In celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of President Kimball’s 1978 giving the Priesthood to all worthy males, the Utah press has published extensive articles on Blacks and the Church. Very interesting in their own right, for documenting the growth of the Church in Africa, among African Americans, and Blacks elsewhere, they carry tidbits that speak to other issues.
For example, buried in her article, Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote the following.
“Mormons explained the ban with the same scriptures other Christian groups used to defend practices such as slavery, Mauss wrote.
“The notion that “blacks are cursed” began with the biblical story of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Japheth and Ham. Descendants of Shem, the oldest, were believed to be the preferred race the Semites or Jews and Arabs. Japheth, the next son, was the father of “other white or yellow races.”
“In the ninth chapter of Genesis, the Bible says that because Ham saw his father’s naked body, he and his descendants were cursed to be the “servant of servants.”
“To this justification, Mormons added a unique twist: that blacks were somehow “less valiant” than other races in the spirit world before this life, so-called fence-sitters in the War in Heaven.
“Such theories continue to circulate among some Latter-day Saints and find support in quasi-official publications such as Mormon Doctrine and the Mortal Messiah series by Bruce R. McConkie, an influential LDS apostle who died in 1985. Attempts to get the church to repudiate these notions have been rebuffed.
‘This folklore is not part of and never was taught as doctrine by the church,’ LDS spokesman Mark Tuttle said this week, adding that the church has no policy against interracial marriage, nor does it teach that everyone in heaven will be white.”
From my perspective the issues of “descent from Cain” and lesser valiance deserve to go into the dustbin of LDS teaching. Nevertheless, I must disagree with LDS spokesman Mark Tuttle. When I was a teenager I was taught these ideas in Sunday School and Seminary as doctrines. Furthermore the packet of articles given to us as missionaries in the Bolivia La Paz Mission included writings by Alvin R. Dyer developing the, yes, doctrine of lineages, which sustained the above-repudiated teachings.
It both is satisfying to have them labeled folklore, and hence dismissible—in an agreement between Armand Mauss and Mark Tuttle—at the same time it is troublesome. The trouble comes in the words “never taught as doctrine”. Never is simply false. Besides that, however, the word raises questions about another word, “doctrine”.
In the way Tuttle uses it, it contrasts with “folklore”. But the boundaries and differences among the two are anything but clear. There is a cultural and institutional politics here that would be fascinating to comprehend.
In part, I would argue, it has to do with an effort at correlation and at concentration and codifying what might be official Church teachings, at the same time Tuttle’s statement is a slippery, political or pr-ish avoidance of an issue.
In either case, the slipperiness seems to infect the very notion of doctrine, .in the LDS case. I find that slipperiness itself fascinating and strangely functional. In a Church that has no credo and publishes no catechism, the idea of doctrine both gives apparent solidity and lots of wiggle room. I provides a core, and then keeps it beyond the grasp of any but those holding the ability to define what is and is not doctrine, in a statement like Tuttle’s, at any given time.
Part of the function of the term, I think, is to separate the Church into two groups, those who knew what the doctrine was and those who were wrong. It defines orthodoxy and heterodoxy, but on shifting ground.
It also makes the LDS usage of the word somewhat different than that of mainstream Christianity, where doctrine is more codified and there is an established practice for determining dogma. It seems to me the slipperiness shifts the emphasis of the word from text to a social-religious process of faith and engagement with the Spirit in the Mormon case.
I wonder what others think of the definition and redefinition of doctrine and of the apparent solidity and slipperiness of the term.