‘A Reason For Faith’: A Review

During the lesson in Elders Quorum this past Sunday, we discussed ways to enhance our study of the scriptures. As usual, I raised my hand and recommended that we study the scriptures within their historical and cultural context so that our “likening” of them does not turn into “making stuff up.” I said that this should also include a study of Church history in order to understand our own doctrines, revelations, and controversies. And to top it all off, I suggested we work on developing religious literacy in order to have fruitful conversations with those outside our faith tradition. This class discussion also featured a number of stories about gospel conversations with co-workers. This reminded me of an encounter I had with a manager a couple years ago.

I work at a logistics company and was at the time of the story an operations supervisor on the loading dock. My manager and I got along really well. I still consider him one of my favorite people at work despite being in completely different departments now. So, one night shift he came up to my work station and randomly asked, “Walker, you’re Mormon, right?” Living in Texas, this always sets off an alarm inside my head. I had never told him I was Mormon, so he had obviously heard it elsewhere. Plus, this was during the Romney/Obama election, so Mormonism was in the news, for better or worse. “Yes…,” I replied hesitantly. Then, the sledgehammer: “Do Mormons have a problem with black people?” This is where it becomes important to note that my manager is African-American.

My initial reaction to his question.

He explained that we had gotten along so well and that he was surprised to learn that I was a Mormon given some of the things he had heard about Mormons and blacks. He couldn’t square the supposed racist ideology of Mormonism with our personal interactions. I took a deep breath, started going through the files in my mind, and answered, “The short answer: No. While individual Mormons may have racist attitudes–like any denomination–Mormonism is not racist. However, what you’ve likely heard is related to the priesthood ban.” With that, I went through the history of the priesthood ban: I defined priesthood in terms for a non-member layperson. I explained that blacks were always welcomed in the Church through baptism. I noted W.W. Phelps’ editorial “Free People of Color” and the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri based in part on their perceived pro-black, anti-slavery stance. I talked about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and his anti-slavery platform as well as his views on blacks (e.g., “Blacks have souls“). I discussed Elijah Abel‘s ordination to the priesthood, his missions, and appointment to Church leadership. I mentioned that other blacks were also ordained to the priesthood. I talked about the racism of the day, the biblical citations used to justify slavery (i.e., “Curse of Ham“), and how this Protestant folklore infected Mormonism early on. I talked about how historical evidence places the ban’s beginning at Brigham Young’s feet. I discussed how Church leaders over the years unfortunately felt the need to justify the practice via multiple “scriptural” theories due to a muddied understanding of the ban’s origin. I mentioned that lifting the priesthood ban was considered even earlier than 1978 by Church leaders (e.g., David O. McKay), leading to the softening of other policies. These earlier discussions eventually bore fruit in 1978, when the ban was officially lifted.

It was a good 15-20 minute conversation. I ended with my personal view: “The priesthood ban was a mistake, the result of racist folklore, which was allowed to continue for an excruciatingly long time. Thankfully, that policy no longer exists today.” My manager enjoyed the discussion and seemed to understand the complexities surrounding the issue. I provided him with a few resources, but apologized that I was unable to direct him to any official Church publication addressing the matter in depth (which has now changed).

As I pointed out to my Elders Quorum when I finished the story, it is a situation like this where a working knowledge of all things Mormon comes in handy. However, I knew these things because I’ve been running in Mormon Studies circles for years. I had read a number of books and journal articles on the subject. But, as my wife often reminds me during my moments of frustration following an off-putting comment in Sunday School class, most people aren’t familiar with these things. And even if they wanted to be, they wouldn’t know where to start. If they asked, could I even point them to a single volume that would provide an updated, but basic grounding in the issues? A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, the new book edited by Laura Harris Hales and co-published by BYU’s Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, is that much-needed single volume. And with Hales’ impressive lineup of scholars, the book falls in line with Elder Ballard’s advocacy for “the best LDS scholarship available.” While the Gospel Topics essays have arisen to help tackle a number of controversial subjects, there are many other issues not addressed by those essays that make their way into A Reason for Faith. Yet, even when the book covers ground similar to that of the Gospel Topics essays–such as the Book of Abraham or polygamy–the authors explore additional angles that more fully flesh out the topics at hand (think Gospel Topics Essays 2.0).

Let’s take a look at two examples:

The multiple accounts of the First Vision have a Gospel Topics essay dedicated to them as well as videos and articles at history.lds.org. As helpful as these may be, historian Steven C. Harper’s “Remembering the First Vision” adds color to an often black-and-white debate by reviewing the neuroscience of memory making. “To put it simply,” writes Harper, “memories are both accurate and inaccurate. They are both distorted reconstructions of the past and true perceptions of the past as seen from the present. It is not safe to take for granted that Joseph’s memory was perfectly accurate at the time of his experience and that it grew increasingly inaccurate in proportion to the passage of time. Suspending this assumption while analyzing the historical record in light of how memories form or consolidate can lead to new analysis and yield valuable insights” (pg. 10). With memory science as a companion, Harper then walks the reader through the 1832, 1835, and 1838-39 accounts. He concludes that the First Vision accounts “are products of Joseph Smith’s subjective, constructive process of remembering…Given what the study of memory has revealed, it seems unwise to read Joseph Smith’s accounts as static pictures of a verifiable past or as complete fabrications of an experience that did not happen. Rather, they are evidence of what Richard Bushman called “the rearrangement of memory,” or what might be quite accurately called, simply, remembering” (pg. 16).

Another example of what we could call an expansion of the Gospel Topics essay is W. Paul Reeve’s “Race, the Priesthood, and Temples.” Drawing on his Oxford-published book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, Reeve delves into the racial and cultural landscape from which the priesthood ban sprung. The complications surrounding the concept of “whiteness” in 19th-century and Mormonism’s identification with non-white races largely due to polygamy pushed Mormon leadership (read Brigham Young) to distance themselves from blacks in particular. If the Gospel Topics essay only strongly implied that the ban was man-made, then this is a rather explicit nail in the coffin. After quoting Bruce R. McConkie’s address in which he told the audience to “forget everything I have said, or what President Brigham Young said” on the subject of blacks and the priesthood due to limited “light and knowledge,” Reeve says, “It was a statement that suggested that prior teachings on race were devoid of the “light and knowledge” that revelation represents to Latter-day Saints” (pg. 170). He then compares the priesthood ban to the losing of the 116 pages or the opening of an anti-banking institution and invokes the “Samuel principle” taught by Ezra Taft Benson:

If you see some individuals in the Church doing things that disturb you, or you feel the Church is not doing things the way you think they could or should be done, the following principles might be helpful: God has to work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the “Samuel principle.” The children of Israel wanted a king like all the other nations. The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to the Lord about it. The Lord responded by saying, Samuel, “they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning. But they still insisted on their king. So God gave them a king and let them suffer. They learned the hard way. God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds he grants unto men according to their desires.

And with that, Reeve brings his essay to an end with a sense of charity toward leaders for past mistakes, but a conviction that they were indeed mistakes.

As mentioned above, the book covers a multitude of issues untouched by the Gospel Topics essays. Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee explore the counterfeit Kinderhook plates, making a convincing argument that Joseph Smith attempted to translate the plates as an amateur linguist, using “ordinary methods of traditional translation” (pg. 110). They demonstrate that the “‘portion’ of the Kinderhook plates that Joseph Smith translated on or before May 1, 1843” may be “no more than [a] single character from the top of the plates” (pg. 109), which corresponds with a character from Smith’s “Egyptian Alphabet.” David Bailey discusses the supposed conflict between science and religion, highlighting Mormonism’s rejection of biblical inerrancy with various quotes from Brigham Young and even (surprisingly) Joseph Fielding Smith. Bailey argues that both science and religion can be used to uncover truth, all while championing the scientific consensus of the age of the earth, evolution (“The evidence that evolution has occurred and continues to occur is overwhelming and universally accepted by the scientific community” – pg. 230), and the Big Bang. Ty Mansfield wades into more recent controversies over homosexuality and the Church and does so with grace and compassion. He expands the discussion beyond the narrow confines of the labels “gay” or “straight” and offers an engaging read on the complexities of human sexuality, relationships, and intimacy. Most important, he does so while dismantling the shame that often infects Mormon discourse about sex and chastity. The list goes on, from Neylan McBaine on women in the church to Brant Gardner on anachronisms in the Book of Mormon.

Some essays–while useful in introducing lay readers to particular topics–are a bit underwhelming in their overview. Kent Jackson’s essay on Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon does a decent job of explaining why this creates a problem for Mormons: Isaiah 40-55 are considered by scholars to be written after the exile, making it a tad difficult for pre-exilic prophets like Nephi to be quoting from it. However, readers may walk away from the essay assuming that the post-exilic dating of Deutero-Isaiah is more contested than it really is in mainstream biblical scholarship. While Jackson leaves open the possibility of other interpretations, the pro-Isaianic unity/pre-exilic dating slant left me unsatisfied. I expect future scholarship from the likes of David Bokovoy and Joseph Spencer (including what he calls his “big Isaiah book”) to carry the torch in a significantly different direction. Similarly, I expect future work to shine a bigger light on Freemasonry’s influence on Mormonism. Steven Harper’s essay on the subject provides some great background and makes some excellent points about it being a catalyst toward restoring a form of “true” Masonry. Yet, my reading still detected a desire to distance Mormonism and its temples from Masonry. For me, Masonry provides a fascinating influence and interpretive lens for early Mormon practice and doctrine. I would hope readers would want to learn more about Masonry to better understand parts of Mormonism, not see it as a funny bit a history that needs to be explained away.

Despite the above criticisms, it must be recognized how huge all of this truly is: a book published through a Church imprint is talking about Freemasonry, Deutero-Isaiah, etc. It should be considered a welcome addition to the growing list of Mormon pastoral works. Heavy readers of Mormon Studies may not find anything new or surprising in its pages, but they are not the book’s intended audience. It is meant as a primer; a springboard for those unacquainted with this type of information. It’s meant for the 18 or 19-year-old who just put in his/her papers. It’s meant as a tool for Family Home Evening. As Hales explains in the introduction, the purpose of the book is

to create a safe environment for exploration within a faithful framework. Even so, these discussions may generate thoughts and questions that might be surprising or even bothersome as existing beliefs are stretched. In fact, readers may grieve at the loss of perceptions held dear. Yet they can be consoled by the realization that their expanded understanding is based upon accurate teachings. The information in these essays can begin an exciting process of discovery for readers…When gospel questions arise, the antidote for uncertainty is more knowledge and more contemplation, which takes time–“even by study and also by faith.” It is the continual search for truth, both secular and spiritual, that will give us a reason for faith (pgs. xiii-xiv).

Given this mission, I think the book is a success.

41 comments for “‘A Reason For Faith’: A Review

  1. ji
    May 14, 2016 at 7:26 am

    …with a sense of charity toward leaders for past mistakes, but a conviction that they were indeed mistakes…

    I prefer a sense of charity toward leaders without a conviction or judgment that they were mistakes.

  2. May 14, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Thanks for the review, Walker. I have read some discussion of the Deutero-Isaiah chapter and concluded the volume was just another iteration of traditional conclusion-driven Mormon apologetics — and who needs that? Your review suggests the volume has more to offer.

    I just picked up a copy of Bart Ehrman’s new book Jesus Before the Gospels, which also uses memory scholarship to assess the validity of a gospel account (the Gospels rather than the First Vision). I look forward to comparing Harper’s summary of memory scholarship and its application to the First Vision accounts to Ehrman’s summary and application to the Gospels.

  3. May 14, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Too each their own. When it comes to labeling the priesthood ban as a mistake, I say it’s about time.

    And too clarify:

    What Reeve writes is, “While I don’t believe that God instigated the priesthood and temple restrictions, I do believe he let them happen, just as he let the children of Israel have a king, let Joseph Smith give Martin Harris the lost 116 pages, and let Joseph Smith open an “anti-banking institution”” (pg. 172).

  4. May 14, 2016 at 8:17 am

    Thanks for the review. I do come away with the feeling that ‘A Reason for Faith’ will make no friends among those who actually study and discuss the several issues, and may end up most popular with people who never read it but are comforted by its existence in a ‘somebody has the answers’ sense.

  5. Sturtevant
    May 14, 2016 at 9:33 am

    It seems like one needs a lot of mental gymnastics to rationalize mormonism. Regarding the first vision story, for example, after reading the accounts, one comes away confused as to what JS supposedly saw and what was supposedly said to him, by whomever. Sure, memories are not exact, but wouldn’t one expect the major details to stay the same?

  6. Ben S.
    May 14, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Lots of referrals from the Exmo reddit this morning…

    “Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between the canonical [1838] account, and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith’s own hand in 1832… Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer or historian would expect to find contradictions in competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event. And despite the contradictions, key elements abide.” Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, 171.

    Nice review. Good to see this come out from Deseret Book.

  7. May 14, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Only if you expect him to report all of the details each time. Obviously he would be sensitive to the popular reaction of his radical claim that he saw both the father and the son. The multiple accounts never bothered me.

  8. fbisti
    May 14, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    Very good and extensive essay! To paraphrase what Agrippa said unto Paul: “Almost thou persuadest me to forgive the prophets and apostles of my adulthood (defined as when I developed any critical thinking skills…1966 to the present).” These many new sources for understanding and explanation/rationales are laudable and highly useful in (finally) getting some quasi-official information on our leaders’ past incorrect teachings and mistakes.

    HOWEVER, with rare and very limited exceptions, the Q15 are not the ones now providing these explanations and revisions to what they, themselves, and their forbears have said…repeatedly. AND, they are not doing it from the pulpit at General Conference where the ignorant and satisfied majority of members that continue to create my “moments of frustration following an off-putting comment in Sunday School class” might hear it (even if it is in an assigned sacrament meeting talk that the simpleton local leaders have assigned someone to repeat later).

    To be more blunt, I still haven’t forgiven them for all the dissembling and faith-promoting hyperbole taught to me since my youth, largely driven by old man, culture-driven, closed mindedness.

    And, if, as Reeve writes, “[While] God [did not instigate] the priesthood and temple restrictions, …He let them happen,” then shame on God. It was ok for we Mormons to have this reinforcement for our white culture’s existing bigotry for 140 years!? Consider all the blacks that lived and died without the (supposed) blessing of the priesthood in their lives–just so we could learn that this racism wasn’t good for us (the Samuel Principle)? The same goes for all those years we were taught that nothing should limit the number of children in our families; and all the years we were taught that homosexuals were, by their very nature, evil…since changed to apply just to those that marry each other; and all the years…You can add other changes/improvements/corrections in doctrine and policy over the past nearly 200 years. We chosen people are slow learners I guess.

  9. Mike
    May 14, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    “Shame on God” for not making life less of a test and more like a walk through a museum. This journey through life is not an easy one, and the requirement to live by faith is a major contributor.

  10. BW
    May 14, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    If memory is deemed to be fragile, why privilege the last account JS have of the 1st vision, rather than the earlier ones? And if memory is so fragile, doesn’t that call into question the reliability of the Book of Mormon accounts? After all, Nephi began writing his account 30 – 40 years after the events took place. How can we trust any accounts being written at the end of people’s lives? How can we trust GA stories about their youth? Etc. You give up a lot when you question memory.

  11. Cameron N.
    May 14, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Seems like a great resource. The over-eagerness vis-a-vis the Big Bang, which doesn’t square with modern scripture or current teachings (Nelson), to say nothing of the dense layers of ever-learning nonsense that keep accumulating atop it, is too bad though.

  12. FarSide
    May 14, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    “Similarly, I expect future work to shine a bigger light on Freemasonry’s influence on Mormonism.”

    No need to wait for a future work. Simply read Micael Homer’s “Joseph’s Temples.” He does an excellent job of synthesizing the best scholarship on Masonry generally (spoiler alert: it has no ancient origins), while chronicling in great detail its influence on both the church and the evolution of the endowment ceremony. A fascinating work of scholarship.

  13. May 15, 2016 at 3:58 am

    Harper actually cites Homer’s book, which is currently on my shelf waiting to be read. From what I’ve read in reviews, Homer seems to be lacking an interpretive framework while nonetheless providing important information and details. You may feel differently about Homer’s book (I may as well, once I read it). I’ve seen a little of Joe and Cheryl’s work and I’m quite excited for it.

  14. FarSide
    May 15, 2016 at 7:55 am

    Walker, I think that is a fair assessment of Homer’s book. He doesn’t really attempt to divine Joseph’s motives or offer explanations for why he constructed the temple ceremonies the way he did. Rather, he just lays it all out there in a very objective, comprehensive matter-of-fact way.

    I, for one, grow weary of apologetic attempts to imbue our modern-day rituals and theological musings with ancient origins—to Mormonize the Old Testament. I find it much more compelling to accept that Joseph seized upon Freemasonry’s ritualization of the Bible’s creation story to devise a framework for the presentation of eternal covenants. Trying to manufacture parallels between the temple liturgies of Solomon’s time and our own serves little purpose and detracts from what is truly important: the covenants.

    That Joseph may have believed that his rituals were were of ancient origin I do not doubt. But he also believed he could interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics and death scrolls and that a Native American artifact he stumbled upon was once the property of an obscure figure from Book of Mormon times. Let’s accept the fact that he was, in addition to being a prophet, a visionary with a very active imagination whose evolving ideas about the Lord and the nature of the Godhead inevitably affected his recollection of his earliest spiritual experiences. When we do, it becomes a lot easier to sift the wheat from the chaff.

  15. Ben S.
    May 15, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    FarSide, a Masonic framing doesn’t necessarily invalidate claims of revelation or Old Testament/ancient Near Eastern parallels. Sure, some people think the whole thing from beginning to end is 5000 years old, and that’s clearly not the case. Let’s not react with the same kind of simplistic thinking in the other direction.

  16. FarSide
    May 15, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Ben S., I don’t believe there is anything in my comment that suggests I do not believe our temple rituals are the product, at least in part, of revelation. If I didn’t believe that they were, then I wouldn’t attach much significance or credibility to the associated temple covenants, which I obviously. And while there may be some ancient parallels, the one thing that virtually all historians agree upon is you won’t find those connections through Freemasonry. There is nothing ancient about that society, except its reliance on the Book of Genesis.

    Further, if we view those parallels as essential to the validation of our temple practices, then we may be making yet another truth claim that could ultimately turn out to be tenuous, while detracting from the important spiritual teachings they contain.

  17. Ben S.
    May 15, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Most people set up an either/or, FarSide, so forgive me from attributing that subtext to your comment, something like “It’s all revelation, all from the ancient world OR it’s Masonic, and Joseph “borrowed” it.”
    Of course, Masonry drew heavily from the Bible for its rituals, among other sources. Moreover, some of the elements thought to be “obviously” Masonic differ significantly and actually match Old Testament usage, although this isn’t apparent in English.
    I don’t have a problem with prophetic adaptation of environmental elements (I push it in my book, in fact), but I’ve seen too many people overreach with the significance of Masonry.

  18. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    It’s important to note as well that the key aspects of the endowment from a Mormon perspective aren’t masonic but have far more in common with Everyman play or the like. Likewise speculative masonry adopts a lot from the art of memory and the rediscovery of various late antiquity speculations like hermeticism, certain forms of religious neoplatonism, gnosticism and so forth.

    The big question is why Joseph picked the stuff he did to include. That’s harder to explain than finding parallels. Likewise while there are signs and token largely the same as masonry, of course that doesn’t mean they are the final ones received. There a theological argument that the endowment is the preliminary event much like the anointing is the preliminary one rather than the actual one. I’m not sure I’m comfortable getting into the details of that argument on a blog.

  19. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    BW, I think that’s largely for historical reasons. The version in History of the Church was the main one easily accessible so it was the one used for pedagogical reasons. I think if you look at more careful work the last 10 – 20 years they’re far more careful. Admittedly lay teaching resources tend to lag such stuff a bit, but that’s getting better.

  20. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    The major details seem the same to me. Could you be more specific what you mean?

  21. Nate
    May 16, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    “shame on God” allows us to judge the prophets more realistically in my opinion. Brigham Young was culturally racist and his racism was supported up by Book of Abraham scriptures revealed by Joseph Smith. He could not be BUT racist. Almighty God with His burning bushes and angels with drawn swords could have EASILY corrected BY’s honest mistake. But He didn’t.

    Blaming everything on human fallibility is unfair. Prophets are honestly doing their best, and cannot reasonably be expected to do any better in almost all these cases.

    If God allows His true church to fall into gross errors, we should ask God “why” instead of blaming innocent leaders.

  22. N. W. Clerk
    May 16, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Prince’s book-length biography of President McKay says that McKay didn’t just consider changing the priesthood policy but also prayed extensively about it and received the answers “Not yet” (p. 103) and “Leave the subject alone” (p. 104). Why do you suppose that Reeve left this out of his essay? Shouldn’t it be included among “the best LDS scholarship available”?

  23. Brad L
    May 16, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Nate, how do you that God is not a racist, or was at least temporarily racist? How do you know that the prophets were doing their best given their cultural circumstances? One has to ask if there weren’t better moral philosophies and trends to choose from at that time.

  24. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    Could you expand? Even with the big bang the multiverse is a pretty ubiquitous belief in physics. It’s entailed by many inflationary theories not to mention string theory. Admittedly there’s no evidence for it yet. The lack of evidence has meant that the multiverse like string theory has experienced a fair backlash the last decade or so.

  25. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 5:48 pm

    FarSide, the origins of masonry in the late 16th century is well known. To say that it lacks ancient origins is kind of misleading since once masonry got off the ground and among the intellectual class in the 17th century it clearly borrowed from lots of sources that were fairly new to most people by the end of the renaissance. Bruno’s fascination with the paganism of late antiquity, especially the neoplatonic forms as well as hermeticism is well known.

    Far from saying masonry had no ancient origins it would be more proper to say that the claimed origins of masonry (that Joseph Smith assumed) were all fictitious. However the origins in the 17th century largely come from the ancient world, albeit conveyed through a distorted prism or 17th and 18th century understanding.

  26. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    While I’m quite open to the “it was all racism and misunderstanding” I agree that if anything these things of McKay make that a problematic apologetic. The fact that many people (not just McKay – but arguably Kimball too) struggled with it trying to change it suggests more complexity.

  27. Nate
    May 16, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    “How do you know that the prophets were doing their best?”

    It’s honestly hard for me to imagine that prophets weren’t doing their best. What I’ve read and experienced of the character of the leaders of the church, is that these were deeply devout men who were VERY familiar with the experience of the Holy Ghost. On a weekly basis, these men dish out callings and make decisions carefully prayed and ratified by the Spirit. I think they feel the weight of their calling and take it very seriously.

    When we cry “prophetic fallibility,” it creates the wrong impression about these men. These are men who trust in God and wait on Him. In the absence of specific direction, they do things as they have been instructed in the scriptures and the historical LDS traditions. In the scriptures, God intervenes in dramatic ways to make sure mistakes are not made: talking donkeys, angels swooping away golden plates, road to Damascus visions, etc. You can’t blame the brethren of the 1970s for refusing to acknowledge the possibility of fallibility over something as serious as the priesthood ban. God does not work that way according to how He presented Himself in the scriptures, and how God has continually spoken to them in countless smaller revelations throughout their lives.

    Yet these huge blindspots exist. The existence of these blind spots is a metaphysical question, not a question of human error.

  28. Brad L
    May 16, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    “When we cry ‘prophetic fallibility,’ it creates the wrong impression about these men.”


    “Yet these huge blindspots exist”

    So the prophets are both infallible and fallible. Sounds like an extreme case of doublethink to me.

    As for priesthood ban, 1) was it racist? 2) is racism wrong? 3) was it a product of infallible prophets following God’s revelations? 4) was it a product of fallible prophets subject to cultural biases?

    a) yes, yes, yes, yes = 3 and 4 are mutually exclusive. Logically inconsistent.
    b) yes, yes, yes, no = God is racist and wrong
    c) yes, yes, no, yes = prophets were racist and wrong
    d) yes, no = we should probably be shouting you down (how else do we stamp out racism?)
    e) no, yes = logically inconsistent with textbook definition of racism

    You appear to fall in line with category a. You want to have your cake and eat it too. Category c is the healthiest view. Plus it is the most consistent with the Gospel Topics essay (although the essay should have come out more forthrightly about the doctrine being racist).

  29. Nate
    May 16, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    Brad, I would change your #4, a bit. You say “it was it a product of fallible prophets subject to cultural biases.”

    How about we say instead: “it was the product of prophets who did their best in the absence of clear direction or revelation on the subject.” That is the more charitable AND accurate assessment of the situation.

    It is that absence of direction from God which is startling and problematic, but it needs to be considered. God allows lots of terrible things to happen in the world. We just thought he wouldn’t allow them to happen to his prophets and their teachings. But apparently, that is not the case. Rather than continuing to blame all the messiness of church history on our leaders, we should put the blame where it rightfully belongs: God. He could SO EASILY have made things self evident, clear, consistent, fair, just, and obvious. But He didn’t. He didn’t do it that way at all.

  30. May 16, 2016 at 7:57 pm

    He doesn’t leave it out:

    “Even though President David O. McKay pushed for reform on racial matters, he was convinced that it would take a revelation to overturn the ban. Hugh B. Brown…believed otherwise. Brown reasoned that because there was no revelation that began the ban, no revelation was needed to end it. McKay’s position held sway, especially as McKay claimed he did not receive a divine mandate to move forward” (pg. 170).

    He cites Prince’s book along with several other sources.

  31. Brad L
    May 16, 2016 at 8:40 pm


    “Rather than continuing to blame all the messiness of church history on our leaders, we should put the blame where it rightfully belongs: God”

    So the leaders are less fallible than God? God is more to blame than the LDS church leaders? If God cannot be treated as the ultimate standard of truth and right, then what can? We should be more charitable to past LDS church leaders than God? This leads me to ask: who do you worship? The LDS church leaders or God?

  32. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Yes, but the issue isn’t just whether they intellectually thought it needed a revelation or not but Pres. McKay and others praying about it. That avoids some central apologetic issues.

  33. Nate
    May 17, 2016 at 3:37 am

    Brad: “God is more to blame than the LDS church leaders?”

    Now I think you are asking the right questions. It’s the same question Elder Packer rhetorically asked about whether homosexuality was irreversible: “Why would God do such a thing?” Elder Packer asked the question sarcastically, but it’s not really a sarcastic question. It’s THE question of the modern world. It is responsible for the rise of Humanism, where the worship of man has replaced worship of traditional theocratic gods.

    Mormons think they can avoid the question by simply blaming everything bad that happens on human fallibility. This not only distorts our views on the good faith of our prophets, it blinds us to many of the paradoxes of religion, paradoxes we are going to have to deal with sooner or later.

  34. FarSide
    May 17, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Ben S., is that the book you are currently working on or one that you previously published? I want to know so that I can get a copy.

    And I share your views regarding “prophetic adaptation of environmental elements.” It provides a useful explanation as to why we do things a lot differently than those who have gone before us.

  35. Clark Goble
    May 17, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Worrying about the influence of masonry on Mormon thought and the structure of our ordinances is somewhat silly when one stops to realize the consensus of the influence of Babylonian capture on the thought and structure of Jewish texts. Why is one acceptable while the other isn’t?

  36. FarSide
    May 17, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Very good point, Clark. The culture, beliefs and practices of every religion and society are inevitably influenced by the world that surrounds them. Everyone borrows from everyone else. And the Lord finds a way to work within that reality to augment the understanding of his children.

    One of the best books I have read in recent years about the influence of North American religious traditions on each other is Peter Manseau’s “One Nation, Under Gods.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Word caution: If you seek out this book, make sure you get the one written by Manseau. There are numerous books with the same or a similar title.)

  37. Ben S.
    May 17, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    FarSide, it’s currently under construction. My semester is over, and I’m writing away, trying to deliver a manuscript by the end of summer.

  38. Brad L
    May 17, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    Nate: “Mormons think they can avoid the question by simply blaming everything bad that happens on human fallibility. This not only distorts our views on the good faith of our prophets”

    From the Race and Priesthood Essay on lds.org:

    “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 unrighteous 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.”

    Here it is quite clearly suggested that the Church regards the past statements of Brigham Young and other prophets regarding blacks and the priesthood to have been wrong and racist. Think what you want to think, but your view that the ban is attributable to God’s revelations through the LDS prophets is out of line with the LDS church’s most recent statement on the issue.

  39. fbisti
    May 17, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Back to the issue of whom to “blame.” While I don’t disagree that our prophets and apostles, with perhaps (and I don’t know of any) a few exceptions have and continue to be working hard and doing the best they can within the limitations of their cultural baggage. However, I cannot believe that most did not know of many instances of half-truths, dissembling, rhetorical spin and sophistry, and other distortions of truth in their statements and correlated curriculum regarding history and doctrine. I realize that they justified (in good faith) this on the basis of the “greater good” (members can’t handle the messy truth?).

    But, in hind sight, not all these justifications can be seen as correct, hence they bear the culpability for some of my sense of betrayal.

  40. Phil
    May 25, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Maybe I stand alone in this, but i dont think the ban on the priesthood for blacks was a mistake. Whether Brigham Young was racist or not doesn’t change my opinion. Now I say this because I don’t know that our general authorities have blatanly said it was; I do know that many have made remarks regarding it, but otherwise I still think it’s a matter of perspective. My point of view stems from my limited knowledge of scriptures, and persons in them. From my knowledge, many inspired men and women have made errors (Saul and David stick out in my mind), as well as prophets (i.e. balaam, jonah, judas, etc.), but none of these went without some sort of punishment. Some made more grievous mistakes than others, but all had some form of rebuke for their actions and/or words that were against the Lord’s will (I realize these are mainly biblical, but the Book of Mormon has them too). If Brigham Young did make a mistake, why was he not rebuked or punished for it? Even Harris was. Why was David O. told not to remove it? If it’s in accordance with the “Samuel” principle, were the members the ones asking for the ban then? Who is God speaking about in the first section of D&C after he says their errors will be made known and they will be rebuked and chastened? Are we ascribing it in this case to Brigham or the members? Because i thought verse 30 showed a little more stability than to have the 2nd President and PROPHET of the church make a mistake for which he was neither chastised or rebuked; lead entire generations down an erroneous path. I’m not saying Brigham Young was infallible, I’ve already said I know prophets have made mistakes, some coming back from the mistakes and repenting, but I really don’t KNOW that it was a mistake and frankly i don’t think it was. It’s purpose, if it had one, hasn’t been revealed so I won’t pretend I know any better. This is simply my opinion. I am neither black nor white, but im black in the sense that im not white, alhthough I dont know that im white in the same sense. I have no feelings of being betrayed or let down. As far as im concerned, all the early prophets may have know things I can’t even imagine, and maybe also they have known things they themselves couldn’t comprehend. Regardless, I know they are true prophets because the fruits born from the teachings I HAVE followed convince me. To that I say amen.

  41. Jared McCoy
    June 15, 2016 at 10:36 am

    “That Joseph may have believed that his rituals were were of ancient origin I do not doubt. But he also believed he could interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics and death scrolls and that a Native American artifact he stumbled upon was once the property of an obscure figure from Book of Mormon times. Let’s accept the fact that he was, in addition to being a prophet, a visionary with a very active imagination whose evolving ideas about the Lord and the nature of the Godhead inevitably affected his recollection of his earliest spiritual experiences. When we do, it becomes a lot easier to sift the wheat from the chaff.”

    Possibly the best thing I have read on the internet, ever.

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