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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  • Hey, I remember that story. You are lucky Keryn is so nice as to take you back.

    As to whether a revelation was required in 1978, it is an interesting question to approach from many different angles. Consider this: the critics of the church say that the "revelation" was just the church buckling under social pressure. It is nice, as a believer, to know that God made it clear that the ban was supposed to be lifted. It brings the whole topic into a kind of focus we wouldn't have if there had been no revelation.

    By Blogger Jacob J, at 11/09/2007 6:37 PM  

  • 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.

    Hm. So I wonder what you think about this...how much is really their thoughts and how much is inspired thoughts?

    "they did still continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him; and they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire." 3 Nephi 19:24

    I totally agree that the Lord lets us work through things, but I'm not convinced that the Lord is completely hands-off through the process, either. I have experienced very clear 'ideas' popping into my head, as well as desires changing, where the Lord is guiding my thoughts and decisions and desires even as it might appear to others that I'm making them myself. I personally think it's very hard to know where our thoughts and feelings end and the Lord's begin. I think it's all the more difficult to figure out that line for people who are truly praying without ceasing as the disciples did in this verse, and who are truly seeking and desiring God's will. Again, not that I think that there isn't room for us to do our part, but the line is fuzzy to me.

    Whaddya think?

    By Blogger m_and_m, at 11/09/2007 11:54 PM  

  • You are lucky Keryn is so nice as to take you back.


    was just the church buckling under social pressure

    In some ways, I'd be okay with that. I think the church was responding to the outside pressure to some degree. That doesn't make the revelation any less real or valid.

    M&M, I agree with you that it is really hard to tell the difference between our own thoughts and thoughts that are placed there by God. Because we can't tell, we'd probably be better off not to attribute our thoughts to God in the absence of better information.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 11/10/2007 10:49 PM  

  • I hesitate to speculate too much about the thought processes of those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators on this issue beyond what they have said themselves. I have privately wondered if some people needed to die off before the 1st Presidency and Quorum of the 12 could have a unanimous vote on the matter.

    Or maybe the hearts of the members needed to be prepared for this policy change. The day after the revelation was announced, I was in the company of a number of retirees for the entire day. I was positively giddy about the revelation, but it was clear that many of these folks greeted it with great reluctance. I wonder what the generation before them was like. Perhaps, like the children of Israel, a generation needed to pass before the church was ready.

    As I have served in callings that require seeking revelation on specific issues, I have found that sometimes the answers have come readily and plainly. Other times, answers have come only after much fasting, prayer, and discussion. And other times, we have moved forward without a clear "yes," knowing only that we didn't get a "no."

    It's a mixed bag, and I think only the Lord himself understands the complex interweavings of Spirit and human thought that go into it. I look forward to the day when we will comprehend it clearly.

    My story differs from yours. Only hours after my first date with a girl, I received clear and unmistakable knowledge that she would be my wife. But I also received clear direction that I was to keep this to myself. Mind you, I was 26 and she was 24, so we had both been at this dating thing for a while, and I had never had an experience like this. Eventually, this lady pursued and received her own revelation on the matter, and we got engaged 21 years ago yesterday.

    By Blogger Scott Hinrichs, at 11/12/2007 2:42 PM  

  • I love your post on receiving revelation. I think many people scrutinize our leaders when we as LDS people should look to ourselves...remove the mote from our eyes before criticizing our leaders.

    In addition, I had a similar experience with my wife. Looking back I knew I was supposed to marry her but I was ignoring the promptings. It took 5 years and we broke up twice, but luckily she stuck with me and it's the best decision I've ever made.

    thanks for your good ideas.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/14/2008 6:06 PM  

  • Thanks for the great post Brad. This is something I have wondered about for some time and I think your headline says it all. It can be difficult to discern between revelation and personal impressions, I believe the ability to discern is a gift (gift of discernment). I am grateful for the revelation extending the Priesthood. Is it allowable to believe that revelation did not result in the exclusionary policy in the first place?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/24/2008 2:42 PM  

  • If Hugh B. Brown was allowed to believe it, I think you're allowed to believe it. :)

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 3/24/2008 3:07 PM  

  • I just ready your post, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even though it was written a few years ago). Have you watched the "Blacks in the Scriptures" DVD? You should get it, if you haven't. blacksinthescriptures.com. Marvin Perkins and Darius Grey (both Mormon African Americans) put it together. I think it speaks volumes that the church allows them to speak at large firesides across the country with content that would quite surprise you.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 2/05/2011 12:23 AM  

  • I haven't seen those videos. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. I've heard Darius talk before and I've been very impressed with him. I own a copy of the video he did with Margaret Young, "The Untold Story". That had some good info in it.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 2/07/2011 9:22 AM  

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