Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Long Archs of a Faith

Since I’ve got my doctorate over with I’ve been cleaning out my file cabinets. One of the files I found is marked “Mormonism.” It’s been untouched for about a decade and contains all sorts of stuff I’ve collected over the years, from the time I was LDS, to the time I was Baptist and arguing against the LDS, through my whole religious journey. I see I’ve a file on every religion I’ve held, in fact, and some I never have :-).

A portion of the stuff would do little but frustrate any member of that particular faith, and I learned long ago arguing religion is futile, no matter your opponent’s faith or your faith or lack thereof.

I did, however, find a couple things I had photocopied from the U of U rare book collection that felt salient to the issues of gay LDS when I reread them. I actually went to the rare book collection to see for myself and make sure they were true and not just anti-LDS propaganda, but they were there.

The first is from the writings of President Brigham Young, in the Journal of Discourse (1860):

"You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race - that they should be the "servant of servants;" and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree. How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof."

Does that remind anyone else how gays and lesbians were talked about in the recent past, just before the new reconciliatory tone? Also, note how the Abolitionists cannot help it, just as, say, Affirmation’s meeting with the church cannot change doctrine.

The other one I found relevant was from The Juvenile Instructor, which was “designed expressly for the education and elevation of the young.” It was a sort of the 19th century magazine for LDS children and teens.

"From this [A PoGP quote] it is very clear that the mark that was set upon the descendants of Cain was a skin of blackness, and there can be no doubt that this was the mark that Cain himself received; in fact, it has been noticed in our day that men who have lost the Spirit of the Lord, and from whom His blessings have been withdrawn, have turned dark to such an extent as to excite the comments of all who have known them. "

I found this particularly interesting. It’s sort of the reverse of the idea that faith and obedience, and the supernatural can change a person’s sexual orientation in this life or the next, with skin color being the matter of choice. LDS teens were being warned about changing their skin color a century before they were warned about their sexual orientation :).

Skin color, back then, wasn’t due to the evolutionary balance between the diminished Vitamin D production when away from the equator, or the protection from cancer-causing rays by skin pigment. It was a supernatural mark/curse placed on people for the sins of their long dead forbearers, something for which they had to pay in this world in sacrifice. “The Abolitionists cannot help it,” just as gay activists cannot change the doctrine of God, so why not just grin and bear it, right? Today, in this mode of thought, attraction to men is the curse requiring a sacrifice, a burden that comes to us in the natural man from the sins of Adam, one that works contrary to some supernatural fertility belief (only if you’re a man; if you’re a woman then that same attraction to men is a great blessing :-)).

I know by experience that some of the greatest comforts are found in certainty, in the unchanging word of God and the assurances of what will come by following the associated commandments and covenants. They offer a plan and purpose, and that’s important stuff. I get that it can be offensive to say such does change in time. But it shouldn’t always be regarded as a bad thing; the change is often for the better. The Old Testament refined and civilized its pagan predecessors, just as the OT command to murder rebellious children and women who weren’t virgins at their marriage was replaced by the Golden Rule in the New Testament.

In fact, without the pleasure of the unchanging Word in mind, it can appear a bit odd that faiths with such strong histories of refinement have members that believe they are in the generation finally at the end of such change. Still, I’m sure in 1000 BC most in this same string of religion thought God’s doctrine, say, regarding the ownership of slaves would never change.

In this way, though, I see the LDS church as one of the more robust modern religious organizations. There is a centralized authority, like in Catholicism, to provide control and legitimacy, but this authority has the flexibility of liberal Protestantism. With a living prophet, it can change what’s set in stone, and has changed. Better yet, it may do so with nearer the authority, tradition, and comfort most other sorts of Christians only find in the old age of the words solidified in their King James Bible. Does that make sense?

The trick with such change is always to phrase it such that it seems to not have been a change at all, or that it was always in the master plan to change once x happened. There may be resistance, but time and time again has shown such change is possible, and if you want reformation in your church is seems key to find a way to accomplish such phrasing, in addition to making the moral argument. In fact, thinking of all the now dead faiths over our history, change really is necessary for a religion to survive, for its own good, and I have to think such change has most always been to more closely approximate what is actual good.

I just wish, for those hurting now, that these long archs of history didn't have to be measured in generations.


Molly Sue said...

I find Journal of Discourses absolutely fascinating. Although that Church "officially" says that it is not church "doctrine".

I would love to see you and your family at my "church"...Salt Lake City first UU. (Universalist Unitarian) You and the kids would fit right in.

Scot said...

“Although that Church "officially" says that it is not church "doctrine".”

Nevertheless, the darkening and lightening of skin color (and it’s use as a sign of a curse) by the supernatural’s reaction to human actions was established doctrine, wasn’t it? The Curse of Cane/Ham, the laminates (love the spellchecker ;-)), LDS minorities becoming white and delightsome and so on… Is it not doctrine anymore?

I just found the parallel interesting. It wasn’t too long ago that gay men were told by church officials they could overcome their orientation, their curse from Adam’s fall, just as it was thought skin color was a matter of your (or your father’s or grandfather’s…) choices.

“Salt Lake City first UU. (Universalist Unitarian) You and the kids would fit right in.”

Thank you. I’ve much respect for the Unitarian churches. We were, in fact, married by the Unitarians out here in Sandy, and have gone to their church off and on. But Sunday is a booked family day, and they made us sing; I can’t sing in tune to save my life :-).

On what I was thinking of with this post: I think the UUs are on near one end of that spectrum. It seems one of the biggest obstacles people have with Unitarians is the lack of that sense of certainty, authority, and permanence. You can have everything from Christians to Wiccans to Atheists supported there. To be clear, I absolutely don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s something I respect. In this way UUs can react and have reacted more quickly to newly discovered moral law and they right mistakes more easily; I just think it hurts a congregation’s numbers to not have more orthodoxy. Does that make sense?

Mr. Fob said...

The more I learn about LDS history the greater my impression that the church under Joseph Smith--who is known to have given some black men the priesthood--was much more forward-thinking than it became under his more... conservative (to be polite) successors. Smith's church was the UU of his day; it's too bad that's no longer the case.

[kɹeɪ̯g̊] said...

This was certainly accepted and preached as doctrine for about a hundred years. It's disingenuous of the church and church members to pretend otherwise. It may no longer be accepted as doctrine, but that wasn't the case until quite recently. Even in the 60s, General Authorities (like Bruce R.) were referencing exactly these types of teachings to support their claims of Blacks never getting the priesthood.

I agree that there are many parallels between the church's treatment of dark skin and the current treatment of homosexuality. What I find really fascinating is that the argument that homosexuality is a mortal affliction only is even less substantiated by scripture than the claim that if you're righteous, you'll have white skin is. That claim is part of the Book of Mormon, whereas none of the church's modern scriptures mention anything at all about homosexuality, let alone it being temporary.

Chase said...

The church always claimed that blacks would eventually be brought in to the full of the gospel. Queers have never ever had this promise. So i will see you all in a fun hell. :)

Mr. Fob said...

The church always claimed that blacks would eventually be brought in to the full of the gospel.

Except for, you know, when it didn't. Like the Brigham Young quotes cited in this post.

Chase said...

That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.

Mr. Fob said...

Ah, you're right. I misread that quote and worse, I was snarky about it. My apologies.

I'm not sure exactly what he means by "all the other descendants of Adam," though.

[kɹeɪ̯g̊] said...

I think the main point is that Brigham Young was fundamentally wrong (according to the current church doctrine) about when Blacks would get the priesthood, and why they weren't getting it then. I do realise that there are differences between homosexuality and blacks and the priesthood, but there are also many similarities.

Scot said...

Exactly my point ;-)

That’s the frustrating beauty of it all.

When these changes happen, they are most often about vocabulary, not facts.

“until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof”

That, in a normal situation (say if I were selling you a car and you were picking between models), would have a plane meaning: In the cars we sell (descendants of Adam) this model (the darker skinned subgroup) we’re talking about cannot have heated seats (the priesthood) until all other models of the cars we sell have heated seats. Okay, not the best analogy but you get the point :-).

I know all others don’t have heated seats, and therefore I’d think the model in question cannot either, if this statement is truth.

But this is not a normal situation. This is language about a faith. In this arena there is nearly no statement that can resist the powers of interpretation. Your not in Brigham’s head and there are possibilities for various interpretation, no matter how slight; you just need a non-zero possibility here.

In all, it doesn’t matter if Polygamy is a sacred law, or if the Koran says to kill unbelievers, or if Shiva actually dances to destroy the universe. You can and some of these religions do interpret around all of it. You can do it loosely like the Unitarians or Episcopals and correct your mistakes easily, or you can be more authoritative and rigid and stick to tried tradition, both extremes of which appeal and repulse certain segments of a culture and thereby determine your faith’s fate. What matters, though, is what is right; I think that is what pulls a religion to change doctrine with new cultural discoveries, or fail like so many others.

On this particular topic I can see at least as much wiggle room for gays as there was for black; the question is if and when to use it and how much does the church wan’t to risk in cutting it back. I mean, it won’t be long until most people, even in Utah, have a gay-headed family in their family.

Chase said...

I would agree. I heard that 1/4 of people have a gay member of their immediate family. With numbers it is just a matter of time.

J G-W said...

Brother Brigham was apparently on the verge of joining the Confederacy during the Civil War. And yes, best we can tell, Joseph didn't seem to have problems with ordaining blacks. The infamous priesthood ban was instituted by Brigham, without the courtesy of a revelation reversing Joseph's practice.

I guess the more theologically interesting question is whether the 1978 revelation should be considered a correction of incorrect practice in the Church, or the modification of a divinely required practice. The fact that Joseph ordained blacks to me suggests the former...

[kɹeɪ̯g̊] said...

I guess the more theologically interesting question is whether the 1978 revelation should be considered a correction of incorrect practice in the Church, or the modification of a divinely required practice. The fact that Joseph ordained blacks to me suggests the former...,

I'd tend to agree. However this contradicts the official church position and certainly the culture surrounding this issue.

Chase said...

Apostle Spencer W. Kimball in 1963 said, "The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation." Hmmm Kimball even said "possible error," interesting.

J G-W said...

Wow! If Spencer Kimball referred to the ban as a "possible error," I'm not sure what's more significant -- that he acknowledged the policy could have been an error, or that he admitted to not knowing. Extremely cool quote. Where did you get it?

Chase said...

I originally got it off wikipedia :) But it appears in this book Kimball, Edward L.. The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball. Bookcraft, 448-9.

J G-W said...

I have that book, but haven't read it yet. Now I guess I'll have to put it on the top of my short list of "to read."

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