Reeve on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 42: Continuing Revelation to Latter-day Prophets

Paul Reeve is an all around great fellow. He is the author of the award winning Making Space on the Western Frontier and the forthcoming must-read, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, which is to date the finest treatment of race and Mormonism.

“Purpose: To show class members that the Lord continues to guide the Church through revelation to latter-day prophets, seers, and revelators.”

It is ironic that in a lesson on continuing revelation, of the examples that the manual uses, only one was canonized and became binding upon the body of the Church, the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. It is beyond ironic, that the same manual devotes one short paragraph and two bullet points to that revelation. It offers no context and no explanation as to why a revelation extending the priesthood to blacks of African descent (remember that President David O. McKay allowed black Fijians, Filipino Negritos, Australian aborigines, and Egyptians to be ordained before 1978 (Prince and Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, ch. 4)) was needed in the first place. In comparison, the other examples it uses of continuing revelation are: “Church correlation” (with roughly two pages devoted to such sub-topics as “Importance of the family,” “Operation of Church auxiliaries,” “Preparation of Church publications” and “Home teaching” as evidence of correlation’s revelatory reach); “Publication of new Latter-day Saint editions of the scriptures,” (a topic that receives nine paragraphs of attention in the manual); and “Additional Quorums of the Seventy” (five paragraphs and three bullet points). It is difficult to imagine how a Gospel Doctrine teacher might approach this lesson on revelation, and possibly focus upon the one canonized revelation in the manual without any additional resources. If the teacher is of the “stick-to-approved-materials”-variety, then there really is not much to base a lesson on in the “authorized” manual. Thus we continue to float adrift in a sea of folk beliefs, curses, and racialized readings of the scriptures to our own detriment.

I do not suppose that if you are reading By Common Consent you are of the “stick to approved materials” variety, so let me offer at least a few suggestions. Edward Kimball’s article, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood” in BYU Studies explores his father’s experiences surrounding the 1978 revelation. It should be required reading for all Latter-day Saints. It really is wonderful and it was published in BYU Studies, so who can complain about that (other than Ute fans)? It is available for free download here.

If my experience in my ward is any indication, most Latter-day Saints are unaware that the new 2013 version of the scriptures has a new introductory heading for the 1978 revelation. It offers at least a bit of historical context and officially admits that black men were ordained to the priesthood in the early decades of the Church. That information alone is important. It begins the process of recovering the lives of our black pioneers and returning them to their rightful place in LDS history. It also helps us to reconsider the story of a race based priesthood and temple denial as a move from universal priesthood and temples to segregated priesthood and temples and then back again. The new introduction to OD 2 is found at LDS.org here. I realize that the new introduction suggests that “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” As a historian I disagree with that sentiment. Even still, I choose to interpret it as an indication that Church records offer no indication that a revelation began the practice.

Bruce R. McConkie’s speech at BYU just two months following the revelation is also a good source: (Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” The Second Annual Church Educational System Religious Educator’s Symposium, August 17-19, 1978, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; online here). I know that some scholars suggest that McConkie’s repudiation was limited to the notion that blacks would not receive the priesthood until the millennium. However, I read one particular sentence from his talk as far more expansive a repudiation than that: “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.” “Anybody,” and “ever” are unequivocal. He also asked his audience to “[f]orget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or . . . whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

In response to the Professor Randy Bott scandal at BYU last year, LDS Newsroom issued two statements, here and here which should be used to ensure that the Curse of Cain, fence sitters, neutrals, or less valiant in the war in heaven, explanations are not entertained, even for a moment when this lesson is taught.

In addition to those resources, there are some general overviews of the priesthood and temple bans that might be useful in preparing your lesson:

I did a piece, “The Wrong Side of White,” for the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago, which gives a concise overview of the priesthood and temple bans.

I also responded to accusations during the Romney campaign that Mormons were inherently racist, here, and here. And to the Professor Bott incident here.

There is a poignant personal essay from a black Latter-day Saint here, posted in response to Professor Bott.

In my experience in talking about the priesthood ban with fellow Latter-day Saints, the most difficult challenge is getting beyond ideas about the infallibility of prophets. Hopefully, President Uchtdorf’s talk from the Saturday morning session of conference will help:

And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.

While the official manual offers little to no help with historical context for the reasons behind the racial bans or even surrounding the revelation itself, there are resources available. Hopefully the suggestions offered here provide the basis for a more informed and stimulating discussion than the manual might suggest.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the post and great resource links! We have so much work left to do before we can recover from our institutional racism.

    When I visit http://www.lds.org/topics/restoration-of-the-gospel I see no mention or even a foot note linking to the info at http://www.lds.org/topics/priesthood-ordination-before-1978?lang=eng
    The same problem is true of http://www.lds.org/topics/priesthood?lang=eng.

    The Official Declaration 2 is the most recent canonized revelation and the biggest expansion of God’s sacred authority on the earth during my lifetime. Imagine the impact this revelation has had on hundreds of millions of black brothers and sisters around the world!

    If the OD2 page contains footnote links to Peter and the Day of Pentecost, isn’t OD2 important enough to at least foot note as part of priesthood and priesthood restoration?

  2. Excellent article! Well done! In addition to getting beyond prophetic infallibility we also need to move beyond the folklore that the Lord micromanages the church. The BYU studies article you linked to by Edward Kimball provides evidence that revelation must be saught, reached for, considerable work is involved and a prophet’s bias must be overcome. God does not simply tap the president of the church on the shoulder and suggest a 2 degree to the left change in course change.

  3. Thanks, Paul. Well done.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Great write-up, Paul. All of those links are excellent. I went back and reread a number of them. This will be extremely helpful. And a hearty concurrence on Kimball’s article.

  5. Rulon, I agree. I don’t care for the resource at LDS.org under “priesthood ordination before 1978.” It attempts to justify the priesthood ban, using the argument that only the Levites had the priesthood in OT times. The problem with that argument is that they used the priesthood to welcome the rest of the House of Israel into the rituals of the tabernacle,not to keep them out.
    Howard, I think the micromanage folklore is directly tied to the prophetic infallibility folklore. Like you, that is why I like the Kimball article in BYU Studies so well.
    Thanks WVS and J.

  6. Thanks for this! I was perusing the lesson yesterday and felt incensed that the 1978 revelation warranted a measly 4 sentences while the all-important “revelation” of Correlation took up the bulk of the lesson.

    Sigh.

  7. This is priceless, Paul. Thank you. Because I’m on tap to teach lesson 42 in our ward this Sunday I have been pondering and praying about how to promote faith and invite the class members to consider other realities besides the fruits of correlation being evidence of revelation. Small as it is, President Uchtdorf’s quote is a godsend. Your thoughtful essay gives me some good ideas.

  8. marginalizedmormon says:

    I had never heard or read anything about Professor Bott–

    but I appreciate this–

    all of it.

  9. In some respects, I think correlation is a more apt example of how revelation works where the rubber hits the road. That is, it goes in fits and starts and trial and error. Unlike the revelation ending the priesthood/temple lineage/race practice–which was a somewhat tangible event and represented a step forward from which there has been no retreat (ridding the Church of the vestiges of racialism is a different matter). Part of correlation was restricting Sacrament meeting prayers to men (holders of the Melchizedek preisthood) beginning in the late 1960s and ending about 10 years later. Or the ending of the MIA with no weekday meetings being required at all, but with “mutual” being reinstituted in something like the prior form of the MIA. Or the ending of auxiliary conferences–but with a women’s RS broadcast and a young women’s broadcast later being adopted na decade or two later. Or making the PEC the governing council of the ward (subject to the bishopric) mfor a few decades, but realigning things so that now the ward council is. All of these changes remind me of similar changes in the original restoration of the church, as seen in various versions of the Doctrine and Covenants and revisions. As well as the restructuring that has happened periodically from time to time since then. I think that we often view not just prophets as essentially infallible, but inspiration and revelation as infallible too. I don’t think they are. That is, for example, I think the reduction to 18 months for male missions was inspired and by revelation, and that the end was as well. I think it was and is God’s will that we learn from experience, and certainly there were things learned through that experiment. Perhaps the same was true of the handcart experiment–although I struggle with calling that an inspired one, given the catastrophes it led to.

  10. You forgot to [sic] that lousy “whomsoever”!

    Other than that, a terrific post. Thanks Paul.

  11. Great post, Paul. Another resource is D. Todd Christofferson’s April 2012 GC talk, “The Doctrine of Christ,” delivered in the near aftermath of the Bott debacle. Christofferson drew heavily on J. Reuben Clark’s ideas on how to determine when a church leader is speaking true doctrine or just getting it wrong. Of course, we can’t know for certain if Christofferson was responding to Bott, but at the very least, the talk raises the issue of church leaders being wrong, which opens up a lot of other possibilities in terms of educating the Saints on these issues.

  12. Thank you! I’ve been scratching my head over how to present this lesson, and am grateful for your suggestions.

  13. Excellent post, though I disagree on one point. “Universal” priesthood has never existed in the history of the LDS Church; nor does it exist today.

  14. I’m not sure what to do with correlation as “continuing revelation”. As I understand it, the problem was that church leaders wanted to reign in the diversity of teaching by the auxiliaries, and, as Prince and Wright argue, to make sure the priesthood quorums (from the local ones all the way up to the governing ones had something to do). Correlation of that teaching was the go-to approach, and failed several times. The few things I’ve seen on this (Prince and Wright’s chapter in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and “The Lee Revolution and the Rise of Correlation” (https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/045-18-22.pdf) don’t address the “revelation” here: if your problem is a diversity of teaching, the solution–something like correlation–seems pretty obvious. The bigger question is whether the effort to make correlation succeed where it had failed before by bringing all the auxiliaries under priesthood control was revealed. Was Harold B. Lee acting under revelation? Was he “called” (not in an LDS sense, but in a more common “it was his mission” sense) to do this? If so, why did Pres. McKay and the first presidency express reservations about his program, even as they okayed it? I have a hard time seeing where it’s obvious that this was rooted in revelation.

  15. That said, DavidH, I think you’re right: revelation comes as we seek answers to the messy questions that life (and church administration) throw at us. In that respect, you’re right to separate the revelation that ended the priesthood-temple ban from whatever revelation was behind correlation. I think it’s really important that we think of them differently; lumping them together in this lesson doesn’t help that, IMHO.

  16. I love Paul Reeve!

  17. Margaret, I’m telling your husband.
    The feeling is mutual, btw.
    I’m still telling your husband.

  18. RockiesGma says:

    I love BCC.

  19. Thanks, Paul.

    For anyone who is interested, I did a compilation on my blog back in April 2009 of the most direct quotes from modern apostles about the Priesthood ban and not perpetuating the former justifications for it.

    “Repudiating Racist Justifications Once and For All” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2009/04/repudiating-racist-justifications-once.html)

  20. Paul Reeve says:

    Ray, thanks for the link and the list of quotes. That is a helpful resource. Thanks for putting it together and sharing it here.

  21. One approach is to expand the scriptural base to include OD1. The introductory quotes from Wilford Woodruff put continuing revelation in a context of a dialog between God and Church leaders over pressing issues. One can then provide background to OD2 from Ed Kimball – how Spencer Kimball worked on the issue before the revelation came. From those two examples I think we can draw a lot of interesting discussion about how revelation works in our lives, and how personal revelation and prophetic revelation are of a piece.

  22. JWL, I like the approach in theory, but then we have to wrestle with how OD1 was received and enforced in practice. For those Mormons with no interest or stake in polygamy, it said “no more polygamy”. For the others, it was meaningless, and they viewed it as if it had been spoken with a significant wink. Polygamy didn’t end in the church until the early 19th century, and whatever OD1’s status as revelation was, it had almost nothing to do with it.

    I do think, however, that the concern with seeking revelation and–for Pres. Kimball at least–consensus among the 12 and the other GA’s may have been rooted in how fractious ending polygamy was for the church. It seems to me that Pres. Kimball really wanted to prevent the kind of exodus that occurred when they got serious about ending polygamy.

  23. Abu Casey —

    One of the problems with ignoring Church history is that things then emerge without context. I find the whole post-Manifesto polygamy issue to have been quite overblown. Not that it happened, but its significance.

    That it took some years (and a national scandal) until the Church began to get really strict about enforcing OD1 does not make it any less valid as a revelation. Look how long it took the Church to get serious about the Word of Wisdom. (For that matter, how long have God’s children been working on the Ten Commandments?) Also, at the time there was no exodus from the Church. While it is true that two apostles were released for opposing the “Second Manifesto” of 1906, the modern fundamentalist movement did not begin until the 1920s, and is based on a bogus claim of priesthood succession going back to John Taylor, not the 2 apostles released in 1906.

    I do not see that the fact that the Saints may have had a tougher time adjusting to OD1 than OD2 is anything to wrestle with. In the end OD1 prevailed. I also think Wilford Woodruff was just as concerned to get the unanimity required by DC 107:27 as Spencer Kimball. I also find the process of coming to OD1, as explained in the Woodruff selections in the current DC, as being enormously instructive about the process of receiving modern revelation, and the struggle to follow it as equally instructive. Indeed, the years it took for the Saints to fully comply with OD1 were fewer than how long it is taking many to divest the racist implications of the policy overthrown by OD2.

  24. JWL, I think you’re conflating things that don’t deserve the comparison you’re making. Did it take us a long time to take the word of wisdom seriously? It’s not clear to me that the text of the word of wisdom requires that it be taken “seriously” as commandment. You can frame the progression toward it’s current status that way, but I don’t think it’s a necessary reading. In the same way, compliance with OD1 vs. “the racist implications of the policy overthrown by OD2″ are two very different things. As I understand it, compliance with OD2 was very quick, despite the fact that many LDS hung onto the doctrines that justified it. Compliance with OD1 took much longer and we’re also still dealing with the doctrines that justified it. What I’ve read regarding OD1 was that none of the polygamists took it seriously–at best, the evidence about whether Pres. Woodruff did is inconclusive. As for the claim of priesthood succession, that was an issue for the fundamentalists, but it was deeply connected to the church’s final rejection of polygamy. I’ll be the first to say that I need to do more reading on this although I do think that it’s far too easy for us to point to either correlation or polygamy and say “see! revelation!” In both cases, things were much messier than the way we like to portray them.

  25. Here’s a debriefing: My southern California ward had a great discussion today in Gospel Doctrine class, including passages from the Ed Kimball article and the McConkie talk. The new heading to OD2 generated a fair number of “wow” comments–most didn’t seem to have known about it beforehand. Actually, I had to give step-by-step directions to OD2 in the first place. I have very fond memories of President Kimball, and his son’s article drove me to my knees in tears of gratitude that I get to be part of this work, led by living prophets. I second your motion to make it required reading. Thanks again!

  26. I would love to have more debriefings on how the lesson was received in various GD classes. I teach the youth, and we have a different curriculum.

  27. Paul Reeve says:

    sba, thanks for the report. It sounds like a great lesson. Even if the LDS Newsroom releases a statement about topic x, the vast majority of Saints remain unaware. Such is the case with the new intro to OD2. I’m glad you shared it with your ward.

  28. Paul Reeve says:

    Margaret, Ardis has a thread up at Keepapitchinin with reports on how the lesson went: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2013/11/17/in-our-ward-lesson-42-continuing-revelation-to-latter-day-prophets/ (I don’t know if I just violated some Bloggernacle rule by referring people to another blog thread, but that is the benefit of being a guest blogger–you get to break all the rules).

  29. bjonesbrown says:

    I went to gospel doctrine hopeful that we would talk about this subject and excited to discuss, particularly, the new intro to OD2. But alas, the teacher never even got to the subject. The entire class time was spent discussing the revelation of correlation. My teeth cracked.

  30. Paul Reeve says:

    bjonesbrown, Primary is the best thing that happened to my teeth.

  31. bjonesbrown says:

    These online discussions of gd save me. :) That is a cracked-tooth smiley face.

  32. David Elliott says:

    I taught this lesson in GD yesterday. So glad I had this material to work with. We read extensively from Ed Kimball’s article, punctuated with scripture references and several quotes that Ray had listed on his website. Lively discussion. Median classmember age is probably about 60. They picked right up on the doctrine vs. policy issue. In closing we read quotes first from Elder Holland about the wrongheadedness of justifications for the ban and then from President Uchtdorf’s conference address last month. Got a lot of positive feedback. This is a fairly conservative ward on the California Central Coast.

  33. Paul Reeve says:

    Thanks David for the report!

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