Friday, 14 December 2007

A single scripture

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, and with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance to every people!

Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance, and the plan of redemption, that that should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

~Alma 29:1-3

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Blacks, Slavery, and the Church

This article from the Deseret Morning News website raises an interesting question (although it's not stated as such):

[Lawrence] O'Donnell [...] specifically criticized LDS founder Smith as "a racist who was pro-slavery," referring to him as "the inventor of this ridiculous religion."

Joseph Smith a racist? And pro-slavery? This is a new one by me.

The most prominent race-related fact concerning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("this ridiculous religion", apparently - yay tolerance!) is that, prior to 1978, males of Black African descent were not permitted to hold the Priesthood of God. The way this was determined varied (originally it was unless they could prove they weren't, but near the end the Priesthood was permitted unless it could be proved that they were of such descent), but the principle remained until the leadership of the Church prayed with enough faith and desire to see it changed that the Lord allowed the change. According to the Official Declaration:

He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every 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 follows there from, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. (OD2)

So much for the facts. What are the other charges commonly levelled against the Church? There are two, both concerning the reasons the restriction ever existed. One is a fairly common idea from the time of the early Church -- that black skin is identical with the Curse and Mark of Cain. This idea was believed by Brigham Young - "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain]... in him cannot hold the Priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spoke it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it" is a remark attributed to him, and I see no reason to doubt it -- but there is something importantly lacking from this statement, something that is always lacking in such statements. He claims that 'I know it is true', and that 'others know it'. This is not, emphatically not, a statement of prophetic revelation. Yes, others knew it -- it was widely used as a justification for keeping blacks as slaves. But it was not a revelation. To my knowledge, it has never been stated as such. And please note, these remarks are from President Young. He even says, "if no other Prophet ever spoke it before I will say it now." This is not the attitude of a man repeating the teachings of his predecessor. The idea that this opinion originated from Joseph Smith is entirely unsupported.

The other accusation frequently levelled at the Church is that we have (or had) a theological justification for denying the Priesthood to black men. The idea is that, in the War in Heaven, a third of the host fought against God (becoming Satan and his followers), a third fought valiantly for him ('whites'), and the last third were not so valiant, thus becoming the 'blacks'. Leaving aside the fact that this is a very long way from matching up with the actual ratio between blacks and everyone else, I cannot find anywhere where it has been stated as a doctrine. It certainly isn't in the various scriptural accounts of the war. Apparently, the idea started with the opinions of President Joseph Fielding Smith, and spread to (who else?) Bruce R. McConkie, whose writings make up much of the Bible Dictionary, and whose Mormon Doctrine is the most comprehensive encyclopedia of doctrines, which would explain the common knowledge of the idea. But was it a doctrine?

From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the church have taught that negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were 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.

So said President David O. McKay. As Prophet in his day, he would know whether there were any actual doctrines concerning the matter. To have stated that 'this is the reason', without ascribing it to revelation, would leave the issue in doubt. To state that 'we don't know the reason' cannot mean anything other than what it says. Various justifications have been offered, but in the end, we do not know.

These are the usual accusations levelled against the Church. Now, at last, I can come back to Lawrence O'Donnell and his new, unusual ideas.

1/ Joseph Smith, junior, was a racist.

By the standards of today, it would be no surprise if he was. He had after all been born and raised in a world which unanimously derided blacks as intrinsically inferior, and even a Prophet of God is subject to his upbringing. But specifically and religiously racist? I don't believe it.

Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro. [Joseph Smith] replied, they came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation.

Is this a racist statement? Far from it! The beginning is a lament as to the condition of blacks at that time, while the end explicitely states that they are not naturally inferior. Can we reconcile this with O'Donnell's ideas about the Prophet? No. We cannot.

2/ Joseph Smith, jr., was pro-slavery.

I... have no idea where this came from. When the Church moved to Missouri, one of the complaints the residents had was that the Saints were harbouring former slaves who had illegally fled their masters -- and that the Saints would be inviting freed slaves to come to their towns. The Missourians didn't think the Church was pro-slavery! The Book of Doctrine and Covenants states (D&C 101:79) that 'it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another' -- and this was revealed in 1833! Later, during his aborted run for President of the USA, Joseph Smith's plans included -- you guessed it -- the freeing of the slaves through a slow method which, if it had been enacted, would likely have prevented the US Civil War entirely.

How Mr. O'Donnell can state that this man was pro-slavery is entirely beyond me.

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Common Misconception

A few weeks ago I met a born-again Christian who (of course) tried to convert me to his viewpoint. One point which came up was the Trinity, and I raised the evidence of Mark 10:18 (and Matt. 19:17, and Luke 18:19...): Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. In order to reconcile this simple, obvious statement by the Saviour with his own doctrines, he insisted that this is a trick question - that our Lord was trying to make the man he was speaking to think about his answer. All very well for that particular statement (which I had misquoted to end with 'my Father which is in heaven'), but how can that be extended to John 5:19, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do? This statement is given by the Saviour as a specific refutation of the Jews' claims that he was 'making himself equal with God'. I can't imagine how he would have answered this one, but it would certainly have been a tortured interpretation.

This, I think, exposes a common misconception among Christians in ever day and age - that the Gospel (I use the term to mean the entirety of the revealed truth concerning the will of Heaven - our born-again friend was under the impression that it referred only to the Gospels) is somehow difficult to comprehend. Another example - I asked him why he believed we were created in the first place. He claimed it was purely an act of God showing his love (to people who wouldn't even exists if he hadn't?), and when queried on how that explained the therefore malicious "free well" and the associated ability to sin -- how it explained allowing Satan to torment us, if we are only here for God to love -- he was unable to reply with anything other than a vague statement that God knows what he's doing. True -- but he has revealed it to his people. 'Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.' (Amos 3:7).

The Gospel is simple and it is clear. That it what it was written to be, and it was written for us. When Peter says 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God' (Matt. 16:16), when the Lord claims 'Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee' (Jeremiah 1:5), when the mortal Christ instructs us to pray to 'Our Father which art in heaven' (Luke 11:2) -- they mean what they say. They are not trying to deceive us. Those who believe they are have themselves been deceived... and we know who the Great Deceiver is.

Another example, as if one were needed. Back in the very first reference, Mark 10, the Saviour was asked Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:17). He immediately refers the man to the commandments. He was not trying to confuse us -- keeping the commandments of God is necessary to attain a higher glory.

The Prophet Nephi claimed that the works of Isaiah are 'plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy' (2 Ne. 25:4). Joseph Smith called the Book of Revelation 'one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written'. These two are usually seen as the most confusing books in the Bible. If these Prophets -- these inspired men -- called even them simple, how can Christendom declare the rest of the Gospel difficult or unknowable?

Our Father in Heaven wants us to return to him. Through his Prophets and his Son he has given us - continues to give us - the plainest, purest help he can in our time of probation. The Gospel is not incomprehensible; it is simple, it is complete, it is true. It is the Word of Life and it is given to help us, if we will only accept it. I hope and pray that all followers of Christ will someday be able to put aside their misconceptions and see the Word of God as it truly is, a pure and abiding testimony of our beloved Saviour Jesus Christ, in whose name I write. Amen.