Mormonism is a church led by prophets, modeled after New Testament church of prophets, apostles, bishops and teachers and all the rest. Part of being a Mormon is to support the church, its hierarchy and the leadership. Basically, to follow the prophet. We have been taught since children, that following church leaders, staying in the boat, and all the rest, will bring with it protection against life’s storms. And we’re warned that if we disobey, we may lose out on God’s blessings. Scriptures are filled with stories of the woes of those who disobey prophetic warnings.
But here’s the deal, prophets are just people too. It’s easy to glorify scriptural prophets in the ancient world, believing they are more in tune to God then the average person. But even here, they mess up. Jonah had to be swallowed by a whale before fulfilling the mission God gave him. Peter, in the heat of the moment, denies Jesus three times. Then later, has to be convinced to share the good news of Christ’s message outside of his Jewish tribe.
With the proximity of time and place, it’s easier to find problems with our latter day Mormon prophets. Being a life-long Mormon, by far the two hardest issues to explain are that black people were kept from the priesthood and the temple up until 1978 when permission was finally granted, and that Joseph Smith implemented polygamy, a practice that continued until 1904.
Public pressure ultimately ended both practices. Stopping polygamy was a precondition for Utah to become a state. The church lifted the priesthood ban after years of both external and internal pressure and protest. As the church grew in predominantly black countries in Africa and South America, it simply couldn’t sustain leadership in these areas. And ultimately having to parse out who had black blood in their genealogy proved ultimately to be fundamentally problematic. Finally, an important article written by a black Mormon scholar was the final nudge that got President Kimball on his knees to pray for a revelation to fix a decades-long problem.
Whenever someone I knew questioned my more dogmatic Mormon claims that, for example, I belonged to the one and only true church of God restored they could simply ask how God’s church could keep temple blessings from black people for so long? Or did God really command prophets to take multiple wives? Over the years, members have come up with various reasons to explain these practices – polygamy was part of the Old Testament church, the priesthood was available only to the Jews for centuries. So, who knows why God is so selective, really, but God has shown himself to be so. These reasons I recycled in the face of such criticisms, but never convincingly.
The problem fundamentally with these sorts of apologetic answers is that they assume the church gets these issues right. The presupposition here is that the priesthood ban was from God. I don’t believe this is true. I believe that the policy was inspired by an American church founded in the midst of a deeply racist nation. In 1830, slavery was still the law of the land, and the country was only decades away from the Civil War.
And then the nearly uniformly white church moved from New York, to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois before finally settling in Utah absorbing persecution along the way, but finally placing it in the far-reaches of the desert where they could organize and grow within the safe confines of a religious state largely isolated from the rest of the country. And even for most of the 20th century, Utah has remained a largely a white state controlled mostly by a white church.
Rather than defending this practice, it’s so much easier to understand it simply as a mistake. That racism lingers within American institutions is just an inevitably given its history. Let’s accept it, account for it, and learn from it. Importantly, the church has at various times had to be nudged in the right direction by society at large.
But this brings up a bigger, more important point. God’s revelations don’t just come from within the church. In Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller put it this way:
God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. GodUsed to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.
This is revelation. It’s raining down everywhere and the church only directly captures a portion of it. In fact, the more the church isolates itself from the world, the further away from God’s revelatory streams it gets. Both the priesthood ban and polygamy germinated and grew in the churches early days, a time of segregation and isolation. Polygamy was introduced by Joseph Smith pre-Utah migration, but covertly, in secret. And ultimately the primary reason for Joseph Smith’s ultimate martyrdom and the saints resulting migration into Utah. Both practices were jettisoned as the church re-integrated. On both issues, God had moved the world ahead of the church and finally as the church finally came to terms with its place in the world, the church moved to catch up.
Coming to terms with the church’s historical prophetic mistakes puts a faithful member of the church in a quandary. How do you know whether current prophets are not making the similar mistakes now? If the prophet can’t be trusted to be correct conduits of God’s message what good are they then?
Remember, first, that yes, prophets make mistakes, but then so do all of us, egregious mistakes. Like all the rest of us, Mormons can do crazy things when they go rogue. Which is why we need checks and balances. We need the power of personal conscience and personal revelation balanced by the revelations and wisdom embedded in institutions. We desperately need multiple competing institutions acting in tension with one another, competing and correcting the worst impulses within us individually and institutionally.
If we’re all imperfect and if God works in and through all that is good in the world, I think it behooves us to stay engaged, holding our own ideas with humility. Being willing to be correct ourselves and then when we make mistakes, apologizing and make amends.
In other words, we need each other, we need to be engaged, we need to be connected, we need to share our ideas but also listen to others. I believe in the messiness of an increasingly connected world, revelation and inspiration can exist, in the messiness and not apart from it.