Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dear Mormon Missionaries (A Second Question)

[Note: This letter was written after my first meeting with the missionaries and before my second.  I am publishing it now because many of my questions remain unanswered, not least because we ran out of time (and were distracted by lots of little people wanting attention).]

When you stopped by the other day, in addition to asking for your take on the incongruities between Mormon teaching and traditional Christianity, I also asked how you deal with apparent inconsistencies within Mormonism itself.

Again, I ask in all sincerity and hope I do not give offense.  

From my outsider's perspective, it seems that LDS prophets/presidents have given differing teachings on certain issues.  Two such especially troubling issues are those of ethnic groups and of polygamy, respectively.

Here's what I see from my perspective . . .

From my reading of 2 Nephi 5:20-25, the Book of Mormon teaches that, in contrast to those who are "white [. . .] and delightsome," "dark skinned" people are "cursed," "loathsome," and inferior ("And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed" v.23).

I've also seen some quotations attributed to previous LDS leaders, directing such a sentiment toward African Americans and other specific ethic groups applying the "seed of Cain" doctrine to say that dark skinned people are spiritually inferior and that (white) Mormons should not intermarry with them.  (I know that not everything one finds on the Internet is reliable, but it looks like at least some of the citations given in the link above check out.  Please let me know if my information is bad.)

I understand that current LDS teaching does not endorse the belief that one race is superior/inferior to another, but I am troubled by the fact that blacks have only been able to hold the LDS priesthood since 1978.  I am also confused by the apparent incongruity between the statements of previous LDS leaders and the current position.  The previous teachings are deeply disturbing to me.  

Can you help me understand how you reconcile yourself with the past teachings and policies of the LDS church on the issue of race and ethnicity?

Also, while polygamy is not endorsed for present practice, it was previously an endorsed practiced.  It also seems that the current ban is temporary, that it will one day return, and that it will ultimately be practiced in the highest level of heaven.  At least such is the view I see when reading through Doctrine and Covenants 132 as well as other LDS publications.

In one LDS publication, The Desert Weekly (v.43, p. 540), quotations from the 1890 General Conference regarding polygamy are given along with the following summary of that assembly's decision to suspend the practice of plural marriage:
"Such is the authoritative position of the Mormon Church. Briefly summarized it may be read in this way:
The revelations of God given to Joseph Smith, including that on plural marriage, are binding upon the people, unless 'their enemies came upon them and hinder them from performing that work.' 
They performed their 'work' in establishing polygamy until 'their enemies came upon them and hindered them,' and disobeyed the law of the land until through persecutions and punishments they were compelled to conclude that 'it is not wisdom to make war upon sixty-five millions of people,' nor 'to carry out this principle against the laws of the nation and receive the consequences.' But it is yet to be re-established, for 'all that He has promised in this code of revelation has been fulfilled as fast as time would admit.  That which has not yet been fulfilled will be."
If polygamy is a holy state and one that is central to LDS eschatology, can you help me understand the change in emphasis today which seems to downplay the importance of plural marriage in LDS history and doctrine?

Can you help me understand the LDS position on polygamy?  I find it quite confusing.

Why do only men receive the priesthood in the LDS church?  Is the "patriarchal grip" in the marriage ceremony symbolizing that women have to enter heaven and achieve divinization through their husbands?  From some of my readings of LDS texts, I am uncertain whether women can actually become gods in the celestial kingdom or just men.  What is the official LDS teaching on this matter?

It's possible I'm reading it the wrong way, but when I read Doctrine and Covenants 132, I can't help but feel concerned by the apparent tone and attitude toward women.  It appears that Joseph Smith is informing his wife, Emma Smith, that God "commands" her to "receive all those" her husband "has been given" or else she "will be destroyed." From the context, it looks as though Joseph is being called "a ruler over" all the "virgins" given to him as "his property'; that a man's wives "belong(eth) (un)to him."  Am I reading this right?

There also seems to be some contradiction within the passage.  First it states that a man's first wife must "give her consent" before her husband "espouse the second."  However, shortly thereafter it says that if any man have a wife [. . .] and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood," and she doesn't
"believe and administer unto him, [. . . ] she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor"  (Doctrine and Covenants 132, especially 51-66).
From my outsider's perspective, it's difficult to see how this attitude toward marriage and toward women is of God.  Am I missing something?  How does LDS teaching handle this passage and the church's past practices of polygamy?

I have great respect for you and where you're coming from and do not intend to bash the LDS faith.  I ask these questions sincerely.  Understanding that you come to my door to tell me about your faith, I present you with my honest questions.  I would like to understand your position on these important issues.

Yours in Christ,


  1. Jen, I'm so glad I came across your blog (through a Google "polygamy" alert). I posted both your letters to Mormon missionaries on my Facebook page. I especially appreciate your humble spirit and the respect with which you ask your questions. The history is fundamental to the background of my most recent historical novel, THE SISTER WIFE, the first in my Brides of Gabriel series.
    In Christ,

  2. Diane! Thank you for reading and commenting. Thanks also for the kind words and for linking to me on facebook.

    Your novel sounds interesting. Makes me think of Carolyn Jessop's nonfiction bestsellers. I'll have to check it out.

  3. Hi Jen :) Check out the book Welcome All Wonders by J.A.C. Redford. He's a friend from church who was formerly Mormon and converted to Christianity. This book is his autobiography and contains his apology--warmly and winsomely written. He is an artist (composer among other things) and argues that Mormonism is too small to explain his experience of reality. I was completely glued. I have a copy somewhere if you want to borrow it.

  4. Dear Jen,

    I would invite you to follow and read the two following links:

    This is an address given by our prophet Howard W. Hunter in 1994 instructing male priesthood holders of the church about "Being Righteous Husbands and Fathers". In particular pay attention to how it addresses the questions you have asked regarding womanhood and how women are viewed by members of our church.

    and second

    from which I quote

    "This doctrine [meaning the official doctrine of the church] resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted."

    I testify to you that the God has called prophets anew to restore his church upon the earth and he leads it today with prophets and apostles guided by revelation and to whom he has given his priesthood power to act in his name. I also testify to you that The Book of Mormon is true and that it bears witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world, and it invites us to come unto him by preaching repentance, faith, baptism and the receiving of the gift of the Holy Ghost to guide us in all righteousness. This is what the Book of Mormon is all about, and this is what should be the foremost topic of discussion about the Book of Mormon and the beliefs of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-Day-Saints.

    Yours in Christ,

    -Andrew Hatch

  5. I noticed I switched the order of the two links but I'm sure you can figure out which commentary goes with which links, sorry about that.

  6. Andrew,
    Thanks for commenting and for providing the two links. I read both articles and appreciate the tenderness toward women expressed by Mr. Hunter. I also well understand how the doctrine of a church body is defined "in context" with reference to the combined body of its texts and teachings.

    Neither of the articles you provided directly address either the "seed of Cain" doctrine or polygamy. My research—which has not been done lightly, flippantly, or briskly—shows no indication that the previous teachings on these topics were out of context. Of course, there is no way I could read every document of the LDS church, but I did check some of the sources by reading, among other sources, entire articles from early prophets in the Journal of Discourses (available in its entirety online).

    The context seems to demonstrate that the teachings on polygamy were strongly for its practice before the 1890 conference and against it after the 1890 conference, with the change being attributed to outside pressure from the U.S. government.

    Similarly, before the 1970's, the "seed of Cain" doctrine was espoused and teachings were consistently given against inter-racial marriage, whereas, after 1978, the doctrine changed.

    Neither the teachings on polygamy or race appear to be "isolated statements."

    If the LDS church believes that previous prophets' teachings and practices on these matters were in error and not inspired, I would expect to find official statements to this effect. It would also seem appropriate to issue a formal apology to ethnic groups previously maligned and excluded. An apology to women for the degradation inherent in previous LDS polygamous practices would also not be out of line, in my opinion. (cf. Southern Baptist Convention renunciation of racism as well as Roman Catholic apologies for indirect complicity with Nazi persecution of the Jews.)

    Perhaps such direct statements/apologies by LDS leadership exist somewhere and I have simply not found them. If you know of such, please do let me know.

    As I suggest at the beginning of my original post above, while the previous teachings on ethnicity and polygamy deeply disturb me, I am also deeply disturbed by what appear to be significant changes in official LDS doctrine from one time period to another. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this and learning how you reconcile yourself to these phenomena. I know that you do care deeply about your family and about living a righteous life consistent with your faith.


  7. Jen,

    I'll try to address your questions simply and without length.

    Regarding plural marriage:

    I'm sure you are aware our Church is not the first to practice plural marriage. Even several prophets in the Bible had more than one wife. God has his reasons for establishing this. In context of the Church in these times, plural marriage was instituted mostly in order to take care of the demographic imbalance (more women than men) that occurred because of 1- more women converted than men and 2- there were many widows in those earlier days. These women would have had an impossible time in those less-than-modern days, under such intense persecution as there was.

    Regarding your concern with "changing doctrine", the Lord doesn't change his doctrine. However, it is somewhat flexible (not a good word). The Law of Moses being instituted and then replaced is a good example of this.

    Regarding Priesthood and Race:

    The verse you mentioned has a few different explanations. None however are fully satisfying to me. This, as you know, is something we often have to deal with in scriptures (several examples in the Bible: regarding slavery or Jesus not teaching gentiles or only the Levites having the temple priesthood). We'll someday come to learn all these things in their full light.

    I like the verse in the Book of Mormon in 2Nephi 26:33 that says:
    "...he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female..."

    Regarding Church leaders on the subject of race and the priesthood. Joseph Smith himself gave the priesthood to black men and ordained them as Seventies and missionaries. However, at some point, the policy you mentioned above (not allowing black men to hold the priesthood was never doctrine, just policy) took root in the Church. Some erroneously tried to defend the policy by citing the silly "Cain descendants" stuff. We honestly don't know why the Lord allowed this policy to take place. But if it was a mistake by Church leaders, then I'm sure you'd be able to understand that as well, in light of the history of other world-wide churches and their mistakes.

    To finish this post, I just want to say that I know without a doubt that Jesus is the Christ, that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Him, and that He restored His true Church through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I know this is true, and it brings me endless joy. Things that I don't fully understand do not bug me too much, though I look forward to someday understanding them entirely.

    Thank you for your interest in our Church!

  8. Kevin,
    I’m glad we can have this conversation in a very leisurely fashion as it is difficult to find time to sit down and write out thoughts on these important topics so close to our hearts.

    And speaking of hearts, I really appreciate your willingness to admit that you haven’t yet found a satisfying explanation of either the 2nd Nephi passage I cited or the previous LDS practice of excluding blacks from the priesthood. I appreciate your honesty and the moral conviction that enables you to say previous LDS church leaders “erroneously” made “mistakes” regarding blacks and the priesthood.

    I also appreciate the distinction you make between doctrines and practices; thank you for clarifying that.

    In the cases of plural marriage and excluding blacks, however, distinguishing between doctrine and practice does not appear to minimize the problem. In both cases, LDS leaders taught the “practice” as God’s will revealed through special revelation.

    Brigham Young taught both plural marriage and racial discrimination all while maintaining that all his discourses, “when they are copied and approved by me, they are as good Scripture as is couched in this Bible" (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 3, p. 266).

    In particular, Brigham Young claimed that his teachings on race were “the law of God.” In a sermon given on March 8, 1863, he said, “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? 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” (Journal of Discourses, 10:110).

    In addition to teaching that blacks were “the seed of Cain,” Young also taught that blacks would not have Cain’s curse lifted from them nor be able to receive the priesthood until after they had gone “down to death” and “all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood, [. . .] and have received their resurrection from the dead" (Journal of Discourses 2:143).

    You suggest that “the silly ‘Cain descendants’ stuff” is merely a mistake, one that I should understand as similar to “other world-wide churches and their mistakes.”

    But I don’t see them as similar. When a leader in the catholic-orthodox Christian tradition teaches false things of this nature, they are either defrocked/deposed in their lifetime and/or officially condemned as heretics either during or after their lifetime. If they claimed to be a prophet when making such declarations, they are condemned as false prophets.

    If Brigham Young presented false teachings as God’s truth while claiming to be God’s prophet, whose words were as good as Scripture, doesn’t that make him a false prophet?

    Where is the official LDS condemnation of these and other errant teachings of Brigham Young and the other LDS leaders who have taught similar things?