Adjusting The Narrative: Introduction and Proposal

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A New Day

For many, the recent addition of an explanatory header to Official Declaration 2 in the 2013 LDS edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was a breath of fresh air (see posts and comments here, here, here and here for a sample), legitimizing a position already held and hoped for, but previously only hinted at being officially supported by a newsroom statement: that the Church is no longer actively defending or advocating the position that the restriction against people of black African descent receiving the Priesthood had divine revelation as its source.

Not surprisingly, however, there are members for whom this is a shock, and a bit disconcerting. Some are even in denial at the implications. Given the history and authoritative statements older generations were taught and in many cases piously defended, this is very understandable, and I believe should be met with compassion rather than derision.

Brigham Young’s thoughts and expressions about people of black African descent are fairly well known as a general class, though perhaps not in their intimate details. Likewise, the general class of them can be easily dismissed by modern members as a product of culture, and not in any way binding on the Church or representing the mind of the Lord.[1] They are seen as unfortunate and embarrassing when spoken by someone holding the mantle of a Prophet of Jesus Christ, but not a deal breaker when it comes to prophetic authority, mainly because they do not present themselves as revelations. In the words of Bruce R. McConkie’s famous admonition, “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.”

But what about “In The Name of Jesus Christ”?

In an online discussion about the new change to the header, one member who was quite willing to acknowledge missteps by Church leaders, even those by Brigham Young, nevertheless was noticeably concerned about what he saw as an authoritative prophetic declaration by Brigham Young concerning the ‘seed of Cain’ that seemed to be ignored or brushed away by the new ‘adjustment’.

The specific statement in question comes from the Wilford Woodruff Journal, January 1852, [2], where President Young is reported as having declared on the subject of slavery in a meeting before the Utah Territorial Assembly, “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood, and if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.

Now, it is important to point out that Brigham Young was very explicit in the context of that discourse that he understood the term Seed of Cain to refer to “Negroes,” people of black African descent. Brigham Young’s many sermons leave no doubt that this is how he understood the term.

Now, in regards to the modern conversation, it is the firm ‘I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ’ that was problematic for this message board poster and others involved in the conversation. I suspect many strong members would respond similarly if presented with such a declaration.

While some might accurately note that the authority to declare it is invoked in this quotation without an actual statement that the knowledge being declared was learned explicitly from Jesus Christ, one forum poster expressed his view that “This would be an abuse of priesthood, if true. I can not believe that if a prophet did this, off his own back, that it would be good for him in the hereafter.”

This epitomizes the understandable view that while it is easy to declare a statement by a prophet to be an opinion or interpretation, a statement given by a Prophet “In the name of Jesus Christ” is hard not to see as akin to an Ex Cathedra affirmation.

Mingled With Scripture

So with this in mind, a set of questions arose: would it be possible to accept this seeming prophetic statement as being authoritative – while recognizing the interpretation and implementation of this utterance as applying to people of black African descent was faulty? Even if the faulty explanation comes in the same message as the “name of the Lord”/Ex Cathedra declaration itself?

For those who are not believing members, the distinction between ‘speaking as a man’ and ‘speaking for the Lord’ is nonexistent – the source is necessarily understood as being the same. But it must be acknowledged that for the community of believers, such distinctions do matter, and can have significant practical ramifications in beliefs, which lead to actions, attitudes, and behaviors. In fact, members are significantly authoritatively taught not to settle for “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

With this perspective in mind, it is very interesting to note that, as far as I am aware, this is the only known citation where explicit personal authority is invoked in the declaration of the Priesthood restriction on the ‘Seed of Cain’. As an example, a search of all 9,785 pages of the Journal of Discourses came up with a total of barely 4 pages worth of Brigham Young material giving his thoughts on the matter, and while it remains clear his mind is on people of black African descent,  none of it made reference to a specific revelation on the subject, or expressed an authoritative declaration like the one cited above from Wilford Woodruff’s account of January 1852. Other references evidence the same, and even allow for significant doubt that what was reported as an authoritative declaration by Wilford Woodruff was completely accurate to begin with [3] !

a Narrative Proposal

Latter-day Saint beliefs are powerfully shaped by narratives – stories. A unique problem arises when a new development becomes incompatible or incomprehensible with the present narrative, or way of telling our unique Latter-day Saint story.  [4]

To go further, I would even say that if a point can’t be compressed into a Sunday School class, Seminary Lesson, or General Conference anecdote, it becomes orphaned, hard to teach, and difficult to integrate into the overall narrative of the Latter-day Saint Story. It creates dissonance.

So what is the faithful, believing Latter-day Saint, who also holds immovable stock in ‘In the name of Jesus Christ’ revelations to do with a Church position that is increasingly moving away from supporting the idea of an authentic revelatory beginning for the practice of banning men and women of black African descent from the Priesthood and Temple ordinances?

I would like to propose that the power of Latter-day Saint narrative – and the authority given to precedence in Scripture – already contains incredibly useful (yet so far untapped) insight in how to integrate this increasingly ‘adjusted’ official view of the Priesthood and Temple restriction (and perhaps other key traditional LDS tenets) with the concept of  authoritative or even scriptural statements that can still be affirmed and acknowledged as a true declaration by faithful members, while still understanding that a revelatory statement or scripture nevertheless went misunderstood and misapplied for generations, at times even beginning with the individual who revealed it.

I will be proposing, and then illustrating, that we already have, in our scriptures, an effective tool, “adapted to the capacity” of the least historically and scholastically conversant member of the Church, that has the potential to put to rest the tension currently lying in the disrupted LDS narrative,   one that addresses the problematic history in place of passing over it. And it is all done in re-visiting, re-reading, and applying the stories already found to be recounted in Scripture.

I am planning to approach this in 3 parts [5].

  • First, in part 1, I will use the doctrinal matter at hand as a case study, and identify a robust and clear scriptural meaning for ‘Seed of Cain’ that would serve to fill the vacuum created by the necessity of divorcing it from the unfounded and destructive past folk philosophies of men identifying it with people of black African descent, allowing also, if it is felt to be needed, to have significant and relevant meaning in the one isolated ‘name of Jesus Christ’ statement possibly uttered by Brigham Young.
  • Part 2 will illustrate what I see as a strong and important precedence contained in the Book of Mormon narrative for a ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ statement being given that stands alone, and then, in the same message wherein it is reported, is immediately expanded upon and misinterpreted by the assumptions of a prophetic leader, leading to generations of misapplication, until it is corrected by Revelation. [6]
  • Part 3, will be putting all this to the test. I plan to attempt to present something akin to a Sunday School (or Seminary) lesson that would test the strength and ability of the narrative I have laid out in the previous parts of this study, concisely teaching and applying the principles in a way that would have the intended effect to
    • 1) end the historical tension
    • 2) bolster and reaffirm scriptural and prophetic authority
    • 3) acknowledge the existence of fallibility and past philosophies of men traditionally believed and taught by leaders, all without the appearance of needlessly tossing the whole Brigham Young bath out with the bathwater.

Look for part 1 to be posted on Tuesday.

[1] I am not going to go into details of the historical traditions leading up to the association of African blacks with the Seed of Cain, and Curse of Cain/Ham. Others have done that much better than I ever could, and this history is mostly independent of the specific purpose at hand.

[2] There is a typescript pdf of selections from Wilford Woodruff’s journal found here – http://www.nhfelt.org/Doc_Other/Woodruff_Wilford.pdf – I would be happy to replace this with a link to a better transcript, or even an image of the document, but I am currently unaware of one available online.

[3] A very  important note before we continue. As far as I am aware, and as brought to my attention by fellow WWE blogger Clair Barrus, there is one another expanded account of this address transcribed by George D. Watt which muddies the waters in pretty much every significant way, including removing the specific act of direct authoritative proclamation, and separating the concept of apostolic or prophetic precedent in declaring it from the explicit subjects at hand. The account reads,  “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ [that] spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are; I know that they cannot bear rule in the Priesthood, for the curse on them was to remain upon them until the residue of the posterity of Michael and his wife receive the blessings, the seed of Cain would have received had they not been cursed, and hold the keys of the Priesthood until the times of the restitution shall come, and the curse be wiped off from the earth and from Michael’s seed. Then Cain’s seed will be had in remembrance and the time come when the curse should be wiped off. Now, then, in the Kingdom of God on the earth, a man who has the African blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of Priesthood.”, as cited in The Teachings of President Brigham Young, Vol. 3, 1852-1854. Fred Collier, ed.

If this presentation of the text is found to be more accurate, then I acknowledge that the initial instance of the problem which began my train of thought leading to this post would be rendered completely moot. However, I feel there are other scenarios where what will be presented still apply in important ways. Because of this, I will proceed on the premise that the Woodruff Journal account presents an accurate record of a Brigham Young authoritative declaration. Either way, such a highly conflicting account of the one known alleged prophetic pronouncement on the subject adds credence to the Church’s declaration in the new header that, in relation to any revelatory beginning for the ban, “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.

[4] WWE’s Bridget Jack Jeffries has previously explored one potential approach of ‘normalizing’ the narrative in context to the Priesthood ban.

[5] Which I do not promise will not be further divided into sub-parts.

[6] Even if the citation in footnote [3] ends up being closer to reality, than the Woodruff Journal, this part will still create a strong scriptural precedence for a misunderstood or misinterpreted revelation or scripture – whether given by that prophet or not.


Comments

Adjusting The Narrative: Introduction and Proposal — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you, David. Really looking forward to reading the BofM analysis you’ve hinted at.

    Well done!

  2. Pingback: Volume 2.11 (March 11-17) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law

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