It’s incredibly easy these days to update online content. It’s also relatively easy to compare updated content to older content, especially with the help of that magical “Way Back Machine.”1 (Check out lds.org in its original “Under Construction” phase, and its first full iteration. Pretty nifty but it needs more animated gifs.) When I was told the “Race and the Priesthood” essay on the Church’s excellent Gospel Topics section of the website was updated it only took a few minutes to make a comparison using that website and Microsoft Word. But before I continue let me say if you haven’t read the essay already, I urge you to read the whole thing rather than focusing on the parts that were updated merely to verify if they comport with your political, religious, or cultural sensibilities. Even if you have already read it, you might read it in full again because we could all use a refresher. So go here first: lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood.
I’ll wait for you, continuing when you get back.
OK, looks like you’re back. Excellent.
First, you’ll notice that the updates are minimal. The original essay, published in 2014, was 2,837 words long (apx.) The new version, posted sometime in the past few days(?), is 2,912 words (apx.)—a mere 75 word increase. (And notice that beautiful updated color scheme by clicking on my links. Nice!) I found no deletions.
I’ll go over the changes one by one, but again, read the whole essay please.
The first expansion occurs at the end of the fifth paragraph, in bold:
During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. In a private Church council three years after Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young praised Q. Walker Lewis, a black man who had been ordained to the priesthood, saying, “We have one of the best Elders, an African.”
The essay does not say what unreliable evidence there is, but presumably this is in reference to much later claims by certain church members that black men had been denied the priesthood. Such claims are outlined in Paul Reeve’s excellent new book Religion of a Different Color.2 The sentence about Brigham’s positive words serve to enhance the reputation of the prophet, whose views on race are more complex than those who depict him as a comprehensive or static racist. The other historical information about some of Young’s racist statements and views remains (the very next sentence continues “In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood…”), but the picture seems rightfully complicated here.
The addition of footnote 4 cites the source for Brigham’s observation about Lewis: “Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, Mar. 26, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, spelling and punctuation modernized.” This also renumbers all the subsequent footnotes by one number.
The next addition appears in paragraph 7:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege. In 1790, the U.S. Congress limited citizenship to “free white person[s].”[
4 5] Over the next half century, issues of race divided the country—while slave labor was legal in the more agrarian South, it was eventually banned in the more urbanized North. Even so, racial discrimination was widespread in the North as well as the South, and many states implemented laws banning interracial marriage.[ 5 6] In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that blacks possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”[ 6 7] A generation after the Civil War (1861–65) led to the end of slavery in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional, a decision that legalized a host of public color barriers until the Court reversed itself in 1954.[ 7 8] Not until 1967 did the Court strike down laws forbidding interracial marriage.
Footnote 8 probably should’ve been moved to the end of the paragraph because it now includes citation to the 1967 court case “Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1.” This addition alerts readers to the fact that the 1954 ruling did not resolve all racial problems in America (of course, racial problems still exist today!). While the essay doesn’t go into more detail on this point, some Church leaders discouraged interracial marriage into the 1970s. At least one quote from President Spencer W. Kimball still appears in the Church’s Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3, which I’m told isn’t actually used anymore but which remains on LDS.org for some reason:
“We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question.“3
Odds are high that this quote is simply a vestigial remnant of an earlier era rather than a deliberate decision on the part of the Church to discourage interracial marriage in 2015. Consider the Church’s new Old Testament manual for seminary students. Its coverage of Genesis 9 explicitly counters the old “curse of Canaan” idea and uses language very similar to the Gospel Topics essay:
“Any theories suggested in the past that black skin is a curse or an indication of unworthiness in a premortal life; that mixed-race relationships are a sin; or that people of any race or ethnicity are inferior to anyone else are not true doctrine. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
Given the flexibility in updating the “Race and the Priesthood” essay, perhaps this manual could be updated in its digital edition, or perhaps it’s time to simply retire the manual’s digital edition. In fact, the next change in the Gospel Topics essay appears in a paragraph that states:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.[
Notice the addition of the word “unrighteous.” I imagine this change is in response to the belief that some black members of the Church express regarding the possibility that they were placed on earth at a given time in a given body as a “calling” rather than a “curse.”4
The other change is curious. Maybe you can clear up the mystery. Footnote 23 (formerly 22) cites Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God” (CES Religious Educator’s Symposium, Aug. 18, 1978),” and notes it is available at http:/speeches.byu.edu. This hyperlink used to point to https://web.archive.org/web/20140219205638/http:/speeches.byu.edu but now points to http:/speeches.byu.edu. The address itself is located at https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie_alike-unto-god-2. I tried the URL without the “-2” on the end and it redirects to a talk of the same name by Howard W. Hunter. No conspiracy here, almost certainly, just some weird url glitching or something. Perhaps the addresses at https://speeches.byu.edu/ are prone to change, so the essay points to the entire website so that the url won’t break in the near future.
FINAL TALLY: So that makes four textual additions (plus two more if you count the added footnote information which I prefer to collapse in with the in-text change total), plus one changed URL. There are 26 total changes, 22 being renumbered footnotes.
To me, these updates suggest the ongoing seriousness with which the Church is taking these Gospel Topics essays. By becoming more transparent with our history, better owning our past, we honor those who came before us even as the Restoration continues to reveal “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Article of Faith 1:9). I am thankful to all of the people who work on these essays and I’m grateful to the Church for making them available.
1. For instance, this post was originally titled “LDS.org recently updated the “Race and the Priesthood” gospel topic essay, and it’s still pretty great,” but I received a tip that the changes weren’t all that recent, so I edited the title to reflect it. And chances are my change escaped the Way Back Machine’s watchful eye. Excellent. Except the URL still includes the word “recently.” Oh well. I also changed some wording around the part that talks about the Aaronic Priesthood manual. I wasn’t sure if it was still being used. Now the post reflects the fact that it’s not.
2. W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). I interviewed the author along with historian Ardis Parshall for a special two-part episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast: Part 1, Part 2. FairMormon just posted the paper Reeve delivered at their conference this year as well.
3. Although this quote is offensive, it is softened only slightly by the fact that it is still-not-exactly-helpfully encouraging marriage between people with similar backgrounds and cultures. The manual’s follow-up questions all focus on the importance of marrying within the faith rather than within one’s race (not that racial categories are even so clear cut anyway). Also, attend well to President Kimball’s important role in facilitating the revealed lifting of the restriction which is briefly outlined in the Gospel Topics essay. At the same time, the quote does not identify interracial marriage as sinful, but rather that it is not recommended. Technically, the manual’s statement and the essay can still be understood to not contradict each other.
4. See Darius Gray’s 2014 Affirmation keynote speech on this theme. This is also discussed in the excellent film Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. Invocations of the premortal life to explain various present circumstances have a mixed record, given that the doctrine of premortality was formerly invoked to explain why blacks couldn’t receive the priesthood, an idea which the Gospel Topics essay disavows. For more on the mixed record of theologizing using the premortal life, see my post “Outsourcing theological problems to pre- and post-mortal life.”