Recently, I received a surprise gift in the mail from a friend: Elder Dallin H. Oaks' new book, "Life's Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections." I am grateful for the thoughtfulness of my friend, who desires to remain unidentified.
My friend sent me the book, along with a very kind and uplifting note, in appreciation of the thoughts and my testimony contained in a book I had written, which he had just completed. Given some of the subject matter of my book, my friend invited me to pay particular attention to Chapter 16 of Elder Oaks' book, titled "Assigning Reasons to Revelation."
Elder Oaks certainly needs no endorsement of his book from me, nor am I qualified to write a literary review of the book, and I seek to do neither. However, I would like to share a few thoughts on some of the impressions left upon me by Elder Oaks in his book.
"Life's Lessons Learned" masterfully blends some of the apostle's experiences — from early childhood to the present — with doctrines of the gospel in what Elder Oaks describes in the introduction as "an autobiography of learning and application rather than a compendium of doctrine."
Through the selected experiences shared in the book, I was able to peer into the heart of the latter-day special witness of Christ and again recognize that the Lord calls ordinary men and women to carry out his extraordinary and divine work, or as the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph in what is recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 1:23, "that the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and simple unto the ends of the world."
As distinguished a professional and ecclesiastical life as Elder Oaks has had thus far, it seems irreverent to refer to him as one of the Lord's "weak and simple," yet I believe the apostle himself would humbly affirm that the words aptly fit him.
In 38 short but powerful chapters — the average length of a chapter is four pages — Elder Oaks relates personal lessons learned from important events or circumstances in his life. For example, one such impactful circumstance was the death of his father not long before his eighth birthday. He also presents insightful observations on topics such as the importance of respecting those with whom we disagree personally or politically, the purpose of adversity, and how the Lord can bring forth "good fruit" from even "corrupt" trees.
Elder Oaks ends each chapter with a one- or two-sentence summary of the lesson learned in relation to the topic of the chapter. It was in those succinct summations where I found the greatest food for thought from his book.
In Chapter 16, Elder Oaks relates how, from two well-known events, he learned "the folly of making additions to or attempting to assign reasons for the Lord's revelations to his prophets." I believe a key reason my friend requested that I pay special attention to the chapter is because one of the events of which Elder Oaks writes is the 1978 revelation on priesthood wherein the LDS Church extended the right of priesthood to all worthy males "without regard for race or color."
As my friend did with me, I encourage you to read the chapter (and the entire book) and formulate your own opinions concerning it. What impressed me most was Elder Oaks' summary sentence: "Mortals should not attempt to provide reasons for Divine commandments or revelations."
Unfortunately, during the LDS Church's history, such attempts have plentifully occurred with respect to the 1978 revelation on priesthood, and especially regarding the need for the revelation in the first place. There has been much said that has weakened testimonies of the Saints, served as stumbling blocks for genuine truth-seekers or fueled the fires of those in opposition to the LDS Church.
I, for one, have consistently stated that I do not know why the right of priesthood and the exalting temple ordinances and blessings were withheld from blacks during most of the existence of the LDS Church. Also, I have not shied away from expressing my belief that in order for one to gain a true understanding of the restrictions, and their lifting in 1978, one must exercise faith in Christ and temper one's knowledge of historical evidence with an eternal perspective.
On the back cover of "Life's Lessons Learned" are found these words from Elder Oaks: "We are commanded to learn by both reason and revelation. Our learnings should be disciplined by human reason and also enlightened by divine revelation. In the end, truth has only one content and one source." I truly believe in those words.
With two Mormons vying as legitimate candidates for the opportunity to face the black incumbent in our nation's next presidential election, both the United States of America and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints find themselves at an unprecedented time and place in their respective histories. Most blacks and Mormons of my generation or older never imagined they would ever see such a day and circumstance.
Thus, I believe it is imperative that all Americans — LDS, black or otherwise — be able to clearly distinguish truth from error with regard to the holy priesthood of God, its divine bestowal throughout the ages and its receipt by differing individuals, groups, peoples and nations since the days of Adam and especially since the establishment of the LDS Church — a time known as "the last dispensation" or "the dispensation of the fulness of times."
Attorney Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU law school and former chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon."