There has been a lot of discussion recently about some comments made by Professor Bott at BYU.  For me, seeing the discussions on race has been interesting, but I’d already resolved the issue for myself, much like Andrew S talked about in his recent post.  To me, it was basically just institutionalism of the racism present in US society, but that’s not the real purpose of this post.  The more interesting thing regards how we actually know what we “believe” in the LDS Church, and what are just “folk beliefs”, as some people have described that Professor Bott said.

To start, look at the Church’s official response to the controversy.  Here is an excerpt with a few points highlighted:

The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church.

… For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.   It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago.  Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

So what did Professor Bott actually say when he attempted to tell “why” the restriction was in place?  What is this implied “speculation and opinion”?  Here is part of the article in which he was quoted.  For the whole article, here is a link.

According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood…

As a result, many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades…

“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood….

“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

While may we see this as quite bigoted and racist today, where did this actually come from?  Is it merely Professor Bott’s opinion and speculation, as implied in the official response from the Church?  While he is being vilified for saying these things, did they originate with him?  Consider the following official statement from the First Presidency:

August 17, 1949

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment of the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”

President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.” The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

George Albert Smith
J. Reuben Clark
David. O. McKay

There are a number of other quotes about blacks and the priesthood, as well as various discussions off the history of the ban, but this statement from the First Presidency is fairly straightforward.  Professor Bott didn’t really say anything more or less than what has been taught by our own Prophets and Apostles.

But this leads to a quandary.  In last week’s press release, these statements were described as “speculation and opinion, not doctrine” and the Church states that it ‘is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.”  That raises the question, however, as to whether  an official statement published by the First Presidency is “speculation and opinion”?  If that’s the case, what exactly is “doctrine”’?

This same issue isn’t limited to the recent situation.  In a TIME magazine interview with President Hinckley, the following exchange took place:

Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.

A: Yeah.

Q: …about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?

A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.

Just like in the situation with Professor Bott, if there is something uncomfortable, we hear that we don’t really know where it came from, or whether it’s really doctrine.  Just like above, however, in this case the underlying teaching also came from LDS Prophets. In the King Follett discourse referenced in the interview, Joseph Smith taught “”God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” This was expanded upon by President Lorenzo Snow when he coined the couplet, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”

To me, this is a pretty amazing teaching of Mormonism, one which I would consider doctrine and one which I would argue helps set us apart from many other faiths.  Our potential to truly and actually become like God is profound.  Yet, like the issue with blacks and the priesthood, it was dismissed by President Hinckley as some archaic thing that we don’t really understand – again, opinion and speculation.

This leads to the main issue of this post.  What is our doctrine, and what is opinion and speculation?  It is a somewhat uncomfortable situation.  We teach our children to sing songs such as “Follow the prophet, he knows the way…”, yet we also teach about the fallibility of prophets and grant them the latitude to speak as men at times and prophets at times.  But when are they speaking as men, giving opinions and speculation, and when are they speaking as prophets, as the mouthpiece of God? There isn’t always a clear answer.

Fortunately, we have a mechanism in place in the LDS Church to make this absolutely clear – our canon.  Unlike other Christian faiths who often teach that the canon is closed(Revelation 22: 18-19), we teach that the canon is open – that God still speaks through prophets today as in times of old.  We have added the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine & Covenants as other books alongside the Bible – declaring them canonized scripture that contains the “official” word of God.

So, If I Were In Charge, I Would Reopen the LDS Canon.

Except for 2 Official Declarations, we haven’t added to the official canon of the LDS Church since D&C 138, nearly a century ago.  We teach that the scriptures in our canon contain God’s words to mankind through His prophets.  We teach that our prophets today continue in the same line of prophets revealing God’s word, from Adam through Abraham and Moses and Joseph Smith to us.  Yet we haven’t added to our canon for a LONG time.  Our canon is effectively closed.  Reopening it would have a number of advantages:

1) It would eliminate opinion and speculation

We would be able to point to our canonized revelations as containing our “doctrine”.  We could point people (like the author of the Washington Post article) to our “official” canon as opposed to leaving them grasping for quotes from people like Professor Bott (who, ironically, would actually seem like a great source – as he is a well-respected professor of religion at the Church’s flagship educational institution).  Just like the statement where “nature abhors a vacuum”, in the absence of any “official” source of doctrine, we are going to continue to be plagued with situations like this.

2) It would free up General Authorities when they speak

Currently, General Authorities of the Church necessarily need to be very circumspect in what they say in just about any setting.  Because we haven’t added to our canon for so long, people seem to take just about anything said by a General Authority in any setting as “doctrine”.  The Church itself has come out against this, warning against recording or otherwise distributing anything said by a General Authority in any “non-official” setting.  Having an official canon would actually free up General Authorities to once again give their opinions and feelings about things without having it misinterpreted as official doctrine.

3) It would reemphasize the role of our Prophet

We hold our prophets in high esteem.  People travel for hours to hear our prophets speak.  We broadcast their words throughout the world.  We accept the idea that they can speak directly with God and Jesus Christ to find out Their will for mankind.  We also accept that they have the possibility to have a direct “Thus saith the Lord…” type of proclamation.  Having additions to our canon where we can read “Thus saith the Lord…” as a direct communication from God to us in our day, as opposed to opinions about prior things, is very powerful.

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So, what things would make suitable additions to our canon?  I have no idea.  I don’t presume to be in a prophet’s role.  I would leave that up to God and the prophet.  If there are opinions or stories (like a $5 bill in your pocket that makes it through the wash) that serve to help refocus our minds and hearts towards God and each other, we would continue to welcome them.  But if there are specific things that God reveals through the prophet as His doctrine, we should add them to the D&C.  I would love to see the D&C grow with me through my lifetime as God continues to reveal specific doctrines for our time and day.

If I were in charge, I would reopen the LDS canon.

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(NOTE: This is part of a series of things I would change if I were in charge. Rest assured, there is little danger of this happening.  But there are specific things we could do to make the Church stronger and more tolerant of its diverse membership without changing anything doctrinal.  If you are interested in seeing any of the other ideas, here is an Overview and Topical Guide of things I would do if I were in charge.)