Friday, November 09, 2007

Priesthood Ban: Revelation Needed Not Required

Perhaps the title of this post makes a distinction between two words where there isn't one, but they are the best I could find in trying to capture what I think I've learned about the priesthood restrictions placed on black Latter-day Saints before 1978. I'm continuing to read the biography of President Kimball that covers the years of his presidency. This change in priesthood eligibility was probably the most significant single event in 20th century Mormonism.

From the biography we read,

Most General Authorities tried to avoid public discussion of the topic. Hugh B. Brown, counselor to President McKay from 1961 to 1970, appears to have been the leader most open to change. He urged that the priesthood restriction could be dropped as a matter of Church administrative policy without requiring a specific revelation. He reasoned that if the restriction had not come by revelation, it could be vacated without revelation. But despite his strongly held views and powerful influence, President Brown’s position did not then prevail.

I'm inclined to agree with President Brown. A revelation was not "required" to change the policy. It strikes me that there are probably very few policies that actually require a revelation. I think of changes to priesthood quorums in the church, like the changing nature of the office of Seventy. Priesthood duties are specified in the scriptures, yet we don't see additional sections of the Doctrine and Covenants when we want to shift things around. I'm sure that the leaders of the church feel that the Lord approves of changes that they make, but I think it is the men and not the Lord who generally initiate such changes. Such is as it should be: We are expected to grow to become like God by making the sorts of decisions that He would make.

More than 20 years before the ban on priesthood was lifted, the issue was studied by a group of apostles.

In 1954 President McKay is said to have appointed a special committee of the Twelve to study the issue. They concluded that the priesthood ban had no clear basis in scripture but that Church members were not prepared for change.

For whatever reason, members of the church weren't prepared for blacks to have the priesthood. Perhaps this is similar to the situation with Moses and the children of Israel. God wanted to give them a higher law, but they weren't prepared to live it. So he had to give them a preparatory law and commandments fit for a people just emerging from centuries of bondage and servitude.

I think the minds of the Latter-day Saints were similarly clouded about issues of race. Some of them were able to see through the cultural fog on the issue, but for the majority of the Saints, a revelation from God was necessary to cut through the haze and light the way forward to a new era of equality and understanding. The revelation wasn't required, but the Saints still needed it.

I'm reminded of my own experience in seeking revelation on a mate. I prayed to God with all the sincerity I could muster whether I ought to marry this girl I was dating. Figuring this was an awfully important decision, I wanted a bit of help to avoid messing it up. Just a voice from heaven. Was that too much to ask? In spite of sustained prayer on the subject, I never felt like I received the sought for revelation. Figuring that silence meant "no," I broke up with the girl to seek other options.

Years passed. Through a blessed series of events, I found myself with a strong desire to date this girl again. I did so. Miraculously, after I'd broken her heart, she agreed to interact with me again--cautiously. Again I prayed with fervency to know whether I ought to marry this girl. I felt the Lord has pushed me in this direction, so I looked for His final signal that this was the "right thing." Nothing came.

Time was pressing. She was going to move across the country in less than a month. I needed an answer! I finally decided that if the Lord wasn't going to supply an answer, I would have to supply one on my own. I decided I wanted to marry her. Suddenly, in the face of my own decision on the subject, I was met with the most powerful confirmation I've ever received on any subject at any time. I had no doubt that this was the right thing. Why hadn't God bothered to tell me 6 or 4 or 2 years earlier?! He needed me to decide. Looking back, the decision seems so obviously right that my years-long hesitation is absurd.

I have no way of knowing, but I imagine in my heart that the process wasn't very different for the prophet on the subject of the priesthood ban. I think that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had to decide that it was the right direction to allow blacks to have the priesthood. They had to become ready in their own hearts for the change. They had to believe that the church was ready for the change. And when they finally asked, with their definite proposal, the Lord smacked them all in the forehead saying, in effect, "Duh!"

I'm grateful for a revelatory process that doesn't merely spoon feed us, but forces us to stretch and grow.

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