Thursday, 22 May 2014


Having dealt with both fallibility and errancy, it is time to tackle the specific example that I was given to understand was the major problem in this individual's mind: that of blacks and the Priesthood. Here is the final part of my essay/article/study/investigation/thingy, comprising my take on this issue, how I understand it, and also my conclusion as a whole.

   I would like to address one particular example in depth. Namely: the issue of blacks and the Priesthood. There is no scriptural basis for permanently limiting the Priesthood to a particular lineage or race. Note that I use the word permanently. In the Old Testament, the Priesthood was restricted to the tribe of Levi, but this was never intended to be a permanent arrangement.

   In the revelations given to Joseph Smith, the Priesthood was never limited to a particular race or ethnicity. In fact, on 3 March 1836, Joseph Smith himself ordained Elijah Abel, a black man, to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood.[1] Furthermore, in December 1836, this same Elijah Abel was ordained a Seventy by Zebedee Coltrin, presumably with the knowledge and approval of Joseph Smith.8 Furthermore, in 1844 or earlier, Walker Lewis, a black member of the Church, was ordained an Elder by William Smith (a younger brother of Joseph Smith).[2] In 1844, Joseph Smith ran for President of the United States, and one of his key policies was the abolition of slavery.[3]

   By stating these facts, I am trying to show that the early Church was not racist (and neither is the modern Church, for that matter). Although the Church as a whole did not become involved in the political question of slavery,[4] and the Church did not try to free slaves or baptise them without their owners’ permission,[5] Church members themselves did not own slaves during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, and Church membership (and, originally, the Priesthood) was always open to people of any race. I stated before that the Church as a whole did not become involved in the question of slavery. This is not to say, however, that individual members of the Church did not have personal political views on the matter. For example, I explained earlier that Joseph Smith was opposed to slavery, stating on one occasion: “It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty and oppression [of slavery].”[6] However, many other members of the Church did not share Joseph’s political views. Orson Hyde and Brigham Young, in particular, were both very much in favour of slavery, and were both, quite frankly, very racist in their personal views of blacks. As I explained before, this does not mean that they were not inspired men of God. It merely means that they were flawed, as human beings have always been.

   Racism is not a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it has been very common in history, particularly in the 19th Century. A combination of his personal aversion to blacks and the tendency to speculate that was so common in the early days of the Church led Orson Hyde to state on 27 April 1845 that negroes were the cursed lineage of Canaan and expressed his personal theory that God had cursed them to be slaves to white men in mortality as a punishment for their actions in the pre-existence.[7] It is worth pointing out again that he did not claim that this was the revealed word of God; he was merely speculating and expressing his personal theories and ideas.

   Unfortunately, early leaders of the Church frequently expressed their personal theories quite forcefully and vigorously, which often led to confusion in the Church regarding what was revealed and inspired of God and what was mere human speculation. However, it is obvious that Orson Hyde, whatever his political views and doctrinal speculations, saw nothing wrong with black men holding the Priesthood, for he personally baptised and ordained a black man to the Priesthood himself in October 1846.[8] Now, Brigham Young is a different story. He was an extraordinarily bold man, nicknamed the ‘Lion of the Lord,’[9] much more forceful and vigorous in expressing his personal views than Orson Hyde and also, unfortunately, much more confident and certain of his own speculation and ideas. For some reason, five years after the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young came to the conclusion that God did not wish for black men to hold the Priesthood. I am not sure exactly what reasoning led him to this particular conclusion, but it may have involved a combination of his personal prejudice against black people (which again, is a personal weakness and flaw which has nothing to do with his role as a Prophet), his political views (he was a staunch supporter of slavery) and his love of speculating about the Gospel. In any case, he somehow came to believe that God did not want black men to hold the Priesthood. He taught and defended this personal theory quite vigorously and boldly throughout his time as President of the Church, beginning in February 1849.[10] There are any number of quotes that involve Brigham Young proclaiming this belief, for example: “Because Cain cut off the life of Abel...the Lord cursed Cain’s seed and prohibited them from the Priesthood,”17 and: “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood...I know it is true & they know it.”[11] Evidently, Brigham Young was quite certain of his theory and his conclusion and defended it vigorously. As Governor of Utah, he also gave legal recognition to slaveholders in Utah and from the time the Saints settled in Utah some Apostles and other Church leaders began to hold slaves.

   This very confident and bold certainty that was characteristic of Brigham Young was perhaps his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Without it, I am confident that the Saints could never have reached Salt Lake. The martyrdom of Joseph Smith left the Saints confused, vulnerable and without a leader. Into this gap, the Lord called Brigham Young to stand up and lead the Church with the fire of his determination, boldness and confidence. Nobody else could have led the Saints westward, and nobody else could have established the Church so securely in the Rocky Mountains. Yet this very boldness was also a great weakness to the Church, because it means we end up finding quotes such as those above, which can give the wrong impression about certain issues. One thing is certain: no matter how boldly and vigorously Brigham Young may have defended and promoted his views of blacks and the Priesthood, he never once claimed to have received a divine revelation teaching this doctrine. He was convinced that his personal theory about blacks was correct, but he never claimed that God had revealed it to him. There are no revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants in which God says that black people ought to be excluded from the Priesthood. This was a personal theory and view held by Brigham Young and several other prominent Church leaders, based entirely on their personal views. Because of their high standing in the Church and because of the vigour and boldness of Brigham Young in defending his theories, the vast majority of the Church soon came to accept the exclusion of black men from the Priesthood as an unquestioned and necessary fact of the Church and the Gospel.

   This was taught and accepted as doctrine for well over a hundred years, despite never being authorised or sanctioned by divine revelation. For example, in 1958, Bruce R McConkie wrote in his book, Mormon Doctrine, the following words: “The negroes are not equal with other races when the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom...this inequality...grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in [the pre-existence].”[12] It should be noted that in the preface of Mormon Doctrine, Elder McConkie wrote a disclaimer at the urging of the First Presidency, clarifying that all the views expressed therein are merely his own personal opinions and conclusions and do not necessarily reflect the official positions and teachings of the Church. Similarly, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in 1935: “A curse was placed upon [Cain] and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures.”[13] This gave many Church members the impression that blacks would never be eligible to hold the Priesthood. However, again, it is important to note that in his book, Joseph Fielding Smith made clear that the views expressed therein were his own personal opinions rather than official statements of Church doctrine. The point is, because of their high standing in Church leadership, these Apostles did influence the beliefs of many members of the Church, and it was a widespread belief in the Church for many years that blacks would never hold the Priesthood. However, the fact remained that the policy of restricting blacks from holding the Priesthood was never introduced by divine revelation. It was a policy that Brigham Young felt should be introduced, because of his personal opinions and beliefs, but there is nowhere in the Standard Works of the Church where the Lord instructs the Church that black men should not hold the Priesthood. Indeed, in the days of Joseph Smith, blacks were ordained to the Priesthood. Thus, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve began to feel that the practice was unscriptural and not in harmony with the will of God.

   In 1969, President Hugh B Brown proposed that the policy be reversed and black men be admitted to the Priesthood.[14] This proposal was approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, with the absence of President David O McKay, who was not present due to health reasons, and President Harold B Lee. When President Lee returned, he argued against the policy change and demanded another vote. This time, President Lee convinced enough of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve that the policy could not be changed without an explicit divine revelation, and President Brown’s proposal was rejected.21 To clarify the Church’s position on the issue, the First Presidency issued a letter to all Bishops and Stake Presidents, saying that: “Negroes...[are] not yet to receive the Priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man...[However], sometime in God’s eternal plan, the negro will be given the right to hold the Priesthood.”[15] Over the following nine years, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the policy of excluding black men from the Priesthood and did not feel that it was a policy which God approved of. However, they were also very reluctant and hesitant to reverse a policy which had been a part of the Church’s teachings for over a hundred years, since the time of Brigham Young. Therefore, they decided collectively to pray and enquire of God. In response to their plea for knowledge and guidance, they received a divine revelation instructing them to end the practice of excluding black men from the Priesthood.

   Intriguingly, one of those present when this revelation was received was Bruce R McConkie, one of those General Authorities who had been most adamant that blacks should not be given the Priesthood. Following the divine revelation in 1978, he said: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q Cannon or whoever 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.”[16] Since 1978, the blessings of the Priesthood have been extended to all worthy male members of the Church without regard for race or lineage. Some might wonder why God waited a hundred years before telling the Brethren to cease restricting black members from holding the Priesthood. The answer is quite simple: nobody thought it was an issue for a hundred years, and therefore nobody thought to ask. God would never have answered Joseph Smith if he hadn’t gone to the Sacred Grove with a question to ask. He would never have told Nephi the interpretation of Lehi’s vision if Nephi hadn’t asked. Similarly, when this practice became an accepted part of the Church, nobody thought to question it for a very long time. It was only as Spencer W Kimball became so confused by the seemingly un-Christlike practice that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve knelt together in prayer and earnestly sought the will of the Lord. And in accordance with His promises throughout the scriptures, when they asked, He answered.

I use this example of blacks and the Priesthood because it highlights a very important truth: Church leaders can get things wrong. They can make mistakes, they can speculate and theorise and come up with the wrong conclusions, but this does not mean that they are not divinely appointed Prophets of God. I sustain the Brethren, and I admire them as very wise, capable men and inspired leaders. But I do not expect them to be perfect. They struggle with a very strenuous and difficult calling. I sympathise with them and I can honestly say they do a much better job of leading this Church than I could ever do. Much of the time, they must use their own judgement and talents to fulfil their calling. Those talents are very capable, but they are also limited. Naturally, they will get things wrong from time to time. But, as evidenced by the 1978 revelation, when they are open to the whisperings of the Spirit, and take important issues and concerns before the Lord, He answers them. God really does speak to modern Prophets. As I pointed out earlier, I cannot give anybody a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith or Wilford Woodruff or Spencer W Kimball or Thomas S Monson. Only God can do that. But hopefully, through the things I have written, I have helped whoever reads this to understand these men better, and to better understand what it means to be a Prophet. For those who have received a testimony of the divine calling of these men but who have been confused and concerned by these issues, I hope this has been helpful. In conclusion, I would like to echo the words of President Gordon B Hinckley: “We recognise that our forbears were human. They doubtless made mistakes...There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building His perfect society. If some of them...stumbled, or if their characters may have been...flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much.”[17] 


[1] Minutes of the Seventies Journal, Hazen Aldrich, entry for 20 December 1836. 
[2] William L Appleby, letter to Brigham Young, 2 June 1847
[3] History of the Church, Vol. 6, Ch. 8, p. 197-198
[4] Messenger and Advocate, Volume 2, Number 7
[5] D&C 134:12
[6] History of the Church, 4:544
[7] Speech of Elder Orson Hyde upon the course and conduct of Mr S Rigdon, Nauvoo: Times and Seasons Press, 1845
[8] Bringhurst, Newell G. (1981), Saints, Slaves and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press
[9] Hirshson, Stanley P. (1969), The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young, Knopf
[10] Bush, Lester E.; Mauss, Armand L. (1984) Neither White nor Black
[11]Brigham Young, Address to the Territorial Legislature, 16 January 1852, recorded in Wilford Woodruff’s journal of the same date
[12] Mormon Doctrine, 10th printing, p. 527-528
[13] Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Genealogical Society of Utah, 1935, p. 101-102
[14] Quinn, Michael D. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, 1994, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, p. 14
[15] ‘The First Presidency on the Rights of the Negro’, 15 December 1969
[16] Horne, Dennis B. (2000). Bruce R McConkie: Highlights From His Life and Teachings. Eborn Books
[17] ‘The Continuous Pursuit of Truth’, Ensign, April 1986, p. 5


So in my last post, I addressed the issue of Prophetic fallibility. In this post, I will include part 2 of le essay/article/study/investigation/thingy, this time exploring a distinct but closely related issue: the question of Prophetic inerrancy. This is, in many ways, a far more difficult problem to deal with than that of fallibility - after all, everyone agrees that Church leaders aren't perfect and can make mistakes in their personal lives, but it is far more difficult for many people to accept that they can make mistakes in what they say when they stand at the pulpit at General Conference, or get things wrong when speaking on doctrinal matters. This is one of the things I address in part 2 of 'Prophetic fallibility and errancy.'

   Just as the Church doesn’t teach that Prophets are infallible, it also doesn’t teach that Prophets are inerrant. What is the difference? Well, Prophets are not infallible. This means that they are perfectly capable of making mistakes and committing sins. They are also not inerrant. This means that not everything they say is necessarily the directly inspired word of God. In other words, they are capable of making mistakes both in their personal lives and also in their teaching and preaching.

   Not everything a Prophet says is inspired by God, even when speaking on religious matters. For some reason, many members of the Church seem to be under the impression that whenever a General Authority speaks about a Gospel topic, or gives a talk in General Conference, or declares his opinion about a particular doctrine, his words may as well be the words of God Himself. This is not true, and I’m sure that President Monson would rebuke anyone who suggested such a thing.

   Let me take just one or two examples. It is well-attested to in several reliable historical documents that Joseph Smith publicly taught that the moon was inhabited by people who lived to a very great age and were about 6 feet in height. Now, the beauty of having a living Prophet of God is that, when necessary, they can impart the words of God to humanity. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is the word of God. Joseph Smith was perfectly entitled to believe that there were men living on the moon. In fact, that was a very common belief in the 19th Century. I’m pretty sure that there aren’t any men living on the moon, personally, but in those days it was not such a rare opinion, particularly among less educated people such as Joseph. Was he not perfectly entitled to have personal opinions about these kinds of things? Are we going to say that, simply because of his Prophetic office, he is forbidden to ever express a personal view or speculation about matters such as this one? Never once did he include the idea of men living on the moon in a revelation. Never once did he claim that God had revealed this to him as an inspired doctrine. He was simply expressing his own personal view and speculating, as was quite common in the early 19th Century. Not everything a Prophet says should be taken as if God Himself were speaking through Him. In fact, Joseph Smith himself adamantly declared this to the early Saints. In his own words: “I told [the Saints] that a Prophet was a Prophet only when he was acting as such.”[1]

   This same principle can also be applied to things regarding the Gospel. The Restoration is often likened to a glorious dawn of truth, banishing the dark night of error with its golden rays. This metaphor is quite apt, for just as a sunrise doesn’t happen all at once, so the Restoration was (and still is) a gradual process. In fact, it is still not fully complete. The ninth Article of Faith states: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) As far as I know, this Article of Faith has never been repealed or retracted. It is still in force.

   The earliest Saints joined the Church with no knowledge of temple work, eternal marriage, or Priesthood keys. Most of them had joined the Church based on the Book of Mormon alone, without any knowledge of the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price. All of these things were yet to come forth. The morning of the Restoration had dawned, but only partially. In the meantime, awaiting further light and truth, they had to make do with what they had and get on with living the Gospel to the best of their ability. Is it any wonder that they made mistakes? Is it any wonder that, with much revelation and scripture still to be revealed, and only a cursory knowledge of the scriptures which had already come forth, many early Church members and leaders began to speculate about doctrinal matters, even teaching them publicly in many cases and including them in sermons? Yes, there was much taught in the early days of the Church which was pure speculation and was shown to be false by later revelation. We are a Church which believes, proudly, in the necessity of continuing revelation, for precisely this reason. For example, several early General Authorities taught that plural marriage was an eternal requirement of salvation and that it would never be removed from the Church. In fact, Wilford Woodruff himself taught that if the Church ever abandoned plural marriage, it would no longer be God’s church.[2] I imagine he must have felt a little embarrassed after receiving the revelation in 1890 ending the practice of plural marriage. The point is, prior to 1890, it was quite reasonable for church leaders, including President Woodruff, to assume that plural marriage would never be taken from the earth. They could not have foreseen what God had yet to reveal to the Saints. So they taught what they assumed was true, to the best of their knowledge and ability. But in 1890, when God spoke to the President of the Church, Wilford Woodruff himself, the very man who had taught previously that plural marriage was an eternal requirement for salvation, President Woodruff immediately acted upon the new revelation, and published Official Declaration 1, the Manifesto, marking the beginning of the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.

   There are numerous other examples. Brigham Young, who knew the Bible very well but had not grown up with or become very acquainted with other latter-day scripture, mistakenly believed and taught, quite vigorously, that Adam is God and God is Adam.[3] A close reading of the scriptures quickly reveals that this doctrine is both false and illogical,[4] but it was just one of many various speculations and theories about the nature of the Godhead which were very common in the early Church. It was not until 1916 when Joseph F Smith, President of the Church, who had, possibly, the most thorough knowledge and understanding of the scriptures of any Church president since Joseph Smith, published ‘The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition’ to clarify and explain the true nature of the Father and the Son as revealed in the scriptures. This put an end to the false theories and speculations which had been so rampant in the Church before. In similar examples, President Joseph Fielding Smith said that man would never land on the moon,[5] and Apostle Franklin D Richards told the Martin and Wiley handcart companies that God would protect them on their journey and they would arrive unscathed.[6] Neither of these predictions came true, because man has indeed landed on the moon and over 200 people from the Martin and Wiley handcart companies died en route. But these cease to be issues once we understand that not everything a Prophet says is the word of God. Often, they are merely expressing their own opinion or speculating. In fact, it is safest to assume that unless they specifically claim to have received a revelation from God, they are just doing their best with the light and truth they have already received. This doesn’t mean we should disregard what they say – they are very wise, good men and God has chosen them to lead this Church for a reason – but it does mean that we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes they express personal opinions or speculations which later turn out not to be true.

[1] Conversation with some Saints, February 1843; DHC 5:265
[2] Journal of Discourses 13:165
[3] Journal of Discourses 1:51
[4] See, for example: Genesis 1-2; Luke 3:38; Moses 2-5; and D&C 78:15-16.
[5] Honolulu Stake Conference,  14 May 1961
[6] The Gathering of Zion, p.243


Okay, so a while ago, towards the end of last year in fact, the Bishop of my ward approached me and asked me to write something for him to use. He knew of my strong interest in matters such as these and explained to me that there was a member of our ward who was struggling and wavering somewhat in his testimony due to certain issues relating to prophets and apostles making mistakes, getting things wrong, or appearing to change their mind. He explained that this included, but was not limited to, the issues of blacks and the Priesthood. I agreed to write something which would hopefully alleviate some concerns or explain some difficult matters. The result was this essay/article/study/investigation/thingy which I will include below. Just as a warning, it is 8 pages long, so I have decided to upload it in smaller, more manageable chunks. Part 1 below.

   Every year, nearly 100,000 people resign their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, voluntarily asking for their names to be taken off the records of the Church. Many, if not most, of these ex-Mormons leave because specific intellectual or spiritual reasons have led them to a conviction that the Church is false. One of the most common reasons for leaving is disbelief in Joseph Smith as a prophet.[1] For various reasons, these people have lost, or never fully gained, a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Closely related to this issue are the concerns which some members and ex-members of the Church have concerning his successors. When asked specifically why they no longer believe that Joseph Smith or his successors are Prophets of God, many respond by listing the various mistakes and errors of both Joseph Smith and later presidents of the Church. I will seek to examine these issues and their implications both by looking at a few examples and also by grappling with the question of what it means to be a Prophet, and especially what being a Prophet does not mean. Hopefully, I will be able to address some of these issues and concerns which many, many people experience and explain why they need not necessarily lead to a conclusion that the Church is not what it claims to be. I cannot give anyone a testimony that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, or that Thomas S Monson is a Prophet today. That can only come through the Holy Ghost, by the will of God, in answer to earnest and sincere prayer, meditation and reflection. However, if there is anybody who has received a spiritual witness, but still has intellectual concerns and questions, I may be able to address and help with some of them.

   The Church does not teach that Prophets are infallible. Most members of the Church understand this, and yet it is not something which we commonly discuss as Church members, for various reasons. However, the fact remains: leaders of the Church can, and often do, make mistakes. And sometimes, these mistakes can be very bad. Often they are only mild errors, but sometimes they can be very grave and serious sins. The Church acknowledges this. In fact, we cannot escape it, or ignore it, even if we wanted to. We are confronted with it every time we open the scriptures or take a close look at Church history. Noah was one of the greatest patriarchs of the Old Testament, and following the Flood, he was the spiritual leader of the entire human race up until his death. Yet despite being in this position of such great authority and responsibility, the Bible records that Noah “drank, and was drunken, and he was uncovered within his tent.” (Genesis 9:21) It should be clear that this is not acceptable behaviour for anybody, let alone a Prophet of God. Yet this does not change the fact that Noah was a great Prophet, who declared God’s words to the world and led his family and descendants to safety even while the rest of the world was destroyed. Similarly, Peter famously denied knowing the Saviour three times and cut off a centurion’s ear in a fit of anger (see John 18). Yet Christ promised him the keys of the kingdom and he was the Lord’s closest confidante during His mortal ministry and the leader of the Church after Christ’s ascension.

   There are many other examples in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon of Prophets who make mistakes, including sometimes committing serious sins. Yet God still speaks with them and uses them as His messengers, and they are still His mouthpiece upon the earth. If anybody feels that Joseph Smith could not possibly be a Prophet because he sometimes did things which were unconventional, inappropriate, insensitive, rude, or just plain morally wrong, my answer would be: yes. He did. Often, in fact. He had a flawed personality. In fact, if you read the Doctrine and Covenants, you don’t have to look very hard to find many cases where the Lord rebukes Joseph for one sin or another. For example, in D&C 93:47, the Lord says: “I say unto Joseph Smith, Jun. – You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord.” This is just one of many, many instances all throughout the Doctrine and Covenants where God rebukes Joseph Smith for his sins and misdeeds. Prophets are not perfect. Thankfully, they do not have to be, or we would all be left without guidance or hope. But they are still Prophets, and God still speaks to them. 

[1] Backman, Milton V., Jr. (April 1989), “A Warning from Kirtland”, Ensign: 26