“Sometimes, …poorly-reasoned arguments end up doing more harm than good…. While it would be a difficult phenomenon to measure, I suspect that within the population of people who have become disaffected from the Church regarding gender issues, there is a fairly large group who have left not because of Church policy per se, but rather because they found the apologetics offered for the policy to be unbearable.”Julie M. Smith, “Avoiding Collateral Damage: Creating a Woman-Friendly Mormon Apologetics,” in Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson, eds., Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2017), 167.
In February 2012, a BYU professor made waves by explaining common reasons given for the Church’s long-time temple and priesthood ban. The reaction from church officials was swift. In an official statement released the following day, church leaders declared, “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.”
This week, another BYU professor made waves in the news with remarks regarding previous racial restrictions. Brad Wilcox apologized for misspeaking at a Sunday evening fireside, but videos subsequently emerged showing that his phrasing was not a singular flub. Unlike 2012, the Church chose not to respond.
My co-bloggers Kristine A and Hawkgrrrl already wrote fabulous posts on Sunday’s fireside fiasco. I want to specifically address the problematic aspects of Brad Wilcox’s apologetics, meaning the way he justified and defended the Church’s positions. Of the three videos that have come to light, Wilcox used pretty much the same reasoning for the temple and priesthood racial restrictions in all of them. In the third video, titled “Brad Wilcox: 12 Tribes of Isreal Breakdown” (it’s misspelled on YouTube, sorry), he expanded his defense of the current restriction on women’s ordination. He also discussed polygamy. Although Wilcox’s views are shared by many members and leaders of the Church, the arguments are… lacking.
- After pointing out the biblical patriarch Jacob had multiple wives, [11:30] “‘Oh, Brother Wilcox, I’m like losing my testimony because I found out Joseph Smith was a polygamist.’ How come no one’s losing his testimony because Jacob was a polygamist!”
- After explaining that monogamy is God’s general rule per the Manifesto, [12:40] “Does God sometimes break his own laws? Yeah! Ask Nephi about that one. Yeah, sometimes for his purposes he’ll change his own rules.”
- [12:57] “Why did we have to have polygamy? I don’t know all the reasons, but I know a good one: to get me here. I’m walking on this earth because somebody lived polygamy.”
Temple and Priesthood Racial Restrictions
- [20:03] “Brother Wilcox, how come the blacks didn’t receive the priesthood until 1978? What’s with that? Was Brigham Young racist? What’s with that? Oh, you’ll hear a lot of things. Maybe we’re asking the wrong question.”
- [21:09] “Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Why didn’t the blacks get the priesthood until 1978—Why didn’t the whites get the priesthood until 1829? One thousand eight hundred twenty-nine years they waited for the priesthood to be restored. And why didn’t the Gentiles get the gospel until after the Jews? And why didn’t anybody but the tribe of Levi get the priesthood in the days of Jacob?[fn1] See, when we look at it like that, then instead of trying to figure out God’s timeline, maybe we can just be grateful. Grateful that the Gentiles received the gospel, grateful that the priesthood was restored in 1829, and grateful right down to our socks that the blacks received the priesthood in 1978. Grateful.”
Women and the Priesthood
- [22:03] “Yeah, but how come the women don’t have the priesthood? Sisters, listen very closely. You have access to every priesthood blessing. There’s not one priesthood blessing that you are denied, and you serve with priesthood authority. When you are set apart in a calling or as a missionary, you serve with priesthood authority.”
- [22:40] “And sisters, you are endowed in temples with priesthood power, and you dress in priesthood robes. So what is it you’re missing? Two things, keys and you’re missing ordination.”
- [23:43] “So please don’t mix up keys with influence. Surely there are women in the Church who have much more influence than a deacons quorum president. See, women have all the influence that they possibly could have. One thing I’ve learned since being called into the general presidency a year and a half ago is that the sisters, the nine sisters who serve as organizational presidents and counselors, are very involved with the running of the entire Church. I didn’t realize that. If you’d have asked me a year and a half ago, “What do the Primary Presidency do? Run the Primary?” No, they run the Church. They literally serve on all the executive councils of the Church, the missionary council, the priesthood and family council. They serve on the welfare, humanitarian aid council, on the temple council. They serve with apostles, and they meet with the Quorum of the Twelve every Wednesday. Every Wednesday, they meet with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Now, when you realize that the apostles, now, when they do priesthood trainings, they always go accompanied by one of these sisters who also trains with them, then you understand that the sisters are very engaged in having an influence in this church. I sit in some of those meetings, too, and I’m told to shut up. And the sisters are told to speak up. If they don’t speak up, Elder Ballard will say, “Sister Cordon! What do you think about this? Tell us what you’re thinking about this.” Does anybody ask Brother Wilcox what he’s thinking about this? No! Not at all. Sit there and smile, Brad, just sit there and smile. So women have great influence. You know that in your wards, you know that in your stakes, and you know that at the general level of the Church. Don’t mix keys up with influence.”
- [26:30] “Now why aren’t women ordained to the priesthood? Again, maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe the question we should ask is why don’t they need to be? Sisters, how many of you have ever gone into a temple to perform ordinances?… Do you realize that you are doing something that no man in the Church can do? There’s not a man in the Church that can walk into that temple to perform ordinances if he hasn’t been ordained, and yet you waltz right in. Just waltz right in! So maybe the question we should be asking is, what do women bring with them from the premortal life that men learn through ordination? Maybe that’s the question that should keep us up at night.
Okay, so let’s start with polygamy. Wilcox first argued that the practice of polygamy in the Near East during the Bronze Age (as recorded by folks in the Near East during the Iron Age) is no different than polygamy among Victorian era Euro-Americans in the United States of America. If we’re not bothered by one, we obviously shouldn’t be bothered by the other. And if we’re bothered by both, well, tough.
Second, Wilcox pointed out that God is allowed to break his rules when it suits his purposes. I mean, at least that’s consistent with the capricious deities of the ancient Near East.
Finally, Wilcox pulled out a classic: the ends justify the means. Admittedly, he’s on firm theological footing with this one. Remember the story of Tamar in the bible? She pretended to be a prostitute in order to get pregnant by her father-in-law, and that was apparently fine (Genesis 38:26). Also, you’ve got the main polygamy Gospel Topics Essay, which states, “Through the lineage of these 19th-century [polygamist] Saints have come many Latter-day Saints who have been faithful to their gospel covenants as righteous mothers and fathers; loyal disciples of Jesus Christ; devoted Church members, leaders, and missionaries; and good citizens and prominent public officials.” We needed polygamy to get all those faithful church members, and the proof is that it worked.
Let’s jump to women’s ordination. Wilcox argued first that women have access to every priesthood blessing, and they serve with priesthood authority. Isn’t that awesome? Church leaders have been saying that women serve with priesthood authority for almost ten years. In April 2014 President Oaks stated, “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be?” Sharon Eubank referenced the exciting new doctrine in a FAIR address later that year, “Elder Oaks said, ‘Women may possess Priesthood authority.’ We have never put those words in a sentence together before, I don’t think, and really felt it was right.”
Next, Wilcox stated that sisters are “endowed in temples with priesthood power, and you dress in priesthood robes.” Now this one is super cool, because people used to be excommunicated for saying it. Luckily (around 2014 coincidentally enough), church leaders changed their tune. Again, Sharon Eubank excitedly pointed out, “The apostles are trying to give us new language. In just the last year, Elder M. Russell Ballard said that ‘when endowed, both men and women are given ‘power in the Priesthood.””
Wilcox then pointed out that the female general officers serve on the Church’s executive councils and are in on all the decision-making in the Church. He emphasized, “[W]omen have all the influence that they possibly could have.” All that we possibly could have. He didn’t mention that women have been involved in those councils since all the way back in 2015! Well, it started with one woman per council. I mean, the brethren didn’t want to get too crazy. Yep, each of the three executive councils got one woman each: the Priesthood and Family Executive Council, the Temple and Family History Executive Council, and the Missionary Executive Council. Sister Bonnie Oscarson wrote at the time, “What a great time to be a woman in the Church where our voices are needed and valued more than ever.” By July 2021, women’s participation had increased to TWO female general officers per council. See? All the influence that we’d ever need.
Finally, Wilcox argued that women bring with them something from the premortal realm that men lack.[fn2] That’s why women are allowed to “waltz” into temples while men require ordination. Well, except women of black African descent. Apparently there was a glitch on that special preloaded feature between the years of 1852 and 1978, because women of black African descent weren’t allowed to waltz (or even walk) into temples to perform ordinances. Weird, right?
Which brings us to the race restrictions on temples and priesthood. First Wilcox asked the question, “Was Brigham Young racist?” To which any intelligent student of history would cry, “Heck, yeah!” I mean, even the Race and Priesthood Gospel Topic Essay explained that Brigham Young justified the priesthood ban with “widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude’ in the Territory of Utah.”
But Wilcox wasn’t really asking the audience to think about Brigham Young’s racial views. The point he was trying to make was that we shouldn’t waste time trying to understand God’s timeline. We should just be grateful that white and black men got the priesthood in 1829. It was a bummer that God revoked the blessings of the priesthood to black people in 1852, but at least Brigham Young carefully explained why men and women of black African descent fell under Cain’s curse and thus couldn’t receive ordinances beyond baptism and confirmation.[fn3] And even though Brigham Young’s entire explanation of why those restrictions were put in place have now been disavowed by the Church, it shouldn’t matter, right? Because it was obviously all according to God’s plan.
Thankfully, God scheduled for all the race restrictions to be lifted in 1978! Everyone gets the benefit of priesthood and temple blessings now, so we can just be grateful. It happened just as it was supposed to, because the ends justified the means.
And God had a special treat for women in 2014. No need to try to understand the timing. Women now have all the influence we’d ever need in the Church. We even have the priesthood! Well, minus the keys and ordination part, but apparently those aren’t a big deal. Women obviously have something that men lack, and it’s super important, cause all men need to be ordained to the priesthood to learn about it. And whatever that is, I can just be grateful to have it.
[fn1] “And why didn’t anybody but the tribe of Levi get the priesthood in the days of Jacob?” I’m sure Brother Wilcox meant “in the days of Moses,” unless the BYU Religion Department now has a policy of ignoring any timeline when it comes to priesthood.
[fn2] Totally heard this from my BYU Religion professors twenty years ago. One said that the priesthood is like a car radio. Women have a manufacturer-installed radio. Men have to use after-market parts. But women aren’t supposed to use the radio, or maybe not just play it for other people? I don’t know, the metaphor kind of broke down at that point.
[fn3] Did you know that you can read Brigham Young’s theological reasoning he gave on February 5, 1852, to the Utah Territorial Legislature? Yep, the transcription of George D. Watt’s original shorthand is just over at the Church History Library website. Brigham Young explained that since Cain slew Abel, the descendants of Cain were cursed to not have the priesthood and temple blessings until after all of Abel’s descendants got to receive the priesthood (which would be at the “redemption of the earth”). Those of black African descent “may receive the Spirit of Lord by baptism that is the end of their privilege and no power on earth give them any more power.”