Inspired Leadership and the Priesthood Ban

A recent post over at BCC got me thinking again about the priesthood ban and its origins and the reasons for its continuation in the Church until 1978. Based on my study of the subject I have long ago come to the conclusion that the ban originated with Brigham Young and was never based on revelation nor on any true doctrine of the Church, but only on Brigham Young’s prejudices. None of that means that BY was a bad person or a fallen prophet. He was neither of those things, just fallible, as are all of us, and a product of his time, at least with respect to racial issues.

But that brings us to the trickier part. If this was a mistake on the part of BY, why did none of the prophets following him correct it until 1978? That seems a long time to wait for the correction of an uninspired policy that was born of ignorance and hatred.

In his post at BCC, Mark Brown suggests, based mostly on a reading of events during the prophetic leadership of Church Presidents McKay and Kimball, that the problem was that “we, as a church, hadn’t done the prerequisite hard work.” Meaning that we had not fulfilled our part of the bargain that is required in order to receive this revelation from God prior to 1978. Mark rightly credits Lester Bush and other scholars who laid the necessary groundwork to change minds, especially the minds of our leaders, on this issue.

I agree with that idea and I think it flows quite nicely from what we are already told in the scriptures about the way revelation works. But notice what this does not say: it does not say that we should relieve our leadership or the membership of the Church of the responsibility that they bear for the origin and continuation of the ban. In other words, there is no special reason why the wonderful scholastic legwork performed by Lester Bush and others could not have been done earlier, even much earlier.

Mark’s idea is also emphatically not the equivalent of the old canard that says that the priesthood ban continued as long as it did because “the members weren’t ready” to get rid of it before 1978. I say that’s crap. Ready schmeady. If it’s the right thing to do, and an inspired leader recognizes as much, he should have (and I believe would have) ended it, whether the membership was ready for that change or not. It seems clear, based on several quotes from Greg Prince’s fabulous David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism, that President McKay knew the ban was wrong and wanted to change it, but he wasn’t inspired to do so because he and the rest of the Church leadership and membership hadn’t done the work necessary to receive that inspiration. It seems as though he “took no thought save it was to ask” in the words of D&C 9:7.

This is very different from just saying “the membership wasn’t ready” as if the leaders of the Church and God himself have no role in the process except to wait around for the members to quit being such ignorant racists. Leadership requires more. Inspired leadership often can be found out front on an issue, even an unpopular one, teaching and exhorting people to come to where they know the people need to go, whether the issue is spiritual or temporal. Inspired leadership may require that you go it alone in the face of ridicule as did Noah. It may require that you be thrown to the lions as was Daniel. It may require you to give up your life, as did Abinadi and many others. Can you imagine what would have happened if Lehi had said “you know, the family just isn’t ready for this” when asked to drop everything and flee into the wilderness?

Prophets and other leaders of the Church have done this sort of thing many times throughout history and as reflected in the scriptures. We should celebrate the times when our leaders showed the inspiration and courage to lead out on an issue regardless of the cost. But we shouldn’t make excuses for the times when they didn’t do that. And the hard fact is that they just didn’t do it very early in the game on the issue of the priesthood ban.

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