Beyond Ordinary: Faith, truth and priesthood restriction

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Keith Hamilton gives his keynote speech during a Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at BYU in Provo on Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Keith Hamilton gives his keynote speech during a Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at BYU in Provo on Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The current furor among Latter-day Saints and others set off by comments attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott exemplifies the combustibility of thought and emotions when the topics of race and religion are combined.

Bott's comments in a recent Washington Post article incited considerable reaction from bloggers and historians interested in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' prior restrictions with regard to members of African descent, and even triggered official statements from the church.

Neither the Washington Post article, subsequent commentary nor the official church statements provided any additional insight into the genesis of the priesthood restriction within the church. Speculation and opinions about the restriction had been put forth by various church leaders since the early days of the church's existence, and since that time commentators from inside and outside of the general church membership have offered their observations on the issue.

However, with its two recent statements, the church made several things very clear:

1. It is not known precisely why, how or when the priesthood restriction began in the church.

2. The restriction ended more than three decades ago with the Revelation on Priesthood received in June 1978.

3. Personal statements which offered explanations with respect to the restriction were made in the absence of direct revelation.

4. Such personal statements do not represent LDS Church doctrine.

5. The church is not bound by such speculation and opinions given with limited understanding.

6. The church condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside of the church.

For whatever reasons, I was sent a considerable amount of comments concerning others' thoughts on the Washington Post article and the church's official statements. Much of what I received focused primarily on the church's condemnation of "past racism by individuals both inside and outside of the church." Some of the comments suggested that in making its statements the church acknowledged an institutional history of racism within the church that went beyond its individual members while at the same time failing to rule out that the priesthood restriction against males of African descent may have arisen from that racist history.

Those making such comments also alluded to the church's statements of condemnation as being some sort of apology by current church leaders for the church's former priesthood and temple restrictions against members of African descent.

I cannot speak for the church or its leaders regarding the intent of the statements. However, I feel comfortable saying this: Whatever racism that may have been carried out by individuals inside or outside of the church against any person or group of persons is a matter of history, while the origin and purposes associated with the restriction of priesthood against those of African descent is a matter of faith.

The former is concerned with the manner in which mankind treats or has treated other humans, as individuals or collective bodies. The latter reflects how God deals with his children and his kingdom on earth.

The former can be ascertained by reason and logic. The latter must be gained through revelation.

The former involves learning facts. The latter involves receiving truth.

There is an inherent danger in ascribing the actions of mankind to the will and purposes of God, for God's thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. God's are higher than mankind's and mankind may only know them if and when God reveals them to us. Oftentimes God reveals a commandment or revelation to be carried out by his children without any, or a full, explanation why he is requiring the action of his children, and we should refrain from attempting to provide reasons for any of God's commandments or revelations, especially those that seem restrictive or exclusive in nature, Elder Dallin H. Oaks pointed out in the book "Life's Lessons Learned."

A perfect example involves the restricted earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. The New Testament clearly shows that Jesus taught his disciples that while he was on the earth both he and they were to go "but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel." Yet Christ never explained why his Father gave him that limitation or why he passed it on to his disciples. There are some things Heavenly Father just doesn't want us to know, one being the exact hour of the Lord's Second Coming.

As I have pondered the things I have read and heard in the aftermath of the Washington Post article, my thoughts centered around two things. The first was the relationship between faith and truth, and the second was the story of Joseph of Egypt, son of Jacob.

The apostle Paul defined faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Book of Mormon prophet Alma the Younger added that faith is "not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true."

The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that "truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come," and that "all truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself."

Thus, faith is hope, but truth is knowledge.

Moroni, the final Book of Mormon prophet who delivered the record of his people to Joseph Smith, wrote of how one may convert the hope of faith into the knowledge of truth: "[A]sk God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if [a thing is] not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unabashedly claims to be the same church and organization established by the Savior himself during his earthly sojourn, restored in these latter days through his servant Joseph Smith. It candidly claims to possess the authority of the holy priesthood of God, also restored in these latter days through Joseph Smith.

Most of the world today does not believe or accept these claims. Yet, whether the world, you or I believe or accept the claims has no bearing on their actual verity, for the truth is independent, and acts independently, of whatever you or I may accept as true. Thus, the claims are either completely true or absolutely false. Just as Jesus Christ is either the Son of God or was a mere mortal, Joseph Smith is either the prophet of the Restoration or a total fraud. There is no middle ground; they are either the one or the other.

The same goes for the LDS Church's restriction of priesthood to those of African descent prior to 1978. Either it was a policy founded by prejudiced individuals influenced by the racism of American culture and sentiment of their era, or it was something which occurred in keeping with the design and purposes of the Almighty.

In short, either it was of man or of God.

As with any matter or faith, including the aforementioned claims of the LDS Church, pronouncements by mere mortals cannot answer these questions for us. We must individually learn of gospel truth via the Lord's way — through faith in Christ and revelation by the power of the Holy Ghost. The truth about matters of faith, i.e., spiritual verities, must be proven and made known by spiritual means.

Which brings me to Joseph of Egypt, the son of Jacob, aka Israel. Joseph was the favored son of Jacob, which caused Joseph to be hated of his brothers. Their hatred toward him intensified after Joseph revealed several of his dreams to them. Initially the brothers conspired to kill Joseph, but then settled upon selling him into slavery to traders who eventually took him to Egypt.

In due time Joseph was prospered by the Lord, and upon interpreting Pharaoh's dream, became a ruler of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. As such, when famine hit the land of Canaan, he was able to gather his father and brothers into Egypt and preserve them and their families. When Joseph made himself known to his brothers, he proclaimed: "Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. ... God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God."

That posterity of Jacob settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt and, following the death of Joseph, became the enslaved Israelite nation that was freed centuries later by God through the hand of Moses. Thus, we see that through the adversity of Joseph the Lord was able to preserve the posterity of Jacob unto the fulfillment of the promises made unto Abraham, which led to both the bondage of the Israelites and their miraculous exodus by Moses.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, and his ways and thoughts are higher than man's. The Lord has yet to reveal precisely why, how or when the priesthood restriction began in the LDS Church. However, in June 1978 through revelation, God unequivocally proclaimed that the time for the lifting of the restriction had come.

And while I do not know the truth concerning why, how or when the priesthood restriction began in the church, I do know this: If you approach God with a sincere heart, faith in Christ and real intent, he will speak peace unto you concerning this matter through the power of the Comforter.

And perhaps, as with Joseph of Egypt, for reasons associated with our personal development and in accordance with his divine plan for us and others, that sense of peace is all the truth God intends for us to know about the matter until his purposes concerning it are fulfilled.

Attorney Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU law school,served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon, a "doctrimonial" addressing parts of life and the priesthood issue.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company