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Prophetic error

Religion | LDS says early leaders were wrong on race

Issue: "The wonder of life," Jan. 25, 2014

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has issued a major statement explaining racial policies that once banned black men from the Mormon priesthood, and that excluded all African-Americans from Mormon temples. Although LDS officials rescinded these prohibitions in 1978, the church had never fully addressed their historical roots.

“Race and the Priesthood” acknowledges that the bans came about under Brigham Young and other leaders, emerging in the context of pervasive 19th-century racism that “influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.” The biblical justifications often cited for the ethnic restrictions reflected “widespread ideas about racial inferiority,” the statement says.

“Race and the Priesthood” represents a major transition for the church, especially because of Mormons’ belief in the prophetic authority of leaders such as Young. The statement implies that the racial exclusions were rooted in early Mormon leaders’ prejudices, not divine revelation.

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Patrick Mason, the Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, told me the announcement raises important questions for committed Mormons: What does it mean “that their prophets, who they believe receive revelation from God, could allow the ban to happen (and supported it either explicitly or implicitly for 125 years)? If God is leading the church through His prophets, why didn’t He step in and stop it?” Mason notes that Mormons have never technically considered their prophets infallible, but that this statement identifies a troubling case in which the prophets were certainly wrong.

Mason also commends the new pronouncement for acknowledging that the Mormon racial prohibition was not just about the priesthood, but about banning all blacks from temples, where “Mormonism’s highest rites (including marriage for eternity) take place.” 

Church of unbelief

Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones
Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong
Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones

Two British comedians who launched an “atheist church” called Sunday Assembly have generated a great deal of public discussion but are struggling to attract financial support. The founders, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, are touring the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia, raising funds through a “crowdfunding campaign” to establish Sunday Assemblies across the English-speaking world. They initially set a goal of $800,000 with a December deadline, but recently announced that they were revising the target down to $100,000. As of Christmas, they had raised about $55,000. 

Evans and Jones opened the first Sunday Assembly, which they call “a godless congregation that celebrates life,” in London in January 2013. The movement has since garnered extensive media attention, with coverage by The New York Times and other outlets. The Associated Press described Los Angeles’ Sunday Assembly as an “atheist mega-church,” although religion writer Bobby Ross Jr. pointed out that the number of Los Angeles attendees (less than 500) fell far short of the conventional megachurch definition of 2,000 congregants or more.

Alice Robb, writing for The New Republic, attended the inaugural meeting of Washington, D.C.’s Sunday Assembly. She reported that participants sang rock anthems by Queen and Bon Jovi, with Jones telling the audience that “for the next hour we’re just gonna celebrate the amazing fact that we are alive.” 

Some existing religions, such as Unitarian Universalism, balk at doctrinal certainty about God, but the Sunday Assemblies take a different approach. Jones and Evans say they accept people of all beliefs, but they have no deity and “don’t do supernatural.” One guest at the D.C. meeting told Robb the Universalists are “not the next new thing.” —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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