Some years ago as I was listening to a national talk radio program, a very wise black woman called in. I don’t recall what subject was being discussed. But she made a simple observation that I had never before considered, and have never since forgotten. She said, “I believe that race is a test.” The implication was that it is a test from God, though she didn’t say that. And, unfortunately, the host was not as taken with her profound observation as I was and let it pass without comment or inquiry. But I am grateful for the insight of this woman. I’m sure that God has many reasons why he chooses to fill the earth with different cultures, different languages, different religions, different ethnicities, different races. He knows that for some, the differences among men are a blessing and a delight, but for others, the source of endless and ruinous enmity. Examples of that enmity abound throughout the world and throughout history. Indeed race, among other things, is a test from God for all mankind, one of those means by which he “will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25).
But if race is a test, it is a multifaceted test. I believe it is not only wrong in the eyes of God to be a racist – that is to hold that one race of his children is inferior to another, but that it is also wrong in the eyes of God to hurl the charge of racism at another unjustly. For some in our day, it seems, the charge of racism rolls off the tongue very easily. It is almost like a weapon in their hands. And it is a very effective weapon because it is very difficult, even for the innocent, to defend oneself against that charge. Because the charge of racism is so damaging, and because there is hardly any defense against it, it is a charge that ought not be made wrongly.
We have often heard the story told by President George Albert Smith of a time when he was so ill he thought he had passed to the Other Side. In a vision, he saw his grandfather, George A. Smith, walking toward him. Said President Smith:
“When grandfather came within a few feet of me, he stopped. His stopping was an invitation for me to stop. Then…he looked at me very earnestly and said: ‘I would like to know what you have done with my name.’ Everything I had ever done passed before me as though it were a flying picture on a screen – everything I had done. Quickly this vivid retrospect came down to the very time I was standing there. My whole life passed before me. I smiled and looked at my grandfather and said: ‘I have never done anything with your name of which you need be ashamed'” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church – George Albert Smith, pg. xxvi).
With regard to the subject at hand, I think there is an important principle to be learned from this story. It is that the good name of all God’s children is a sacred matter. If President Smith’s grandfather would hold his grandson accountable for what he had done with his name, may we not liken that principle to ourselves and expect that we will be held accountable for any injury we have done to the good name of another? I think that is a reasonable conclusion.
Jonathan Decker, in Race in Mormon History, states that “as a church we have an unfortunate history of racism.” Brother Decker seems to believe that the priesthood restriction endured by men of African descent was born of racism, not by way of commandment from the Lord. I don’t agree with his premise that we as a church have a “history of racism.” A history of difficult doctrines and strong words? Yes. But I don’t believe that the priesthood restriction which ended in 1978 was born of racism any more than the difficult doctrine of plural marriage was born of “tyranny, self-indulgence, and lawlessness” (The Mormon Question, Sarah Barringer Gordon, pg. 47), as some have charged.
For example, Brother Decker quotes President Spencer W. Kimball:
“The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball).
Brother Decker assumes that the error President Kimball is referring to was made by early Church leaders, and so he states:
“Notice that President Kimball was open to the notion that the priesthood ban was a mistake. It truly may have been brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion.”
I am afraid Brother Decker, in rendering this opinion and all that it implies, was not careful in his reasoning. President Kimball was open to no such notion. How can we know that? We just need to read a little further. President Kimball went on to say – though Brother Decker did not include this in his essay:
“If the time comes, that he will do, I’m sure. These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.
Blacks and the priesthood: I am not sure there will be a change, although there could be. We are under the dictates of our Heavenly Father, and this is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it…” (Ibid)
Strong words from the prophet of God speaking of a very difficult doctrine from the Lord. Could President Kimball have been more clear as to the origin of the priesthood restriction? “It (was) the policy of the Lord who established it.” How could anyone misinterpret those words and argue that it may have been “brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion?”
By the words “release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation,” President Kimball does not suggest any revelatory error on the part of early Church leaders (which is what Brother Decker implies). Rather, he refers to those whose errors caused the Lord to impose the priesthood restriction in the first place. Laman and Lemuel made errors which affected their posterity, which caused Lehi to lament as he blessed his grandchildren:
“Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents” (2 Nephi 4:2).
The error of ancestors can bring a curse upon their posterity. Is there any doubt that generations of Lamanites were cursed as to the priesthood because of the error of their distant ancestors? And isn’t it clear from the words of Lehi that the time would come when the error would be forgiven, the ban released, and the deprivation ended?
But to argue that President Kimball’s words regarding “possible error” are pointed at “prejudice or incorrect opinion” by early Church leaders is, in my view, a serious error on the part of Brother Decker. If he included the rest of President Kimball’s words, his argument would have fallen apart and his unfair “brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion” conclusion would have been plainly manifest to his readers. This kind of selective presentation of facts is not a light matter when we are talking about the names of good men.
I appreciate the perspective of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on the matter of the priesthood restriction:
“One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. …
It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, PBS interview, March 4, 2006).
A very difficult doctrine was given to the Church by the Lord without explanation. In this, I see the dilemma experienced by Father Adam, who for a long time offered up sacrifices to the Lord. When an angel appeared to him and asked him why he offered sacrifices to the Lord, Adam responded, “I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). What Elder Holland is saying is that the leaders of the Church were in a similar situation with regard to the priesthood ban. Why was the priesthood withheld? They knew not, save the Lord commanded them. But some of them attempted to explain the doctrine “to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it” – the “folklore” – when they shouldn’t have.
The priesthood ban was lifted nine months after I joined the Church. I remember it well. It was and continues to be a very difficult subject because it is hurtful to brothers and sisters whom we love, because it is an obstacle to bringing many into communion with the Saints which we dearly desire, and because it is so easy to wrongly attribute that policy to ugly racism. But the sum total of the lives of these earlier leaders is that they were magnificently good men, righteous men; men whose lives were marked by fidelity to God and charity toward all men. If they made errors in attempting to explain things they really didn’t understand, don’t we make the same mistake when we attempt “to give shape to…to give context for, to given even history to” the motives behind their explanations when we really don’t understand what was in their hearts? I agree with Elder Holland. It would have been better had they not tried. But I don’t believe that the errors they made in attempting to explain the doctrine of the Lord should convict these good men of racism.
It troubles me that so many Latter-day Saints are so willing to point the boney finger of indignation at Church leaders and condemn them as racists and bigots. If you have access to volumes of statements by almost any given individual, could you not select a few statements and – ignoring the tenor, tone, and content of the vast majority of his stated convictions – portray that man in an unflattering light? I think you could. Read all of Brigham Young’s teachings and statements, and let them give context to the statements that seem hard to explain. The Lord has warned:
“For behold, the same that judgeth rashly shall be judged rashly again; for according to his works shall his wages be; therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord” (Mormon 8:19).
One of the purposes of the Lord in bringing to pass the restoration of all things was “that faith also might increase in the earth” (D&C 1:21). The priesthood ban has been a sore test of faith for many. But by great faith, hundreds of thousands of the children of God of African descent have learned for themselves that this is the work of God and have embraced the fullness of the gospel in spite of the obstacles. Today the children of African descent are blossoming as the rose all around the world. But, as with the posterity of Laman and Lemuel, the children of African descent endured a period of time in which some of the blessings of the gospel were withheld from them. Why? As President Hinckley and other Church leaders have said, “We don’t know why.”
Indeed, race is a test. So also is humility, forbearance, and the willingness to let God judge the hearts of our brothers. “An unfortunate history of racism” in the Church? I just don’t think that is a fair judgment. I say we refrain from charging those of “less enlightened eras” (Brother Decker’s words) with capitulation to the ugly orthodoxy of their time and give them a break based on the goodness of their lives. Strong words do not necessarily equal racism. I would also argue that we too have ugly and destructive orthodoxies in our own time – like the corrupt and soul-destroying welfare state – which Brigham Young and others recognized as wicked and rejected, but which many of us embrace because of the beams in our own eyes. In other words, we may not be as enlightened as we like to think. Perhaps a little more humility, a little more forbearance, and a little more willingness to let God be the judge of these things is in order.