God Is No Respecter of Persons–How’s That Workin’ For Ya?

Most of us have now had lesson #30 in Gospel Doctrine: “God is No Respecter of Persons.” The young man I team-teach with taught it three weeks ago, and I watched, mostly in silence. MOSTLY. My students know what I do, so the question came up, directed to me: “Why was there a priesthood restriction?” I was actually shocked when a fifteen-year-old asked, “Was it because of Cain?” I was thinking the kids were learning other things, not the same garbage I learned at their age. It tells me we haven’t cleaned up adequately.

The manual instructs us to list “June 8, 1978” on the board as our attention-getting activity, and then to talk about revelation. Eventually, we get to the real point of the lesson–the vision given to Peter ending with his new understanding that God is no respecter of persons–and “what God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”

I do not believe in immediate inoculation, as some of my BCC friends do, but am available for small injections upon request. Therefore, I did not give a history of the issue in my Sunday school class. I did tell the fifteen-year-old that the Curse of Cain was among the many things which must NOT be taught. I said that the official Church position is “We don’t know.” Say anything else, I told my class, and you are speculating.

I have my own beliefs about the restriction, and anyone familiar with my work already knows them. But I respect the tender plants that my students are. When Bruce and I were in the MTC and the missionaries in my branch wanted to see Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, I said I’d be happy to show it to them–after their missions. And I’ve followed through on that. Many of those I knew in the MTC have now seen the documentary. When the issue came up on their missions (not all that much in Africa), I did send some information, but always within a faithful context, recognizing that these young men and women are called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not every footnote of LDS Church history. I sent only what would be useful to them, and always included President Hinckley’s talk from April 2006: “How can any man holding the Melchizedek priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for that priesthood but that another, who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?”

What I want to know is this: How did the lesson go in your SS class? Sadly, I’ve heard of some disasters. It seems that reminding folks of OD2 also recalls the priesthood restriction to their minds, and they want to offer their own explanations. If Lesson 30 went well in your ward, please report on what made it work.

If you offer some new speculation on why there was a restriction, I authorize Steve to delete your comment immediately. (I say this lovingly and with a smile, but don’t think I’m joking.)


  1. Binary Search Tree says:

    I’ve never understood the interpretation of “no respecter of persons” to mean “He treats everyone the same”. If that were true, we’d all live in the same circumstances. Any parent knows that the notion of treating everyone the same is absurd.

    The best explanation I’ve heard of that verse is that the Greek would should’ve been translated as “persona”: “God is no respecter of personas”, meaning “God ignores what you believe about yourself and what you want others to believe about you, and instead treats you as He knows you actually are.” It makes so much more sense that way.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Lesson 30 went great in my ward, but perhaps I’m a bit biased–I’m the teacher. I didn’t start with that attention activity. I wanted to get across how wrenching it was for the early church to give up strict compliance with Jewish law for all converts, especially circumcision, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. We don’t quite grasp what a major adjustment that was for the early day (Jewish) Saints–and how very necessary it was for the Church to succeed among the Gentiles.

    So I used an example from our own tradition. The one I picked was polygamy. And I admit to doing a little inoculating here. I explained that *of course* polygamy didn’t stop on a dime with the Manifesto in 1890; that was just the beginning of a process, which would take at least until the Second Manifesto by Joseph F. Smith in 1904. (I was curious whether anyone would be freaked out by this matter-of-fact acknowledgment of post-Manifesto polygamy, but no one was. That’s the trick; you can say whatever you want as long as you’re matter-of-fact about it and act as if of course everyone already knows that.)

    It was during this discussion that one sister mentioned the 1978 revelation and the lifting of the priesthood ban. (She has several adopted children who are black, so she has a commendable sensitivity to this subject.)

    For me, it was perfect. The ban issue was raised by a student as a corollary, not as the main point of the discussion. And as a result, no one tried to follow up with any justifications of the ban, as likely would have happened if the lesson began with that as an “attention activity.” Just like Peter’s revelation, it was presented as another modern example of something that needed to be done away with, and which was, by revelation.

  3. Sadly, I missed this lesson in our ward. I was subbing in a youth class, and they were a week ahead, when this lesson was taught in GD. (I actually thought at first I’d get to TEACH this lesson to the youth, something I was looking forward to, but not so…)

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 1, that’s an interesting reading, but I’m not sure it’s supported by the Greek. “Respecter of persons” represents a single word, prosOpolEptEs, which is a mash-up of the noun prosOpon (“face”) and the verb lambanO (“to take”). It is unattested anywhere else in Greek literature, except in quotations among the Fathers. (Over)literally, it means something like “to take the face,” and seems to be a Semitic idiom. “Face” stands for person, individual, and the verb here has the nuance of “to regard [one’s power, rank, external circumstances].” So God does not regard a person’s rank, etc.; IE he does not exhibit partiality among his children.

  5. Sadly, I wasn’t in our home ward when this lesson was taught: we were visiting family on the east coast of England. Their ward didn’t do any better than I pessimistically expected. Being a mixed-race woman raised in the church by my Black mother, my husband and mother-in-law knew I’d be the barometer of how sensitive the handling of the subject was, and accordingly shot amused and commiserating glances my way through the whole lesson. (Can I just say how condescending it sounds to use the term “the Blacks” when talking about people of African descent?) I kept my snarky comments on logical fallacies and opinion-as-doctrine to annoyed whispers, though, not wanting to stir the pot *too* much in a ward where my only credentials were “oh she’s married to Brother ___’s grandson.”

    Kevin, I applaud you for not making OD2 the attention-getting exercise of the lesson. I teach the Beehives in my ward and have chucked out most of the lesson-opening stories and activities from our manual for what I assume is the same reason: it keeps people from getting off-track on questions of hear-say and doctrinal speculation that aren’t profitable to anyone, and will likely offend and/or mislead at least one person present.

  6. My experience was similar to that of Kevin. I did not use the example from the manual as I thought it did not necessarily fit in to the same point that Paul was trying to make in his sermon. I also had a brother mention 1978 and he did so in a tasteful manner to make the point of continuing change in the church through revelation. I agreed with him and briefly referred to the McConkie quote of “forget everything that I have said … that is contrary to the present revelation” as an example of how church leaders can change deeply held views because of continuing revelation and how that is a great blessing to an ever evolving church – similar to what we find in Acts and the harmony expressed by the disciples after the change that moved away from strict adherence to the law of Moses.

    Fortunately this was a side-note to the study of Paul’s words and did not distract from the main goals of the lesson. Sorry to hear that it did not go so well in your ward.

  7. Chris Gordon says:

    We visited a branch while on vacation and it went okay. Brother Nut turned out to actually be a little bit that (suffering from some mild PTSD from his time in the service) and had one or two things to say that were, shall we say dated and uninformed. I could tell that no one in the branch gave him much heed and so I chose not to. Am I a wuss? :)

  8. In my ward the people who talked about their memories of the day were very positive and appreciative of the change. No mention was made at all of any of the folklore, which was nice.

    That being said, a couple of people brought up the more-valiant-in-the-premortal-life idea in the hallway between classes, which was disappointing. I disagreed, and we had a mostly amicable discussion about it before parting. I wish I had had Elder Holland’s quote handy, though.

    At any rate, for the most part it was okay. I have a pretty good ward.

  9. I used the recommended attention activity (comparison to 1978) when I taught that lesson eight years ago, naively imagining that we’d quickly move to a discussion of the New Testament. Instead, thanks to one member of the class in particular, we had to discuss Cain, curses, and skin color. I was one of the younger members of the ward; he was twenty years my senior, at least, a high councilman, a former bishop. It was horrible. I wouldn’t use that attention-getter again.

  10. It went awesomely in my ward (Go St. Johns, Portland!). The sister who gave the lesson was extremely well-informed and articulate. There was one older brother who huffily protested that it was God’s plan to curse Africans, but the teacher did an amazing job of maneuvering his comments into an illustration of incorrect principles applied in earlier times. It was great to watch.

    I also feel like it’s my duty to point out Ed Kimball’s BYU Studies piece on his father and the Revelation, which is, quite simply, an absolute must-read for anyone discussing the history. It was a much less mysterious process than some suppose: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B7P1x3NXLrqkMjE5NzEwZDAtNjZkOS00YmM0LTk0NjYtZDcyYTQ2ZDQ2ZTIz&hl=en&authkey=CLm4-fMN&pli=1

    (It also gives me hope that women will receive the ability to preside in Priesthood offices outside the Temple someday soon, but of course that’s a tangential can o’ worms.)

  11. The teacher used the date in our ward. When he asked about it I looked around to see who would answer as we have a member of the Genesis Group presidency in our ward and plenty of people that I would except to be able to answer the question. No hands were raised. After an awkward silence I raised mine.

    We had a brief discussion of OD 1 and OD 2. I pointed out that both are very strange scriptures as neither is a revelation, but are basically press releases. OD 1 is a very odd text, OD 2 is an improvement, but still a strange scripture.

    After that we moved on. It seemed clear to me that pointing out the weirdness of our Official Declarations was not a real discussion starter in my ward.

  12. Margaret, Lesson 30 in our ward was so generic and unprepared that neither the date nor any of the issues came up at all.

    However, last week when I taught Lesson 31, I zeroed in on Acts 17:21: “(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)” After we briefly discussed preoccupation with hearing “new things” I said that I had been impressed all week that something specific our ward needed was to discuss our preoccupation with perpetuating “old things” — most of us have been members forever, we’re in the heart of downtown Salt Lake saturated with all things Mormon, and most of us have books we’ve inherited from parents and grandparents with outdated or “never were” doctrines. I listed about a dozen speculative non-doctrines I had heard from ward members, even heard taught in Sunday School, in the past two years, beginning with “Adam didn’t have a belly button” and working my way up to “Black men and women are descendants of the murderer Cain.”

    When one class member said it didn’t matter whether those things were true or not, I agreed for the most part, but said that some of those old ideas were responsible for a great deal of pain — which ones, I asked? and immediately a class member identified the two having to do with blacks and the priesthood restriction.

    There was an unusual feeling in the room — people were a little uncomfortable yet eager to discuss. I said I wouldn’t debate any of these points, but that if in two weeks anybody was still disturbed by my calling them non-doctrinal, and *if they had done their research in the meantime,* we would talk about them the next time it was my turn to teach.

    I didn’t stick to that when a young couple stopped me after class with their scriptures open, pointing to Moses 7:22. We talked about the origin of the notions about race and Cain and priesthood. The young man was still disturbed, and I’m sure he’s thinking about it and will want to talk about it again in a couple of weeks. The young woman was perfectly fine with it all — I got the feeling they had talked about this between them before. He wasn’t arguing for anything you or I wouldn’t agree with; he was simply genuinely puzzled and wanted to understand. More to follow in a couple of weeks, I’m sure.

  13. It went well in our Seattle area ward. The teacher used the 1978 activity not first., but early in our lesson. I was expecting one or two of the folks in our ward to raise the folklore flag, but nothing transpired that at all indicated an issue. I was loaded with quotes and references, but the distasteful stuff never came up, other than one person who said an older relative had a really hard time with the 1978 revelation.

    Perhaps it has helped that we have had a few folks born in Africa in our ward, including one current member, and a beloved bishop of another ward in our stake, and our area just has a more ethnically diverse population to begin with. Our previous home was in Kaysville, Utah, where being something other than blond, blue eyed and of Scandinavian ancestry made you a minority, I only qualified for my Danish ancestors, but failed the hair and eye color tests, along with issues about my political party affiliation. It’s not all better, but it is getting better. I have no doubts that the folklore is still remembered, just not openly discussed any more.

  14. Margaret and Ardis

    – For what it’s worth, your both on my write in ballot for the next time they call a new General Relief Society Presidency.

  15. I had an ah-ha moment when we read the account of Cornelius, a gentile who received personal revelation that was eventually validated by the prophet. It gave me hope….

  16. On the day that lesson was taught in our ward, after SS, I walked over to the ward I used to live in. In the class I was just in, they used the example you pointed out. It went typically. In the other ward, the teacher used a totally different scenario. He used the scenario of insiders versus outsiders (I live in a relatively small town.). It was great. I really miss going to his classes.

    In any case, I think it was the foibles of men that prevented black people from having the priesthood. From what I’ve studied, Joseph Smith had no problem whatsoever ordaining black men, and even offering them temple rites. Brigham Young was human and, I suppose, a product of his generation. Gladly, that was finally reversed as far as the priesthood and temple rites goes. God doesn’t force things on us. I’m glad the people and leaders got to a point where they could accept this.

  17. My very German, very blunt Mother-in-Law was bold enough (or crazy enough) to speak up and say that it was her belief that the restriction happened because Whites in the Church were to bigoted to deal with African-Americans as equals. No one was willing to touch that comment and the teacher just went on.

  18. We have a fairly diverse class as far a ss class go, but the lesson largely went without any issues. I recall thinking how glad I was nobody opened their mouths to stir the pot that Sunday though. This is much tougher subject to get discussion going when specific individuals might be targeted; the origin of man offends far less people than subjects surrounding the priesthood.

    In order to teach a lesson that does not fraction members, our approach focused on other applications of this principle (“God is no respector of persons”). Subjects like interpersonal relationships were used to encourage introspection, and the idea of “equality”—a whole subject in itself— was never breached.

  19. Edit: the typical marriage/beating equality subject came up, but nothing more than that.

  20. Awesome lesson, using the suggested attention activity. I live in an older ward in *Provo*, and was sure the “curse of Cain” would come up. But it did not. The opposite happened: the older-right-wing guy raised his hand and said he had been learning about the process Spencer W. Kimball went through before announcing the revelation, and described it a little. The discussion moved to how the 1978 revelation went against the very public opinions of many with high positions in the church, but how they were humble enough to admit they were wrong…. I was blown away. This in (elderly) Happy Valley? I have been unjustifiably judgmental. Maybe it’s ok, after all, to raise children in the shadow of BYU.

  21. It went not so well in our ward. There is some debate as to whether or not I (a member of the bishopric) actually swore at one of my fellow classmates. Luckily he and I are good friends. I followed up the next week by taking ten minutes at the end of sacrament meeting to set everyone very, very straight on the whole pre-existence folklore thing. Afterwards I was talking to the other family in the ward with adopted African-American children and came to find that they still hadn’t ever heard that the Curse of Cain explanation is no longer accepted and was always shaky. I am frequently amazed and humbled at the things people will endure because of the witnesses they have received of the truthfulness of the core Gospel principles.

  22. #12 “but that if in two weeks anybody was still disturbed by my calling them non-doctrinal, and *if they had done their research in the meantime,* we would talk about them the next time it was my turn to teach..”

    I love that Ardis! I was released from GD teacher to be in a Stake SS Presidency. It killed me not to teach this lesson. I did teach this topic at the end of the D&C year and it was my most spiritual experience as a teacher (for me). I did make one comment Sunday that “sometimes in the church we feel free to quote early McConkie thoughts, even when he himself told us to forget everything he said on the topic prior to the revelation.”

    Maybe I can share what made that D&C lesson work over a year ago: I had found quotes from the Apostles present when the revelation came to President Kimball, and I had seven brethren come up to read those individual quotes: Quotes from Hinckley, McConkie, Haight, Kimball, etc. I deliberately choose who would read these…Powerful.

  23. When OD2 was brought up a few years ago (CH/D&C) by the GD teacher, no one made a peep either way. To break the silence I raised my hand and declared that, “it was the happiest day in my father’s life – in the church”. I’ve regretted that comment ever since. Not that it wasn’t true – I just regret being part of the gloss. Like – ” We’re one big happy family now – let’s move on.” My point is – I wish we would talk about it more. People bringing up false and hurtful explanations can actually be a good thing – so they can be shot dead once and for all.

    I also don’t like the “we don’t know” line. Many of the leaders we sustain have been around for a while and could add a great wealth of knowledge to the answer. The silence does more harm than good.

  24. “Many of the leaders we sustain have been around for a while and could add a great wealth of knowledge to the answer.”

    No, this is another misconception. This is a topic that I have spent a great deal of time and effort studying, as Margaret can attest to, and there is no convenient, easy explanation. The more you dig up, the more confounding and problematic it is. Assuming General Authorities know more than us on matters of esoterics isnt fair. They are people, like us, and arent granted any special access to or perceptions of nettlesome historical and doctrinal issues simply by virtue of their positions.

  25. #20 – We had something similar happen in our class last week. It was nice! I’ve found Sunday School discussions are a great time to practice charity when people make comments that conflict with my ideas or are just blatantly wrong, and that the way we respond to comments that rob the spirit during class is even more important in bringing the spirit back than how accurate our words are.

  26. I chose to focus on the process of revelation and to use OD2 as a modern day example of the same process that Peter used. I covered OD2 in the D&C SS lesson so i didn’t think it appropriate to make a NT lesson about taking the Gospel to all the world into an OD2 lesson. But I did point out that in some ways the admonition to take the Gospel to all the world was not fully realized until 1978.

  27. They are people, like us, and arent granted any special access to or perceptions of nettlesome historical and doctrinal issues simply by virtue of their positions.

    ED – You’re taking it too far. I’m not granting them esoteric knowledge on this matter (though that may not be much of a stretch for a seer). I’m merely pointing out the very unique vantage of sitting in council, day after day, with men who have been leading the church for a greater part of the 20th Century. If that doesn’t give them some degree of “special access”, I don’t know what does.

  28. Extreme Doritos,

    A member of the ward I grew up in mentioned in HPG several weeks ago that Pres. Kimball had called him in several times to discuss the priesthood restriction. When my dad told me that I mentioned that it would be wonderful if this good brother could write down his recollections of the conversations. When my dad passed this suggestion along the response was, “The brethren have asked me not to discuss the topic.”

  29. As an update, the member I mentioned in #28 is mentioned briefly in the article linked to in #10.

  30. CJ,

    You are implying that sitting in council gives them special access. Special access to what? People, like us. Which gets them what? You are setting them up for something that simply doesnt exist, and saying they ought to show us this thing so as to avoid all of the harm it causes. That isnt fair.


    And that proves…? What of this member of the ward you grew up in? Was he some preeminent Church History scholar who had plumbed the depths of the subject in question and he actually knows more about it than any of the rest of us? If there were something worthy of discussion, I am sure someone would have said something useful by now. That fact is its a mess, with no easy, comfortable resolution that will please anyone or shed light on anything in any way. Asking someone to not discuss something that is largely pointless is not the same as what CJ is suggesting. CJ is insinuating they know things that will alleviate ongoing harm. That is simply unfair.

  31. I didn’t use the 1978 revelation as an example. I kept solely within the ancient world and brought in historical context instead. The 1978 revelation would distract from the studying and understanding of Peter’s vision, IMHO. No one brought up the 1978 revelation.

  32. Let me paint a scenario for you ED. President Monson is called to the 12 in ’63. For the next decade and a half, serves side by side with the likes of McKay, JF Smith, Brown, Bensen, Lee, Kimball – you know – men who have been involved in the direction of the church for much of the 20th centry. This issue never comes up in council meetings – no one ever states an opinion on the matter or a unique perspective. No one (like McKay) relays what a past Pres. of the Church may have said on the matter. One day in 1978 – poof – the revleation comes and the world changes forever, but “we don’t know” why it was there in the first place. Do you buy that scenario? I don’t. Let me be clear, I’m accusing anyone of a cover up or dishonesty. I just think its like we’re a family who went through a tramatic event that is hard to explain – but if we never talk about it – it will go away. I disagree.

    I’m not asking for a neat answer that settles everything and resolves every concern (I don’t believe that exists). I would just like some wise perspective from men who, by definition of their calling, have had special access to the decision making that shaped this church.

    Now, I am stepping away – I don’t want to threadjack Margaret’s perfectly good post any longer.

  33. That should read “I’m NOT accusing anyone…” :(

  34. Extreme Doritos,

    I’m not claiming that it _proves_ anything, simply that some of those that have additional insight into the decision making process won’t talk about it. This makes your assertions about whatever they might or might not have to add to the discussions less authoritative than you suggest.

    Personally I think the whole restriction was a huge mistake made due to BY’s background, but that is probably off topic.

  35. Thank you for bringing this topic up and encouraging discussion. While the lesson itself was relatively unremarkable in my own ward (went just fine, no drama), it did bring me to many hours of off-and-an-again contemplation about the manner in which we accept or reject certain types of information in the Church.

    I suppose my own experience with this stems back to my own early teenage years (shortly after the ’78 Declaration), when my own seemingly-pious grandmother (temple worker of many years, and VERY active and practicing member) expressed to us that she didn’t know exactly what to make of the revelation, since to her understanding, those of African descent had been (and I quote her), “fence-sitters in the pre-existance” (neither having followed Satan, nor Christ), and were “spiritually a completely separate race.” To this day, I have NO idea exactly where she would have found justification to adopt this bizarre belief; it is SURELY not in scripture, and I have found no substantive evidence of it in ‘official writings’ within the Church. I was dismayed then, and am disappointed today in her generation (and previous ones) that couldn’t seem to get past this unsubstantiated ‘rumor-turned-doctrine’ that so many believed at the time.

    I do think however, that my understanding of her beliefs in this matter does help me to understand, even if just in some small way, the dynamic at play in the Church hierarchy at the time. To me, these matters always seem to boil down to the old axiom that if we repeat something often enough, we will come to believe it. That truism can only be amplified when we introduce the dynamic of Mormonism to the fray of ideas – that is to say, a dynamic in which we are expected to accept as the word of God those polices that fall from the lips of Apostles and modern prophets (after we pray about it, of course).

    These sorts of issues have led me, over time, to adopt a line of self-inquisition that I gladly evangelize to my friends and family. Namely: there are only three types of information in this church, and when we are unclear about which type is which, we are far more prone to make bad decisions or errors in judgement that have the potential to cause ourselves or others a great deal of pain. These three types of information are:

    1. Doctrine
    2. Policy
    3. Tradition

    Simply stated, if we are always cautious to correctly identify the proper source of the information and assign it to one of these areas (along with it’s inherent ‘weight’ and obligations), then we are far less likely to create problems and misunderstandings. I think this is where the ‘Brethren’ got off-base many MANY years ago, and why the ’78 Proclamation was such a necessary course correction and healing, even if painful to some.

    For the record, I think the Church will see more of these ‘corrections’ in years to come. I hope I am as open and accepting to these upcoming changes to POLICY and TRADITION as I imagine myself to be.

  36. In our SS class, the 1978 revelation was mentioned but not discussed heavily. Instead, we talked at length about having one earring per ear as a latter-day example of the type of revelation Peter received. You win some; you lose some.

  37. Okay, Becca, that is totally bizarre.

  38. #24, Extreme Doritos, thumbs up for this: “Assuming General Authorities know more than us on matters of esoterics isnt fair. They are people, like us, and arent granted any special access to or perceptions of nettlesome historical and doctrinal issues simply by virtue of their positions.”

  39. @10, Jeremy, thanks for that link. Seriously, thank you.

    @37, Toni, yes, it was bizarre.

  40. My pleasure, Becca. :)

  41. My question is not on OD1 or OD2 it is on the experts between the those two. Did the church ever vote on these experts before they were added to the printed scriptures?

  42. should be excerpts…

  43. Why would explanatory material like those excerpts (or footnotes, or chapter headings, or any other helpful apparatus) be voted on by the church? It’s clear from the paragraph printed below each OD what was sustained “as authoritative and binding;” i.e., what is scriptural and what, like those lines about the sustainings, is merely helpful explanatory material.

  44. Is new doctrine being introduced in these Excerpts?

    “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. …”

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