Here’s a quote from Lesson 7, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” that caught my attention in Sunday School:
The great majority of those who become members of the Church are literal descendants of Abraham through Ephraim, son of Joseph. Those who are not literal descendants of Abraham and Israel must become such, and when they are baptized and confirmed they are grafted into the tree and are entitled to all the rights and privileges as heirs.
My problem with this quote is that I don’t believe lineage or being “a literal descendant of Abraham” matters one whit for one’s standing in the LDS Church or one’s place in heaven. It doesn’t really bother me that Joseph Fielding Smith published the above quote in The Improvement Era in 1923. It bothers me a little that it is still being used in LDS manuals published after 1978. It bothers me a little more that it’s still there in the manual we are using to teach the adult Sunday School class in 2010. Why am I bothered?
Scriptural Rejection of Lineage
The problem is not the concept of lineage per se. Any given human being either has Abraham (or any other ancient historical personnage) in their ancestral lineage or does not. You and every other living person likewise either are or are not a descendant of Hammurabi or Genghis Khan or Charlemagne. If we had access to the One True Genealogy of Humanity Program, we could just click on a couple of names (you, Abraham) and see if there’s a lineal relation or not. Rather, it is the assertion that one’s salvation is in some way determined by or dependent on one’s lineage that is the problem. What do the scriptures say?
And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham [as] our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. [Matt. 3:9.]
So John the Baptist didn’t think much of the idea that Abrahamic lineage mattered for one’s salvation. The idea, however, persisted. Peter struggled with it. Acts 11 recounts a thrice-repeated vision in which Peter is taught, “What God hath cleansed, that call thou not common” (Acts 11:9). Subsequent events taught Peter and his associates the full meaning of his vision and its accompanying declaration: “Then God hath also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). At that point, it was not whether one was a Jew (having Abraham as one’s ancestral father) or a Gentile that mattered for entry into the Church via baptism or for one’s salvation, it was “repentance unto life.” And anyone could repent, regardless of their ancestry. Paul, of course, repeatedly taught the same message (see Rom. 10:11-13; Eph. 3:27-28).
Likewise, the revelation now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as “Official Declaration — 2” announces a definitive change in the how the modern Church views race and lineage:
[E]very faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. … Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
This seems quite clear. It is not lineage but “established standards for worthiness” that determines one’s eligibility to receive the priesthood. Nor is a narrow interpretation of this revelation, say that it only concerns priesthood practices rather than broader doctrines of race and salvation, tenable. The declaration extends to “every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple.” In retrospect, it is hard to see how the concept of lineage attained such prominence in early LDS doctrine given the statements made in the New Testament. But it is even harder to see how such concepts continue to circulate after the canonization of the 1978 revelation.
Consulting Gospel Principles
When I first heard the Sunday School manual quote from Joseph Fielding Smith, I imagined it was an oversight that would likely be corrected in the next revision of the text. Perhaps, I thought, the newly revised Gospel Principles manual would gently repudiate or at least politely ignore this disfavored doctrine of lineage. Well, life is full of surprises. Here is from Chapter 42: “Converts to the Church are Israelites either by blood or adoption. They belong to the family of Abraham and Jacob” (p. 248; citations omitted). A more detailed treatment is provided in Chapter 15, at page 84.
The blood descendants of Abraham are not the only people whom God calls His covenant people. In speaking to Abraham, God said, “As many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed [lineage], and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father” (Abraham 2:10). Thus, two groups of people are included in the covenant made with Abraham: (1) Abraham’s righteous blood descendants and (2) those adopted into his lineage by accepting and living the gospel of Jesus Christ (see 2 Nephi 30:2).
Just so there is no confusion, I’ll note that the parenthetical insertion of the word “lineage” is not my insertion — it is in the text of manual at page 84, although not in the text of Abraham 2:10.
So even the newly revised and correlated Gospel Principles manual features prominent discussion of lineage. Now it is possible to hold the view that what the manual is really saying is that lineage does not matter, and discussion of the topic is there simply to provide historical background and color to a story that’s really about the unity of humankind and a universal message of salvation. Except that’s not what the manuals are saying.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the people who write the manuals still think lineage matters. Joseph Fielding Smith certainly thought so. He thought the “great majority” of those joining the LDS Church were “literal descendants of Abraham through Ephraim.” A few unlucky Gentiles of non-Abrahamic descent might by great good fortune find their way into the Church, but if you are born a Gentile, that’s a very unlikely outcome. If, in 2010, you disagree with Joseph Fielding Smith’s view, you don’t put that 1923 quote in the manual. You only put it in the manual if you (and then your editors) agree with it.
What makes the persistence of the discussion of lineage in the manuals even more puzzling is the complete absence of the concept of lineage from church governance and practice. It appears in only one place, the opening lines of the (private, personal, and non-public) patriarchal blessing that most Mormons receive as a teenager, but plays no role, absolutely none, after that. When being interviewed to receive the priesthood or to be extended a calling, no LDS leader asks what tribe you are. A woman is never requested to bring along her patriarchal blessing to an interview so the bishop can make sure she is a bona fide Ephraimite before calling her to be the Young Womens President. No stake president searches for men from Naphtali or Benjamin to bring tribal diversity to the stake high council.
That such scenarios strike most readers as almost comical simply underlines the fact that in the eyes of the practicing Church — the one run by bishops and stake presidents, as prescribed by the Handbook of Instructions rather than by correlated manuals — one’s lineage really doesn’t matter.
If you find this topic interesting, a lengthier and more scholarly discussion can be found in All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage by Armand Mauss (U. of Illinois Press, 2003), particularly Chapter 2, “Mormons and Israelite Lineage.” If the persistence in LDS manuals of now-disfavored lineage doctrines distresses you, All Abraham’s Children will reassure you that time is on your side. Here’s an overview of the book’s treatment of the topic, taken from the opening paragraph of that chapter (at page 17).
By the middle of the nineteenth century, official Mormon discourse had constructed a synthesis of Israelite and Anglo-Saxon identity, partly to establish a Mormon continuity with ancient Israel and partly in response to the calumny coming from the outside world. By the early twentieth century, official discourse had traced this special identity back to premortal times and attributed it to a divine plan. By the end of the century, however, the highest ranking church leaders had left such tribal teachings to languish in disuse, displacing them with the original universalist teachings of the apostle Paul.
Here is one such universalist statement, from a 1995 Conference talk by Elder James E. Faust. It seems like a nice thought to end on.
Today I would like to speak to the members of the Church worldwide. I hope we can all overcome any differences of culture, race, and language. Since the early days of the Church, the General Authorities and missionaries have traveled over much of the earth to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and to establish the Church with keys and authority in many lands. …
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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.