12 Questions for Armand Mauss, part two

As promised, here’s the second half our our “interview.” [For part one, click here.] Thank you, Brother Mauss, for your willingness to lend your unique voice to the bloggernacle, and thanks to all our readers who submitted questions. (Again, the questions are in bold and his responses follow in plain text.)

7. In April conference, Elder Hafen discussed the “misconception” that the Church is “moving toward an understanding of the relationship between grace and works that draws on Protestant teachings.” Any reaction?

This is truly an interesting development. The “misconception” Elder Hafen is referring to might not be exactly what it seems.

On the one hand, he is right (I hope) that the General Authorities have not condoned or legitimated a drift of LDS doctrine toward the (e. g.) Lutheran idea of grace as the sole basis for salvation. This is important, because the Brethren have looked with “benign neglect” upon other examples of doctrinal drift in the 20th century (e. g. the drift from Calvary to Gethsemane as the main site of the Atonement, and the drift from North America to MesoAmerica as the site of the Book of Mormon story).

On the other hand, some of the CES faculty (starting with the Religion faculty at BYU) certainly have “mov(ed) toward an understanding of grace . . . that draws on Protestant teachings.” This development was first pointed out by O. Kendall White in his book Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy (Signature Books, 1987), and I reiterated it in my Angel and Beehive (pp. 277-78). It comes across too in the more recent (and widely read) Stephen Robinson book, How Wide the Divide. What is interesting to me in all such instances of doctrinal drift is that in the contemporary LDS Church, where we have no formal theologians among the Brethren, our theological innovations are generated instead by theology specialists at BYU (some trained in formal theology, some not). Some of these innovations are eventually addressed publicly and resisted by the Brethren (via General Conferences talks or otherwise), which seems to be the case with the grace-and-works issue. Other innovations (such as the Gethsemane doctrine and a MesoAmerican setting for the B. of M.) are not resisted, or are even embraced by a number of the Brethren and eventually become more or less official doctrines.

8. In Mormon America, the Ostlings discuss a series of incidents involving an African-American convert demanding a new “manifesto” from the First Presidency concerning Mormonism’s historical racial theology and efforts made by yourself, among others, to simultaneously secure some sort of statement (apology? retraction?) from LDS Public Affairs on this thorny issue. What is your take on the Ostling’s treatment of this affair? Is their recounting accurate?

Once again I am forced, in all immodesty, to refer you to one of my books, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (U. of Illinois Press, 2003), pp. 248-49, where I refer to the incident discussed by the Ostlings in the context of post-1978 struggles to get rid of residual racism in the Church. And yes, their recounting is accurate, because they got the story from first-hand sources, including me. There is quite a lot to the story, and some of it I would prefer not to spread publicly.

Basically it is this : In 1997, an ad hoc advisory committee was put together by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, then a President of the Seventy and an overseer of Public Affairs, to assist him in drafting a proposal for an official public statement by the First Presidency that would, in effect, disavow the traditional folk-doctrines in Mormonism about pre-existent sins, or curses and marks on Ham and Cain, as the “reason” for denying the priesthood to blacks before 1978. Elder Jensen saw a need for such a disavowal and asked for the help of a few of the Saints who had contacted him about the matter in recent years. I was included on this committee, even though I had not been among those to contact him. Another member of the same advisory committee was A. David Jackson, the “African-American convert” referred to above. Not understanding Church procedure or normal bureaucratic processes very well, Bro. Jackson became impatient as Elder Jensen’s proposal worked its way up through the various quorums and committees to the First Presidency. Bro. Jackson (despite my efforts to dissuade him) eventually went to a reporter for the LA Times with the story that these deliberations were underway, in hopes that a “juicy story” in the press might put some pressure on the Brethren to hurry the process along (we had all hoped to get such a public statement about the time of the 20th anniversary of the 1978 Revelation). Of course, the LA Times story had the opposite of the desired effect, since the Brethren cannot ever be expected to make decisions in the glare of publicity. Accordingly, at a hastily called press conference, Pres. Hinckley said that he knew nothing about any plans for any such a repudiation, and he didn’t think the Church needed one. (He was telling the truth about not knowing of such plans, since Elder Jensen’s proposal had not yet reached the First Presidency). That’s the story in outline. My own assessment is that there was never more than a 50-50 chance that the First Presidency would have issued such a statement anyway, but this episode set back any such prospects for at least 10 years. I have also come to believe that Jackson had an agenda of his own that only partly included a desire to see old racist folklore repudiated. He was also anxious to be known publicly as the black hero who forced the Church to either “do the right thing” or else to remain exposed to the charge of continuing racism. Unfortunately, the alienation between Jackson and the rest of us has remained, and no one in his family attends church any more.

9. It seems that more and more orthodox members, including those engaged in apologetics, are making use of formerly “heterodox” explanations of the history of the priesthood ban. Margaret Young’s novels about early African-American saints, published by Deseret Book, all but explicitly endorse your work in this vein. Have you lived to see your work go mainstream (if not “official”) in the church? And if so, did you ever expect that?

Yeah, I did expect to live to see a change in Church policy on blacks, if only because the policy was so outrageously out of place with everything else in our religion and our scriptures; but I had no idea when to expect the change. And yes, I do feel vindicated for the position I took on the race issue in my first Dialogue article (Winter issue, 1967), and even before that in talks before LDS audiences in the California Bay Area. I never demanded that the Church change its policy on priesthood (that was not my job!), but my hope for change was always implicit in what I wrote, as I consistently pointed out that there was no valid scriptural basis for the conventional “explanation” that had been offered (even by some eminent Brethren). I took some flak for this across the years, since my view contradicted the writings of Jos. Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, which most of the Saints, even today, consider the same as scripture.

However, I can take no credit for the hard-slogging research that eventually undermined the historical basis for the policy and demonstrated that it could not have originated with Joseph Smith or with any recorded revelation. This historical work was done by Lester Bush and Newell Bringhurst. Their published research, together with the discovery that a modern, academic translation of the fragments from the original papyri do not yield anything found in our Book of Abraham, removed any basis for the priesthood ban except for the heavy hand of tradition. These developments certainly facilitated, and provided some motivation for, the efforts of Pres. Kimball and his colleagues to seek and receive the revelation of 1978. My own contribution to the historical work on this issue has been focused mainly on second half of the 20th century, starting with my 1981 Dialogue article, “The Fading of the Pharoahs’ Curse,” and continuing with more recent articles, and with Chapter 9 of my book All Abraham’s Children.

The Young and Gray trilogy is wonderful. I was consulted periodically by the authors while they were working on it, and I read some early drafts, but I can take no credit for that work, either.

10. You have written extensively on social problems. Where should the Church fit in when trying to meet the social needs of our communities and greater world?

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by a “social problem.” Forgive me if I get too pedantic here, but if you have read my publications on “social problems,” you will know that I am an exponent of the theory that social problems are the products of (or are even essentially the same as) social movements. (Anyone who really cares about all this can read my article, “Social Problems,” in the Encyclopedia of Sociology, found the Reference Section of any decent library). Essentially I take a “social constructionist” theoretical perspective – namely, that social problems are actually putative social conditions that have become problematic through the enterprise of political and other interest groups (i. e. through social movements). No social condition, no matter how desperate it might look to us, is a social problem until it has been made such by a campaign to put get it on the national agenda. A social problem is thus relative to cultural, generational, and political factors. That’s why the same social condition will be defined as a “social problem” in some times and places but not in others (e. g. racism, poverty, homosexuality).

From that perspective, the LDS Church is only one of many claims-making organizations in the national and international arenas. The LDS Church shares in the claims that define some of the national and international conditions as “social problems” (e. g. poverty, substance abuse, family disintegration), and it joins with others in working toward amelioration. For other conditions in the nation, however, the Church does not share in defining them as “social problems,” or at least has a different definition of the nature of the problem (e. g. maldistribution of wealth, obesity, environmental degradation, gay rights). Still other conditions are defined as “social problems” by the LDS Church, but not by most of the rest of the nation (e. g. contemporary sexual norms and practices in most of Europe and America, mothers “leaving the home,” welfare dependency). Having now reached the greatest level of political and economic power that it has ever enjoyed, the LDS Church is in a position to work (with or without others) on the amelioration of those social conditions that it defines as the most pressing “social problems.” It has been doing this for some years and will continue to do so.

A totally separate question, both for the LDS Church and for other claimants in the arena, is that of efficacy – i. e., do any of the ameliorative efforts of any organization really work? The “track record” in our national programs of amelioration has not been particularly good in most cases. It’s not clear to me how well the Church programs have been working. In the last few issues of Dialogue, there have been two articles by Brad Walker (“Spreading Zion Southward,” Part 1 and Part 2) which make pretty clear that the LDS welfare program outside North America is not working well at all, though the humanitarian programs are more successful (which, ironically, are mainly for non-members!).

11. Mark Leone predicted that after 1978 a new doctrine would emerge as a symbol of Mormon distinctiveness, and that family and the role of women, for all their sincere doctrinal bases, would probably serve this function. To what extent does the current controversy over same sex marriage bear that out?

Leone did not need to be particularly prescient to make this prediction, since the Church had been on a campaign to strengthen the family since the early 1960s, and this campaign always included a conservative definition of women’s roles (demonstrated, e. g., by the anti-IWY and anti-ERA campaigns even before 1978). Certainly the Church’s political and educational efforts against same-sex marriage and other “gay rights” are a part of that larger campaign to restore and preserve traditional definitions of family and of women in particular. In my Angel and Beehive, I identify and analyze several other special thrusts in the effort to restore or re-emphasize “Mormon distinctiveness” after two or three generations of assimilation into the great American melting pot.

My prediction about the same-sex marriage struggle is that the cause is already lost, from the LDS viewpoint. Considering what has already been tolerated, if not actually enacted, in the laws of both the U. S. and other Western countries, the Church will be forced (all over the world) to accept a new constitutional doctrine in which domestic unions of all kinds will be legitimated by governments (and, if based on formal contracts, enforced by governments, too). These unions might or might not be called “marriages,” depending on the nation in question. Probably in the U. S. they will not be called marriages. The term “marriage” (or some synonym) will then be reserved ONLY for unions that are ALSO “sanctified” by private religious or quasi-religious organizations. Churches will lose their authority to perform state-sanctioned “marriages” (as they already have done in many other countries). LDS couples everywhere will be required to have their contractual unions legitimized by a state agency, and THEN go to the temple for what will be called “marriages” (or maybe to an LDS bishop if the couple seeks a marriage “for time only”). In this situation, every religious denomination will be able to permit and perform whatever kind of “marriage” it prefers, including “gay marriage.”

Since all of this will imply a judicial acceptance of the “equal rights” claims of gay couples, it is difficult to see how the same claims can be denied when made by polygamists or others. Therefore, we can expect the various “fundamentalist” groups in and around Utah to demand “equal rights” and legitimate state contracts for their unions of two or more people. This might not be so bad if the state can thereby also enforce laws regulating the rights of multiple wives and children in these arrangements (which the state now finds it difficult to do with the extra-legal polygamous families).

12. We are always looking for the essential texts of Mormon studies. So, what good books have you read lately?

I don’t know about “essential texts,” but I think the most important books of the past two decades would include (but not be limited to) : Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition; Allen and Leonard, The History of the Latter-day Saints, especially for the novice who knows little or nothing about LDS history; Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom and Adventures of a Church Historian; Phil Barlow, The Mormons and the Bible; Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (soon to be subsumed, however, in his complete and definitive Joseph Smith biography due out next year); the Cornwall, Heaton, and Young collection of essays, Contemporary Mormonism; Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon; Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music; Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons; Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology; D. Michael Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2); Jan Shipps, Mormonism: A New Religious Tradition and Sojourner in the Promised Land; Gordon and Gary Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed. This list will at least give you a good sampling of history, sociology, science and culture. Two on this list are a half century old (Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom and O’Dea’s Mormons), but I include them as “classics” that people should have read along the way. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, so when you have finished reading all these, come back to me and I’ll recommend some more! I have also deliberately left off several good books on specialized subjects like polygamy (both 19th and 20th century varieties), of which the most recent are by Sarah Barrington Gordon and Kathryn Daynes, but there are many good older ones too. I have not mentioned the new books by Grant Palmer and by Krakauer, neither of which plows any new ground unfamiliar to those of us who have been keeping up on Mormon history.

A general orientation to both historical and social science work in Mormon Studies will be found in the bibliographic essays collected by Ronald Walker, James Allen, and David Whittaker, Mormon History (U. of Illinois Press, 2001). I strongly, recommend that one should browse first through these essays in order to get “the lay of the land.”

IN ADDITION, no one is really “keeping up” on Mormon studies unless s/he is regularly reading at least Dialogue, Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies, and Sunstone.

30 comments for “12 Questions for Armand Mauss, part two

  1. The Univ. of Illinois Press put the Walker, Whittaker, and Allen book that Prof. Mauss referred to, “Mormon History,” online at their website (yes, the entire book). I found Chapter 3, on Mormon history writings since 1950, to be especially good. Here’s the link for the online book:


    Included in its entirety is a chapter by Armand Mauss entitled “Flowers, Weeds, and Thistles: The State of Social Science Literature on the Mormons.” Here’s the link:


    More generally, I really enjoyed reading Prof. Mauss’ replies and comments–great idea, Greg. I think sales of The Angel and the Beehive (also published by Univ. of Illinois Press) will spike this week . . . which should help in recruiting future interviewees.

  2. If I may, I have a Question #13 for Brother Mauss. If he isn’t inclined to respond (and even if he is), it’s a question for all you commenters as well:

    Readers of my various screeds will know that the topic of “blacks and the priesthood” is a long-standing historical and doctrinal interest of mine. I was never confronted with questions about this issue on my mission. Now that I’ve been meeting with the elders at least once a week for almost 3 years, I have had frequent occasion to ask them: “How do you guys handle questions from investigators or door contacts about the Priesthood ban?” I’m happy to report that not once has an elder tried to justify the policy by resorting to “Pre-Existence” explanations or Hamite curses. The most common response is for an elder to analogize the modern priesthood ban against blacks to the ancient priesthood restriction against all non-Levites. Whatever the deficiencies of this explanation (Are we a Restoration of New Testament Christianity, or of Ancient Judaism?), at least it is preferable to the racist theologies of yesteryear, in my opinion.

    A few months ago, the Los Angeles Mission President invited a representative of the Genesis Group to give a presentation to a mission-wide conference of missionaries. Since then, I have heard a lot of references to its content from numerous elders. Not having attended myself, I can’t be sure of what the speaker said precisely, but it is clear that he was, at least in part, attempting to put to rest the racial “folklore” that had propped up the priesthood restriction. This is a very welcome development, in my view.

    However, I had an experience Sunday night that really surprised me. The elders came over for dinner and correlation meeting, and afterwards we had a 3 hour conversation about a number of “deep doctrinal” and controversial historical topics that were on their minds – (I should point out that I do NOT do this with the elders as a general rule; I actually think it is inappropriate to converse with 19-year old missionaries in this manner, for the most part. However, this particular pair of elders really wanted to discuss what was on their minds, and they are both quite bright – one of them is the smartest, most sophisticated elder I’ve ever run across; He could hold his own at T&S, and he’s only 22) – One of the issues they raised was that of “blacks and the priesthood.” Specifically, the elders grilled me on my own views as to its divine (or non-divine) provenance, and we discussed many of the standard issues that surround this topic. But then, they told me something that really shocked me: The insisted, rather non-chalantly, that when asked about this topic by investigators, they candidly admit that the Priesthood Ban was an unfortunate historical accident! That it wasn’t revelatory in nature at all, but was rather an outgrowth of 19th Century racism that was perpetuated by later Church leaders, but that never really had a divine stamp of approval at all.

    Now, I don’t need anyone to review all the arguments for me here; I’m quite familiar with them all. My question is this: Have we now arrived at a point in the Church where our representatives on the Front Lines (i.e. the missionaries) are able to make claims like this to their investigators? I didn’t think we were. And I must point out that these elders aren’t “rebels.” They sincerely believed that their conclusion was the unavoidable message of the Genesis Group speaker’s discourse. I then found myself in the awkward and unusual position (for me) of having to problematize their claims, given the risks I perceived in having elders make this claim to non-members (Do I really need to spell out these risks here?) I am all in favor of the efforts of Mauss, Bush, et al. to shed light on this troublesome historical issue, and I am completely sympathetic to what I understand to be their wishes for future LDS cultural and theological development. I completely agree that the traditional racial theologies and rationalizations should be jettisoned, even “officially” disavowed. But I wonder if the idea that the priesthood ban had no divine provenance – even granting my sympathies with it – is one that has a future among the General Membership, rather than merely on obscure blogs like this one.

    Aaron B

  3. “Obscure blogs?” All right, Aaron, you’re toast! Hmm, where’s the “ban commenter” button when I need it . . .

  4. Kaimi — By telling scary stories like this last one, I am hopefully doing my part to render this blog less obscure!

    Aaron B

  5. Aaron, interesting story. While “unfortunate historical accident” seems perhaps too direct in the context of missionary discussions, perhaps not–can one really be too honest? As to the substance of the term, I think it’s a pretty good description.

    The 1978 announcement changed policy but did not offer a detailed explanation of the basis for the change or the status of the many pre-1978 justifications (some of them scriptural) for the ban. The ban was certainly historical. Few would say it was fortunate. Nothing suggests it was it carefully planned, and most accounts point to the existence of black slavery in the South and particularly conflict on that issue in Missouri (certainly examples of historical accident) as having some impact. So “unfortunate historical acccident” works for me.

  6. Dave,

    Maybe I’m out of the loop but do “most accounts,” at least current ones, really tie the priesthood ban to slavery and the Missouri conflict? I thought this was the old Stephen Taggert canard, which was laid to rest by Lester Bush in the ’70s. Perhaps it still has currency with some?

    You ask “can one really be too honest”?

    This question could easily be a thread all its own, but let me tackle it briefly in the context of my prior post… I’ve traditionally been a member of the “tell it like it is and live with the consequences” crowd, rather than the “Let’s be faith-promoting” crowd. However, I can’t seem to justify sending out 50,000 elders, armed with the “knowledge” that the Church was mistakenly perpetuating a misguided policy for 100+ years (assuming they were – I’m not officially endorsing that position). Maybe it’s just my old age, or my having to look at these issues in a new light, given my callings, but I’d rather have the elders saying “We don’t know” or “It’s complicated” than saying “the prophets couldn’t get their doctrine right” before an investigator even gets a chance to feel the Spirit.

    (The “me” of five years ago would never have believed the “me” of today would type that last sentence).

    Aaron B

  7. Aaron, I think resistance to the admission “polygamy was an unfortunate historical accident” has little to do with the priesthood ban or even to how tricky it is to raise this when proselyting. I think resistance comes from the unofficial doctrine of infallibility, which Mormons reject in theory but embrace in practice and equate with modern revelation.

    Members have a vague sense that polygamy was a mistake, but generally shy away pursuing the implications of that assertion–they like thinking their leaders are infallible. Leaders have a vague sense that polygamy was a mistake, but the members’ belief in infallibility is such a convenience that they won’t rock the boat either. So there is no institutional willingness to identify and correct past mistakes (and members who try to do so individually are at risk of excommunication). So, naturally, mistakes persist.

    Consider that the United States eliminated slavery and most of its vestiges, a huge undertaking that took a century and a civil war that nearly destroyed the country, faster than the LDS Church changed its priesthood ban policy, a change that was accomplished with nothing more than the President of the Church issuing a memo. Thurgood Marshall was on the United States Supreme Court before the LDS Church ordained an African American to its lowest priesthood office.

  8. Aaron, I don’t think we are ready to have the standard training of all 50,000+ missionaries missionaries include training them to teach that the pre-1978 priesthood restriction was simply an unfortunate historical accident. But if the MTC started training in that fashion (i.e. if those in charge of such things saw fit to establish such training), I would welcome it.

    Anyway, I don’t see anything wrong with these elders’ teaching that. What are we going to do, start saying that it really was inspired? How are you going to talk your way through suggesting it is something other than an unfortunate historical accident, without making up some explanation, as we all know we shouldn’t be doing?

    In the absence of some other explanation, asking new investigators to suspend judgment seems like a lot to ask, when for all we know it *was* just a historical accident. And asking them to suspend judgment is what you’re doing if you tell them “We don’t know”. I say, don’t make the missionaries’ job harder than it needs to be. If they’re ready to call it that, let them just call it a historical accident; anything else seems like cruel and unusual punishment.

  9. Saying it’s an unfortunate historical accident is very different from saying, “The prophets couldn’t get their doctrine right”. Just being willing to go on teaching, without trying to defend the priesthood restriction, is a witness that God uses imperfect instruments to bring to pass his work. I think people will take the missionaries and their message *more* seriously, not less, if they make no attempt to defend that practice, but show their testimony anyway. Humility speaks to the heart.

  10. Dave,

    Replace “polygamy” with “the priesthood ban” in your post, and I’m inclined to agree with much of what you say (cynical as it is). However, your making these claims with respect to polygamy gives me pause.

    I freely admit that I haven’t spent nearly as much time thinking about polygamy as I have the priesthood ban, but at least two potentially crucial differences come to mind:

    (1) We have explicit recorded revelations on polygamy, while we don’t for the priesthood ban;

    (2) Mauss, Bush and others have provided a relatively plausible historical and cultural context from which the racial restriction might have generated; the same cannot really be said for polygamy;

    (3) Polygamy was a central, vital part of life for many Mormons in the 19th Century. It was a distinguishing characteristic of their faith (an understatement). It was something for which members of the Church were vilified and persecuted. You really can’t make any of these same claims regarding a priesthood ban that was premised on widely-shared racist norms that only directly affected a very miniscule number of members of the Church.

    Whatever else you want to say about polygamy, I think it’s a little harder to label it a mere historical “mistake.”

    Aaron B

    P.S. I’m not seeing the point of your third paragraph.

  11. Dave–

    I want to nuance your argument a little. I don’t think it is about infallibility but about ‘leading the church astry.’ To most members, if polygamy or p’hood ban was an historical accident, then those prophets would (by their definition) be guilty of leading the church astry.

    This should be its own topic, but I have often thought that ‘leading the church astry’ is the emptiest of all the empty phrases of Mormondom, or at least the least-explored one. What the heck does it mean, anyway? That the prophet will never make a teeny mistake? Never a mistake big enough to endanger (1 person, 10 people, 100,000 people, everyone’s) salvation? Somewhere in between?

  12. Ben,

    I hope you’re right. I really do. That is, I hope that not trying “to defend the priesthood restriction, [could be] a witness that God uses imperfect instruments to bring to pass his work.” I also agree that the missionaries have to say SOMETHING in response to tough questions posed to them. I guess the argument is that we might as well have them tell the truth, rather than make up some bogus explanation, or worse, let them just “wing it,” as many elders do, often to disastrous effect (on this issue and many others). And let’s not forget the obvious: telling the truth is morally preferable to not (duh!).

    My practical concern arises from the following observation: As missionaries, we realize that investigators are unlikely to receive spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of the Church right after the elders sit down on the couch for the first time. Getting spiritual confirmation is a real chore for many, and often doesn’t come for a long time. Thus, we pitch certain “attractive” doctrines to our investigators, betting they’ll find one or more of them to their liking. Eternal families, Baptism for the Dead, you name it. And one of the best selling points for Mormonism, we believe (and I think it’s often true) is “Modern Prophets.” Who wouldn’t want to have a “God’s spokesman on the Earth,” who can lead us and guide us in these latter-days? (You know the argument). Many investigators (not to mention members) find this argument very compelling, and it appears all the more appealing if it is presented in a robust, strong version. I think it would lose a lot of steam, if we modified it to include “Oh, by the way, Brigham Young was a racist, who mistakenly attributed his bigoted views to God, and who thereby got 100 years’ worth of other modern prophets to follow his lead, but nonetheless, did I mention that we need to “follow the Prophet”?” Not particularly compelling, if you see what I mean.

    Note that this is a pragmatic claim I’m making, and not necessarily a moral one.

    And yes, as you can see, I still do see labeling the priesthood ban as an “unfortunate historical accident” as basically equivalent to “the prophets’ couldn’t get their doctrine right.” What am I missing?

    Aaron B

  13. Dave,

    “Thurgood Marshall was on the United States Supreme Court before the LDS Church ordained an African American to its lowest priesthood office.”

    With the exception, of course, of Elijah Abel.


    According to my source at hand — I’ve got the Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery here, it uses various sources including Bush — the church was originally non-committed; it adopted slave-upholding policies during the Missouri years, 1831-39, and largely abandoned those policies when it left Missouri. Joseph Smith endorsed antislavery positions in 1842. Utah adopted a “popular sovereignty” position in 1850, neither slave nor free. In 1852, Utah legalized slavery. It doesn’t appear to have been a big issue, numbers-wise — there were 29 slaves total in Utah on the 1860 census.


    Maybe I’m being too lackadaisical about it, but prophetic imperfection isn’t that stunning of a concept for me. I’ve been in some leadership positions — nothing huge, but EQ Presidency and such — and I know that decisions are made by prayer, discussion, and doing our best to be guided by the Spirit. That said, I don’t claim that every home teaching companionship I put together was perfect. Maybe I thought that Brother X and Brother Y would work well together, but they didn’t. There are multiple possible reasons for that (this deserves a thread of its own), including my own imperfection in following the Spirit, my own imperfect knowledge of members and their needs, and so forth. If I blow a hometeaching assignment, it doesn’t mean that the church isn’t true, or that I haven’t been called of God to be the EQ President — it just means I’m learning on the job, just like everyone else.

  14. Kaimi,

    I wasn’t addressing the historical Mormon position on slavery; I was addressing the alleged causal connection between the Mormons’ Missouri experience (the hostility apparently was due in part to perceived Mormon views on slavery) and the Priesthood Ban. The alleged connection used to be cited as a “reason” for the Ban; I was asserting that that explanation has fallen out of fashion.

    Aaron B

  15. I am heartened by the willingness of Aaron and all the others to entertain the “unfortunate historical accident” hypothesis, which is the only one that makes sense to me. I was astonished (though gratified) to learn that we have at least a couple of missionaries out there who are candid and sophisticated enough to accept the same hypothesis. I would agree, however, that most missionaries (and members generally) are still probably better off saying “we don’t know,” which at least will probably change the subject without dragging them into deeper water where they probably won’t be able to swim. It is, to be sure, an unsatisfactory answer, but at least it’s a genuinely true statement when coming out of the mouths of 99% of the LDS membership, who in fact DON’T know anything about the origin of the old priesthood ban. They’re better off just saying so.
    For those, however, who want to know more, I can refer you to a recent and readily accessible place where you can download a copy of the paper I gave last August at the FAIR conference, “The LDS Church and the Blacks: A Case of Misplaced Apologetics.” (I gave the same paper at a Sunstone West Symposium under the title, “How to Explain the Priesthood Ban Without Looking Ridiculous.”) In a mainly Q & A format, this paper pretty well covers the points raised by Aaron and the other bloggers. The paper is available through the FAIR.lds website, but you can get it more easily by going to http://www.blacklds.com. Click on “Priesthood,” and then on “Recent Articles.” Of course, if you want a thorough review of all the historical developments in our relationships with blacks down to the present (including the answers to most of the “whys”), read Chapters 8 and 9 of my “All Abraham’s Children” (U. of Ill. Press 2003).
    Two stark facts, in particular, lead to the “unfortunate accident” hypothesis : (1) There is no revelation recorded or even claimed as the basis for the priesthood ban during the life of Joseph Smith, who, in fact, authorized the ordination of a few blacks; and (2) Brigham Young declared the ban in 1852 in a charged POLITICAL (not ecclesiastical) setting; he did so in the Lord’s name, but without any claim of a revelation, to say nothing of any process of “canonization” of the kind required for the D & C. The only “reason” he ever gave publicly was the claim that blacks were descendants of Cain. My FAIR paper cites the setting of the slavery controversy (NOT in Missouri but in UTAH) as the setting for this ban, and I reference Bush and Bringhurst on that point. See if you find this paper helpful in dealing with some of the points raised in this ongoing blogfest.

  16. Aaron,

    I must have slipped a gear–yes, replace “polygamy” with “the priesthood ban” in the first two paragraphs of my previous post. No, I’m not busy designing the all-purpose blog comment (insert doctrine under discussion here), I was just jumping around too much. I guess I just blew my claim to infallibility!

    I imagine most Christians apply some variation on “unfortunate historical accident” to explain Paul’s antagonism toward women fully participating in Christian worship or various Christian persecutions of heretics and Jews over the centuries. So I don’t think most non-Mormons would be put off by the admission. The resistance would come from members and their latent faith in prophetic infallibility.

    Julie in Austin–yes, I think the “never lead you astray” claim is quite related to the infallibility idea, but I’ve never really connected the two before. Sounds like your next T&S post (in which I’ll proof my comments more carefully).

  17. Dave,
    I think you’re pretty much wrong about what most Christians accept about Paul. Most Christians haven’t really thought about it, or if they have didn’t really think about it until after they had already accepted Christ and the NT, or in any case have evolved various folklore explanations about *why* Paul needed to do that, or simply think that most of what he said is still in force.

    Aaron’s question applies–how successful would Christian evangelism be, esp. in non-Christian cultures, if people were routinely told, yeah, believe the Paul about Christ but not the parts where Paul writes on women, he just made that part up.

  18. “Maybe it’s just my old age, or my having to look at these issues in a new light, given my callings, but I’d rather have the elders saying “We don’t know” or “It’s complicated” than saying “the prophets couldn’t get their doctrine right” before an investigator even gets a chance to feel the Spirit.

    (The “me” of five years ago would never have believed the “me” of today would type that last sentence).

    Aaron B ”

    I have entered some strange and alternative universe. We need to check IP addresses and make sure that this is really Aaron B posting. Certainly, the me of three years ago who first began discussing stuff with Aaron B on the internet would never have believed these sorts of statements possible.

    The U. is thinking of hiring a Mormon president. Aaron Brown is against publicizing historical accidents. Nixon went to China. A Democrat abolished AFDC. It is a strange old world…

  19. Yeah, it’s surreal, isn’t it. In fact, I’ve re-read my statement, and I’m still torn up over whether I can justify it or not. I reserve the right to change my mind, of course. I’m going to have to think about this some more …. :)

    Aaron B

  20. Perhaps this question deserves a separate thread, but I’m intrigued by the slippery slope Brother Mauss described above. He believes that the Supreme Court will eventually rule that SSM and even polygamy are constitutionally protected.

    From a constitutional law perspective, I’m a bit skeptical of this, perhaps because I’ve developed a negative knee-jerk reaction to any slippery slope argument, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    What if polygamymous marriages were legal in the United States? What would the church do? Aaron has already listed many reasons that the church could not simply walk away from polygamy as a “historical accident.” The church could possibly claim that OD 1 is a revelation ceasing the practice of polygamy on earth (which it seems to me most members already believe), but there is the slight problem that Wilford Woodruff said in press interviews and in General Conference that OD 1 (the 1890 Manifesto) was absolutely not a revelation ceasing polygamy. He made it abudantly clear that the church was ceasing polygamy only under clear duress from the U.S. government. So in my mind if polygamy were legal, the church would have three options:

    1. Start practicing plural marriage again, the consequences of which I don’t even like to imagine.

    2. State that polygamy was ceased by revelation in 1890 or in 1906, and that we will not practice it again on this earth unless we receive another revelation. As noted, this is not historically accurate, but with a massive PR effort it could work.

    3. Repudiate the doctrine entirely. This would be hard to do and would greatly tarnish Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and many others. Many of us may hold this opinion personally, but I don’t think the church will ever do this officially.

    What do you all think will happen?

  21. Jared: We already live in this world. Polygamy is legal in many countries where the church operates, such as West Africa. The church policy is monogamy.

  22. Nate is right. I personally doubt the Church would ever reinstate polygamy again. What is polygamy’s actual theological status at the moment? I don’t know, and haven’t thought enough about it to venture an informed opinion.

    (Interesting factoid: A few years ago, Michael Quinn was asked at a Sunstone Symposium session “If you were Prophet, what would you change about the Church?” One of his three replies was that he would allow members of the Church in Africa to practice polygamy, as doing so would be consistent with the Manifesto, and would cease the Church’s current practice of “cultural famli-cide” by breaking up stable polygamous families as a condition for baptism.)

    How would the Church respond to doctrinal questions, given a United States with legalized polygamy? No idea.

    Aaron B

  23. 1. He would instruct all LDS missionaries to dress like the local people and to not think of themselves as representatives of an “American Church” or American culture.

    2. He would allow local peoples to employ music in their services that reflect their “own spirituality.” He specifically mentioned allowing Black Africans to play the drums in Sacrament meeting, as there is nothing inherently “spiritual” about a pipe organ.

    You see the common theme among the three responses.

    Aaron B

  24. Hmmm – I recently talked to a some missionaries (a senior couple) who came back from Africa and they told me that the Black Africans used drums in Sacrament mtg. – except when General Authorities were visiting, and then they stuck with the piano (if they had one).

    They also said the music was a lot livelier. I wanted to grill them a bit more and get some specific details, but I was unable to.

  25. Come on Nate, that’s too easy. The church is headquartered and thus correlated out of the United States, and at least since correlation we have had a one church policy for the entire world (e.g. pipe organs over drums).

    So monogamy is the de facto church policy only because the church is “correlated” in the United States. You honestly don’t think there would be any effect on church policy if polygamy were legalized in the United States?

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