Armand Mauss, author of The Angel and the Beehive, All Abraham’s Children, Neither White nor Black, (with Lester Bush) and scores of important articles on many aspects of Mormonism, has graciously agreed to guest post his reflections on the anniversary of OD2.
I appreciated Greg Prince’s post (8 June) reflecting briefly on his association with Lester Bush and on the issue of LDS racial history for which Lester will always be remembered with admiration. Lester certainly did the hard and meticulous work that uncovered that history and revealed the utter lack of a revelatory basis for the long-standing Church restrictions on people of black African ancestry. My own association with the same issue has been more sociological than historical, although I always benefited enormously by Lester’s pioneering work. I have also shared with Lester in the subtle and not-so-subtle consequences of publicly airing issues that many conservative Church leaders (general and local) have wanted to bypass. But that is a subject for another day.
I think Lester would be treated differently today, for it seems to me that we are seeing a partial roll-back of the retrenchment mode so apparent in the leadership culture of the Church after about 1960. In today’s intellectual climate – so obviously shaped by the pervasive internet access to information and conversation – it is futile to try to restrain discourse among the Saints on virtually any topic, and those who are now leading the Church clearly have recognized that predicament and responded with a greater appreciation for its implications, at least in a public relations sense. Candid biographies, such as those by Prince, Kimball, and Bushman, are today treated with official equanimity – or even overt praise in certain official and semi-official quarters. The equally candid Newell-Avery biography of Emma Smith, which brought such censure upon its authors in the mid-1980s, would today have been treated with similar equanimity, as would Quinn’s long Dialogue article on post-Manifesto polygamy. The disclosures in these and similar works are now simply accepted as part of the LDS historical saga by knowledgeable Church leaders and members (even if with a little discomfort for some!).
Yet, we still seem to be trying sincerely to live down the racialist strain in our doctrinal history, along with certain other unhappy traditions. Furthermore, many concomitant issues raised by that history remain unresolved, even if the so-called “Negro Doctrine” itself is eventually forgotten :
(1) In the absence of a formal and public announcement of a divine revelation, how are the devout supposed to know the difference between doctrines originating from heaven and those originating in folklore? There is no clear revelatory origin for either the policy or the associated “doctrines” on the denial of the priesthood to people of black African origin. Yet some of the “doctrines” now repudiated were once promulgated not only in authoritative books and statements by apostles, but even in a 1949 letter signed by the entire First Presidency.
(2) Just from a public relations viewpoint, to say nothing of ethical integrity, what does the Church stand to lose or gain by forthrightly declaring that certain doctrines and policies once common in the Church were erroneous and are to be regretted? We know from the New Testament and from Patristic history that errors crept into the early Church, so why should the contemporary Church be considered totally insulated from human error?
(3) Is there room for scholarship by competent and well-meaning professionals, not employed or controlled by the Church, to analyze doctrinal, historical, and ecclesiological issues, even sensitive ones, without being considered enemies or heretics? Or is any such unsolicited work always to be considered “steadying the ark” or “counseling the Brethren,” even when it makes no demands on Church leaders? Bush, after all (like others of us), never criticized leaders or demanded change. He simply offered an historical analysis in detached, matter-of-fact terms.
I expect questions of these kinds to recur in the future of the Church, as in the past, but I look forward to eventual resolutions of them through enlightened leadership and divine inspiration.