Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Authority (Part 11: Priesthood Bans and Temple Worship)
In the tenth post in this series, I looked at the idea of priestesses and how this inadequately understood term might fit in with our modern concept of priesthood. In this post, I will look at some inconsistencies in the relationship between priesthood and temple worship and offer my personal perspective on the idea of ordaining women to the priesthood.
The 1978 Revelation and Temple Service
Much has been written about the priesthood ban and the 1978 revelation that ended it, but my wife, through her studies, became aware of a question that has not received much attention. Why did the priesthood ban prevent baptized black men and women (and boys and girls) from entering the temple to perform baptisms for the dead? Apparently, the only consistent requirements for serving as a proxy in this ordinance are having been baptized and living a righteous life. Prior to 1978, young nonblack women who did not hold the priesthood were allowed to serve as proxies in being baptized for the dead. If priesthood was not required for their participation in these ordinances, why, then, were faithful blacks not permitted to enter the temple and be baptized for their deceased ancestors?1
We might also ask why, to this day, young men who are not ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood are not permitted to serve as proxies in these vicarious baptisms. It makes sense that to serve as proxy, a person would need to be baptized. But what does being given the Aaronic Priesthood have to do with being baptized for someone else? There is no apparent connection, especially since young women can be baptized vicariously without the priesthood. In this case, there is actually a reverse inequality. For example, a young man, a baptized member whose non-LDS father has forbidden him from being ordained to the priesthood, is not permitted by the Church to go to the temple and serve as proxy in baptisms for the dead, while his sister is permitted to do so. This policy makes little sense. Restricting participation to those age twelve and above, when baptism itself can occur at age eight, is also difficult to understand.
Taking this a step further, since faithful nonblack women (who did not hold the priesthood) were permitted to receive their endowments prior to 1978, why were faithful black men and women not permitted to receive their endowments? The lack of priesthood was not a barrier, apparently, for nonblack women. The Church does have a very vague tradition, dating back to Joseph Smith, that women somehow (though not by ordination) receive the priesthood through the endowment,2 but if that were the case, why do we not acknowledge that priesthood in the everyday Church? Apparently, this is a doctrine that has been abandoned over the years. And so we are again in no-man’s land: we have a requirement that males must hold the priesthood to participate in any ordinances in the temple, but women are not so restricted. Black women prior to June 1978, however, were not permitted to receive temple ordinances for themselves or to serve as proxies in vicarious ordinances, almost as if they were being told they should have had the priesthood, since the priesthood ban was what was keeping them out of the temple. But of course nonblack women were allowed to participate in temple ordinances without the priesthood.
This seeming cauldron of confusion regarding priesthood and temple policies both past and present stems almost entirely from one of the first notions introduced in this series—that the Mormon priesthood is unique in all the world of religion in that it is an abstract concept, a power or authority one can hold separate from any priestly function in performing rituals or ordinances. Indeed, as pointed out in the previous post, in the case of temple ordinances we have the unique situation where individuals perform priestly functions without any official priesthood ordination.
A Little Personal History, Followed by a Personal Perspective
I have a confession to make. I grew up a racist. No, I wasn’t a member of the junior Ku Klux Klan. But I grew up in North Ogden, Utah, a very Mormon suburb of Ogden. I attended Weber High School. There was not one single black in the entire school of 1,500 students. We had maybe three or four Asian-Americans, a couple of Native Americans, and perhaps a couple of token Hispanics, but I don’t think either of them spoke Spanish. We did have a few genuine cowboys, but that’s another ethnic category altogether. In short, this was a very, very Caucasian school. Lily white. The student body came from the suburbs, north of Ogden, the farming communities west of Ogden, and the frozen villages over the mountains in Ogden Valley where David O. McKay grew up. To my knowledge, I did not meet a black person until I played high school basketball against Bonneville High, and even then my only interaction with my black opponent was maybe a foul or two. I grew up believing the racial stereotypes that prevailed in a school such as Weber was in the early 1970s. And I am not too proud to admit that I likely used a racial slur or two. This was simply the culture I grew up in. It was based on ignorance.
Then I was called on a mission to Germany. In my second assignment, we had a black member in the ward. He was a sweet, humble man from the Ivory Coast who accepted the fact that he couldn’t hold the priesthood. He impressed me, even though he spoke very meager German and English. Later, in my fourth assignment, my companion and I were street contacting in the city one day and spoke with a blond-haired German farmer who told us we could visit him at his home. We bicycled out into the countryside east of town one day and found an ancient farmhouse with an attached barn and a heavy thatched roof. We knocked on the door, and Hans invited us in. He then introduced us to his wife, Josephine, who hailed from Ghana. What a shock. As it turned out, he was as spiritually alive as a piece of petrified wood. She was very interested in our message. So we began teaching them, and soon Josephine told us she had some friends who would be interested.
Her friends were Leo and his wife (whose name I can’t remember). They were from Nigeria, and Leo was attending the university in Hamburg. Leo was perhaps the most Christlike man I had ever met. I knew instantly that he was a better Christian than I would ever be. He was intensely interested in our message and soon developed a conviction that Joseph Smith was likely a prophet. This was 1977. We knew we were not supposed to actively proselytize blacks, so we were careful in our teaching. I counseled with the mission president a couple of times. I remember two things he said. First, “Elder Terry, I’m glad this is your problem and not mine.” I think he meant this simply as a vote of confidence that I would handle the situation with care. Second, “Whatever you do, don’t offend the Lord.” Well, that gave me something to think about.
We taught our three black investigators slowly and carefully, and we eventually reached the point where we had to tell them about the priesthood ban. I think the most difficult day of my mission was the day I had to tell Leo that he couldn’t hold the priesthood. He took it hard and wanted to know why. So we opened up the Pearl of Great Price and read a bit. We tried to explain how he and his people had been fence-sitters in the premortal world. We taught him about the blood of Cain that he obviously had running through his veins and the curse that attended it. In other words, we taught him all the standard LDS rationales for the priesthood ban. And everything we taught him was false.
Fast forward now a little more than a year into the future. It is June 1978, and I am teaching German-speaking missionaries at the MTC (it may have still been called the LTM at that point). One day, after teaching, I bounced on over to the teachers’ lounge. As I was entering the building, another teacher passed me and said, somewhat excitedly, “Have you heard the news? Blacks can have the priesthood.” Something in the way he said it made me think he was joking. I replied, “That’s not funny.” He insisted, “No, I’m serious. President Kimball’s had a revelation.” I ran out to my car and turned on the radio, and of course it was the only thing everyone was talking about. I sat there in that hot car and wept. I wept for the change, and I wept for Leo.
Fast forward again to 2007. I had been at BYU Studies for just over a year. I was reading Ed Kimball’s biography of his father’s years as Church president, Lengthen Your Stride. But I wasn’t reading the Deseret Book version. I was reading the longer account that was on the CD pocketed inside the back cover. BYU Studies had edited and prepared the CD. In that version, I found four chapters describing in great detail the history of the priesthood ban and the events surrounding the revelation. Ed had access to his father’s journals, so this was possibly the most complete and moving version of these events that will ever be written. I said to myself, “We need to get this out where people will read it.” I knew few would take time to read the longer version of the book on the CD. So I combined those four chapters into a long article, worked with Ed to make sure he was happy with it, and published it in BYU Studies, volume 47, number 2 (2008), as ”Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.” It is an incredible account and is available free for download here.3
Over the years, as I have studied and contemplated the reason why it took so long for this change to come, I, along with others, have reached the conclusion that it did not come earlier because, essentially, the Church wasn’t ready for it. The members, not the Lord, were the reason for the delay. David O. McKay prayed about this issue frequently during his administration and was eventually told, “with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.”4 My own suspicion is that there were too many Mormons who shared the culturally embedded racism that I grew up with. It was only after the hard-fought gains made through the Civil Rights movement that much of this racism dissipated. My views changed because of Josephine and Leo. By 1978, enough Latter-day Saints were ready for the change that there were celebrations in the streets and many prayers of gratitude from Saints in all walks of life. The Church, as a whole, was ready in 1978.
So, what does this have to do with the other priesthood ban, the one preventing women from receiving the priesthood? Obviously there are differences. As mentioned in an earlier post, there is actually more positive scriptural basis (if interpreted a certain way) for denying blacks the priesthood. The scriptural evidence against ordaining women is mostly negative—in other words, an absence of evidence, although that absence is now being questioned by some very good scholarship.5 But women, like blacks, have had to wage a long battle to achieve the rights and privileges and equalities they now enjoy in American society. Society has changed dramatically, and we may soon even see a woman president.
Now, let me be perfectly clear on this. I am not advocating that women be ordained to the priesthood. I have no reason to do so. What I am advocating is that we keep an open mind, much as President Spencer W. Kimball did regarding blacks and the priesthood, and that we do our homework, just as President Kimball did. An article that every Latter-day Saint ought to read is historian Craig Harline’s 2013 Hickman Lecture, “What Happened to My Bell-Bottoms? How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway, and How Studying History Can Help Us Make Sense of It All,” delivered at BYU on March 14, 2013, and published in BYU Studies Quarterly, volume 52, number 4 (2013). It is available here. Harline puts change in historical context and shows just how wrong we usually are when we assume some things will never change.
As members of a church that believes in ongoing revelation, we should never hold the attitude that things can’t change. President Kimball showed us how flimsy that argument is. I often wonder how much earlier the 1978 revelation might have come if Church members had been more open to change. In this context, I believe the only appropriate answer to the question “How would you feel if the prophet announced that women will be able to receive the priesthood?” is “I would be delighted.” The answer “He would never announce such a change” is an attempt to restrict the prophet in ways the Lord might not choose to restrict him. Who are we to tell the Lord what he can and cannot do? Well, actually, I think we often do that unwittingly by assuming we know more than we do. And sometimes we tie his hands with our inflexibility. I have come to the point where I would welcome such a change, if it came about through the appropriate channels. As these posts have demonstrated, I hope, our understanding of priesthood (and the larger issue of authority) is not perfect. These are complex topics that still hold many inconsistencies and perplexities. We don’t have it all figured out, even though we sometimes speak as if we do. Bruce R. McConkie and others were quite certain about what the Lord would not do regarding blacks and the priesthood. He had to eat his words. We should be more wise.
1. Apparently there was one notable exception to this rule. Jane Manning James, a black member known well to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was permitted to perform baptisms for the dead, but was repeatedly denied the opportunity to receive her endowment. See John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 229.
2. See, for instance, D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 36–37.
3. This is a temporary link, available while our website is undergoing a major reconstruction. In a few weeks, a new, sleek, fast website should be available. At that point, you may have to search for the article from our home page, byustudies.byu.edu, using the issue number (47.2).
4. Church architect Richard Jackson, quoted in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 104.
5. See, for instance, Cory Crawford, “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Theology,” Dialogue 48, no. 2 (2015): 1–66.