Dr. Lowry Nelson: Speaking Truth to Power on Racism in the LDS Church

Dr. Lowry Nelson: Speaking Truth to Power on Racism in the LDS Church

[Note: A follow-up article covering the Cuba Report of Heber Meeks is now available]

As a practicing Mormon – what happens if, through careful study and introspection, you come to the determination that your conscience and convictions are diametrically opposed to a key portion of Church Doctrine? You might chuckle to yourself imagining this possibility; after all, if born into the Church, your identity has been formed while saturated in Church society and doctrine. How could you have any significant differences? The modern examples of women wearing pants to church or praying in General Conference are hardly “key doctrine”, but the movement to ordain women to the priesthood is pretty much spot on. Most mormons have probably only considered this movement enough to dismiss it as completely outlandish.

More recently the excommunication of Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, has brought this question into focus for many Mormons who share her concerns and would like a prophetic statement on the matter.

Suppose that you were to be so bold as to write the First Presidency and make your case – appealing to them to change the Church’s attitude on this issue. How would that be received? Would it be the modern day equivalent to “steadying the ark”? It would be fascinating to see what would happen if someone made such an argument about a key point of doctrine to the highest levels of Church authority.

Once Upon a Time

Dr. Lowry Nelson

It turns out that someone has. Deep within the archives of Utah State University in a few boxes of dusty folders and papers lies the collection of personal writings and communications of Dr. Lowry Nelson. Dr. Nelson was an internationally respected LDS sociologist working at the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in 1947 when he had the opportunity to exchange letters with the First Presidency under the Prophet George A Smith on the topic of Mormon doctrine and policy towards Black people. Careful examination of this exchange presents a unique snapshot of the thoughts and attitudes of Mormon members and leaders struggling with how to deal with the issues of race as seen from a societal and religious perspective.

Meek Inquiry

Heber Meeks

Years previously Dr. Nelson had been schoolmates with a man named Heber Meeks. Each had parted to their own career, and Meeks was subsequently given the position of Mission President of the Southern States Mission. In this capacity Meeks was given the special task of exploring the possibilities for establishing a missionary presence in Cuba in 1947. He visited Cuba becoming familiar with the culture and society and while there learned that his old schoolmate Lowry Nelson had recently spent a year in Cuba as part of a study for the State Department.

Upon his return to the states he wrote a letter (see the full letter scanned here) to Dr. Nelson asking for his insights into the potential for the church moving into Cuba. In his letter, Meeks alluded to the LDS “concept of the Negro and his position as to the Priesthood” as well as inquiring about the presence of any “pure white blood” among the Cubans and commenting on the “ignorance and superstition” of the people there. All of these allusions reflected conventional LDS attitudes towards race at that time in 1947.

Dr. Nelson Responds

Dr. Nelson, having devoted his life to the study of how societies of different races and backgrounds evolve and interact with each other, responded (see the full response scanned here) with very pointed statements about his convictions on the matter. “The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad.” He admitted that he did not realize that the position of blacks in the church represented an official fixed doctrine. “I do not believe God is a racist” Nelson wrote bluntly. He further clarified that according to anthropologists “there are no pure races.” He went on to state that the church’s doctrine amounted to “white supremacy” and observed that there was currently less racial inequality and prejudice in Cuba than existed in parts of the United States. He ultimately concludes that if the Church does not change it’s stance on the issue of race he believed that it would do more harm than good to bring such a theology into the country and introduce racism where there was not any previously or sanction it where it did.

Dr. Nelson felt that the issue was significant enough that he copied and sent both Meeks’  original letter and his own reply to the First Presidency of the Church hoping for clarification on the matter.

The First Presidency Replies

The First Presidency under George A Smith

The First Presidency, under George A Smith took the opportunity to respond by letter (full letter here) and clarify church doctrine and reinforce a proper view of race in the mind of Dr. Nelson. It is particularly interesting to note  whether they saw this issue as a matter of doctrine or a matter of policy.

At the outset the First Presidency clarified exactly what they were addressing. “The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things.” In response to this assertion they set out to correct this notion in the mind of Dr. Nelson stating

“this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a-vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed.
(First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947, archive.org)

They further go on to explain the role that the first estate or pre-mortal life plays in relation to race stating:

“Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the preexistence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we my be born, have a relationship in the life heretofore.”
(First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947, archive.org)

To explain the implications of this regarding the priesthood and remove any doubt as to whether these ideas are folklore or church doctrine, they continue:

“From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.
(First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947,  archive.org)

After squarely trouncing Dr. Nelson’s position, they focus on what they perceived to be a significant danger alluded to by his ideas: Inter-racial marriage.

“Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous
(First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947, archive.org)

They continue to warn of worldly influences which are tying to break down this prohibition stating,

“We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.
(First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947, archive.org)

They clearly identify this restriction on inter-racial marriage as a matter of “doctrine”.

Dr. Nelson’s Bold Reply to the Prophet

David and GoliathWhat is a faithful Latter-day Saint to do when completely and utterly reproved by God’s mouthpiece? Any normal well-behaved Mormon would and should “bow their head and say yes”, but Nelson would have none of that. He wrote back (see full response here)and made a forceful and powerful argument based on sociology, scripture, ethics and morality.

Societies change, institutions resist

He begins by pointing out the dynamic character of society,

“As one studies the history and characteristics of human societies, one soon comes to recognize certain basic principles. One of these is social change. Any given society over the years undergoes changes . It is forever in a state of flux.”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

Contrasting to this observation he adds

“Another principle which stands out as one studies the development of cultures is the tendency of institutions to resist change. Although they are established, or grow up, originally as a means to the end of satisfying the needs of man, they (the institutions) tend to become ends in themselves.”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

Turning to a scriptural example, Dr. Nelson points out that the Pharisees represented this type of institutional entrenchment in Christ’s time and Christ himself spoke of this danger.

“It seems to me that Jesus was trying to get this point over to the society of his day, when he spoke of putting new wine in old bottles, and that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. This was an affront to the legalism of the Pharisees, and others of similar outlook”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

Ethnocentrism ain’t just a river in Egypt

Dr. Nelson then explains the concept of ethnocentrism or the worldview that “one’s own group is the center of everything and all others are sealed and rated with reference to it.” He states that this “in or out” thinking leads to the in group assigning everything else an inferior status and that this tendency exists in all groups. He goes on to make several observations of biblical history in the context of these ideas of social change and ethnocentrism explaining that the Old Testament records an evolving understanding of God and his relationship to man. He points out that the Hebrews attitudes towards other races represents an early point in their social evolution, however since it was recorded in it’s scriptural history, the attitudes on race were given an “aura of the sacred” which serves to lock these ideas against the flow of a progressive society.

Nelson contrasts the notion of racial inequality with modern standards stating

“it does not square with what seems an acceptable standard of justice today; nor with the letter or spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I cannot find any support for such a doctrine of inequality in his recorded sayings.”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

The seed of war

Having made a case based on sociology and scripture, Nelson goes on to point out that “one of the chief causes of war is the existence of ethnocentrism” and that “war is our major social evil which threatens to send all of us to destruction”. The nation had just experienced the horror of World War 2 and seen the result of the extreme racial superiority doctrine of Nazi Germany. To Nelson, the seed of that evil was germinating in the racial inequality espoused by the Church and it needed to be corrected. “we can ameliorate these feelings of ethnocentrism by promoting understanding of one people by others;” Nelson continued.

Unlikely allies

He described the discomfort he felt at the “doctrine of my own church which says in effect that white supremacy is part of God’s plan for His children;” and the fact that, on the issue of race, this places the Church among the ranks of the most reprobate bigots in America.

“This makes us nominal allies of the Rankins and the Bilbos of Mississippi, a quite unhappy alliance for me, I assure you.”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

Real world implications

If the Doctrine on race that the First Presidency espoused was true, then the most degenerate white person alive has a hope for salvation that exceeds the most accomplished and pious black soul. Nelson conjures up several examples to point out this injustice.

“Dr. George Washington Carver, the late eminent and saintly Negro scientist is by virtue of the color of his skin, inferior even to the least admirable white person, not because of the virtues he may or may not possess, but because through no fault of his — there is a dark pigment in his skin.”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

He goes on to point out how this doctrine may apply to the entire Indian nation and others who may live more pious lives than many of the saints themselves.

Social Side of the Gospel?

Finally, Dr. Nelson calls out the First Presidency for attempting to separate the social side of the gospel from the rest.

“Now, you say that the “social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.” I may not have the same concept of “social” as you had in mind, but it seems to me the only virtue we can recognize in men is that expressed in their relations with others; that is their “social” relations. Are the virtues of honesty, chastity, humility, forgiveness, tolerance, love, kindness, justice, secondary? If so, what is primary? Love of God? Very well. But the second (law) is like unto it.”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

His final plea is for the First Presidency to avoid the trap of legalism that Christ condemned the Pharisees for.

“Are we becoming so legalistic (after the fashion of the Pharisees) that we cannot adjust our institutions to the charging needs of mankind. Are we, as some have charged, more Hebraic than Christian?”
(Lowry Nelson letter to First Presidency, 8 October 1947, archive.org)

Modern Mormons reading Dr. Nelsons letter can see the clear and abundant truth that he is pleading to the powers that guide the church to see for themselves. Society had moved beyond the racial inequality that was still enshrined in the institution that bore the name of Jesus Christ and it was the men at the top who had the power to rectify it. How would a Prophet respond to such truth boldly proclaimed from the pews of the congregation to the pulpit on high?

The First Presidency Bites Back

A few months later the First Presidency issues a terse reply to Dr. Nelson. It was short and direct.

“We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.
(First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 12 November 1947, archive.org)

That’s how a Prophet responds. Your leaders know what’s true. All of your worldly learning has led you astray. Get back in line.

Nelson Makes it Public

Mormonism and the Negro

Such a complete and utter reproof from the highest religious authority – even after an impassioned rejoinder would quell even the most stalwart of saints. Dr. Nelson, apparently, was not one to learn such a lesson when taught from on high. Several years later in 1952, after admittedly joining other saints in ruminating and contemplating this issue of racial inequality in a church that they otherwise held dear, Nelson authored an essay titled  “Mormonism and the Negro”  for publication in the popular magazine “The Nation.” This was a periodical whose audience extended far beyond the small community of Mormons. Such “airing of dirty laundry” in front of the entire nation was a clear end-run around the Prophet and an appeal to mass sentiment.

I recommend that you read the essay, linked above, yourself. In his essay, Dr. Nelson laid out the mormon doctrine and unchallenged folklore that justifies giving black members a second tiered status in the church. He also points out how utterly archaic and debunked the notion of racial superiority is and how it contrasts with the members of the church who are intelligent and compassionate – not the back country yokels that are usually associated with notions of white supremacy. He further describes how the strong hierarchy of authority in the church mutes any rational discourse on these sensitive issues among the membership revealing that members have had to hold these discussions in secret, forming a sort of “mormon underground”

Among these expositions Nelson does something subtle and masterful – he changes the terms of the discussion. The First Presidency had forcefully declared that the position of the Church in this issue was a matter of “Doctrine”. This should be the final word to any believing Mormon, because doctrine is equivalent to God’s Law which is unchanging and everlasting. It is truth. In his essay, Nelson describes the matter in terms of “policy”. This allows much greater flexibility in interpretation on an issue to a Mormon because policy represents man made programs in support of doctrine and is not given the aura of finality and truth that doctrine is afforded. By calling the issue a matter of policy, Nelson is opening a wide gate to allow the church to change while maintaining it’s authoritative integrity.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying that it is better to hold ones tongue and be thought an idiot than to open ones mouth and remove all doubt. In writing this essay Dr. Nelson was removing all doubt from the minds of the non-mormon world that in it’s current state, the LDS Church is clearly in the camp of white supremacy and the powers at it’s head are entrenched in that position. His shift of the issue to one of policy lays the ground work for the change that would ultimately come.

Parting Shot by the First Presidency

Between their exchange of letter and the essay published in The Nation, President George A Smith had died and been succeeded by the new Prophet David O McKay. As a courtesy to the First Presidency Nelson sent them a copy of his article and his intention to have it published. He received a reply (see scanned reply here) from the secretary to the First Presidency.

“President McKay wishes me to say that obviously you are entirely within your rights to publish any article you wish.

I should like to add on my own account, however, that when a member of the Church sets himself up against doctrines preached by the Prophet Joseph Smith and by those who have succeeded him in the high office which he held, he is moving into a very dangerous position for himself personally.”

That’s what you face when you know in your heart what is right and you appeal to Church Authority to rectify it.

Change at last

It would be over a quarter of a century later (26 years) that President Spencer W Kimball and the Quorum of the 12 Apostles would receive a revelation to allow blacks to receive all the blessings of the Gospel. When they did so and the Apostles went on speaking rounds to do damage control, they took the cues that Nelson provided and called it a change of policy – not doctrine. They attributed all the old ways of thinking to folklore rather than scripture.

Subsequent prophets have so far distanced themselves from the heady pronouncements of their predecessors that they stumble over each other. Just compare the following statements:

“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind… That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.”
(Brigham Young, October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:290-291)

Contrasted to this:

“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 Jesus Christ. How can a 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”
(Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2005, p. 58).

Other general authorities appear to have a void in their memory or are complicit in a remarkable whitewashing campaign:

“How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations.”
(Seventy Alexander Morrison “No more strangers” Ensign Sept 2000)

Change came, but what did it reveal about those men who sit at the seat of power in the church that bears Christ’s Name?

Lessons for today

How does the experience of Dr. Nelson reflect on the plight of the modern Mormon? Was the doctrine.. err… policy of racial inequality the only injustice ingrained into LDS theology?

The people who are today crying out for women to be ordained to the Priesthood may see Nelsons experience as a proof that just the right amount of social pressure can help the Prophets ask the right questions of God to effect change. There is no argument that was made in favor of Blacks receiving the priesthood that could not also be made in favor of women receiving it.

People concerned about how homosexuals are received in the church have already harvested the first bounty of their efforts. The church has gone from declaring that being Gay is a choice made by people ensnared by iniquity to acknowledging that people are born with same-sex attraction. The attitudes of church members are slowly coming around and gay men and women who do not act on their attractions can be temple-recommend holding, temple going, tithing paying members in good standing.

These different observations may lead some people to conclude that the First Presidency is able to ask God about the important issues of the day and receive God’s truth in return. A justification and triumph for the Mormon tenet of “continued revelation”. Thus people like Dr. Nelson may be seen as pioneers who blaze a trail and return to ask the Prophet if this or that direction is not the one that God would have us go.

My own feelings on the matter are different.  Several people have lamented that this account should be seen by more orthodox members, but my conclusions would tend to negate the value of the rest of the article. If you are in an organization which discourages you (or makes you discourage yourself ) from being exposed to opinions or ideas, then you may want to contemplate why that is. Nevertheless, I have condensed my more controversial editorial statements in expandable boxes below. If your sensibilities are too tender to hear opinions that are not your own or given to you from properly constituted authorities, then feel free to bypass them. Otherwise, you may expand the box below if you care to see them and judge for yourself.

Editorial Perspective - controversial

To me, these observations demonstrate that it is men, not God, who are at the head of the organization that bears Christ’s name.

Would a priesthood bearing the name and power of God block an entire race from it’s blessings in the first place? If you could make an argument to change the nature of Priesthood rights, whether to blacks or to women or to gays, wouldn’t that expose the fact that such a priesthood could not originate from God in the first place? As such, why would you want to pursue it at all?

Conclusion

I have spent a few posts writing about why, despite the good things the Mormon Church does, there is danger in simply turning a blind eye to problems that are revealed through a careful study of LDS Church History. Nelson’s story is one of the clearest examples of this danger. If you allow men to stand between you and God, telling you what is proper and true against your own God-given conscience – you set yourself up to be abused and to abuse others.

There is more to be said, through my own perspective. expand below if you are interested.

Editorial Conclusion - Controversial

The idea that an individual may determine spiritual truth based on their own conscience, their relationship with God and personal study of history, both secular and religious, is anathema to the Mormon idea of a restored Gospel and restored priesthood authority. Adherents to the faith will warn you away from such ‘self-serving’ and prideful notions. They will warn you that evil influences will tempt and tease you away from those rules and standards that the properly constituted authorities have  drawn from on high. Dr. Nelson’s experience demonstrates that the well that those authorities draw from is just as corrupt as any other.

Dr. Nelson exposed that the hubris and prejudice of these powerful men leads them to close their minds to all counsel but their own. Nelson pointed out that he could see the naked body of the emperor, without explicitly stating that it was the lack of clothing which exposed it. People born and raised in in the Church after 1978 may have no idea that this legacy exists. They may be forgiven for not seeing. I cannot imagine how those how were alive at the time could be blind to this. Now that these events are brought out into public view through the Internet – each of us must decide what to make of the implications.

Addendums

Any addendums are added below, collapsed if controversial.

Addendum 1 - Choice vs Nature

The principle that makes Dr. Nelsons arguments so powerful is the modern idea that a person’s race is beyond their control. Mormon theology is firmly entrenched in a legalistic works-based perspective (with grace there to pick up the slack). To a Mormon, the heavens rewards the righteous and punish the wicked – in this life or the next. This narrative makes a sort of bizarre logical sense, explaining the First Presidencies arguments about the pre-existence. In the pre-existence, this life was the next life. The narrative articulated by church leaders post-1978 revelation is that people’s race and other disadvantages have absolutely nothing to do with pre-mortal righteousness – people are not punished for things that are beyond their control.

So if we look at the spectrum of the features of human existence that are beyond ones control, several important issues stand out. The example of their changing stance on Blacks and the priesthood demonstrates that when the Church acknowledges that something is genetic and not determined by ones own choices – church policy may be amended to take this into account.

As I alluded to previously, the Church has modified it’s stance on Homosexuality. In 1978 Apostle Boyd K Packer declared Homosexuality to be a state of unnatural temporary temptation (see “To the one“)  whereas the recently released website MormonsAndGays.org, approved by Apostles Oaks and Christofferson, declares that “individuals do not choose to have such attractions…” The church has gone from a position of declaring ones “Gayness” to be an unnatural choice to a position where “Gayness” is a phenomena of nature beyond one’s volition.

If someone cannot be held accountable, punished or deprived of the full blessings of the gospel as a result of their race, which is beyond their control, how then will the church deal with someone who is gay, beyond their control. For now the answer is that they can still receive those blessings so long as they do not act on the natural attraction which nature has given them. The unspoken paradox is that nature is simply God.

If this is true of gays, what of women? Their identity as women is not an act of choice but of chromosomes and genetics – nature. Something beyond their control. Are the full blessings of the Gospel to be kept from them as well? Certainly they have the benefit of the priesthood now – so long as they have access to a righteous male priesthood holder. What of the blessing of shepherding a ward? Of counseling a troubled sister? Of ministering to the sick? These acts of service are a blessing to those who assist the Lord in His work – why should they be denied to 50% of God’s children due to something beyond their control?

These arguments are rhetorical. To me they do not create an impetus to “agitate” for women or gays to receive the priesthood. They simply point out the nature of the counterfeit. When close inspection reveals the dull, dark worthless metal beneath the glittering superficial gold plating, attempting to gild the defect is an act of denial. A fraudulent coin is worthless even when the telling defects are concealed once more.

Addendum 2

Since the publication of this article, the church has released an essay on LDS.org titled “Race and the Priesthood.” In this article, unnamed authors describe ‘ many theories’ which had been proposed by past church leaders as the reason for the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood and temple covenants. The article specifically cites the same reasons that the prophet described to Nelson Lowry as Doctrine in the above exchange – namely concepts of race being the result of pre-mortal actions and that mixed-race marriages are repugnant. The essay states:

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.
(“Race and the Priesthood” lds.org)

Since the position of the church is that all of these notions are incorrect theories, then it means that Lowry Nelson’s letters to the First Presidency actually contained God’s truth. You see from the above description that everything Nelson wrote is absolutely accepted by the church today.  The Prophet then specifically rejected the truth and held fast to false doctrine.

There are many people who have been deeply troubled by the Race and the Priesthood essay for this very reason.

It certainly causes one to contemplate the ability of the church leaders to discern truth from error and those who see this may view Kate Kelly’s Ordain Women movement in a different, more empathetic, light.

 

References

I have included appropriate links within the narrative above. The complete exchange between Nelson and the First Presidency is thoroughly dissected and referenced at MormonBookshelf.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Caroleen Virginia Hunt Kelly

    Obviously this is one of the “mistakes” to which Dieter Uchtdorf referred during General Conference in October of this year. Mistakes shouldn’t just be admitted to and abandoned. There needs to be an apology and restitution.

    • EteU Spencer

      I am an African American who was exposed to the LDS Church prior to 1878. I was baptised at 18 and was within the first 50 African-Americans with the Priesthood. There is/was/and will be social barriers between African-Americans until the generations involved will die off. The church is making great strides to be inclusive of people of African descent.

      • https://www.facebook.com/amber.w.wendy Amber W Wendy

        I trust you mean 1978, otherwise you are far more interesting….

      • http://gravatar.com/gratefullybygrace gratefullybygrace

        because the church needs to be socially acceptable in order to stay alive. it is a corporation, and is all profit that they are not even accountable for…

        • https://www.facebook.com/cheriemitchell.felosbyrne Cherie

          Hey guys, I’ve done my research. Lots of it. But I STILL believe the church is true in the sense that is it Christ’s imperfect church. It never claimed to be perfect. And these men leading it never claimed to be infallible or perfect either, regardless of what issue they are talking about. Remember the three fold mission statement: perfect the saints, redeem the dead, proclaim the gospel. If the church was perfect there would be no need to “perfect the saints”. I have a very powerful testimony and have had numerous spiritual experiences while serving in callings in this church. I am so very thankful for this church and for the direction it has given my life. I have seen many people leave the church but I have never seen anyone’s life made better by it.

          • S

            The church leadership has repeatedly said that the prophet will never lead the church membership astray or else he will be removed from his position. Since the only way any Mormon prophet has ever been removed from his position is by death that would mean that either they have all been infallible in not leading the church astray OR they’ve each and every one led it astray onlyto be removed from their positions by death. The reality is that church members in the Mormon faith believe the prophet speaks for God – period. And, the general authorities have reinforced this belief for the history of the church organization. In practice Mirmons hold their prophet to be infallible. To challenge the Mormon prophet and call anything he says incorrect is to be excommunicated – banished.

      • G

        EteU….would the true church of god have to wait until the generative involved die off? This is a direct indicator that this church. Not led by revelation. If it were, it would be ahead of urge urge with regards to social change. It would be one of the proponents for change. If this is what it is like to be guided by a god and prophets then it is better to be godless and prophet less

    • https://plus.google.com/112286289850327327996 Carl Bethel

      Caroleen I think a “mistake” would be something like wearing socks that don’t match. These things are atrocious.

    • TW Pettit

      The Church is uniquely positioned to make full restitution to members of all races, living and dead. If someone died without the priesthood, that person may be ordained by proxy in the temple. If someone does not yet hold the priesthood, he may be ordained as soon as he has proven himself worthy.

      It’s a great system, and only becomes better as we learn more and more about how to improve.

      • S

        Was Hitler ordained to the priesthood after he was baptized by proxy?

    • https://www.facebook.com/aaron.petterborg Aaron Petterborg

      Yes.

  • Mungagungadin

    This history is phenomenal and hopeful

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  • NoLongerASheeple

    @Caroleen Virginia Hunt Kelly: “Obviously this is one of the “mistakes” to which Dieter Uchtdorf referred during General Conference in October of this year.”

    This is not a ‘mistake.” This was an organized and long held “DOCTRINE” and later redefined as policy. Calling this a ‘mistake’ trivializes the scale and scope of institutionalized racism long held within Mormonism. As the LDS church continues to distance themselves and deny their very un-Christ like doctrines and policies of racism, they now are stepping into the very same smelly sewer with their attacks on “gay marriage.”

    Just like with racism, when the social ostracizing becomes too severe, the church leaders will no doubt have another “change of policy” or “he was speaking as a man” moment and policy will change again. How members can continually support and sustain this organization and believe that “Jesus is the head of it” continues to astound and dismay me.

    If Mormonism was lead by Christ, this church would be 10 (or more) years ahead of the curve rather than 10 to 20 years behind it.

    • Caroleen Virginia Hunt Kelly

      I completely agree with you. Hence the use of the quotation marks and the call for an apology and restitution.

    • Porter

      I couldn’t agree more! This year the Church made unannounced and subtle changes to the header of the 1978 Official Declaration 2 calling it a “practice.” But that is disingenuous at best. The church needs to stand up and take ownership of this racist and repulsive history, and then humbly apologize. Nothing short of that will do.

      Pope Francis is more of a leader and more in tune with Christ’s teachings than the so-called “prophets seers and revelators” of the LDS Church.

  • Beth

    I was born in 1978 and thought I had a good understanding of how the blacks received the priesthood. I had no idea. Thank you for the work that went into this article.

  • Tariq Khan

    Great article. I hope it is widely read within Mormon communities.

  • http://gravatar.com/aachbr Aaron BrownAaron B

    What’s frustrating about this piece is that without the specific conclusions drawn and without much of the editorializing, it would still be very powerful, but would have the advantage of being something that more orthodox LDS might read. I’d love to link to it and host a discussion of it, but I fear many couldn’t bracket its blunt conclusions and think calmly through its implications without bristling defensively.

    • Thinker of Thoughts

      Thanks for the comments Aaron – you are not alone. I have modified the article to collapse the more controversial statements allowing the reader the choice of being exposed to the more maverick independent thoughts.

      • MarkG

        Thanks for doing that Thinker!

      • http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/fmh-bloggers/alliegator/ alliegator

        I agree with Aaron. I’d love to share this, but even with the collapsed controversial bits, I don’t think I can. Few people have the willpower necessary to avoid reading the controversial parts, even when it would be better for them not to. :)

  • https://plus.google.com/113709300213505608460 Beauford T

    Thank you so much for the article. As a religious sub-culture, these are the people that need to be celebrated. I’ve spent my lifetime in LDS culture and have never heard a word about Dr. Lowry Nelson. These people’s lives deserve to be celebrated and their words and thoughts should be more visible.

    Our Inter-Mountain West culture gets a well deserved black eye when it comes to racism. It’s so great to see that there were dissenters during those dark days. This man’s writings and history should be elevated as proof that our sub-culture’s bigotry can be overcome.

    • http://Facebook Ron F

      Don’t have to be a professor of sociology to recognize the duplicity of LDS leadership. The comparison of Mormon policy/doctrine and the Jewish leadership of Jesus’s time is right on. Except the LDS leaders seems to be able to morph into whatever the prevailing pressures and realities thinking individuals force upon them. For a church claiming to be divinely guided, it is so interesting to see the changes in “policies” when public opinion won’t just go away. Waiting to see what’s next.

  • Brian

    Wow! This is huge! I’m pretty well aquainted with “The Negro Question”, but I’ve never seen these letters. Fantastic stuff.

  • http://gravatar.com/barbhanks333 Bobbie

    I hope people realize that it wasn’t just social pressure that caused the Church to change its stance on Blacks and the priesthood. In the end it came down to hard economic reality. In 1978 the Church was about to lose its non-profit status if it continued to discriminate against people based on race. Anyone who has ever been involved in the paperwork for a charitable or religious institution knows there are strict government rules against discriminatory practices.

    I have a friend who worked in the church office building during the period of the change in policy concerning Blacks. He was speaking to one of the Church’s top attorneys one day as they looked out the window at the temple next door. My friend said, “Just think, in that building a few days ago a momentous revelation was received by the prophet.” The lawyer turned to him and asked incredulously, “You don’t really think that’s how it happened do you?” He then went on to explain how the IRS was about to revoke the Church’s tax-exempt status if it continued to deny benefits to any race. KInd of opened my friend’s eyes.

    I’m thinking that’s the only way the Church will change its stance on gay marriage or women holding the priesthood: It will have to feel threatened financially for discriminating. Seems one way or another it always comes down to money.

    • https://www.facebook.com/azhumming.bird.79 AZhumming Bird

      The same is true with the issue of polygamy. The reason the church does not condone it is because the goverment would not let Utah become a state if the church continued to practice it. Those who would not stop the practice moved to Mexico or Canada

    • Abu Casey

      If you have evidence rather than hearsay, I’d like to see it. E. Kimball’s discussion of the end of the ban points to SW Kimball’s own journals pointing out that external pressure with respect to race and the church had been ebbing for some time and that he did not want to pursue a policy that looked as if it were caving to outside pressure.

    • ruth

      It’s all in Heveanly Fathers time and His will. He gives us a chance to act and do. Giving us choices, to have agency. He knows all. He knows us. He knows what we will do before we even know the situation exists.
      Revelation was given on the word of wisdom through the Prophet Joseph Smith, only after Emma asked about the brothern’s use of alcohol and tobacco. Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord; he then recieved that revelation to write section 89 in the Doctrine And Covenants. I’ve found that in my own life. When something occurs, that I never before thought was an “issue”, I inquire of the will of Heavenly Father for me. When His answer is clear and I don’t understand or I refuse to. He gives me another chance by offering the same answere, again. If I understand the second time, the peace that comes from knowing He knows and I have faith in His knowing when it will happen; is far greater than that if I would constantly nag. Jesus Christ knows exactly what and when things will happen and if we follow Him nothing on our part will be lost.

      • Yolanda ortiz

        Absolutly agree

        • Yolanda ortiz

          Ruth,

      • S

        Well, at least you are admitting that LDS prophets make horrible mistakes, Ruth. If only the leaders themselves would be humble enough to agree with you.

  • Martine

    I had read the first letter from the First Presidency. Thank you for putting it in context.

  • Micah McGrew

    I am a mormon and I have read and considered this article. Thank you for presenting this issue in a way that is not necesarily attacking the church (even your editorial notes are presented in a very professional manner). Thank you for bringing these topics into my awareness and encouraging me to be more thoughful.

  • http://scottstover.wordpress.com scootd28

    I have one objection to what has been written here…Women are not denied the fullness of the gospel because they are women. Women have a role and men have a role. Men cannot perform women’s roles, and vice-versa. It is an essential order of our creation. As a matter of fact, most MEN have not received the fullness of the priesthood – and certainly not just because someone laid their hands on their head. The woman’s role is every bit as essential in the salvation of mankind as the man’s. Neither is superior (well, actually, I consider women superior in so many ways). It is a philosophy of men that “holding” the priesthood implies superiority of some sort, or that women are deprived in some way.

    • Josh

      Exactly, to say that women can’t enjoy the priesthood right now is a misunderstanding of what the priesthood is and does. Women enjoy the fulness of it right now.

      • matt

        I kind of disagree in that women need men to administer ordinances whereas men don’t need women to do so.

        • S

          Bingo, Matt. A church unit made up entirely of men could easily function whereas a church unit made up entirely of women would not and could not exist in the eyes of the LDS leadership.

    • https://www.facebook.com/cheriemitchell.felosbyrne Cherie Mitchell Felos Byrne

      Men ARE superior in a visible way in the church because in the governance of the church they have the final say over women in so many ways; church policy, church publications, ward decisions, stake decisions, etc. etc. However, as a woman I think that IF we had the right to officiate in the ordinances, (I think we already HAVE the priesthood, we just don’t officiate), we would end up doing everything and the men would sit on their behinds even MORE than they do now. Let’s face it women, our lessons are far more prepared, usually. (Did I say that? Wow, is that sexist or what?)

      • S

        This is a sexist argument: That if women had equal voice in church leadership then the men would be good for nothing. I think men are better creatures than that.

    • S

      In the LDS church all final decisions are made by priesthoid holders -period. Read Counseling Our Councils if you would disagree. Until women hold the priesthood in the LDS church the simple reality will be that they will not have equal representation in decision MAKING. They have “soft power” – the ability to manipulate, suggest, and complain – which breeds passive aggression with no real ability to change their religious and cultural environment on the scale that men can. If it is a philosophy of men that priesthood means superiority in the matters of decision-making then you have the very structure of the current LDS organization to blame for that.

      • http://scottstover.wordpress.com scootd28

        Decision making is a responsibility – not power. If the responsibility to make decisions is perceived as “power”, then the priesthood is being used to exercise unrighteous dominion. If a bishop considers his position one of power, then he is not in the right place. His is a position of service.

        I actually understand where people are coming from – I’m just presenting another point of view. I really do not feel like I have any “authority” because I hold the priesthood. I feel a great obligation to fulfill my responsibilities according to the principles outlined in D&C 121. That is not easy. The easy way is to exercise “authority”. The hard way is to exercise “influence”. I really think that if all men exercised their priesthood “responsibilities” in this spirit, well, perhaps there would not be a controversy. It saddens me when I hear of men in authority exercising unrighteous dominion. I know it happens, but I don’t believe it is the Lord’s way.

        I do think this is the Lord’s way, but I also think women have much more access to the POWER of the priesthood than they think, or than they are led to believe. Don’t have it all figured out yet, but I think the objections are overblown.

        • S

          Read Counseling Our Councils which makes it very clear that the POWER of decision making resides with the male in authority. It is a power when it directly and indirectly influences the lives and even eternal existence of all those affected by the decision. To belittle that power is to not have a full understanding of how deeply women are impacted by these decisions which they are forbidden from making.

      • http://scottstover.wordpress.com scootd28

        Oh, yeah…. “Soft Power”? It is what we call “authority” that is the real soft power. Real power is the ability to be in the Savior’s presence, and that is accessible to both men and women. Real power is having one’s C&E made sure – and that is equally accessible to both men and women. I submit that men and women both have access to the “fullness” of the priesthood – because that priesthood is granted by the Savior Himself. The other things are administrative and telestial in nature. The “Decisions” you refer to are telestial. THEY are the soft power. Perhaps we strain at a gnat, when considered in comparison to the fulness of the priesthood.

        • S

          The reality is that the LDS church is a telestial organization which denies decision making to women. Doesn’t sound like a society striving for Zion.

        • Mungagungadin

          scootd28,
          I take issue with your “strain at a gnat” metaphor. This is our LIVES we are talking about. And we have no authority in our lives. Please respect us enough to treat our powerlessness as if it matters.

  • Michael

    Fascinating. Thanks for this.

  • Brian

    Indeed, I have to agree with the previous commenters that this is an interesting article. I find the tax exemption post particularly noteworthy.

    However, to analogize this situation with the current social issue of women holding the priesthood doesn’t pass logical scrutiny. Blacks and the priesthood was an issue of race. That is, the only difference between the priesthood holders was skin color. However, with women holding the priesthood, the difference is sex. This necessarily means that you have biological functions that are starkly different.

    Currently, women are the only sex able to produce children, and arguably the sex that is better designed to nurture them. So, if the church’s position is that the priesthood makes men equal to women because of women’s godly gift of being able to give birth, then what purpose do men serve when women receive the priesthood? You can argue all you want about male roles, but the bottom line is that within the church, men would serve no purpose. This axiom contradicts the belief that God does not esteem one sex over the other.

    Now, with that established, I will say that because men will be rendered void of purpose if women receive the priesthood, I cannot agree that the church will change its position based solely off social pressures. If tax exemption regulations change, however, I see it being a plausible, if not probable, reality.

    • Abu Casey

      The priesthood = motherhood argument has no leg to stand on. Motherhood is necessarily gendered, while priesthood is gendered in its construction. Fatherhood, not priesthood, is the logical counterpart to motherhood. Further, I do not understand how expanding the priesthood to women would eliminate men’s “purpose” in the church, nor how the idea that God does not esteem one sex over the other would be undermined here. In fact, it would seem to me that God’s equal estimation of the sexes is more strongly undermined by your position than by one that would see the priesthood given to both men and women.

    • Caroleen Virginia Hunt Kelly

      You’re forgetting that it also takes a male to produce a child. The female is only the carrier of the baby. Nurturing was naturally the place of the female back in caveman days because she could feed the baby and the bigger, stronger male could chase the meat. These days we are not constrained by hunting and gathering and the roles of men and women are flexible. Tradition is the main driver of gender roles today.

      Priesthood does not equal motherhood. Priesthood equals Priestesshood. Motherhood equals fatherhood. The Church is perfectly within the constrains of it’s own doctrine (think Heavenly Mother) to allow women a priest(ess)hood role. All it needs is a catalyst…er, revelation.

      • RK

        Go mom!

        • S

          Go RK’s mom! :)

    • https://www.facebook.com/eric.davis.7946 Eric Davis

      To answer your question, “what purpose do men serve when women receive the priesthood?” They would serve the same purpose as they do now, only that instead of 28,000 bishops who are men, there might be 14,000 who are men, and 14,000 who are women.

      Only narrow-minded bigots view the concept of treating others equally, and consider it tantamount to personally being demoted in social status. This is the same mindset LDS leaders currently employ when arguing that same-sex marriage being legalized means that their religious freedoms are under attack.

      Clearly, your statements prove that you don’t believe that motherhood is equal to the priesthood. Otherwise you wouldn’t feel that your own purpose would “be rendered void” if women were placed on equal status to you. Clearly you feel that your own position is being threatened by something that should be lower than you.

      I get it. You feel you have a God given right to have authority over a woman–that your genitalia makes you superior to other people who don’t have similar appendages. If women were to be granted the priesthood, then you would be on the same level as them. If you are on the same level as a woman, that means you were lower than you were before, therefore you will fight against it. And for the same reason, the LDS church continues to fight against rights for the LGBT.

      • Josh

        I don’t really see how saying things are different automatically makes them unequal. To have different roles doesn’t automatically make one better than the other does it? Are your hands better than your eyes? If they both function at 100% of their capacity then doesn’t that make them both important but different parts of your body?

        • http://smalldog.wordpress.com/ C.

          The problem isn’t that under the priesthood=motherhood paradigm that roles are different, it’s that they are not remotely analogous.

          Priesthood doesn’t just confer spiritual authority, in the LDS church’s structure it also is required to handle money, make all final decisions even in the auxiliary organizations, authorize curriculum, administer every single ordinance that we claim is necessary to salvation, hold specific authoritative callings,…the list goes on. If though different, if motherhood equaled priesthood, bearing children would qualify me for these same abilities. It doesn’t. There are even jobs within various church structures that are denied to mothers.

          Motherhood allows me to bear, rear, teach, protect, nurture, etc. But it confers absolutely no administrative, ritual authority on me. This isn’t to say that motherhood doesn’t confer power to me, I believe it does. But one of the major aspects of the claims of the priesthood is not just the power to do certain things, but the authority to do them as well. Do I have the ability to to ask for blessings for my hypothetical children? Yes. Do I have the right to lay hands on them and invoke a right to bestow a blessing upon them? No.

          When I or others say that priesthood and motherhood aren’t equal, this is what we mean. Not that motherhood is not valuable, not that biology isn’t a factor, not even that men and women are physically capable of different things. What we are saying is that the rights, privileges, responsibilities, authorities, aren’t remotely similar. Wifehood and motherhood are important, but they are not the same thing as ritual, institutional or administrative authority to act.

          Fatherhood is the equivalent of motherhood, the male component of parenthood. There is currently no female equivalent to priesthood. All of the administrative, decision making, financial, disciplinary, educational, etc. ultimate authority is held by men and denied women because they are female. And being a mother does not grant women those same authorities. Not only does that, in my opinion, completely upend the priesthood=motherhood paradigm, that is almost the textbook definition of sexist.

          Different roles isn’t the problem. Inequality of those roles is.

          • https://www.facebook.com/cheriemitchell.felosbyrne Cherie

            Do people realize that we had female prophets, known as Prophetesses, back in the Old Testament? So clearly God can see women in leadership roles. He has before. Remember Joan of Arc? I have a very strong testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But some of these other things are certainly “policy” and “culture”….not necessarily gospel.

    • matt

      Men help reproduce and surely are important, sometimes moreso, in nurturing. Women need men to reproduce and administer the priesthood. Men need women to reproduce but not to administer the priesthood.

      • S

        Which creates an unequal situation, Matt. To be equal that last sentence would need to change to: Men need women to reproduce and administer the priesthood.

  • http://catsissie.wordpress.com catsissie

    I’m LDS, and not really surprised. Money, fame, fortune, power…to the human, these have an unbelievable force, do they not? And the Good Lord has only imperfect human beings to work with, so He does what he can with what He’s got. I am, personally, cheered by the knowledge that there are those with the courage and persistence to stand up for those with no one else to stand up for them, and that, in the face of those representing their spiritual homes, with respect, yet in the knowledge that they are mere mortals, as are the rest of humanity–simply chosen to do a job. Humility, in any position, is rare, sweet, and welcome.

  • Dave

    Great article. There were aspects of this article that affirmed to me in the “still small voice” and strengthened my testimony that the church is not true; recent Prophets contradicting earlier Prophets etc..

    By the time the church leaders realize that perhaps the church was built on false claims they are in over their heads. Peer pressure is so great at that point of the game that they know of no way out and have to “play the part” and continue to perpetuate the myth.

    In spite of this view I recognize that the church brings forth and accomplishes some good in our world.

  • Good Will

    The rationale that God determines the “times and the seasons” that men and women enter the world (fore-ordination) was not disputed or debunked by this article. What was once a “curse” (to be born dark-skinned) in earlier days clearly may not be today. The posterity of Adam entering this world in former times may have been “blessed” to be born in certain families and cultures (the Jewish faith, for example) while being born into those same families and cultures might today constitute a “curse”.

    The seed of Adam has begun to “mix” inextricably. As the author wrote, there are no “pure” races remaining.

    Clearly we are in “transition” to a one-flock and one-Shepherd world.

    This article misstates the fundamental concept of priesthood, mistaking TRUE priesthood for something that can be conferred by man upon men (or women). In a ritualistic, Aaronic priesthood sense, this is true. Men (and churches) can ordain men (or women) to perform these functions as they see fit, with divine approbation.

    But TRUE priesthood comes from entering into the presence of God (or His angels, hearing His own voice) and receiving authority and power from Him by nature of one’s knowledge gained in association therewith. This domain is NOT exclusive either to men or women. ALL may come unto Him: male and female, black and white, bond and free. All are alike unto God.

    The question is not “Who can be ordained?” but “Who has (and can) come unto God?”

    The Church’s fallacy is in supposing that the priesthood received by Joseph Smith (and others) by divine interaction could be adequately transferred to others WITHOUT said divine interaction. The form replaced the substance. The Church now virtually refuses to acknowledge that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood”. Rather, Church policy is that ALL power or influence can and ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood! They have stood the doctrine on its head and turned it inside out.

    Church authority is NOT priesthood authority. The priesthood can (and has) existed WITHOUT the LDS Church. But the LDS Church — organized and established as it is, having made itself DEPENDENT upon priesthood ordination and authority — CANNOT exist now without “priesthood ordination”.

    It was not always so. In the early days of the LDS Church, Church leaders were selected and elected, not ordained. (A cultural remnant of that “election” process persists in the raising of the right hand to “sustain” the now designated (no longer elected) leadership. Church leaders formerly didn’t HAVE to hold “priesthood”. But Church POLICY was changed to mandate that only ORDAINED PRIESTHOOD HOLDERS have authority in the Church. This relegated sisters to “second-class” status and deluded men into thinking they possessed divine power (or authority) simply because they were ordained to an office or calling, rather than because they had ACTUALLY entered into God’s presence and received divine knowledge and a commission from Him. This was a grave mistake.

    Thus the “Priesthood” in the Church today is only a glimmer of what it was (or could be), it now “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

    Such was explained recently in Passing the Heavenly Gift, a book by Denver Snuffer, the publishing of which got him excommunicated from the LDS Church a few months ago.

    • http://scottstover.wordpress.com scootd28

      Hear, Hear!!!! Well said, Good Will!

  • Brittany

    Obviously it comes down to whether you believe this church is run by God or not. The author of this piece clearly states that in one of his controversial remarks that he believes it is run by men. I believe this is God’s church and it is only imperfect people that He has to work with. Joseph Smith actually ordained some black men to the priesthood but was later rebuked by God, not because black men are not worthy of it, but because the imperfect people were not ready for it. Just as in ancient Israel they were given the Mosaic Law because God knew they were not ready for the Higher Law. He loves us and doesn’t want us to be accountable for something that we cannot do yet. People can fight all they want, but God IS at the head of this church. He knows what is best. If people don’t agree, no one is forcing them to participate.

    • S

      Racism was condoned by God? Racism was, in fact, equivalent to a “lesser law” (the Mosaic law) given by God to the hebrews? Sounds like you would fit in very well in a slave-holding society.

    • Mungagungadin

      Brittany, I think it is pretty clear from this and other histories that the Lord lets men run the church. These certainly aren’t His teachings.

  • JustAVisitor

    What a fascinating article. However, the concluding “controversial” question of how a church with questionable policies/doctrines could ever be run by God ignores the very argument that Dr. Nelson was trying to make: the execution of the gospel (the church) is flexible enough to flow with changing society without sacrificing gospel principles or integrity.

    Is a church expected to be decades or centuries ahead of society? What you believe to be progressive now, will it be progressive in 50 years? Probably not. Yet if changes were made to church policy to reflect ideals 50 years into the future, how would that go over? If the church had declared that all men are equal in the 40s when many in American society disagreed, what would the outcome have been?

    As I recall hearing, there were even many who left the church when that was declared in 1978. From my perspective, the policy or doctrine (whichever you’d like to call it) changed as society did, and the very structure of the church allows this change to happen without changing its founding gospel. If that’s not divinely inspired, I’m not sure what is. In addition, it’s not surprising that, as an institution, it is slightly behind societal changes.

    This doesn’t suddenly render the church devoid of divine revelation. It merely expresses the difficulties that a perfect gospel faces when being executed among imperfect and ever-changing men.

    The execution of the gospel, by that nature, will always be imperfect. And our understanding of it will change with society as we learn and grow. Line upon line, precept upon precept, no? It’s really one of the beautiful things about having continuing revelation and the priesthood; where many religions struggle to interpret gospel and rationalize change, and often being unable to initiate such change, we have the authoritative ability to make such changes and understand why. It’s what allows us to be unafraid of science and truths that exist outside our own religion, and what allows us to ask hard questions without fear that the answers will nullify the gospel itself.

    And speaking of this, the issue of homosexuality is a good example of the church’s approach to change, particularly in regards to scientific knowledge. According to church policy and doctrine, while same gender sexual relations have always been considered a sin, whether or not a person was born attracted to the same gender has always been based on scientific understanding.

    I find it fascinating that people forget that ideas about homosexuality have long been defined by the medical community, not merely religion. It wasn’t until 1990 that the World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of psychological disorders. It was around this time that the church moved away from teaching that it was a choice. The current policy that it is *not* choice is still based on science–not social pressure–but science.

    Does accepting scientific discoveries mean it is not God’s church? Or is God allowing us to move at our own pace? I tend to believe the latter, simply because it fits well within the principles of line upon line and free agency.

  • http://twitter.com/planetJoseph Joseph Peterson (@planetJoseph)

    So, what happened to Dr. Nelson?

  • Jake D

    A church with claims for special access for divine revelation sure looks silly when they can’t get even the most obvious moral issues correct.

  • http://www.ruthiechan.net ruthiechan

    I am disappointed that your article didn’t mention how wrong the leaders were about Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith DID ordain blacks to the Priesthood and there seems to be evidence that he was beginning to do the same with women as well. But now, the church even admits that some blacks were ordained to the Priesthood in Joseph Smith’s time.

    • Thinker of Thoughts

      I have previously posted about Joseph Smith’s views on blacks and slavery here:

      http://thoughtsonthingsandstuff.com/joseph-smith-vs-the-abolitionsts/

      Take a look and see for yourself – you might be surprised.

      • http://www.ruthiechan.net ruthiechan

        Joseph Smith’s views with abolitionists began to change when he started to see how slaves were treated. Additionally, previous views does not change the fact that he ordained blacks to the priesthood. And the priesthood is what this current article is about. Too bad you don’t care about that aspect of Joseph Smith. The Priesthood is the power of God and he bestowed it upon black men, and that does not mean anything to you? Really?

        • S

          Ruthiechan, what evidence do you have that Smith’s views towards blacks changed when he saw how slaves were treated? The evidence clearly points to Smith changing his words on blacks according to his audience – as politicians do. Does God behave like a politician – changing truth and goodness according to the audience?

          Regarding Smith’s treatment of black persons: He actually sealed a black woman to be a servant/slave FOR ETERNITY. Doesn’t sound like equality to a thinking person.

  • http://gravatar.com/nicklindsey2 Nick Lindsey

    Very important article–thanks for your work on this! Who actually scrounged up Dr. Lowry’s correspondence, and has this archival work been published anywhere yet? Because it should if it’s not.

    The way you highlight the church’s shift from framing its racism as doctrine to policy is really important because it reveals that, as previous commenters have noted, the church has yet to actually denounce its racist doctrines. Does this mean, then, that these “doctrines” technically still stand? Those of us involved in any way with the LDS community should not allow church leaders to whitewash church history, celebrating “progress” at the expense of calling out hate, and articles like this are good moments of resistance against what they’re currently trying to do.

    Finally, as other commenters have also alluded, it’s almost scary how much the language of earlier church leaders talking about race and how the church must stand strong against the “growing tendencies” of the wicked world echoes the language used today regarding sexuality. That whole church/world dichotomy is really obnoxious–it’s a recycled slogan used to justify whatever forms of bigotry the church is most wrapped up in at the moment. And it keeps people in fear, which ultimately creates and maintains a body of numb followers ready to get in line and do what they’re told to.

  • Living in Chapters

    Wow. Love this. Thank you so much for linking to the historical documents to provide the context. I may be among the few who read the article in Nation when it came out and found it to be deeply moving but – without the exchanges behind it – it now seems to be only a shadow of what we could have read at the time.

    A few years later, an editorial in the Saturday Evening Post wrote about the potential errors in the results of polls (the kind that produced the headlines of “Dewey Defeats Truman”) because if the samples were not managed correctly they could produce a result of (and this is a quote from SEP) “the opinions of a red-haired Negro Mormon.” When I read that I had no idea that I would one day be the father of a delightful daughter who fits that description to a T.

    The response from the First Presidency (and later the Secretary to the First Presidency) stung when I read them. On the one hand, I expected better. One the other hand, this only increases my respect for Spencer W. Kimball and his moral courage to do right. Reading the revelation that changed the face of the priesthood in 1978 still brings tears to my eyes.

    I can’t wait for OD3.

  • NSLott

    This was an interesting and thought-provoking article. I enjoy nreading things like this, mainly because even as a Mormon, I’ve had my conflicts and questions about the church and everything else. I am never one for blindly accepting something without first looking deeper and questioning it first.
    To use an inception-styled analogy, Mormonism is not a ‘perfect’ faith. Instead, it is more like the LDS view of the Book of Mormon.
    Even in the LDS Church, the saying is not “The Book of Mormon is perfect and flawless.” instead, the official stance is that “it is the most correct book of any book ever written”.

    I acknowledge that Mormonism, like all other religions (including Atheism), has its blemishes and imperfections, but it was and remains the organization with “the most parts” of the truth. Or in fine, it is the most correct set of beliefs out of any that have ever been conceived. However, even men inspired and led by God (from Adam to Moses to Paul to Nephi to Moroni to Joseph Smith) are not perfect, and so God works with what he has.
    Similarly, unlike the King in your “Parable of the Counterfeit Coin” God is not going to consign everyone who is not Mormon to a special spot in hell for bringing Him their own “counterfeit coins”. There will be plenty of good people who go to heaven that are not LDS.

    Yes, there have been times when Mormon “doctrine” has changed with the cultures and/or times. This happened frequently all the way back to Adam in Biblical Times. there were sometimes just times when people were not ready for it. Even Joseph Smith wasn’t ready for the plates till about 4 years after he had been led to them.

    In fine, the teachings of men like Dr. Nelson are welcome to pit themselves against the teachings of God, and they can even build up a mound of evidence against the Church as large as the Titanic. Either way, these attacks will sink just as effectively as they have for the last ~185 years. The words of 2 Nephi 9:28 come to mind.

    • http://gravatar.com/nicklindsey2 Nick Lindsey

      Maybe I’m not reading your last paragraph correctly, and forgive me if I am, but you should keep in mind that Dr. Nelson, it turns out, was the one speaking truth the entire time, the “prophets” who responded to him and tried to convince him that he was working against the truth of God ended up being the ones in the wrong. According to the Hinckley quote cited above, these church leaders are actually the ones who, in fact, were unworthy and phony disciples of Christ. I think you’re wrong to characterize Dr. Nelson’s ideas and teachings as “sinking;” rather, it seems that his ideas are the ones that held out and proved lastingly true, while the teachings and ideas of multiple generations of church leaders were what sank.

      Also, we in the Mormon community really need to stop using the scriptural passage you refer to as a way of justifying and valorizing anti-intellectualism, as you seem to be doing. This breeds only close-mindedness, ignorance, and bigotry. If church leaders like those who tried to shoot down Dr. Nelson had been more open to and capable of deep critical thinking—studying things out in their minds the way Nelson was—then the church may have curtailed some of the pain it’s caused and put an earlier stop to its blatantly un-Christian teachings. In our own moment, as we look at the un-Christian, hurtful, dangerous aspects of the church, we should pause before continuing the pattern of anti-intellectualism deployed by the church leaders mentioned in this article, a rhetorical move that is, unfortunately, still with us today.

      • matt

        Nice words, Nick.

  • Sean Franklin

    Do we learn “more and more about how to improve it” by the same source of inspiration that first instituted those doctrines and policies?

    How can any of that have happened, but we can now trust the corrections are “what God wants”? Church leaders were pretty adamant, before, that they were doing God’s work. And not jsut that: they were adamant that they were doing what he told them to do! They all said it…over and over again… that they were doing what he told them to do? Why can’t they tell the difference? And if they can’t, by what measurement are they “prophets”?

    Without the conclusion always being placed first (as I see, each time someone makes this argument that “oh, too bad for their mistakes. glad it’s all gettin’ fixed up right, now!”, how can anyone be expected to be believe there is any value to the church’s authority on ANYTHING?

    I can never know what’s “true”, unless I wait a couple generations. Why doesn’t truth, when it comes to the church, conform to every other way in which people experience true things in the world? And if the answer to that is people making mistakes or Satan leading people astray…. How can it be said that this is the Lord’s church?

    • JustAVisitor

      What I gather from what you’re saying is that change automatically equals “mistake.” Jesus Christ only taught Jews. He would not teach gentiles. It was Peter that said he had a vision that told him he should take the gospel to non-Jews after Christ’s ascension. Does that make Christ a bigot? Why would he refrain from teaching non-Jews when His gospel is supposedly for all? And at the time, He and his apostles were quite sure that it was the right thing to do. Why did that change?

      The only two things I can gather from that is that either Christ was a hypocrite, or simply that truth is gradually given at a pace that we can accept.

      • http://www.ruthiechan.net ruthiechan

        Christ only taught Jews because that was his starting point, but he did in fact heal Gentiles, like that Gentile woman who had great faith in him, and he did pronounce all things clean, and set up the foundation for preaching to the Gentiles. He had to start from where people were otherwise no one would have accepted him at all.

        • http://gravatar.com/melvinwalker melvinwalker

          Did Christ ever say that only the Jews should be taught forever and ever or until the Millennium, whichever came first?

          The problem is not that blacks didn’t receive the priesthood right away. The problem is that generations of prophets said that they never ever ever would. These prophets didn’t prophecy that the blacks would receive it when the people were ready or anything like that. In fact, prophets and apostles came up with blatantly wrong reasons as to why a ban existed! Either generations of apostles simply didn’t bother to pray about their talks before giving them, or didn’t have the gift of the holy ghost to tell them they were wrong, or the church really is all about men and not God. I don’t believe there’s another honest answer.

    • http://scottstover.wordpress.com scootd28

      I’m discovering gradually that this is all very complex. The church IS imperfect – there is not a perfect “person” in the church, and their imperfections compound each other. Likewise, their goodness compounds. We can focus on the imperfections, past and present, if we choose. I’m not happy doing that. The church only as authority within itself – authority that we choose to submit to – hopefully because we believe it will lead to some higher good. Even the ordinances that it administers must be validated by our faithfulness. The church points the way. It is up to us to follow, and the way it is pointing is the way to Christ. I have a powerful testimony of the temple. The temple is the portal into the presence of the Lord. The Temple is the culmination of everything the Church stands for. I made a covenant in the temple, a covenant between GOD and MYSELF, to dedicate everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for the building up of the kingdom of God and the establishment of Zion. The covenant didn’t say “as long as you agree with them” or “as long as they are keeping up with social norms”, etc. Most people need a church. Criticize that if you wish, but it is true. The church today helps makes 15 million people better and bring them closer to Christ than they would ever achieve on their own. I personally choose to support that effort, imperfect as it may be. In doing so, I glorify my God. My relationship with God is no longer reliant on the church – but I can best serve Him by serving within the church.

      I figure we either have faith in the mission of the Church or we don’t. I choose to continue to exercise faith that its mission will ultimately be pleasing to God, even if it falls short of its potential (Zion). Abandoning the church will not make it better – if it did, then it would represent addition by subtraction – and what does that say about me. Abandoning the church will not get me closer to Christ, it will only detach me from many whose lives I can influence for the better.

      • matt

        I believe you can still have great influence without the church.

  • Isimeli Ravia

    I think the church doesn’t need to be socially acceptable, “in the Lord’s own due time”.there are members of the church outside the USA that literally believe in the words of scriptures, prophets, missionaries, and in ordained leaders of the church to follow and obey to the letter of the word as Pioneers did. “To be learned is good if you hearken to the counsels of God”. We can all pray and know for ourselves what is right and what is not. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts….” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

    • http://gravatar.com/melvinwalker melvinwalker

      There were people before 1978 who prayed and came to the conclusion that the ban was wrong. Those that taught it were excommunicated, despite being more in tune with the spirit.

      There have been people who have hearkened to the counsels of God when they differed from the counsel of their church leaders. That didn’t help them.

  • http://songsofaletheia.blogspot.com/ Heidi

    What an incredible man! What I wonder is, whatever happened to him?

    • S

      He almost lost his job at BYU because he told a colleague that he didn’t know for sure about eternity.

  • http://gravatar.com/melvinwalker Goldarn

    What has always bothered me about the so-called “priesthood ban” relates to women and the temple.

    Today, a white priesthood holder can marry a black woman in the temple. Before 1978, a white priesthood holder could not marry a black woman in the temple. What is the difference? In neither case does the black woman hold the priesthood.

    Official Declaration 2 does not cover women, e.g. “every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood” and “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color”. “Man.” “Male.” Nowhere does it mention any change concerning women, but it changed anyway.

    • S

      Historically in the eyes of the LDS church white>black and male>female, thus placing black women at the very bottom of the heap. :(

      • Mungagungadin

        Everyone, always, everywhere have always kept women at the bottom of everything. I can hardly believe our church leaders encourage us to read our scriptures constantly. Every time I do, my eyes bleed because I see men owning and controlling the lives of the women and children around them. How was that supposed to uplift me?

        • http://gravatar.com/melvinwalker melvinwalker

          It’s not. It’s supposed to make you feel less than the dust of the earth so you understand how desperately you need the church and will never, ever, stray from it now matter how it treats you.

  • Sagacity

    The LDS Church has addressed this issue itself.

    https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

    • Jandi

      And still no official apology. Just more of the blame game.

      • Jandi

        For anyone who would like to see what an actual public apology by a church looks like: http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=22439

      • http://gravatar.com/melvinwalker melvinwalker

        They can’t apologize. They can only obfuscate. They can never take responsibility for anything even appearing to be wrong.

    • zelph-doubt

      I guess the definition of “addressed” would be helpful.

      The Church Today
      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.

      IMHO, it’s one thing to “address” an issue by disavowing theories as if theories were the source of the problem. Not mentioned were Moses 7:6-8 along with Abraham 1:21-26 where blackness and priesthood banning are clearly spelled out.

      I guess that is the reason for an expensive public relations department. Distract the public with the notion of the theories of fallible men and of not knowing where the “policy” began so that there is no scrutiny of canonized scripture as the source.

      JS may have ordained Elijah Able but he also gave us Olimlah and the above cited scripture.

      • http://scottstover.wordpress.com scootd28

        You know, all – I’ve got to say…what difference does this make now? The past is the past. Now, if you want to use this to declare that the prophets are not prophets, and therefore you choose not to listen to their guidance, then that’s your choice.The Church’s leaders are clearly not infallible, and the only time they will be is when Christ returns to run his church in the glorified flesh. So, do you believe that Joseph Smith is a prophet, and that the gospel that He was largely responsible for restoring to the earth is true? If you do, then great. If you don’t, then none of this is relevant anyway – because it’s all a hoax. Do you believe that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures (which we are fond of quoting to make a point) are the word of God? Great. I do, too. How many times in these scriptures are we told not to rely on the arm of flesh in our search for truth? So, the fallibility of a prophet, whether from the 1860′s, the 1960′s or today, has no impact on the truthfulness of the Gospel. Is this church the Lord’s church? Yes or no? Again, the fallibility of a man or men should have no bearing of a truth of such import. The whole racial thing is appalling to me. It represents an ugly monster that has raised its head in so many ways, devouring everything in its path. It exists today, and it is still horrific – still a tool that Satan uses to divide God’s children against each other. What good would an apology do? It’s not going to change anything.

        • http://gravatar.com/melvinwalker melvinwalker

          It makes an incredible amount of difference. So what if the Book of Mormon is the word of God? So what if Joseph Smith was a prophet? What if Brigham Young and his successors weren’t? What if the plain and precious truths of the gospel have been changed by the successors who gave in to society on everything from racism to heaven only knows what? How long will the church have to rely on fallible men who interpret God’s revelations through their own ideas?

          Joseph Smith, for example, ordained a black man. Brigham Young and his successors taught that was against the commandments of God, without any claim of revelation to change that. The word for that is apostasy.

  • Russell Graff

    I don’t know everything that there is to know on this subject, and I am committed to finding out what I can about it. This has actually been something that I have been trying to study lately.

    What I do know is that I do have a testimony that prophets with priesthood authority do lead this church. I’ve had that revelation for myself specifically when it came to President Monson’s sustaining as President of this church.
    I can’t deny that. I can’t deny all of the positive spiritual experiences that I have had or the spiritual witness that I’ve had of priesthood power and the Book of Mormon.

    I appreciate the thoughtful research and any civil discussion.

    • S

      I have a testimony that the LDS church is led by men – not by God, and that it has perpetuated key ideas antithetical to Christ’s teachings.

      I’ve had many positive spiritual experiences over my life. However, I have always been told by the Spirit that the Book of Mormon was not of God (I’ve read it many times). God has always answered my prayers. He is just and loving, and I have faith in Him and trust Him. And, He has made it clear to me that the LDS institution is a man-made organization which perpetuates gross error.

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