The policy banning people of African ancestry from the Mormon priesthood until 1978 was a mistake. The LDS Church made the admission last week and placed the blame at the feet of Brigham Young for being a man of his times. Theories of black inferiority were almost universally held by white America in 1852, when Young formalized the policy.
For years Mormonism spun tales of how a just and loving God gave blacks short shrift. I still remember them from Sunday school. They ranged from the biblical "mark of Cain" being a black skin, to black Africans goldbricking during the war in heaven. Looking back they sound like Rudyard Kipling’s "Just So Stories," a la "How the Elephant Got Its Trunk."
Now the church, appropriately, says it was all bunk.
Mormonism isn’t the only religion that has found it necessary to distance itself from its past. Early on, the Catholic Church had to decide which of the many Jesus stories in circulation were authentic, and a whole genre fancifully recounting his childhood was given the boot. For example, a typical one told of the young Jesus using his miraculous powers to fix his father Joseph’s shoddy carpentry.
The Catholic Church also admitted, after almost 400 years of reflection, that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun.
Galileo had been punished in the 1630s for teaching the heliocentric theory and, in 1992, Pope John Paul ll formally confessed the mistake. The New York Times reported, "Though the pope acknowledged that the church had done Galileo a wrong, he said the 17th-century theologians were working with the knowledge available to them at the time."
Curiously, there was a faction in the Vatican, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI) that fought against the apology. Ratzinger argued in 1990 that the church was completely within its rights in censuring Galileo and didn’t need to backtrack.
Speaking of astrophysics, there are some old Mormon notions about space that have quietly been retired. I alluded to a couple in my Thursday Salt Lake Tribune cartoon, bit.ly/IWLPae.
In 1891, the church published Oliver B. Huntington’s recollection that, "As far back as 1837. . . [Joseph Smith] said the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this Earth, and that . . . they live generally to near the age of a 1,000 years. He described the men as averaging near six feet in height, and dressing quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style."
In 1961, then-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith said, "The moon is a superior planet to the Earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen."
When Smith became church president in 1970, he was asked about this prediction. "Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I?" he replied.
There are other "doctrines" that Mormonism is apparently happy to toss in the attic and forget. For example, "Blood Atonement" and "Adam/God" don’t get any Sunday airtime these days.
Religions built on inerrancy have a tough time eating crow. But admitting past errors allows them to emphasize more positive aspects of their faith. Pope Francis recently has encouraged Catholics to focus on the central message of Christ, and Mormonism is free to fully embrace one of its core values, i.e., that God is no "respecter of persons."
"He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God." Book of Mormon, 2 Nephite 26: 33
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune
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