The following was originally printed in the March/April 2014 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Speaking in general conference in October 1989, Mormon Apostle Boyd K. Packer made a distinction between the permanence of doctrine and programs and procedures that could be altered. He said,
“There will be changes made in the future as in the past. Whether the Brethren make changes or resist them depends entirely upon the instructions they receive through the channels of revelation which were established in the beginning. The doctrines will remain fixed, eternal; the organization, programs, and procedures will be altered as directed by Him whose church this is” (“Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1989, p.16).
In the context of Mormonism, the terms principles and doctrines are often used interchangeably, though principles are sometimes described as doctrines that require action. For example, in Mormonism the first principles of the gospel are faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands. These are doctrinal concepts that are not only to be believed, but acted upon.
Speaking of the permanence of both principles and doctrine in a 1993 conference message, Packer said, “Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed” (“For Time and All Eternity,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1993, p.22). Citing fourth LDS President Wilford Woodruff, Packer stated:
“‘Principles which have been revealed,’ President Wilford Woodruff said, ‘for the salvation and exaltation of the children of men… are principles you cannot annihilate. They are principles that no combination of men [or women] can destroy. They are principles that can never die. …They are beyond the reach of man to handle or to destroy. …It is not in the power of the whole world put together to destroy those principles. …Not one jot or tittle of these principles will ever be destroyed’” (“For Time and All Eternity,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1993, p.22. Ellipses and brackets in original).
Such a comment seems strange given the fact that some principles and doctrines have indeed been changed over the course of Mormon history. One in particular had to do with the notion that performance in the preexistence has a profound impact on an individual’s mortal status. That this was a doctrine of the church cannot be denied with any amount of consistency. Speaking in general conference in April 1915, Apostle Melvin J. Ballard (the grandfather of current Apostle M. Russell Ballard) stated,
“We know, from the doctrines that we have received, that men and women have existed before coming into this life, for countless ages, and that we have been developing certain qualities, and the reason we are separated into great classes, as the Negro race and the other races on the earth, is not a matter of caprice. God did not take three beautiful children yesterday morning, and say to one, You go to the Negro woman, and to another one, You go to that Chinese mother, and to another, You go down to that beautiful Christian home. In my opinion, there were classes and races, and separation into different groups and conditions before we came to this world, and all are getting what they are entitled to receive here” (Conference Reports, April 1915, p.62. Emphasis added).
In 1969 the LDS Church First Presidency issued a statement that made it abundantly clear how members of African heritage were prohibited from holding the priesthood because of their performance in their life prior to mortality. The statement began by stating how the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve were in agreement with the contents:
“In view of confusion that has arisen, it was decided at a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to restate the position of the Church with regard to the Negro both in society and in the Church.”
It then credited revelation as why
“Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the Church have taught that Negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were not yet to receive the priesthood.”
The 1969 statement then quoted “living prophet, President David O. McKay,” who said,
“The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God…. Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s pre-existent state.”
This statement offered nothing new. Mormon leaders were very consistent in teaching that while all humans are children of God, those whose performance in the preexistence was lacking would result in them being cursed. In other words, they would be prevented from holding the priesthood. Church members would readily know who was exempt from such priesthood authority by a God-given mark, “and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin” (Brigham Young, October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:290-291).
Because “one drop of Negro blood” was enough to contaminate and disqualify, interracial marriage was strongly discouraged.
“If I were to marry a Negro woman and have children by her, my children would all be cursed as to the priesthood. Do I want my children cursed as to the priesthood? If there is one drop of Negro blood in my children, as I read to you, they receive the curse. There isn’t any argument, therefore, as to inter-marriage with the Negro, is there?” (Apostle Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems as They Affect the Church,” August 27, 1954, p. 21).
Yet, after causing the church much embarrassment, it was decided to abandon this teaching in June 1978, with a revelation given to 12th President Spencer W. Kimball and other top leaders in the LDS Church. But how could this be? If doctrine never changes and the reasons for the ban were clearly understood as doctrine, wasn’t it fixed and eternal and exempt from change?
In an ingenious (though still dishonest) move, leaders of the church posted a new statement on lds.org called “Race and the Priesthood” on December 6, 2013. The statement is a blatant attempt to rewrite LDS history by relegating this doctrine, and the reasons behind it, to nothing but theory.
“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 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.”
The new 2013 statement on Race and Priesthood also credits (blames?) Brigham Young for the ban, not revelation from the Lord.
“In 1852, President Brigham Young announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple.”
It is interesting to note that the new statement purposely fails to include any of Joseph Smith’s questionable statements on race, but the fact that it admits that Young and succeeding leaders enforced the ban seems proof enough that leaders of the LDS Church are quite capable of confusing theory with doctrine.
Mormon scholar and historian Richard L. Bushman said this new explanation “drains the ban of revelatory significance,” pointing out that “Mormons believe that their leaders are in regular communication with God, so if you say Young could make a serious error, it brings into question all of the prophet’s inspiration” (Salt Lake Tribune, “Mormon church traces black priesthood ban to Brigham Young,” 12/10/2013). I would add that it also places into question the divine communication skills of all of the LDS leaders who enforced the ban after Young.
Another irony related to this statement is that Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth president of the LDS Church and the leader whose teachings Mormons are studying in 2014, openly championed the very teachings the modern LDS Church now wants to call theory.
To read more on the issue of blacks and the Mormon priesthood, click here.