One of my children asked me the other day why I study so much church history. My simple answer to him was that I want to know how things really happened, and that knowing more about the past can inform our present and future. Growing up in the church and reading from only “church approved” sources and materials I was presented with a devotional approach to church history. Since I believed it to be “true,” I didn’t see much reason to bother with the particulars. Those particulars interest me very much now.
I’ve been reading “The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History,” edited by Matthew L. Harris and Newell C. Bringhurst, published Nov 2015. For anyone interested in the how and why blacks were denied Priesthood and Temple blessings, this book is critical. The book lays out the history chronologically from the time of Joseph Smith to the present day and provides commentary on actual documents (from 1st presidency statements, to letters from individuals, to public speeches) as well as some commentary on what was happening behind the scenes.
I just finished chapter 5 which presents a letter from black Latter-day Saint David Gillispie to President David O. McKay written on June 4th, 1967. This was 11 years before the ban was lifted. I was familiar with this letter but had never read it entirely, and to be honest, it affected me. There was real pain and heartache experienced by black members of the church during the ban. There were real life consequences as black males were denied access to rites of the priesthood like passing, preparing, and blessing the sacrament, collecting fast offerings, serving a mission, giving their children a name and blessing, baptizing and confirming their children, providing blessings of comfort or healing, etc. There were real life consequences as black married couples, denied sealing ordinances, raised children in the church, where they were only allowed to be married “until death do us part.” What was to become of their family after this life? Could they be reunited with a child who had passed away? How come nobody had answers for them?
It is very clearly outlined in the book that the ban was considered doctrinal and was due to blacks being less valiant in the pre-existence. They were the descendants of Cain. Their black skin was a mark upon them that demonstrated this lack of valiance. These beliefs have now be repudiated, thankfully, but that does not undo the harm it caused and this can be a useful case study in how we approach related issues in the modern day church.
“Goodness without truth is harmful. For example, Mormons once mistakenly believed that God changed people’s skin color based on their worthiness. These Mormons wanted to be good by having faith in their religious authorities, but they were ignorant of the science of skin color. And this ignorance — as is the case with all ignorance — was harmful. Ignorance is only bliss for the ignorant. It hurts everyone else.“-Jon Ogden- “Utah is divided by belief, but this ancient idea can help us close the gap”
There were two statement made in chapter 5 that really stood out to me
Eugene Orr (from the Genesis group): “…rejects the idea that sin was committed in the pre-existence. Through baptism your sins are remitted and yet you are told that you have a sin which was not remitted which was committed before earth life.” – Michael Marquardt notes from his interview with Eugene Orr, Nov 14, 1971
David Gillispie: “As these truths dawn on me, even as they have many times before, I find myself shocked out of this nightmarish day dream with the realization that it is not mearly a bad dream, but it is the truth. I realize more fully than ever before that as things stand now, I cannot receive the Holy Priesthood nor can my son for we are black, and the blood of Caine courses through and contaminates our mortal bodies. One question stands foremost in my mind, is this the will of God or the will of man?“
Here is the original letter written by David Gillispie.
You can see the response from Pres McKay here: https://ia800509.us.archive.org/24/items/ITooHaveBeenBornOfGoodlyParents/DavidGillispieLetterAndResponse.pdf
I want to emphasize these words from David Gillispie:
“The day arrived when our first born son, David, was to receive his name and a father’s blessing. What a dark cloud seemed to hang over me as I realized I could not give him that blessing because, this too is reserved for the Priesthood holder…”
“…Again, as it has so many times in the past; my friends will substitute for me In the baptism and confirmation of my son, again I will stand on the outside.”
Can you see how a woman in the modern day church, who sees no good reason why she is denied the Priesthood, could have these same feelings? Can you see how she would feel that again she will “stand on the outside?” Can you understand why a woman desiring Priesthood ordination is not satisfied when Elder Oaks says:
“But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.”
This answer is no different than the answer given to many faithful black Latter-day Saints during the ban they endured. The First Presidency, on Aug 17, 1949 stated:
“The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.”
Can you imagine how a child of a couple living in a same-sex relationship would feel as they “stand on the outside,” while their fellow brothers and sisters are allowed to be baptized and receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost, perform baptisms for the dead in the Temple, and be ordained to the offices of the Priesthood and participate in all the rites and privileges entailed therein?
This is why history is important, not to be critical of mistakes made by church leaders, but to see the examples of people like David Gillispie, who had the courage to ask the question, “Is this the will of God or the will of man?” Do we have the courage to ask the same question about current church doctrines and policies?