The latest installation of the biweekly Deseret News column by William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson has appeared:
There’s speculation in some circles about what he might say. For example:
I don’t expect an apology, myself, and, if I were the one speaking, I wouldn’t offer one. (What President Nelson might do, of course, I do not know.)
I expect that my disinclination to apologize will earn me considerable flak. It’s not a politically correct stance to take, and some, no doubt, will say that it’s an immoral one. I get that.
But permit me to explain.
I found the pre-1978 priesthood ban baffling and, to say the least of it, awkward, and I was absolutely delighted when the news of the revelation rescinding it reached me in Switzerland. Now, black men and boys could be ordained to the priesthood, black men and women of the appropriate ages could enter the temples of the Church, and black families could be sealed in those temples for time and all eternity. I still remember where I was when I heard the news, and I recall very clearly the glow that enveloped me for days thereafter.
That said, though, I tend to resist confident assertions that the priesthood policy was, simply, the product of racism — whether Brigham Young’s or more general — that it was an evil mistake, and that the Church should therefore apologize for it. I have no theory of its origin to offer, no theological justification to provide for it, no apologetic to make on its behalf. I simply point to the fact that at least some Church leaders had hoped to rescind it earlier but felt themselves prevented (by the Lord himself) from doing so.
Now, obviously, such an argument will carry little if any weight with those who believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by ordinary mortals (or, even, by less than ordinary mortals) who have no access to the mind of God. But for me, since I believe that there is a God and that he stands in a special revelatory relationship with the prophets and apostles at the helm of the Church, it’s pivotal.
Here is a specific illustration of what I have in mind, drawn from Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 103-104, 183:
It appears that President Hugh B. Brown, the first First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of whom I was aware and a man for whom I felt and still feel considerable veneration, really hoped to see the priesthood exclusion policy overturned. Therefore, he attempted to persuade President David O. McKay to make that change.
Reportedly, President McKay told some people that he had prayed about the matter and that the answer was “Not yet.” In fact, according to Richard Jackson, President McKay said that he had prayed repeatedly about the question and that he was told by the Lord to not bring the subject up again, that the change would come, but not during his administration. The Prophet even seems to have felt himself somewhat rebuked:
“I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.”
If accurately reported and true, these accounts strongly suggest that, for his own inscrutable reasons, the Lord himself permitted the ban to continue until June 1978. And that would tend to suggest that the policy was something more than merely the lamentable product of regrettable (and undeniable) nineteenth-century racism.
The opening sentence of Gregory A. Prince, “David O. McKay and Blacks: Building the Foundation for the 1978 Revelation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35/1 (June 2010): 145, which quotes a General Authority who served under President McKay, is significant here: “If there was ever a person, in terms of social justice in our society, for fairness, it would have been David O. McKay. Had it been up to him, alone, he would have given the Black the priesthood that quick!”
But President McKay — like President Spencer W. Kimball after him — plainly didn’t believe that a resolution of the matter was simply “up to him, alone.” Both President McKay and President Kimball believed that lifting the race-based restriction on access to priesthood ordination would need to be authorized by clear revelation. And both — both — believed themselves to have received revelation on the subject.
That is why, deeply happy though I am that the priesthood ban is no longer in place, I find myself unable simply to brush it off as a human mistake or as the simple and glaringly obvious product of human sin — however much it may look like precisely that.
And I’m thrilled that President Nelson, successor to Brigham Young and to David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball, will be addressing the NAACP on Sunday. I’m praying for him and for his audience.