Priesthood Restriction for Black Church Members

Posted on June 7, 2012 by

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It may be difficult to see the distinction now, in 2012, but in 1830-1865 it was certainly possible to be against slavery and yet at the same time not be an abolitionist. Mormons were not slave owners. Mormon scripture condemns slavery: D&C 101:79, Mosiah 29:40, Alma 48:11, 4 Nephi 1:3. Yet, Mormons did not consider themselves to be abolitionists. While abolitionists were commonly considered as “radical” or willing to defy the law in the matter of slavery, Mormons were contrarily taught to be law-abiding and peaceful. For example, Joseph Smith Jr. suggested that one solution to the slavery problem would be for the federal government to purchase all slaves from their owners and subsequently free them. This approach differs significantly from that of an abolitionist whose position was typically to have the federal government abolish slavery without compensation to the slave owners. Would the American Civil War have happened if Joseph’s suggestion were followed? Would it have had any affect on subsequent racial discrimination and civil liberty violations? We can only speculate.

With respect to the priesthood restriction for black church members that existed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until 1978, it is important to recognize that the Lord has always limited the possession of priesthood authority. The Aaronic priesthood was had solely by the tribe of Levi from the time of Moses until the time of Jesus. Furthermore, not every Levite priest would be called-upon to perform priesthood duties in the temple. Priesthood authority isn’t vastly different from what had been called a “birthright” prior to the time of Moses, and that tended to pass from a father only to the firstborn son. The stories of Jacob and Esau along with that of Jacob’s son, Joseph, are good illustrations of the contention that existed over the passage of birthright or patriarchal authority (i.e. priesthood). What is important to recognize is that the Lord will choose leaders as He will and that His choice should not be interpreted as a slight to those who are not called to lead. The fact that He has often chosen his leaders based on lineage is not at all to say that those of other lineages are inferior or that those who are not called to lead will necessarily forfeit any eternal blessing. This is as Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 12.

To an outsider this all may seem quite contradictory. And without a correct understanding of Mormon doctrine it’s certainly going to appear that way. As a matter of illustration look to a well-known scriptural narrative from the Book of Mormon about Nephi and Laban… Nephi’s father, Lehi, after being warned of the Lord and taking his family and fleeing Jerusalem prior to its destruction, is told to return to Jerusalem in order to acquire the plates of brass upon which the writings of the prophets from Moses to Isaiah were written. The plates of brass were held by a man named Laban. Nephi and his brothers first attempt to purchase the plates of brass from Laban, but after they were robbed and chased out of the city Nephi returned alone for another attempt but without any particular plan. Nephi finds Laban drunk and laying on the ground outside of his house. Then comes the part worth considering in detail: the Spirit of the Lord instructs Nephi to slay Laban and then wear Laban’s clothing in order to deceive Laban’s servant and thus obtain the plates of brass. Nephi immediately recognized that these instructions violated earlier commandments of the Lord to the Israelites (of which Nephi was part). Not the least of these was the Lord’s commandment given on tablets of stone to Moses on Mt. Horeb which said, “Thou shalt not kill.” (Not to mention “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness”.) Nephi points out this apparent contradiction, and the Spirit of the Lord gives some explanation and further constrains Nephi to slay Laban. Nephi then does as he is instructed, and in the process contradicts the teachings he’s been taught his whole life and the very teachings taught by the writings that he’s attempting to obtain. In so doing he contradicts teachings that he will later teach to his posterity. Why? Because the Lord commanded him.

Consider a parent who may instruct their oldest child in one fashion and then later instruct their youngest child in a completely different – even contradictory – fashion. Most parents would not find this entirely inconceivable or outrageous. Parents often must adapt their parenting or rules to fit the particular situation of their children, and while the motivations behind that parenting may remain consistent the details of the policies and practices can certainly change. Should the Lord be restrained from parenting His children differently?

Consider that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons, believe in modern revelation or direct communication with the Lord. In particular, Mormons believe that the Lord reveals His will to the Church’s governing bodies: the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Consider that the Holy Bible is replete with recordings of communications between the Lord and a prophet at that time, be it Enoch, Joseph, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Samuel, Malachi, or countless others. And what is the purpose in this? If the Lord has spoken once to the first prophet in a dispensation, say Moses, what purpose is there for the Lord to speak again to a later prophet except it is to clarify, add-to, change, or make exception to what He had first spoken to the first prophet? None.

The source of apparent contradiction in Mormon doctrine and practice comes from Mormons’ very belief that the Lord communicates to His people and His children with a purpose in their own best interests. Until one understands this simple and profound concept a true understanding of Mormons will remain indescribably elusive.

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