences.
- Aren’t happy if your children associate with those of a particular race.
- Would have difficulty welcoming someone of a particular race into your family circle.
- Feel less compassion toward those of a different race who suffer the effects of poverty, war, famine, crime, and so on.
- Assume that a person of another race (or who looks different) must be from another country.
- Make jokes or disparaging remarks relating to someone’s race or a racial group.
- Believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ supports any racist thinking or behavior.
- Justify racist attitudes or behaviors because of similar attitudes or behaviors shown by other good people, including Church leaders or members.
If you recognize any of these thoughts or attitudes in yourself, you have identified an opportunity to grow and become more Christlike as you work to overcome them.”
I am extremely grateful for the gift of revelation that helps us move the Lord’s work forward. I’m also thankful for the gift of faith that allows me to maintain a vibrant testimony of the gospel, even when aspects of our history, culture and doctrine are troubling. We can exercise faith even when our leaders occasionally make mistakes. We make them too. The Lord is perfect, we are not. But we can move forward with energy and enthusiasm, correcting mistakes from the past and adjusting our beliefs and attitudes according to the true gospel of Jesus Christ, which is based on God’s unconditional love for all his children.
**Update June 10, 2018
In his remarks at the event on Friday, June 1, President Dallin H. Oaks said that after the revelation that all worthy males could receive the priesthood, institutionally, the Church reacted swiftly — ordinations and temple recommends came immediately. The reasons that had been given to try to explain the prior restrictions on members of African ancestry — even those previously voiced by revered Church leaders — were promptly and publicly disavowed.
“In contrast, changes in the hearts and practices of individual members did not come suddenly and universally. Some accepted the effects of the revelation immediately and gracefully. Some accepted gradually. But some, in their personal lives, continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world, including the past 40 years. Others have wanted to look back, concentrating attention on re-examining the past, including seeking reasons for the now-outdated restrictions.
However, most in the Church, including its senior leadership, have concentrated on the opportunities of the future rather than the disappointments of the past. They have trusted the wisdom and timing of the Lord and accepted the directions of His prophet.”