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Pros & Cons of Race Essay (Part 4 of 7)

We’re moving on to a critique of the Race and Priesthood essay on the LDS Church website.  What are the strengths and weaknesses?  Is it a definitive repudiation of racism?  Dr. Matt Harris & Dr. Newell Bringhurst will weigh in.

Matt:  I want to start with the positive, first, I suppose. The first one is that the Race and Priesthood essay gives Latter-day Saints an authoritative document to wave in the air and say to the brother at Church, “Look, the Church no longer teaches that black people are cursed, or that they were less valiant in the pre-existence.” Before, when some Latter-day Saints would do that, they would get push back, “Who says that? Where?” They just didn’t have anything to appeal to, really. But now you’ve got an official document where somebody can wave in the air at church or anywhere else and say, “Look, this is not what the Church teaches. It once taught this, but it no longer teaches it. So please don’t say that, brother or sister”. So I think that’s really important to know.

Matt:  The second thing is that the Race and Priesthood essay talks about it being a temple and priesthood ban. That’s not a small distinction, that it used to be just really a priesthood restriction. But really, it always impacted black Latter-day Saints in their ability to go to the temple. They could always do some rituals in the temple, like baptisms for the dead, for example, but they were clearly forbidden from being sealed in the temple as husband and wife, and also receiving their endowment. So, it is a temple and priesthood restriction. The essay makes that clear. I think that’s really, really an important point to make. The essay also denounces the idea of interracial marriage as a sin. Since I’m into the second book now in Blacks and Mormons, it’s just extraordinary to me how much of the fear of interracial marriage governed the brethren towards their views on civil rights, or whether to have black people, black students come to BYU. Interracial marriage, it was at the bedrock of all of this. Certainly, I don’t want to give the impression that Latter-day Saints and BYU policies were unique, because that’s just not true. Lots of Americans in the 20th century did not favor interracial marriage, and the church was one of them.

GT:  Can I pause there, just for a second, Matt? There was an essay by a black member of the church, [Andrew S at] Wheat & Tares , a few years ago. One of the things that he said about the Race and Priesthood Essay was that it’s kind of a Rorschach test. You can read that God was not responsible for the ban, and that it was a man-made thing, or you can also read that it was God commanded. It kind of depends on your purpose. The essay was purposely written vaguely so that it wouldn’t offend either the liberal or the conservative members of the Church. Can you comment on that? Do you agree with that?

Matt:  Absolutely. That’s absolutely true. I talked to a couple of people. There are a number of people that participated in this essay. I mean, certainly, you mentioned that Paul Reeve wrote a lengthy draft, and he did. But there were a number of people who weighed in. It was sort of like the Declaration of Independence. We give credit to Thomas Jefferson. But the truth is, if you look at the first draft that Jefferson writes, it gets pretty watered down by the third and fourth draft when the Congress sinks their teeth into it.

Matt:  When the document came out, I shared with my brother who was in a bishopric at the time, and I said, “What does this mean to you?” He didn’t read the same things that I read into it. So, your point is well taken. Then I walked through it with him. I said, “Now, what do you make of that paragraph? Read it carefully.” Now, my brother has a doctorate degree, [and] two Masters. He’s a smart guy, and he didn’t read it [the way that I did] on the first attempt. So, I walked him through a paragraph where it talks about the cultural conditions in the 19th century, and his response was, “Okay, I guess I can see your point now”. Obviously, I was influenced by my conversations with a couple of scholars that worked on this. But it wasn’t as clear in its writing as we would like, but that was by design, I think.

GT:  That you would like, but the Church leaders were fine with it, right?

Matt:  Here’s what I think. I think too often we paint broad brushes with the Church leaders. We say they’re all this or they’re all [that]. That’s just not true. I mean, these guys have different opinions, they have different thoughts and different ideas. That’s not revolutionary on my part. I know that brethren have admitted this over the time. But there are plenty of instances where they disagree.

Check out our conversation….

The Race essay was written vaguely so you can both blame the ban on God or man.

Don’t misss our other conversations with Matt & Newell.

455: Critiquing Polygamy Essays & Sources

454: Are Gospel Essays Hidden or Public?

453: Swedish Rescue & Gospel Topics Essays

If you’re interested in Matt and Newell’s book, here is a link on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3mqQJjS

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Elder Snow’s Role with Gospel Topics Essays (Part 2 of 4)

In 2013, the Church published a series of essays on controversial topics, such as polygamy and the race ban on black church members.  What was Elder Steven Snow’s role in that roll-out?

Elder Snow:  Well, it was something that when I was in the Presidency of the Seventy. I was aware for many years that this was something that the brethren felt like needed to be done. There had been some attempts in the past that had not worked out. They just hadn’t worked.

The renewed emphasis had been building under Elder Marlin Jensen’s tenure. He really wanted to do this, to really get it. So [it began] under his leadership, and I was apprenticing still.  There were six months when I got to work with Elder Jensen, after I was first called. So, I was called in December as Church Historian in 2011. Then I finally took over officially, August 1st of 2012. But during that six months I was with Marlin, we were stirring about that.  I think really, under his leadership, it was presented to the Quorum of the Twelve and to the First Presidency.  Twelve specific questions were identified. In May of 2012, the leading quorums gave the approval to move ahead. We had a committee of general authority Seventies and also scholars and historians from our department that reviewed all of the drafts that came in on all of these questions. Generally, the way it was done is we retained an outside historian to write the first draft–someone outside of church employment.

GT:  Now, why did you pick somebody outside church employment?  That’s interesting.

Elder Snow:  Well, we just felt it would [be best to] go to an expert, like Paul Reeve, for example, for Race and the Priesthood.  You can’t find anyone better than Dr. Reeve to do it. So, he was very helpful in getting us the first draft and the information we needed to go ahead. That’s just an example. So, that was the pattern for most of them and then they were reviewed by our department, the historians and scholars, as well as the general authority Seventies on the committee. And then they were gone through many, many times. Then, eventually were given to the Twelve and First Presidency for approval.

Was there a debate among the brethren about the essays?

Elder Snow:  Well, that’s very interesting, the debate. Just so I can give you a little context on what was happening was, “Do you advertise and make a big deal about a website that you can go to learn  everything weird you wanted to know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? You can go here. Or should we just kind of quietly release them?” The decision was made, kind of quietly to put them out there so that they’re accessible. Then at a later date, we could publicize them more if we wanted. As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.  Once Race and the Priesthood, and Nauvoo polygamy came out, it wasn’t necessary to publicize the Gospel Topics database. People began very quickly to learn about it.

GT:  Yes, yes. Well, and it doesn’t seem like, and I’ve heard anecdotally, and I don’t know how big of a deal this is. But it was kind of like what you said, “Do we tell the weird things about the church, or do we just let people find them on their own?” Have you heard that some people have lost testimonies?

Elder Snow:  That was that was the concern. We wanted to help a lot of people that were struggling on some of these questions. But you’ve got to understand that a large majority, a large percentage of the church could care less.  That really hasn’t been anything they’ve worried about. We have anecdotally understood that there have been a few that their world has been rocked by having learned in more detail some of these questions. Now, for the most part, I think they’ve been very, very positive.

Check out our conversation….

Elder Snow describes the thought process behind the Gospel Topics essays.

Don’t miss our previous conversation with Elder Snow!

302: “I Just Love Church History!”

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Dr. Paul Reeve on the Race Essay at LDS.org (re-release)

This is a first time release on YouTube, (previously on Apple Podcasts) of a conversation I had with Dr. Paul Reeve of the University of Utah last year.  I asked if he had anything to do with writing the Gospel Topics Essay (race essay) titled Race and the Priesthood on LDS.org. He was very candid and I think you’ll enjoy listening to his answers on these and other topics.

GT:  Now I want to ask you another question.  I’m hoping you’ll answer.  I’ve heard rumors, and that’s all they are is rumors that you played a role in compiling that essay [Race and the Priesthood].  Do you have any response to that?

Paul laughs:  I did help with the essay. Yeah, Yeah.

GT:  So was it, can you describe your role?

Paul:  Well the Church History Department invited me to write an extended essay. It ended up being about 55 pages long with footnotes and everything like I would produce as an academic essay.  Once they were satisfied with that it was sent up the line, several layers of approval process and then the Church History Department actually boiled down that longer essay to what got posted online so I had no say over what got posted online, what eventually appeared as Race and the Priesthood, but it was a condensed version of the longer piece that I produced for them.

I asked his opinions on how these race lessons of the past apply to today’s situations. It’s one of my favorite parts of the interview.  I also asked if there were parallels between the black ban and the new gay ban.

Paul:  Well I guess there are ways in which I could see them as similar and ways in which I think they’re distinct.  The similarities could be that, is this simply the sort of cultural context, right?  That is somehow seeping in, it would be hard to argue that the cultural context of America moving towards legalizing gay marriage didn’t impact Mormonism, right?  So it’s Mormonism responding to its cultural context the same way that Mormonism seemed to respond to the racial context in the 19th century, so a parallel there, but I think also important distinctions.

 

Dr. Paul Reeve discusssed the Race and Priesthood essay at LDS.org
Dr. Paul Reeve discusssed the Race and Priesthood essay at LDS.org

I asked Paul how he felt about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing at Pres. Trump’s inauguration.  Don’t forget to check out our previous conversations with Paul!

008: Dating the LDS Temple and Priesthood Ban (Reeve)

007: Becoming a Fanboy of Orson Pratt (Dr Reeve discusses the Apostle)

006: The Black Mormon Scandals – Reeve on events inspiring the LDS priesthood/temple ban

005: How did Joseph Smith Deal with Muslims?  (and Chinese and Indians?)

004: How did Others Deal with Slavery?  Dr. Paul Reeve tells why Mormons were persecuted

003: How Mormons Became a Racial Category

Check out our conversation….