This is lesson plan for Gospel Doctrine Doctrine & Covenants and Church History, Lesson 37, We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet.
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually
We use the term “true and living” to describe the church a lot. When this verse was initially revealed, “living” was what was more remarkable about this phrase. They might have considered many other churches true. We all teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The focus really was on the “living” aspect. And this is what sets us apart from the rest of the Christian world. We believe in continuing revelation. We believe God continues to speak to us today.
I’d like to illustrate many of these ideas we have about prophets and modern revelation through the story of how the 1978 revelation of black LDS being able to receive the priesthood and go through the temple.
We can go back to the Brigham Young era, when Brigham Young and others in his time, spoke of black people in what we would consider racist language and taught and believed that the priesthood ban was commanded of God and would not be removed.
Fast forward to the 1960’s and 1970’s, when this was becoming a very big issue. The church had grown internationally and there were many black members in Brazil, Africa, America and elsewhere across the globe.
Bruce R. McConkie wrote in an early edition of Mormon Doctrine. And it should be noted, he was told to remove this, which he did in later editions. And also, it should be noted the church no longer publishes this book.
Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them…. Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned…
That sounds terrible and I hate reading that, but we’re going to redeem my grandmother’s cousin Bruce R. McConkie in just a little bit.
Spencer W. Kimball became the prophet on Dec. 30, 1973. His great revelation came four years later in 1978.
When Pres. Kimball, early in his presidency, was asked, he said he did not anticipate a change, but if a change would come, it would be from the Lord by revelation.
He was known to spend hours alone, studying and praying on this issue.
In 1977, he even requested his own key to the Salt Lake temple, and he would go in the evening when the temple was closed and spend hours there alone.
I love this picture that kind of illustrates this wrestle Pres. Kimball was experiencing. On one side, he had all the prior quotes from Brigham Young and others. He had the strong opinions of the other apostles like Bruce R. McConkie. Much of the arguments supporting the priesthood ban were backed in scripture (which we now understand were misunderstood interpretations). On the other side, he had story after story of faithful black saints who were praying and asking for a revelation.
I’m going to speak primarily to those who are in some way struggling with their ability to sustain the prophet. Many of us naturally fall in line with LDS teachings and it’s not a trial at all to sustain the brethren. Some of us struggle deeply with issues, disagreeing on some points, and not knowing if that disqualifies them from participating with the LDS Body of Christ. I am going to primarily speak to those people. And the rest, I hope you can gain something, and use it to understand loved ones who may be in this struggle.
So here we are. Imagine you were there in 1977. Some of you were. Imagine you’re a member in 1977. Maybe you were missionary in Brazil and baptized black members that you loved more than life. Imagine you’re a black convert. Imagine you adopted a black baby that you knew wouldn’t be able to serve a mission or get married in the temple. Is it OK to disagree with the policy? How do you express that? How do you sustain the prophet?
I want to use some material here from the book Planted by church scholar Patrick Mason. He said:
“Catholics teach that the pope is infallible, but nobody believes it. Mormons teach that the prophet is fallible, but nobody believes it.”
President Uchtdorf said:
Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question. . . . And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
Patrick Mason talks a lot about faith crisis issues. And this is going to be a theme for me as I teach, because I know loved ones that have gone through this, and I know many of us here are going through this now. He says so many of our faith crisis issues are due to an unnecessarily fundamentalistic type view of the prophets. That everything they say is as if Jesus Christ was speaking to us personally. And everything they do is perfect. That is not our doctrine. And it gets us into a lot of trouble when we think it. It gets us into binary views, it’s either all 100% correct or it’s not true. Then when one piece of information we understood that was an important part of our testimony gets challenged, we’re suddenly in a huge crisis. Because we’re not equipped with a nuanced view, to understand it’s not all or nothing. Humans and human history just doesn’t work that way.
Brigham Young said on the subject of Joseph’s translations:
I wouldn’t be surprised if the prophet should translate the Bible 40,000 times over, and yet it should be different in some places every time.
We tend to reserve our highest view of prophets and revelation for Joseph’s translation ability. But if we are to understand even Joseph, even when he was translating, that there would be that much variance, given an unchanging God. That must tell us something about what happens to revelation as it moves from God to the prophet and out to the rest of us.
24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
2 Ne 28:30
30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more;
These are the two key scriptures to understand revelation given to prophets. 1) it’s done in their weakness and after the manner of their language and 2) it’s done line upon line, precept upon precept, with more added as time passes and wisdom is increased.
D&C 21:5 shows us how to receive the prophet’s counsel.
5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
Another clue in how this works. We’re asked to receive it in “patience and faith”. If you’re perfect, you don’t ask someone to have patience with you. Here, God is asking us to have patience with the prophet. That’s an acknowledgement that it’s not always going to be perfect.
I loved general conference this last time. Every conference there are talks I just love. That really speak to me. Then there are some that I sometimes wish I didn’t hear. Or I think that’s probably meant for my spouse or my neighbor. I believe this is part of the plan and part of the genius of the restored Church. Some leaders will be right in line with us. And that’s great. And some will really challenge us. And that’s great too.
We should receive all their counsel in “patience and faith”.
OK, back to 1977. You’re back in 1977 and you just really disagree with this policy on the priesthood ban. Is that OK to think? Is it OK to express? How much is too much?
Elder D. Todd Christofferson answered this question as it relates to the issue of whether it’s ok for a member to disagree with the Church on gay marriage and when that crosses the line of disagreement which is OK to opposition which is not OK.
Daniel Woodruff (in interview with the media): “So would supporting gay marriage threaten somebody’s membership in the church? If they went out, say, on Facebook or Twitter and actively advocated for it?”
Elder Christofferson: “No. That’s not an organized, you know, effort to attack our effort or attack our functioning as a church, if you will.”
Daniel Woodruff: “So members can hold those beliefs even though they’re different from what you teach at the pulpit?”
Elder Christofferson: “Yes and we, you know, our approach in all of this, as Joseph Smith said, is persuasion. You can’t, He said you can’t use the priesthood and the authority of the church to dictate– you can’t compel, you can’t coerce– it has to be gentleness, persuasion, love unfeigned, as the words are in the scripture.”
With that Joseph Smith quote, I wanted to cover some ground the lesson wanted us to related to how things were in the early church.
Things were much more democratic than we might think in the early church. They actually voted on matters of church policy and even doctrine. When revelations were presented to the church, the members voted on whether or not they should be added to the Doctrine & Covenants. These votes were not unanimous. It was quite common to have heated debate and votes that were split among faithful members. There’s at least one well known example where the church voted against Joseph Smith on an issue. Joseph was in disagreement with Sidney Rigdon and asked the church to vote him out of his office as counselor in the First Presidency. Joseph spoke and gave his case. Sidney Rigdon spoke and defended himself. Others were allowed to speak on the matter. Then the church voted and Sidney retained his position.
Clearly, the church has evolved to the point that’s not possible. We’re a church of 15 million members in over 200 countries and languages. Part of the reason for strong, central leadership is for pragmatic purpose. But we can see, from doctrinal and theological standpoint, how this was intended to work from the beginning.
Pres. Kimball’s son wrote about his father’s feelings in this turbulent time. He appreciated the positive pleas and prayers from LDS and those weighed very heavy on him to encourage him to seek a revelation. But he said that external pressure made revelation less likely to come and reacted negatively towards militant protests and coercive methods.
I wonder if those that felt very strongly on this issue at that time felt they could answer the temple question, do you sustain the prophet? Terryl Givens said something very good on this topic, framed in today’s environment especially about the gay marriage issue. I’m aware of many good LDS who struggle deeply with this issue. They know personally gay son or daughter or friend and don’t know if they can sustain the prophet while disagreeing on this important issue.
I take “sustain” in that case to mean we support the general framework, share its common purposes, and work for its betterment… We affirm that they have the priesthood keys to administer in their office.) We pray for them and share their common purpose of building the kingdom, although we may not agree with or embrace their particular course of action at any given moment. But by recognizing their authority, and working within the parameters of kingdom governance to exert our influence on the church’s course in righteous ways, we can be faithful to our covenants even if dubious about particulars, and be true to our consciences at the same time.
I don’t think you can ever abandon your conscience. Ultimately you have to be responsible for your own lives, you have to decide for yourself what is right. President Uchtdorf has told us the brethren make mistakes, so we can’t expect perfect, unmitigated, exact truths of every kind come from the brethren. It’s coming from their minds, we have to decide how it applies to us, there’s no escaping that responsibility. But what I’m pleading for is respect for those opinions. Recognize that they come from very strong, good, very experienced men. And take what they say very, very seriously. In the end you may come down slightly different, but if your spirit is right and you really are trying to do what’s right, you’ll be ok. They’re not going to condemn you for disagreeing with something like that if you do it in the right spirit.
If we take as our model American politics, where you advocate, you fight for things, you try to remove people from office, and try to protest and arouse public opinion. This is NOT our model. Our model is brotherhood and sisterhood, where we try to work together we try to reach understanding, we have to maintain that spirit of brotherly and sisterly cooperation and within that spirit you can say all sorts of things and be just fine.
So, I think the answer to this question. Both if we step into time machine into 1977 and feel passionate disagreement with the brethren over the racist priesthood ban or if we’re here in 2017 and disagree passionately on LGBT+ policies, for example. As members who desire to be in good standing in the church:
- it’s OK to disagree
- it’s OK to passionately disagree
- it’s OK to express disagreement on facebook and social media
- it’s very positive to express desire for change with humility, and ask the brethren to seek revelation to change policies and doctrine
- it’s not OK to stage protests, campaign publicly against the church, attempt to sway public opinion against the prophet or certain church leaders
OK, so back to Pres. Kimball. He’s up in the temple late at night and pleading to God over this issue. And the revelation came. Joyous day.
Pres. Hinckley remembered it:
“There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. For me, it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his Brethren. … Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing. … Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that. Nor has the Church been quite the same.”
Reaction worldwide was overwhelmingly positive among Church members of all races. Many Latter-day Saints wept for joy at the news. Some reported feeling a collective weight lifted from their shoulders. The Church began priesthood ordinations for men of African descent immediately, and black men and women entered temples throughout the world.
Probably my favorite reaction in all of this was from Bruce R. McConkie, who we just read that statement from his first edition of Mormon Doctrine, that sounded so racist. And he probably was racist, to be honest. A lot of people in his generation were. But he repented of it. And I’m so proud of him for that. I feel his humility and repentant spirit when he spoke on this priesthood ban shortly after the revelations was received.
There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.
What a great example of a servant of God, saying “I was wrong”. Can you imagine how difficult it is for a man like Bruce R. McConkie to do that? Bless you my great uncle Bruce R.
It’s about Love
President Uchtdorf explained the need and the role of prophets:
Because Heavenly Father loves His children, He has not left them to walk through this mortal life without direction and guidance.
Today is not different from ages past. The Lord does not love the people of our day any less than in past times. One of the glorious messages of the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ is that God continues to speak to His children! He is not hidden in the heavens but speaks today as He did in ancient days.
When we speak of the role of prophets in our church, just like any other issue, I think the overarching concept that is always there that is the foundation of everything we talk about is God’s love for his children.
When I think about prophets, I always think of the interaction between the Lord of the vineyard and his servant in Jacob 5.
49 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto the servant: Let us go to and hew down the trees of the vineyard and cast them into the fire, that they shall not cumber the ground of my vineyard, for I have done all. What could I have done more for my vineyard?
50 But, behold, the servant said unto the Lord of the vineyard: Spare it a little longer.
51 And the Lord said: Yea, I will spare it a little longer, for it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard.
The servant is begging the Lord to give the vineyard another chance. Spare it a little longer.
President Monson is getting old and sick, and we will miss him when he passes away. I always feel his love for the church when he speaks and will remember him by a couple quotes.
“Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.”
And this from Elder Glen L. Rudd.
President Monson and I had the opportunity of being bishops for a number of years together while we filled thousands of bishops’ orders from the storehouse for food, clothing, and other items that were needed. He was a generous bishop. Years later he told me, “I was generous, but if I could be a bishop again, I would even be more generous than I was.”
One of my favorite allusions when it comes to prophets is from The Garden, by Michael McLean. It’s a parable showing four characters in a garden, representing the human family in a vulnerable state in desperate need of a Savior. There is a gardener there, taking care of them, representing the prophet. And then a figure representing Satan comes to tell them they’re worthless and hopeless and doomed and the gardener has no power to save them.
They come to him and say “is this true?” “what’s going on here, we were counting on you.”
The Gardener then tells them “I cannot save you, it’s true. But I am bringing good news. An Holy One will surely come. To do what we can’t do.” And then he goes into a beautiful song testifying of the love and power of Jesus Christ.
This is the role of a prophet. To love and tend and care for the flock, pointing us to Jesus Christ.