During the lesson in Elders Quorum this past Sunday, we discussed ways to enhance our study of the scriptures. As usual, I raised my hand and recommended that we study the scriptures within their historical and cultural context so that our “likening” of them does not turn into “making stuff up.” I said that this should also include a study of Church history in order to understand our own doctrines, revelations, and controversies. And to top it all off, I suggested we work on developing religious literacy in order to have fruitful conversations with those outside our faith tradition. This class discussion also featured a number of stories about gospel conversations with co-workers. This reminded me of an encounter I had with a manager a couple years ago.
I work at a logistics company and was at the time of the story an operations supervisor on the loading dock. My manager and I got along really well. I still consider him one of my favorite people at work despite being in completely different departments now. So, one night shift he came up to my work station and randomly asked, “Walker, you’re Mormon, right?” Living in Texas, this always sets off an alarm inside my head. I had never told him I was Mormon, so he had obviously heard it elsewhere. Plus, this was during the Romney/Obama election, so Mormonism was in the news, for better or worse. “Yes…,” I replied hesitantly. Then, the sledgehammer: “Do Mormons have a problem with black people?” This is where it becomes important to note that my manager is African-American.
He explained that we had gotten along so well and that he was surprised to learn that I was a Mormon given some of the things he had heard about Mormons and blacks. He couldn’t square the supposed racist ideology of Mormonism with our personal interactions. I took a deep breath, started going through the files in my mind, and answered, “The short answer: No. While individual Mormons may have racist attitudes–like any denomination–Mormonism is not racist. However, what you’ve likely heard is related to the priesthood ban.” With that, I went through the history of the priesthood ban: I defined priesthood in terms for a non-member layperson. I explained that blacks were always welcomed in the Church through baptism. I noted W.W. Phelps’ editorial “Free People of Color” and the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri based in part on their perceived pro-black, anti-slavery stance. I talked about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and his anti-slavery platform as well as his views on blacks (e.g., “Blacks have souls“). I discussed Elijah Abel‘s ordination to the priesthood, his missions, and appointment to Church leadership. I mentioned that other blacks were also ordained to the priesthood. I talked about the racism of the day, the biblical citations used to justify slavery (i.e., “Curse of Ham“), and how this Protestant folklore infected Mormonism early on. I talked about how historical evidence places the ban’s beginning at Brigham Young’s feet. I discussed how Church leaders over the years unfortunately felt the need to justify the practice via multiple “scriptural” theories due to a muddied understanding of the ban’s origin. I mentioned that lifting the priesthood ban was considered even earlier than 1978 by Church leaders (e.g., David O. McKay), leading to the softening of other policies. These earlier discussions eventually bore fruit in 1978, when the ban was officially lifted.
It was a good 15-20 minute conversation. I ended with my personal view: “The priesthood ban was a mistake, the result of racist folklore, which was allowed to continue for an excruciatingly long time. Thankfully, that policy no longer exists today.” My manager enjoyed the discussion and seemed to understand the complexities surrounding the issue. I provided him with a few resources, but apologized that I was unable to direct him to any official Church publication addressing the matter in depth (which has now changed).
As I pointed out to my Elders Quorum when I finished the story, it is a situation like this where a working knowledge of all things Mormon comes in handy. However, I knew these things because I’ve been running in Mormon Studies circles for years. I had read a number of books and journal articles on the subject. But, as my wife often reminds me during my moments of frustration following an off-putting comment in Sunday School class, most people aren’t familiar with these things. And even if they wanted to be, they wouldn’t know where to start. If they asked, could I even point them to a single volume that would provide an updated, but basic grounding in the issues? A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, the new book edited by Laura Harris Hales and co-published by BYU’s Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, is that much-needed single volume. And with Hales’ impressive lineup of scholars, the book falls in line with Elder Ballard’s advocacy for “the best LDS scholarship available.” While the Gospel Topics essays have arisen to help tackle a number of controversial subjects, there are many other issues not addressed by those essays that make their way into A Reason for Faith. Yet, even when the book covers ground similar to that of the Gospel Topics essays–such as the Book of Abraham or polygamy–the authors explore additional angles that more fully flesh out the topics at hand (think Gospel Topics Essays 2.0).
Let’s take a look at two examples:
The multiple accounts of the First Vision have a Gospel Topics essay dedicated to them as well as videos and articles at history.lds.org. As helpful as these may be, historian Steven C. Harper’s “Remembering the First Vision” adds color to an often black-and-white debate by reviewing the neuroscience of memory making. “To put it simply,” writes Harper, “memories are both accurate and inaccurate. They are both distorted reconstructions of the past and true perceptions of the past as seen from the present. It is not safe to take for granted that Joseph’s memory was perfectly accurate at the time of his experience and that it grew increasingly inaccurate in proportion to the passage of time. Suspending this assumption while analyzing the historical record in light of how memories form or consolidate can lead to new analysis and yield valuable insights” (pg. 10). With memory science as a companion, Harper then walks the reader through the 1832, 1835, and 1838-39 accounts. He concludes that the First Vision accounts “are products of Joseph Smith’s subjective, constructive process of remembering…Given what the study of memory has revealed, it seems unwise to read Joseph Smith’s accounts as static pictures of a verifiable past or as complete fabrications of an experience that did not happen. Rather, they are evidence of what Richard Bushman called “the rearrangement of memory,” or what might be quite accurately called, simply, remembering” (pg. 16).
Another example of what we could call an expansion of the Gospel Topics essay is W. Paul Reeve’s “Race, the Priesthood, and Temples.” Drawing on his Oxford-published book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, Reeve delves into the racial and cultural landscape from which the priesthood ban sprung. The complications surrounding the concept of “whiteness” in 19th-century and Mormonism’s identification with non-white races largely due to polygamy pushed Mormon leadership (read Brigham Young) to distance themselves from blacks in particular. If the Gospel Topics essay only strongly implied that the ban was man-made, then this is a rather explicit nail in the coffin. After quoting Bruce R. McConkie’s address in which he told the audience to “forget everything I have said, or what President Brigham Young said” on the subject of blacks and the priesthood due to limited “light and knowledge,” Reeve says, “It was a statement that suggested that prior teachings on race were devoid of the “light and knowledge” that revelation represents to Latter-day Saints” (pg. 170). He then compares the priesthood ban to the losing of the 116 pages or the opening of an anti-banking institution and invokes the “Samuel principle” taught by Ezra Taft Benson:
If you see some individuals in the Church doing things that disturb you, or you feel the Church is not doing things the way you think they could or should be done, the following principles might be helpful: God has to work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the “Samuel principle.” The children of Israel wanted a king like all the other nations. The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to the Lord about it. The Lord responded by saying, Samuel, “they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning. But they still insisted on their king. So God gave them a king and let them suffer. They learned the hard way. God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds he grants unto men according to their desires.
And with that, Reeve brings his essay to an end with a sense of charity toward leaders for past mistakes, but a conviction that they were indeed mistakes.
As mentioned above, the book covers a multitude of issues untouched by the Gospel Topics essays. Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee explore the counterfeit Kinderhook plates, making a convincing argument that Joseph Smith attempted to translate the plates as an amateur linguist, using “ordinary methods of traditional translation” (pg. 110). They demonstrate that the “‘portion’ of the Kinderhook plates that Joseph Smith translated on or before May 1, 1843” may be “no more than [a] single character from the top of the plates” (pg. 109), which corresponds with a character from Smith’s “Egyptian Alphabet.” David Bailey discusses the supposed conflict between science and religion, highlighting Mormonism’s rejection of biblical inerrancy with various quotes from Brigham Young and even (surprisingly) Joseph Fielding Smith. Bailey argues that both science and religion can be used to uncover truth, all while championing the scientific consensus of the age of the earth, evolution (“The evidence that evolution has occurred and continues to occur is overwhelming and universally accepted by the scientific community” – pg. 230), and the Big Bang. Ty Mansfield wades into more recent controversies over homosexuality and the Church and does so with grace and compassion. He expands the discussion beyond the narrow confines of the labels “gay” or “straight” and offers an engaging read on the complexities of human sexuality, relationships, and intimacy. Most important, he does so while dismantling the shame that often infects Mormon discourse about sex and chastity. The list goes on, from Neylan McBaine on women in the church to Brant Gardner on anachronisms in the Book of Mormon.
Some essays–while useful in introducing lay readers to particular topics–are a bit underwhelming in their overview. Kent Jackson’s essay on Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon does a decent job of explaining why this creates a problem for Mormons: Isaiah 40-55 are considered by scholars to be written after the exile, making it a tad difficult for pre-exilic prophets like Nephi to be quoting from it. However, readers may walk away from the essay assuming that the post-exilic dating of Deutero-Isaiah is more contested than it really is in mainstream biblical scholarship. While Jackson leaves open the possibility of other interpretations, the pro-Isaianic unity/pre-exilic dating slant left me unsatisfied. I expect future scholarship from the likes of David Bokovoy and Joseph Spencer (including what he calls his “big Isaiah book”) to carry the torch in a significantly different direction. Similarly, I expect future work to shine a bigger light on Freemasonry’s influence on Mormonism. Steven Harper’s essay on the subject provides some great background and makes some excellent points about it being a catalyst toward restoring a form of “true” Masonry. Yet, my reading still detected a desire to distance Mormonism and its temples from Masonry. For me, Masonry provides a fascinating influence and interpretive lens for early Mormon practice and doctrine. I would hope readers would want to learn more about Masonry to better understand parts of Mormonism, not see it as a funny bit a history that needs to be explained away.
Despite the above criticisms, it must be recognized how huge all of this truly is: a book published through a Church imprint is talking about Freemasonry, Deutero-Isaiah, etc. It should be considered a welcome addition to the growing list of Mormon pastoral works. Heavy readers of Mormon Studies may not find anything new or surprising in its pages, but they are not the book’s intended audience. It is meant as a primer; a springboard for those unacquainted with this type of information. It’s meant for the 18 or 19-year-old who just put in his/her papers. It’s meant as a tool for Family Home Evening. As Hales explains in the introduction, the purpose of the book is
to create a safe environment for exploration within a faithful framework. Even so, these discussions may generate thoughts and questions that might be surprising or even bothersome as existing beliefs are stretched. In fact, readers may grieve at the loss of perceptions held dear. Yet they can be consoled by the realization that their expanded understanding is based upon accurate teachings. The information in these essays can begin an exciting process of discovery for readers…When gospel questions arise, the antidote for uncertainty is more knowledge and more contemplation, which takes time–“even by study and also by faith.” It is the continual search for truth, both secular and spiritual, that will give us a reason for faith (pgs. xiii-xiv).
Given this mission, I think the book is a success.