After the Church statements of Feb. 29, 2012 (“We don’t know why, how or when” [the restriction came into being], LDS respondents tended to back off the Curse of Cain or the old “Fence-sitter” rationales. Nonetheless, some clung fiercely to one defense: That God has always restricted the priesthood, as evidenced by the fact that only the Levites were priests after the Exodus, and that the extension of priesthood was according to some divine timetable. Therefore, we don’t now why, how, or when–but we know God did it, because that’s his pattern.
I suspect this will be the most controversial of my posts on the “exceptions” we make for ourselves as we defend our past. I personally find no room for them in the recent Church statements. There is a clear distancing from earlier proclamations (already discussed).
We are a dispensational religion, believing that we are now living “in the fullness of times.” Dispensationalism includes timetables, but using timetables as a justification for something otherwise unjustifiable sounds curiously like Karma—a doctrine you should probably not preach over the pulpit unless you’d like to get better acquainted with your bishop. The problem isn’t with the timetable concept per se, but with its application to the priesthood restriction, suggesting that God would use the restriction as His schedule manager, assuring that no one of African lineage would receive the greatest gifts of the gospel until 1978.
Priesthood rights changed through biblical history. Initially, it was Patriarchal, then given according to primogeniture. In Moses’ time, the Levites, who responded in the affirmative when asked “Who’s On The Lord’s Side?” were selected as the priestly tribe among the Israelites, the tribe who would not have an inheritance in property “because the Lord the God of Israel himself is their inheritance” (Deuteronomy 18:2). They were to serve the other tribes and to collect tithes.
Then came the central events of this world’s history: the birth, ministry, and atonement of Jesus Christ. He chose and ordained disciples from various tribes, their qualifications being righteousness and a willingness to follow Him. Yes, Jesus went first to the Israelites, but ultimately commanded his disciples to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”( Mark 16:15). There were exceptions, but I would suggest that they were based on concern for the missionaries’ lives. I suspect it’s likely that Enoch, in an earlier dispensation, did not preach to the Canaanites because they were a war-like nation who slew and “utterly destroyed whole peoples” (Moses 7:7)—not because of their complexions.
Peter’s revelation after Christ’s ascension—that he was to partake of non-kosher food (i.e. preach to gentiles), with the follow-up instruction that he should not call “common” any whom “God hath cleansed” opened the doors to “all the world.”
We claim to be the restored Church of Jesus Christ, not of Moses. For those who find it repugnant to think that God would have allowed a possible error to stand for over 150 years, that he would not have micro-managed the situation, consider not only the context of the times, but that the Mormon Church was isolated in the mountain west until the mid-twentieth century. There was just a handful of Blacks in the area, and segregation was the accepted norm everywhere. The priesthood restriction was such a non-issue that even young apostle David O. McKay was unaware of it until he made a world-wide trip in 1925. Generally, questions don’t get asked until they appear on the radar. A neglected back room might go without any attention until it houses mating mice, which soon infiltrate the whole house, even when guests are eating a beautifully planned feast. Likewise, the priesthood restriction did not garner much notice until the nation as a whole started paying attention to the racial divide and all the consequences begun by the tolerance of slavery.
Consider, too, that African slaves were scattered throughout the world, in just about every country. Given generations of slave rape and intermarriage, African features were not always discernable. With the restriction in place, missionaries’ enforcement of the policy often involved investigators’ family photos. The dialogue would be something like this:
Missionary: What a lovely family you have. I’d sure like to see some of your family photos.
Investigator: Oh yes—I have pictures right here.
Missionary: Ah. This dark woman—is she your maid?
Investigator: No. That’s my dear grandmother.
Missionary: Oh, I see. Well, I need to tell you a little bit more about the blessings you’ll receive after your baptism—and some you won’t be able to receive yet.
That was the signal to give the “special” discussion.
For President David O. McKay, the problem became more and more troubling. He began lifting the restriction for many of African ancestry in places other than the U.S.or Africa. Fijiians, Philippino Negritos, and many who had African ancestry but no visible African features became “exceptions” and were ordained to the priesthood. The 19th and 20th Century restriction was nothing like the singular assignment given to the Levites to act as priests to the other Israelite tribes.
I like what Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, said recently after he came to believe that the analogy between Levitical priesthood and the modern restriction was a false one. I got his permission to quote his response to someone who took issue with his stance:
I just finished a long email exchange with someone who believed it showed that God gave his priesthood out in ever widening circles of responsibility. That simply doesn’t fly as an explanation. It highlights people being left out. Note the following problems:
1) During the first 15 years of church organization, blacks were ordained to the priesthood. The posted temple rules talked about admitting black Africans. Baptisms for the dead were performed by black African-Americans. How does the Levite explanation explain that? It doesn’t.
2) While the Levites held the priesthood, do we have any scriptures that claim the other tribes of Israel were “cursed” and couldn’t have the priesthood? If we don’t, the situations are not parallel.
3) While the lesser priesthood was given by linage, Joseph Smith specifically changed the JST bible to say that the Melchizedek priesthood was without father or mother, or in other words it had no lineage. So how do we exclude based on lineage?
4) The Levite explanation has the priesthood first going to the Levites, then to everyone else except blacks, then finally to the blacks. Imagine you are picking teams for a school sporting event. You first pick the first string, then you pick everyone else, but you leave one potential player out. Your explanation to that last player is that this is how it is done–we leave someone out. How do you think that last player will feel? So if you say, “The reason you are left out is because thousands of years ago when they used to play this sport, they used to only pick members of one family to play. Now we are so lucky that we include almost everyone. You just happen to be the one–the only one–who gets left out. Never mind the fact that last year we took all of the players. We changed our mind on this.”
5) Does the Levite model have anything at all to do with blacks not having the priesthood? Answer: We have absolutely no idea. We are using it as an ad-hoc explanation, when we don’t know if they are related at all. So this puts us in the position of promoting a belief without any scriptural or prophetic basis. We are making it up. Making up doctrine is never a good idea.
I agree with Scott. And I believe that as we study our actual history, retaining faith that God can give us beauty for ashes and can weave our tragedies into holy mantles—which we desire ALL to receive–we will become a better people. I believe in the union of faith and scholarship; the illumination of belief by “the best books”; education magnified by Heavenly light. I believe in all of us as a people, and in our ability to move into a promised land together—not as idealogues, but as brothers and sisters.