Over the past year or so, the Church has been adding treatises on various gospel topics to its website. In doing so, it has not avoided controversial topics such as Race and the Priesthood, Polygamy, and how the Book of Mormon Translation was completed. Two of those topics: Polygamy and Race and the Priesthood refer to deeply important moments in church history when a new course was set for the future of the church that differed greatly from the old way.
The prohibition of the ordination of black members of the church to the priesthood has deep roots in church history. Although there is record of one man, Elijah Abel, having been ordained to the priesthood and having received temple blessings, by the time the saints arrived in Utah, ordination of black members had been restricted.
Many reasons have been given over the years for this restriction. It is easy today to dismiss those reasons as uninspired folklore, but in their day they were not considered mere idle speculation, but were doctrinally significant. Consider these words from Brigham Young,
...sommons the first presidency, the twelve, the high counsel, the Bishoprick, and all the elders of Isreal, suppose we summons them to apear here, and here declare that it is right to mingle our seed with the black race of Cain, that they shall come in with us and be pertakers with us of all the blessings God has given to us. On that very day, and hour we should do so, the priesthood is taken from this Church and the Kingdom of God leaves us to our fate.
– Brigham Young Addresses, Feb. 5, 1852 (emphasis added)
By so declaring, President Young made the continued prohibition of the ordination of black members a condition of salvation for the Church. If such a restriction was ever lifted, he warns that the Church would lose its claim on the priesthood and be left to fend for itself in the world.
In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the restriction had been lifted. Now all worthy males can qualify for ordination to the priesthood, and all members, regardless of race, can enter the temple and receive those blessings.
Statements such as the above by Brigham Young have been trotted out from time to time by those attempting to paint the LDS Church as a continuing racist organization. One of the aims of the before-mentioned topical treatises seems to be to meet such claims and give reasonable explanations of the Church's current position. For example, the article on Race and the Priesthood says,
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 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.
With a little reflection, this statement presents us with a bit of a problem. Current policy is to condemn all racism, including that of the past which we can assume means statements such as the above from Brigham Young. An earlier press release, given a few years ago when a BYU professor made news for repeating past folk-theories about black ancestry says,
The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.
I don't think these things should be taken lightly. In this one statement from Brigham Young (and there are others), we are told that if there is any co-mingling of the races, or if full blessings of the gospel were given to blacks, the Church would lose the priesthood and the kingdom of God.
To put this more plainly, either Brigham Young was right and Spencer W. Kimball was wrong, or Spencer W. Kimball was right and Brigham Young was wrong. On this issue, it is not possible to make both of these past presidents of the church be right and leave the Church in possession of the priesthood which we claim to hold.
This introduces a third conundrum, which stems from a statement made by Wilford Woodruff in the aftermath of the Manifesto on plural marriage given in 1890. This statement came when many were questioning how a 180 degree turn could be made by the Church with the abandonment of polygamy. In response, Pres. Woodruff said,
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
– Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.
There is a word in that paragraph that I believe is absolutely key, it is astray. Webster's defines astray as "away from what is right, good, or desirable." We could say that to lead astray is to lead one toward that which is "wrong, bad or undesirable." Compare that definition with condemn, which is defined as "to say in a strong and definite way that someone or something is bad or wrong."
I will put things plainly once again. President Woodruff said that a President of the Church will never lead members away from what is right, good or desirable or toward that which is wrong, bad, or undesirable. President Brigham Young, however, has made statements that are strongly said to be bad or wrong.
Logically, there is no way to make Brigham Young, Spencer W. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff all right on these issues. They are contradictory with each other, only one can be correct.
I believe that Spencer W. Kimball has the only correct position of this group.
Some might argue that what Brigham Young said does not amount to leading the church "astray." I disagree. If the Church ever lost the rights to the priesthood and ordinances restored through Joseph Smith, we wouldn't be talking merely about the Church going astray, we would be discussing the full apostasy of the Church in these Latter-days, something akin to what happened to the church that the Savior established while he lived on Earth.
Many Latter-day saints find comfort in the teaching that a church president cannot lead you astray. I do not wish to shake the faith of such people, but to refocus it to that being in the universe who is mighty to save.
An imperfect President of the Church, making mistakes, does not signify that the Church has lost divine favor and guidence. Men have never been perfect, even prophets. Indeed, the scriptures are full of examples of how great things the Lord can do with imperfect servants.
Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young saw the results of too much reliance on men, even men who are leaders of the Church. From the Teachings of Joseph Smith, we read,
President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel 18—said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church—that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls—applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall—that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, envious towards the innocent, while they afflict the virtuous with their shafts of envy.
– Joseph Smith, TPSJ pp. 237-238 (emphasis added)
Brigham Young said,
What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.
– Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, 150.
Now, on this issue I am totally on board with Brigham. Salvation is something we just can't outsource to some other man. We must take responsibility for ourselves, receiving the revelations and whisperings of Heaven in our own lives. We must hearken to the one who bid, "Come, follow me."
Let me be clear, in saying that it is possible for even Presidents of the Church to make mistakes and, using the words of Wilford Woodruff, even lead you astray on some issues, I do not condemn them for it. These are good men, doing their best to receive inspiration from the Lord and directing the Church as best as they can according to the will of the Savior.
What I do suggest is that it is time for us, as latter-day saints, to let go of this folk-doctrine that we cannot be led astray. Just as past statements on race can now be properly identified as personal opinion, having been given without direct revelation, so can we let go of this overstatement of reliance on a man, even one that we sustain as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.
It is an old, but telling joke, that the Catholics say the Pope is infallible, and no one believes it, and the Mormons say the Prophet is fallible, and no one believes it. Well, it is time we do believe it.
...there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
I pray that in this realization, we may refocus our faith back on Jesus Christ. Of course there must be a man on earth who will manage the great organization that has been handed down to us in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Let him, his counselors, and all of the members of the Twelve be as inspired in their leadership as they can be, so that we may all be blessed by their direction and words.
But, no matter how inspired, those men cannot save us. Christ is the only name given whereby man can be saved. The message of prophets through all the ages is to repent and follow Him.