There have been some interesting discussions of Mormonism in the media lately. Commenters like Lawrence O’Donnell, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and others have made statements about the church in highly public places. What are we (or others) to make of these? In this post, I’ll try to address some of the questions that I’ve seen in various media contexts lately.
A few caveats upfront: I don’t claim either perfect information, or formal authority. I consider myself reasonably well-informed, but I’m not an expert on all these topics. And I’m an active member in my ward, but I’m not an official spokesperson or authority — I’m just a regular church member. Finally, I don’t claim that my answers are perfect. I’ve tried to come up with a potential question list, and answer it honestly. I may have missed relevant points; if I notice points I’ve missed, I’ll try to update this. Now, for some Q&A:
Do Mormons believe in Jesus?
Yes. The official name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. We talk about Jesus regularly, and take the Sacrament in remembrance of his Atonement. LDS scriptures and church leaders focus on the importance of Jesus in God’s plan.
Are there differences between LDS and traditional-Christian conceptions of Jesus?
Absolutely. For instance, LDS doctrine holds that God and Jesus are distinct beings, the Father and the Son. We are not trinitarians. In addition, Mormons believe that Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, and that He has communicated with latter day prophets including Joseph Smith.
Do Mormons teach that Jesus is Satan’s brother?
Not really. That’s not a doctrine I’ve ever heard discussed in Sunday school, for instance. However, that is a logical extension of LDS belief that God is our Father. So Jesus is a child of God the Father; I’m another child of God, and so are you. And so is Satan, who is also a (fallen) child of God.
It is correct that we are all God’s children. However, there are obvious differences between God’s children. I’m not personally like Jesus, and neither is Satan. And the logical link (Jesus as Satan’s brother) isn’t part of typical Mormon discussion — there’s no Sunday school lesson on “Jesus and Satan as brothers.” Because of that, the statement is not really recognizable as Mormon doctrine. It is a line typically used to attack the church.
Did Mormons allow Blacks to hold the priesthood, prior to 1978?
A few early Black members, like Elijah Abel, held the priesthood. Our records on them are pretty fragmentary. Scholars like Margaret Young and Darius Gray have done some good work publishing the stories of those members. However, a general policy of non-ordination of Blacks was put into place, at least by the mid-19th-century. This policy lasted until 1978.
Why was the ban put into place?
We really don’t know. Various people have speculated about possible reasons for the ban. I’ve floated many possible reasons myself, in a prior post here. At present, we can’t say for sure.
However, the ban was instituted at a time when the entire country was relatively segregated. It is an unfortunate part of church history; but it was very much in line with general views on race, nationwide. Mormons certainly have no monopoly on racism. (For some comparative analysis on religious views of race during the 19th century, see this post.)
Have church leaders made negative statements about Blacks in the past?
Yes. In the 19th century, Brigham Young and other leaders spoke very negatively about interracial marriage. In the 20th century, some church leaders, including Bruce R. McConkie, suggested that Blacks were denied the Priesthood because they had been less valiant in the pre-existence.
Were the prior ideas changed or repudiated?
Yes, generally. In 1978, church leaders received a revelation, since canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, extending priesthood availability to all worthy males of age.
At the same time, Elder McConkie made a public repudiation of his own prior comments, and apparently others’ statements as well. He said:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon 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.
Are prior negative statements about Blacks doctrinally binding or followed today?
Generally not. As I wrote on another blog, regarding the Brigham Young statements on interracial marriage:
The Brigham Young statement cited [by Lawrence O'Donnell] comes from the Journal of Discourses. The JD, as historians call it, is a 26-volume collection of 1,500 transcribed sermons given by dozens of different church leaders over a 30-year period. It’s kinda like the Congressional Record. If anyone said anything, it went into the JD. This is why it’s 26 volumes and thousands of pages.
There are huge problems with any suggestion that the JD has much salience today. First, the JD is not church doctrine, and has no binding weight as church doctrine. Church members read the scriptures regularly; many don’t even know that the JD exists.
Not only is it not doctrinal — the JD is also essentially unknown to most church members. I grew up as a church member, and my parents didn’t have a copy of the JD in their home. (Why would they? 26 volumes of old talks.) I don’t have one in my home now, and I’ve got well over a hundred church books on my shelves. I do keep thinking that I should get one, but that’s because I’ve been doing some historical reading, and it’s interesting as a an old historical relic. No one, except for a real history junkie, has a copy of the JD on their shelves.
The church publishes an official manual called the Teachings of Brigham Young. This is a book-sized official church publication, on every church member’s bookcase, and it’s one that church members are instructed to teach class out of, every Sunday, for a year. This is what Mormons today actually read, study, follow, out of Brigham Young’s teachings. And the line about race isn’t part of this collection. (Check for yourself — the entire manual is available online.)
I’ve been attending church regularly for over 30 years, and I have never once heard Brigham Young’s line about interracial marriage cited in a church setting. Ever.
And I personally know church members who are in interracial marriages — and no one gets killed or cast out. One member who I personally know, a Black man in an interracial marriage, was the bishop of a ward that I attended for four years.
. . .
Brigham Young said some problematic and racist statements. Yep. Those statements were unfortunately pretty consistent with elite white thinking at the time; those statements are essentially unknown to most Mormons today, because they’re not doctrinal and the only place anyone could find them is in a musty old collection that nobody reads; those statements set out certain rules (such as prohibiting interracial marriage) that are neither discussed, followed or enforced in the church today. Brigham Young’s statement is unfortunate; unsurprising, given the era; unread; unknown; and unenforced.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t still concerns. Elder McConkie’s repudiation, while welcome, was relatively non-specific. The doctrinal effects of a repudiation of prior statements made by different leaders is not really clear, though in general the repudiation is probably effective. The church has not formally apologized for past policy. And some church members today certainly own church-published material from pre-1978 that contains negative statements.
Is Mormon doctrine racist?
At the present time, Mormon doctrine is not officially racist. Members of all races can hold the Priesthood. I’ve personally known Black church leaders, including my old bishop. Another local leader (now a member of a stake presidency) is profiled at this website.
Are there racist Mormons, today?
Unfortunately, yes. There are racist Mormons, just like there are racists in most any large organization. I’ve heard some church members link present negative ideas on race to older statements made by church leaders, decades ago. Racism on an individual basis certainly exists in the church.
On the other hand, I think that racism in the church is declining. Church leaders have recently made several strong statements against racism. They make statements like, “Godâ€™s second commandment, love thy neighbor, clearly leaves no room for racism” and “I have learned to admire, respect, and love the good people from every race, culture, and nation that I have been privileged to visit. In my experience, no race or class seems superior to any other in spirituality and faithfulness.”
Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.
Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.
Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.
Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.
Is Mitt Romney a racist?
I’ve seen no evidence that he is, but I can’t say for sure one way or the other. Why don’t you try asking him?
Should I read Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven?
Sure. It’s an entertaining and light read, and if you’ve read other materials, I see no reason not to read Krakauer.
Should I read Krakauer first, or as my only source about Mormonism?
Probably not. For one thing, the book really isn’t about the mainstream LDS church. It’s intended to focus on one fundamentalist offshoot, not on regular Mormons. For another, the book has been criticized for errors and superficiality in its presentation of shared history. Krakauer is a good writer, but not a historian or an expert on Mormon history. I’d say that he presents a number of correct facts, but sometimes jumps too quickly to conclusions.
What should I read, then?
A good place to start generally is Mormonism, The Story of a New Religious Tradition, by non-Mormon scholar Jan Shipps. A generally well-regarded Mormon history written by Mormon scholars is Arrington and Bitton’s The Mormon Experience. If you’re interested in Mormon views on Jesus, and how they compare to other Christian views, you should check out How Wide the Divide?, by Blomberg and Robinson (a Mormon and an Evangelical in conversation). And if you’re interested in the race issues, Armand Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children is a good place to start.
Thanks for reading. I hope this helps address a few questions that have been in the media lately. Please feel free to add your own comments or thoughts. I’ll try to address them if I can, and perhaps my co-bloggers or other readers will weigh in as well.
This post hasn’t addressed all possible topics. I’ll try to follow up with more installments. Up next: Women, priesthood, polygamy, and more.