In 1969, the First Presidency released a statement on “the position of the Church with regard to the Negro”:
Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Church was hurtling toward a sea change. After a few years, the Church would give the priesthood to blacks and then would disavow its racist doctrines. Knowing that, what would you do if you were transported back in time to 1969? Would you sustain the First Presidency? Imagine the dilemma for an activist at the time who couldn’t know the future, but could feel the surety of personal inspiration that racism was wrong. Was this First Presidency statement a revelation from God or a mistake from men? (If you answered, “False dichotomy,” then you can skip the rest of this essay).
This essay will show one way to question the Church and still feel like a good Mormon. It will proceed in four parts: 1) Nobody is always right, 2) Your inspiration is right, 3) The prophet is right, and 4) The Church will eventually get it all right.
Nobody is always right
Bryce Cook recently wrote, “Not only was the Spirit working on President Kimball, but it was also working on many faithful members of the church who knew in their hearts long before 1978 that the church’s position was not of God.” In 2015, a member of the Ordain Women executive board, Bryndis Roberts, urged the Church to “make it clear that neither the ban nor the justifications for the ban came from God.” This is a popular way to explain the change. Most people believe that the Church’s present doctrine is at odds with the ban, therefore the ban was never God’s will.
What is certain is that the Church was intended to evolve. Long-time Church members get accustomed to seeing one prophet correct another. President Ezra Taft Benson made the succession clear when he preached, “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.” Likewise, Nephi prophesied, “Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? … And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another….” We don’t expect for all of a prophet’s words to be followed by later generations.
There are examples where a doctrine has changed but it didn’t get painted as a stark battle between truth and error. Joseph Smith received the commandment in D&C 119 to replace the law of consecration with the law of tithing. We don’t ever conclude that the law of consecration was “not of God.” Sometimes we may blame that change on the dedication of the Far West Saints. Later, in the 68th Annual General Conference, President George Q. Cannon called women to proselytizing missions for the first time. It is not generally assumed that the Church must have been in error during the previous 67 years. Revisions have been made to the temple ceremony, notably in the 1920s and 1990, without invalidating the sacredness of the original. Sometimes a new teaching is different from the old teaching, without either one having been dead wrong. These examples are not equivalent to the priesthood ban, but they should open the door for a deeper inquiry.
Your inspiration is right
Jesus himself promised that the Holy Ghost would teach us all things. Personal revelation even takes precedence over literal instructions from Church leaders, for three reasons. First, it is only through personal revelation that anyone can gain a testimony of the Church in the first place, so the one is permanently founded on the other. Second, the prophets themselves ask us to not be blind in our obedience. Brigham Young warned, “I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied.” Third, the punishment for rejecting personal revelation is more severe than any other disobedience. Jesus was quoted in Matthew 12:32 saying, “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” God provides inspiration according to your personal needs, and you will be accountable for what is given, not more.
The Prophet is right
Members disagree about the impetus for Official Declaration 2, and their differences are rooted in their beliefs about continuous revelation. In Lester Bush’s seminal analysis of the priesthood ban, he shared the insight that to expect to change the doctrine with purely logical arguments “is both naive and reflective of a major misunderstanding of the claims of an inspired religion.” Our understanding of continuous revelation guides our opinion on how best to act when we disagree with it.
Let us categorize the beliefs about continuous revelation. We can draw our terminology from the debate about the nature of the translation of the Book of Mormon. One model is that God maintains “tight control” over the revelatory process, authoring exact words in the message. Another model is that God has “loose control,” by supplying concepts or sensations, which the revelator must then interpret using their human faculties. A third option is that the revelator can be apostate and that the message is not divine. A critic who disagrees with a revelation is already rejecting “tight control.” But jumping straight to “apostate” may be unwarranted, since there is a plausible middle ground. (I should disclose a cynical assumption that underlies this categorization. Believers tend to espouse the tightest level of control that they think is warranted by the evidence. Once they are presented with enough evidence of errors in that view, they will reject it. Then they have to settle for a lower level of control if they are to continue in the faith.)
A crucial point about revelation is that it is a personal interaction with God. A loosely-controlled revelation is not worse than a tightly-controlled revelation. Recipients are active participants in a loosely-controlled revelation, since they cannot receive any inspiration for which they are not prepared, (cf. 3 Ne 17:2–3). Such a revelation is more specifically tailored for the edification of the vessel receiving it, since that is the only person authorized to interpret it. Even a perfect revelation cannot remove limitations that the revelator has not worked to overcome, or change the revelator into a person they do not want to become.
It is possible to believe that a leader is simultaneously inspired and fallible. Mormons begrudgingly admit that Church leaders can make mistakes. Most people assume that their leaders oscillate between inspired and fallible, depending on their righteousness. This leads to a problem of trying to pick and choose which teachings were divine and which were mistakes. However, that is not the only option. Consider the model where an imperfect leader is still susceptible to their natural, base limitations even while they are talking with God. Only a perfectly expansive mind would be capable of relaying every divine message with any fidelity. Regular minds struggle and make mistakes. An unwise revelation is a sign that the leader is human. Since the membership knew that the prophet was human when he was sustained, the membership shouldn’t retract their support when they see evidence of what they already knew. It is possible that Brigham Young was a prophet, even while at the same time Brigham Young was an entrenched racist. Uncultivated, embarrassing prophetic pronouncements are part of the package that Latter-day Saints have signed up for, whether they like it or not. There is no realistic alternative until the day when the Perfect Man returns to preside over his kingdom.
What is a prophet really called to do? There are problems with the model where the prophet is expected to impeccably relay exact words from on high. If that were the requirement, then the system would also have to include checks and balances for times that the prophet is in error. On the contrary, the scriptures provide no recourse for those who suspect that the prophet may be wrong. Instead of trying to limit the damage of mistakes, the Church doubles down on them. D&C 21:5 commands, “For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” Ask yourself, what are members expected to be patient with? The prophet’s strengths or his weaknesses? How are members expected to receive his word? By ignoring the prophet’s counsel or by following it? Built into that commandment is the foreknowledge that the prophet’s flawed revelations will give members the chance to exercise patience by following him as if he were divine. The humanness of the prophet could be considered a feature of the system, not a bug. When the prophet is called, authority is delegated for him to preside in whatever is the best way he can. The Saints are asked to pay allegiance to the authority that has been delegated as best they can. When tension arises between that obligation and their first allegiance to their personal moral code, members should avoid impugning the prophet’s worthiness.
The privilege and responsibility of any leader in the Church is to reap the consequences of their actions. God’s pattern is to call people who are going to make mistakes and learn from them. Even general authorities should be afforded that opportunity. One of the natural consequences for their actions may be that more people feel called to separate from the Church. The earth is the prophet’s crucible as long as God does not remove him from his place.
I would push this argument even further, and claim that a prophet speaks for God even when the prophet is being small-minded. I am defending a paradoxically conservative interpretation of D&C 68:4. “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” Based on this verse, whatever is impressed on someone’s heart from the Holy Ghost is the truth. I reaffirm this role of the Holy Ghost, in spite of the earlier claim that revelation is shaped by the vessel receiving it. The mystery of free agency is: our experience tells us that different people hear different messages from the Holy Ghost, and our scriptures tell us that they are, in each case, the truth. That verse is frequently assumed to be a promise for how true all revelations will be. Instead, it may be a definition of truth. It says that the presence of the Holy Ghost makes something true. That contradicts the world’s definition that truth is determined by some positivist external criterion. It claims that anything the Holy Ghost inspires is true, even if other people cannot reconcile that inspiration with their own. It seems that even a very poor revelation, one that sounds crazy or crude to other disciples, can still be true, so long as it was received through the Holy Ghost. More could be said about the nature of truth and free agency, but I digress.
The Church will eventually get it all right
What does all this mean when the Church mandates something that goes against a member’s conscience? The moral code of the Church and that member are at odds. For that instant, it does not seem as if the member belongs in the Church. Either the member must change, or the Church must change, or the member must leave the Church. The Lord does not consider any of those options to be a failure. As long as both the member and the prophet are operating under the influence of the Holy Ghost, they both have their own measure of truth. Neither should be ashamed of their testimony.
Fortunately, we know that a solution will arrive for the patient. The Church is growing and changing all the time. It eventually finds ways to embrace new doctrines, (e.g., “all worthy members can receive the priesthood”), without betraying the existing doctrines defended by the old guard, (e.g., “we can show love to someone without extending them the priesthood”). This is a process of enlarging the soul and enlightening the understanding rather than a simple task of favoring new ideas and discarding old ones. For it to fill the whole earth, the Church must eventually embrace every truth—even ones that are currently neglected, and even ones that appear to conflict with each other. An example of that progression is how a member who left the Church in 1969 would eventually see the tent of the church expand to include improved doctrines of racial equality. Beliefs that were true for that member in 1969 became true for millions of others in 1978.
Besides that slow outcome, there is a way for the member to obtain reconciliation. The member must also eventually embrace every truth, even the ones that appear to conflict with their existing moral code. With enough inspiration, the member could bridge the gap sufficiently to understand how God’s higher law encompasses both their side and the Church’s side of the issue. In the 1970s, there were pioneers who forged a path for the Church to grow past racist doctrines. Being a spiritual pioneer is too difficult and lonely a task to demand of anyone, however the long-term progress of the Church depends on the members who are willing to tackle such intractable issues.
While disenfranchised members wait and wait for the Church to embrace their views, they can find comfort in knowing that their Heavenly Father is ultimately on their side. They can know, through Moroni’s promise, that their cause is a true one. They can know, through Isaiah’s prophecies, that one day they will see eye to eye with the Church. All the disagreements that cause pain today are temporal problems. In the millennial rest, the spread of a more sophisticated knowledge will allow everyone to appreciate all the truth that a few activists cherish now.
These arguments could be interpreted as a carte blanche for leaders of the Church to justify any and all of their beliefs. On the other hand, these arguments open the door for the exercise of healthy dissent. There have always been ways to protest against the Church from the outside, but it is important for there to be avenues for objectors who still consider themselves allies of the Church. Such objectors can sustain the prophet, respect the prophet’s divine authority, bear testimony of Church doctrine—and still campaign for changes to the doctrine. They can profess their beliefs in a constructive manner, as worthy members. This is a model where the members don’t fight their leaders to effect change, but work together to bring about the day when all truth is unified.
If a member’s conscience has not made them an enemy of the Church, they can evangelize their ideas in a faith-promoting manner. Just because there is already one doctrine that is the will of God does not preclude the existence of a superior idea that could also be the will of God, should it be endorsed by the prophet. Note that a destructive campaign is one that claims that an existing doctrine is wrong, and that strategy can offend the faith of weaker members. Instead, it is subtly but immeasurably more mature to teach that the existing doctrine is true, and that additional knowledge could speculatively build on it. In such a way, the Saints can be prepared at a grassroots level to receive a new doctrine. Precedent teaches that a revelation can get withheld because the people are not ready for it. That one obstacle, at least, can be removed by educating the members and even future Church leaders.
The Church needs more faithful and active members willing to be progressive social activists—defenders of women’s equality, of LGBTQ rights, of historical scholarship. The conservative members of the Church need to see these activists woven into the fabric of their wards, so that the debate is not framed as a simple conflict of us versus them. One recipe for furthering a good cause is to combine the new ideas with a sincere testimony of the prophet into a convincing synthesis. It is preordained that every good cause will eventually succeed, with the only question being who will be chosen to take part in this work of redemption.