A friend sent me a link to a fascinating (and depressing) exchange of letters in 1947 between Lowry Nelson (an LDS student doing research in Cuba) and the president of the Southern States LDS mission, and then later the First Presidency of the LDS church (at that time George Albert Smith; J. Reuben Clark, Jr,; and David O. McKay). In the exchange, Nelson states that he was, until that time, unaware of any “irrevocable church doctrine” regarding the denial of the priesthood to those of sub-Saharan African descent. The First Presidency firmly disabuses him of this notion, explaining that the restriction of priesthood blessings is a direct result of choices made in the premortal life. Further, they suggest specifically that the restriction came from the position of the spirits during the War in Heaven, during which one-third of the hosts of heaven followed Lucifer in rebelling against God; thus, they subtly support the common teaching that black Africans had been “fence sitters” in the War in Heaven, not actively fighting for God but passively watching the battle unfold.
What struck me most about the letters, however, is the First Presidency’s clear belief that Nelson had gone off the rails somehow:
Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now.
What Nelson had done was to show, correctly, that notions of race common in the United States were quite foreign to people in places such as Cuba, where interracial marriage was definitely not “repugnant” to “normal-minded people.” This was apparently alarming enough for them to enjoin him to let go of the philosophies of men and embrace truth:
We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.
As nauseating as that exchange is, it prompted me to think about LDS church members’ responsibility to sustain or follow their leaders. In this case, the leadership was quite simply wrong. Even the church now rejects what in 1947 was “doctrine,” meaning ironically that it supports Nelson, not the earlier prophets. The church’s current position is that no one knows why the restriction was implemented. In 2012, a BYU professor was roundly criticized for outlining the reasons for the restriction given by earlier church leaders, prompting an official response from the LDS church, which stated in part:
For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
I’m glad the church has rejected its racist past, but I do have a hard time with dismissing what prophets and apostles taught as revealed doctrine as mere speculation and opinion.
Since I read the letters, I’ve been thinking about this exchange as it illustrates perfectly what I see as a fundamental tension in Mormonism between following your own conscience and convictions, and obeying and sustaining church leaders.
All my life I have been taught that I have the right–maybe even the responsibility–to pray about counsel and instruction I receive from the leaders of the church. Such counsel is binding when the spirit confirms that it is true. A logical conclusion would be that, in the absence of such confirmation, the counsel would not be binding.
But I realize that, despite this teaching, in practice we are expected to obey by default. The underlying assumption seems to be that whatever we are instructed from our leaders will be confirmed by the spirit, so by default we are to obey automatically. Presumably we would go to the Lord for spiritual confirmation only when we had a personal disagreement with priesthood counsel.
I’m not talking about the discredited notion that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” but rather more subtle (and not so subtle) injunctions to obey without question. President Packer, for example, has taught that we must all face the same way, following our leaders; Elder Bednar has said that we must have “the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times”; and Elder Robert Oaks has taught, “For us, to ‘believe all things’ means to believe the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the words of the Latter-day prophets. It means to successfully erase our doubts and reservations.”
So, in my view, the default position is that the prophet and the leaders are always right, but even if we do feel the need to get spiritual confirmation, it’s not exactly a fool-proof process. First of all, the leaders giving the counsel or teaching believe they are in line with the spirit. In the First Presidency’s 1949 statements about the “Negro,” they clearly stated that they were proclaiming doctrine that had been revealed to prophets and written in scripture. Similarly, Brigham Young stated that it was “revealed” doctrine that Adam is God. Nowadays both of these ideas have been discredited, with the LDS church now saying no one knows the reason for the priesthood restrictions, and Bruce R. McConkie famously saying that anyone who “believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.” Do my spiritual confirmations or lack thereof trump those of my priesthood leaders? What if I don’t get a spiritual confirmation and others do? Who is right?
On one Mormon-themed message board, I tried to have a conversation about this fundamental tension between doing what you believe to be right and following your leaders, but it didn’t get very far. As far as I could tell, the consensus was that, if you have a moral or spiritual objection to priesthood counsel, you must already be out of tune with the spirit. That’s not a satisfactory answer, as it suggests that leaders are either always right or that we’ll be blessed for doing the wrong thing for the sake of obedience.
I’m not even sure I have a point here, but these thoughts have been going through my mind today.