Last Sunday was a personal milestone for me as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. It was the first time I’ve ever taught a class on Blacks and the Priesthood. Come to think of it, it may be the first time I’ve ever been present in a class on Blacks and the Priesthood, whether as teacher or student (though maybe I’ve just forgotten). As someone who has ridden the priesthood ban hobby horse over the years, and who has suffered lots of angst over it, I’ve long wanted to teach this topic, but never before had the right opportunity. Sunday was the first time I felt I had such an opportunity, so I took it.
The assigned chapter from the D&C manual was “Lesson 42: Continuing Revelation to Latter-day Prophets.” When Steve Evans pointed this out to me at Molly Bennion’s post-Sunstone NW party the night before, I started brainstorming various ideas for the lesson, with the help of a few other Sunstone folks, assuming I’d talk about the “nature” of revelation or something. But not until the next morning, when I actually opened the manual, did I realize how mislead I’d been by the lesson title. For this was really the Correlation–KJV Bible–Additional Quorums of the 70–OD-2 lesson, all rolled into one week. One can’t possibly cover all these juicy topics in one lesson (indeed, I found myself wondering if the manual-writers didn’t intentionally put all this material in one chapter for precisely this reason), so I just chose OD-2. I started off by inviting a couple people to read the full declaration. Then we dived right in.
Let’s face it, the priesthood ban is an uncomfortable historical episode for a lot people. For many more than I suspect most of us realize. I sometimes forget that just because I like to run my mouth on a topic, this doesn’t mean the less gabby among us aren’t thinking, pondering, stewing over, and getting frustrated over the same topic. I made a decision at the outset not to talk around the hard questions, but to confront them squarely, as I wanted to prevent the discussion from going off on a tangent or collapsing into euphemisms and feel-good cliches. We tackled these questions:
— What exactly was the policy that OD-2 overturned?
— Who precisely was subject to the priesthood restriction and who wasn’t?
— How did implementation of the policy work in practice?
— When and from whom did it originate?
— What is the Church’s current explanation as to why there was a priesthood restriction?
— What are the explanations that church leaders and members used to give?
— What have LDS leaders had to say about these earlier explanations in recent years?
Many class members shared explanations and rationalizations for the priesthood ban that they had either heard or embraced over the years. This was fascinating, as a lot of different theories were offered up — ranging from the Levitical precedent, to 19th Century American society-not-being-ready-for-a-too-progressive-Mormonism, to white LDS members-not-being-ready-for-the-change-any-earlier, etc. All these theories were familiar to me, but it was interesting to hear so many of them. Some classmembers offered explanations of which they themselves were clearly skeptical. Others offered theories that they evidently embraced (though no one was particularly dogmatic in presenting his or her own preferred explanation). I decided to let people air their answers without giving in to my desire (sometimes strongly felt, I assure you) to combat certain theories too harshly. I politely raised problems with some of them, but I didn’t drop the hatchet. I decided that it was more important to dispense with Curse of Cain rationalizations and fence-sitting pre-existence narratives, than it was to go the extra mile of showing up other popular theories as deficient or bankrupt. In retrospect, I think this was the right choice. The fact that so many class members offered so many competing, often incompatible, theories hopefully served to undermine the credibility of all the theories generally. (Perhaps a personal smackdown from Aaron Brown might have done this more effectively, but it might have made me appear too strident, and I felt like I had put enough on everybody’s plate as it was).
Some of the explanations offered by the class presumed that God was very much behind the priesthood ban, even if His reasons are obscure, while others clearly favored explanations that absolved God of any responsibility for the policy at all. I pointed out this division between the various theories, and I decided to tackle this head-on. Anticipating that the refusal to acknowledge God’s hand in the policy would be more controversial than dispensing with any particular explanation for God’s involvement in the policy, I broke out Stephen Harper’s “Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants,” specifically this paragraph from the OD-2 chapter:
Still, unanswered questions do remain. When was the link between the books of Moses and Abraham forged? How are those passages to be interpreted? Is there a genealogical link between the ancient Canaanites and modern Africans, or is such a link an unfounded assumption and a relatively recent creation by slavery proponents that was uncritically accepted? Were blacks denied the priesthood because of an inherited curse or because Latter-day Saints, conditioned by cultural prejudices, misinterpreted the Pearl of Great Price, or for some other reason?
Why draw attention to this passage? After all, Harper’s is just a rhetorical question, left unanswered, and hardly a ringing endorsement of the God-ain’t-the-author view. But, I told the class, if Deseret Book is now willing to publish works that directly question the divine provenance of the ban (see above), and that don’t answer the question in the negative, what does that tell you about where we are and what direction the Church is heading in with respect to this subject? I felt this was a very effective tack, maybe more so than quoting something more eloquent and elaborate from, say, Armand Mauss would have been. (Unfortunate as this conclusion is, for I’d much prefer to quote Mauss).
As the hour drew to a close, the conversation turned to the nature of prophets, how to trust prophets if they are partly products of their time (capable of giving us erroneous instruction), the role of personal spiritual confirmation in evaluating truth claims (even when they come from prophets), and the limitations of this approach as well. This was an inevitable turn in the conversation, and for some, a potentially troubling one. I refused to give everyone easy answers where there are none.
In conclusion, I bore testimony that if LDS history tells us anything, it is that continuing revelation doesn’t always provide neat little building blocks on top of firm foundations. Sometimes, it blasts away part of the foundation, or at least what we’ve thought of as the foundation. There are major paradigm shifts in LDS thought. There are revolutionary moments in our religious understanding. We’ve had them before, and we may well have them again. Just as we can look back at Mormons in the 1950s who were certain Blacks would never receive the priesthood (at least not until the Millenium), and Mormons in the 1880s who just knew that God would never instruct his people to abandon polygamy, and see that our forebearers had limited understanding, Mormons 20 or 50 or 100 years from now may look back at us quaint, turn-of-the-century folk quite similarly. Then again, maybe 2009 really is a pinnacle year in the history of the Restoration — a year where every social norm, practice, and doctrinal understanding has been finally set in stone, never to be altered. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
How well did the lesson go? Personally, I thought it was the best lesson I’ve ever given. Perhaps I only feel this way because I finally gave a lesson I’ve long wanted to give, but that’s still my sense of it. It terms of audience reaction, it’s harder to say how well it went. My sense is that lots of people really liked the discussion and found it meaningful. I had several people speak to me about it in superlative terms afterwards, but I often get that, or something close to it. It’s the folks that don’t give you feedback that you wonder about. Hard to say what they thought.