LDS blacks, scholars cheer church's essay on priesthood

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 3:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 9 2014 7:23 p.m. MDT

Louis Duffy, great-great-grandson of Jane Manning James but not a Latter-day Saint, wrote a note to a member that said, "I am pleased that the official word is being shared and I'm hoping that the 'masses' will acknowledge the declaration and most importantly, immediately put it to practice." James was a black woman and LDS Church member who came to Utah with the Mormon pioneers.

Work together

Gray, a former leader of Genesis who has written books and produced documentaries about the LDS black experience, declined interview requests in December after the release of the race essay.

Today he admits only to playing "some small part" in the essay and calls it "an absolutely marvelous document" of great clarity and sensitivity. He, too, still hears some dismiss the essay and disavowal as unofficial. He said it should be viewed as an official comment from the highest church leadership, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

"I'm very much aware, and this is important, that the Brethren wrote and contributed to that document," he said.

Another black Latter-day Saint, Cathy Stokes, asked church members to see the positive in the statement and look ahead.

"We need to get this out of the way and get to work. There's a lot of work to be done in this world. We need to live, work and worship together, as Jesus would have us do. If we can't do that as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who can?"

Human failing

Mitchell went through a faith crisis that began when he was a young student at BYU. He struggled with the church's history with blacks. He was "away from the church for several years," but returned in part because other black Latter-day Saints helped him see the context of the 1800s and accept that church leaders are human and can make mistakes.

"Those don't invalidate everything else I have experienced in the faith," he said. "I feel that if I had learned these things in this more open context growing up, I don't think they would have been as damaging to me."

During the church's October 2013 general conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a counselor in the First Presidency, bluntly reminded members their leaders aren't perfect.

"And, to be perfectly frank," he said, "there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

"I suppose the church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and his doctrine is pure. But he works through us — his imperfect children — and imperfect people make mistakes."

Latter-day Saint leaders have taught from the beginnings of the church that only God is infallible, said Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University and more recently adjunct faculty in religion at the Claremont Graduate University.

"Official church discourse (both in general conferences and in publications) has always emphasized the importance not only of following the prophet, but also of the ultimate individual responsibility for building our own testimonies and seeking our own divine witness of truth," Mauss said via email. "That two-part injunction has always carried the implication that prophets are not infallible."

Within canonized LDS scripture, Joseph Smith included two revelations that referred to mistakes he made, Doctrine & Covenants 3:6 and 93:47.

Stokes said these concepts are critical to a life of faith.

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