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.
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.