Updated: Jul 11, 2022
"And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof; and ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once, lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the graft, and the graft thereof shall perish, and I lose the trees of my vineyard" (Jacob 5:65).
According to the current teachings of President Russell M. Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it appears that former president Brigham Young (1801-1877) was wrong about race. How do I reconcile that with the promise that the Lord will not allow his prophet to lead the Church astray?
Before I explore this, I just want to note that I am very late with this post. That's because I have felt prompted to refocus my personal gospel study on the Book of Mormon. I have found it personally valuable to explore perplexing questions in the light of the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets. But not when that study is at the expense of a daily deep-dive into the Book of Mormon. So, since my time is short, I've recalculated my priorities. I have also been launching a business, so I'm no longer posting weekly.
Back to my question. The promise I referenced above was first made by then-president Wilford Woodruff, who said:
“I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff [Bookcraft, 1946], pp. 212–13.)
Does that mean that the President of the Church cannot teach things that are not true, or God would remove him as prophet? I don't think the language bears that interpretation out.
As I read it, the language addresses intention. It says that if the President of the Church were to develop a personal agenda in opposition to the Lord's and were then to abuse his position of trust and authority in an attempt to lead us away from the path the Lord had revealed to him, the Lord would remove him from his place.
This is about the destiny of the restored Church in this dispensation: to prepare the saints to become a people who can receive the Lord at the Second Coming. Unlike every previous dispensation of the gospel, our dispensation is to end with the millennium instead of apostasy. The promise is that the Lord will continue hands-on shepherding of the Church toward that end and will not permit it to be hijacked by an anointed servant who changes his allegiance.
It is not, however, a promise that the prophets will be infallible nor that they will have unimpeachable judgment. When has infallibility or unimpeachable judgment ever characterized the prophets? That's certainly not the picture that comes across in the Old Testament or the New.
The whole idea that not leading us astray means prophets can't make mistakes or be gravely wrong in their opinions and cultural practices rests on the notion that prophets and the people of the Church are currently capable of walking a perfect path; one that is fully consistent with the goodness and purity of God. If we were on such a path, then any veering off of it would be leading us astray.
But as I study the Old Testament, it becomes evident that the ancient prophets weren't even capable of discerning such a path -- that they did in good conscience many things that are horrifying to us today. The more I learn, the more I'm convinced that I'm not capable of discerning such a path either. And that the Lord has been and continues to be patiently leading His people out of darkness toward His light.
In Isaiah 51:8, the Lord says, "My righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation." I think that means that salvation from wickedness is a process of many generations. We're not there yet. Figuratively, we who seek to embrace the gospel are like the Children of Israel after they came out of Egyptian captivity and before they took possession of their promised land. They did not travel in a straight line through the Sinai desert, but wandered for decades along a round-a-bout course from the Red Sea to the Holy Land. We say "wandered" but they had ongoing guidance from the Lord through His prophet. At one point, early on, they arrived at the borders of their inheritance, only to discover that they were not yet ready to claim it. So the Lord led them on a circuitous path over the course of 40 years, until at last they trusted Him enough that they were ready to cross the Jordan River. Similarly, despite two centuries of ongoing guidance through modern prophets, we still struggle to understand our promised land: a Zion society. So the Lord continues to lead us from where we are as a people, to where we need to be.
To give a concrete example, I'll return to the question at the beginning of this post: how do I reconcile Brigham Young's teachings on race and slavery with the Lord's promise that He will not suffer His prophet to lead the people astray? Here's a brief summary of the apparent discrepancy: During his lifetime, Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery and ordained several Black men to the Priesthood. Then, in 1852, Brigham Young addressed the Utah territorial legislature and said that Black Africans were the seed of Cain and had been cursed to serve their brethren, so slavery was a blessing. He argued that one consequence of Cain's killing Abel was that Cain's seed would not be allowed to hold the priesthood until all the rest of Adam's seed had been given that opportunity. He seemed to suggest that the curse upon them disqualified them from voting. He also declared it a grievous sin (that might be mitigated by blood atonement) for holders of the priesthood to interbreed with them. Later, some Church leaders taught that Blacks were less valiant in the pre-mortal life.
Those policies and teachings were overturned with the 1978 revelation on the priesthood that extended the privilege of ordination to all worthy men, regardless of race.
I am not convinced that the Lord didn't have His own, redemptive reasons for delaying the extension of the priesthood to those of African descent. I don't know why it was that when President David O McKay petitioned the Lord for permission to end the ban, he was told, not yet. I only know that whatever reasons the Lord had for waiting until 1978 to reveal His will to President Kimball, it had nothing to do with Blacks being less worthy in any way than any others of our Heavenly Father's children.
I can feel confident about this because the Church-published Gospel Topic's essay, "Race and the Priesthood" states:
"Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
In 2020, President Nelson declared, "We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin."
Does that discrepancy between Brigham Young's teachings and those of Joseph Smith and more recent prophets mean that the Lord allowed Brigham Young to lead His people astray?
I believe a better way to describe what happened is the Lord allowed Brigham Young to believe and teach doctrines that were wrong because he was leading a people who were not yet ready to embrace the truth of racial equality. Racism was so prevalent and deeply ingrained at the time that in 1857, the US Supreme Court ruled that African Americans were "unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect".
Significantly, President Young taught something that brought his people closer to the promised land than what the Supreme Court was promulgating at the time. He described the then-current practice of slavery as abusive. He said of slaves:
"those they serve should use them with all the heart and feeling as they would use their own children and their compassion should reach over them and round about them and treat them as kindly and with that humane feeling necessary to be shown to mortal beings of the human species" (Historian's Office Report of Speeches, 1845-1885/Brigham Young, 1852, Feb 5, pg 6).
It is clear from the historical records that, while President Young's teachings would have been a call forward toward Zion for many of the Saints who saw their Black brothers and sisters as subhuman, for others, whose understanding of racial equality was closer to the Prophet Joseph Smith's, they would have been deeply disappointing, puzzling, maybe even faith-shaking. Looking back, I hope that, if I had been living at that time and had understood what President Young's prejudices prevented him from understanding, I would have been able to find solace in Zenos' Allegory of the Vineyard, as recorded in Jacob 5. In that allegory, after organizing a final pruning (ushering in this dispensation) the Lord instructs his servant:
"And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof; and ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once, lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the graft, and the graft thereof shall perish, and I lose the trees of my vineyard.
For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard; wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire, that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard; and thus will I sweep away the bad out of my vineyard" (Jacob 5:65-66).
It has never been the Lord's plan to carry us instantaneously out of our inherited blindness into the full brightness of the love of God. We're not ready to endure that light. Becoming ready is a process that involves the gradual shrugging off of false concepts and benighted attitudes as we grow in light and truth, line upon line. And that growth is going to be uneven in a global community, where we come from different backgrounds with varying life experiences.
If I had lived during the time of Brigham Young and if I had already been led to an understanding of racial equality, ahead of him, I would still have needed to remember that it was President Young's commission, not mine, to lead the Church. In order to sustain the prophet, I would have had to abandon any political campaigning to abolish slavery in Utah. But that would not mean leaving things as they were. Instead, I could have adopted a campaign to promulgate Pres. Young's teachings that we should treat our Black brothers and sisters with the same compassion and kindness with which we regard our own children. I could have trusted that, as my fellow-saints embraced and practiced that teaching, their support for slavery would gradually fall away and the Lord would give his prophet new direction when we were ready.
For me, that is what it means to follow a fallible prophet. It means living according to my current understanding of the gospel while trusting God to direct his mouthpiece according to what we, as a people, need to know right now. And, if I personally have reservations about aspects of current practices or even teachings, it means giving full-throated support to whatever direction from the Brethren I can get behind and bending my efforts to helping the good to grow. I can trust the Lord to remove the bad when the good has overcome it. And I can trust the prophet to be listening for that direction which the Lord will give him, in His own due time.