The belief in modern revelation is one of the distinctive features of the Church. Members of the Church sustain the leaders of the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators and look to them to declare the word of God for our time. Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 proclaims that the words of the prophets, “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.” Clearly, the current leadership of the Church has decided that homosexual activity is sinful. However, to claim that this is the end of the story would be to ignore the dynamics of revelation within the Church.
The scriptures claim that God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever . . . ,” (1 Ne. 10:18) and that he does not “vary from that which he hath said.” (Alma 7:20) However, the Church makes changes constantly, from mundane policy changes like changing the length of missions, to dramatic changes in doctrine like the manifesto banning plural marriage and the extension of the priesthood to all men regardless of race. While these changes may seem to conflict with the scriptures quoted above, it can be explained by the fact that revelation, even the revelation given to Church leaders, is limited by certain principles.
The first principle is that revelation is a human-mediated process. While the Church is led by prophets, it does not follow that all words and actions of the Church and its leaders are therefore from the Lord. It is commonly understood in the Church that the leadership of the Church receives constant revelation and guidance regarding the everyday affairs of the Church. But if we take at face value the idea that revelation guides the Church on a daily basis, it becomes easy to infer that the Church is exactly the way that God would have it be in every detail; bureaucratic inertia, political compromise, and the personal passions of individuals are assumed to have divine stamp of approval. This is not the case. Church leaders are fallible and have their own priorities and prejudices. Brigham Young said that the brethren “are all liable to err . . . and many may think that a man in my standing ought to be perfect; no such thing.”1 While it results in an imperfect expression of his will, the Lord accepts such imperfections and shortcomings. Thus, it is possible for Church policy to be based not the unadulterated word of the Lord but rather on the understandings, prejudices, and preferences of human leaders.
Secondly, revelation must be understood as the expression of the will of a perfect God to imperfect people. The process of revelation is described in the scriptures as occurring “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little . . . .” (2 Ne. 28:30) The logic of gradualism is described in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth.” (D&C 50:40) Those not prepared to receive and live a higher law will not be given the law and therefore will escape the condemnation that would come with it.
Finally, revelation is a process that is, as a rule, initiated by humans. The model for receiving revelation is to search, ponder, and pray for confirmation. God will not give knowledge that a person has not asked for, and that knowledge will not be given without study on the individual’s part. The Doctrine and Covenants explains that “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask [God] if it be right . . . .” (D&C 9:8) This requirement provides a barrier to an individual, or for that matter, the Church, receiving the will of God. If there is no concerted effort to ask and resolve a question, God will not provide an answer.
These limitations provide space for the possibility of change for the status of homosexuality in the Church. The 1978 lifting of the priesthood ban is a good example of the change of a doctrine said to be eternal. While the position of the Church in its early years seemed to be ambiguous on the question of slavery and ordination of black members to the priesthood, by the tenure of Brigham Young, the practice of denying the priesthood to blacks was established. Young spoke to the subject in 1852: “[A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] . . . in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other [p]rophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it . . . .”2 Young also declared miscegenation to be an offense worthy of death, declaring that “if the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”3
Doctrinal explanations were constructed to explain President Young’s teaching. Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt, among others, proffered the hypothesis that those of African blood were less valiant in the pre-earth life, choosing to fight for neither God nor the devil in the war in heaven. Scripture was also employed to justify the doctrine. Mormons borrowed the biblical scriptures employed to justify the ownership of slaves to justify their doctrine. Restoration scripture was used to extend this doctrine as well.
The attitudes of the Church reflected the attitudes of the wider society, which viewed blacks as inferior. While there was a difference of opinion within the Church, Oliver Cowdery’s statements against abolition are illustrative of the attitude of many at the time: “Let the blacks of the south be free, and our community is overrun with paupers, and a reckless mass of human beings, uncultivated, untaught and unaccustomed to provide for themselves for the necessaries of life—endangering the chastity of every female who might by chance be found in our streets . . . .”4 The practices of the Church in supporting segregation, denying accommodations to blacks in Church-owned hotels, and LDS hospital’s maintenance of an all-white blood bank are further evidence of Mormons taking on the attitudes of the wider population.
Changing attitudes about race inside and outside of Mormon society, as well as the practical difficulties of maintaining the priesthood ban, led to its ultimate demise in 1978. While the Church initially resisted movement toward racial integration, legal and social developments within the United States put pressure on the Church to review its position and support black civil rights, while preserving the priesthood ban. President Hugh B. Brown called for the Church to extend at least the Aaronic Priesthood to black members in 1965, and in 1969 called for the end of the ban altogether. But this was not to be at the time, and Joseph Fielding Smith, successor to President McKay, reaffirmed the status of the ban.
Meanwhile, the civil rights movement found an effective way to put pressure on the Church: its university. BYU athletic teams were met with protests when they competed at other schools, and some schools severed ties with BYU entirely. The pressure put on the Church and its members regarding the priesthood ban resulted in what Mauss called a “siege mentality”; resulting in Utah members taking precautions against the “expected black onslaught,” an increase in racist remarks and race hostility within the Church, and the circulation of rumors of black mobs attacking cars with Utah license plates.
While this pressure was significant, it is more likely that the heartache of injustice was not nearly as influential towards the lifting of the priesthood ban as the headaches of administration it caused. The priesthood ban became a quandary for proselyting efforts in Latin America, where miscegenation had caused the intermingling of African blood throughout much of the population. Men were ordained to the priesthood, only to have their privileges “suspended” because of suspicion regarding their ancestry. By 1978, there were 41,000 saints and a temple in the works in Brazil, the most racially diverse and intermixed of the countries of Latin America. In reviewing this, Mauss asserts that “[i]t seems unbelievable that a decision would deliberately have been made to build a temple in the most racially mixed country in the continent without a concomitant realization . . . that the priesthood ban would have to be ended.”
President Spencer W. Kimball, it seems, understood very well the implications of that decision. While he had been a faithful supporter of the Church’s position on the priesthood ban as a member of the Twelve, his ascension to the presidency of the Church made him feel a “direct, personal responsibility to discover the Lord’s will” regarding blacks and the priesthood. President Kimball described the process of receiving an answer: “Day after day, and especially on Saturdays and Sundays when there were no organizations [sessions] in the temple, I went there where I could be alone . . . . I was very humble . . . . I was searching for this . . . . I wanted to be sure . . . . I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.”5 Kimball encouraged the other apostles to search over the question themselves, wanting unanimous support from the brethren. Finally, the Church announced the change on September 30, 1978, where it was given to the general membership to sustain.
This episode in the Church’s history is instructive to the possibilities regarding the Church’s handling of the question of homosexuality. While Church leaders have asserted the eternal nature of commandments against homosexual conduct, those same assertions were made regarding interracial marriage and priesthood ordination by Brigham Young. While change in the Church is sometimes a slow and agonizing process, it can be done if there is a concerted effort to learn God’s will, and if the Church is ready for the change.
- BRIGHAM YOUNG, 10 JOURNAL OF DISCOURSES 212 (1865).
- Lester E. Bush, Jr., Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: A
Historical Overview, DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, Spring 1973, at 25.
- Id. at 26.
- Id. at 15.
- EDWARD L. KIMBALL, LENGTHEN YOUR STRIDE: THE PRESIDENCY OF SPENCER W. KIMBALL 217 (2005).