Setting the Record Straight: Blacks & the Mormon Priesthood

Up until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church) restricted priesthood ordination. That’s not all that odd; most religions have some restrictions placed on ordination, such as sex, education, or behavior. But the odd thing about this restriction was that all worthy male church members were permitted to be ordained except those of African origin.

This policy was, and has been, controversial, and led to speculation and false doctrine. If the policy wasn’t inspired, why was it in place? And if it was inspired, why would God restrict a certain race from exercising the priesthood? Some speculated that Black church members were (for some unknown reason) unworthy of ordination. Others speculated that God was waiting for the right time to lift the ban.

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Setting the Record Straight: Blacks & the Mormon Priesthood is part of a larger series (Setting the Record Straight) that addresses some of the controversial issues in Mormonism, both cultural and doctrinal. I’ve read a few books in this series, and I’m going to go ahead and say the quality of the book depends entirely on the author; some of them are great, and some of them are not. This one is great.

Marcus Martins, the author, is a prominent Black church member who grew up before the priesthood ban was lifted. He talks about his own bitterness about the ban, as well as his father’s faith that he should live worthy to receive the priesthood as soon as the ban was lifted. He talks about what a privilege it is for anyone to be able to exercise God’s power. He talks about some of the blatantly false doctrine he’s heard as a religion professor, and some of the questions he’s had to answer from people who questioned his faith. He also talks about how strange it was for his family to convert from another Christian faith to one where the White church members often looked down on them for … reasons. Reasons that nobody could really define, but everyone assumed were there.

I think the power of this book is that it doesn’t have answers—and doesn’t pretend to. What Martins does is point out that most of the false doctrine floating around in Mormon circles comes from “finding” answers where there are none. Martins doesn’t know why he wasn’t allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978. He doesn’t pretend to know why. And he still believes this is God’s church. But what he does do throughout the book is show how people insisting on finding the answer (and then imposing their answer on others) led to misunderstandings of doctrine.

I think this is a great book for anyone—regardless of whether you’re LDS or not—who’s interested in learning about other faiths. It talks about how wrong we can be, and how much better it is to admit we don’t know everything. It also has a very forgiving tone; he points out the racism he’s encountered and encourages everybody to be better. He talks about how important diversity of races, cultures, and experiences can be in a growing worldwide church. But he isn’t bitter; he’s just helping to solve the problem. I love his attitude of moving forward, rather than dwelling on pain. ♦

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Stand a Little Taller; Standing for Something

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Stand a Little Taller is a daily devotional collection from LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, who was known for his wit, humor, and brilliant writing. And there’s really not much to say about it, to be honest. It’s a pretty good devotional book, taken mostly from the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

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Standing for Something is a full-length book, also by Gordon B. Hinckley. This one is written more for members of other faiths (or no faith at all.) The subtitle is “10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes,” which pretty well describes his approach and organization. He discusses a few virtues that used to be more valued (like honesty,) and comes to their defense, explaining why improving our personal characters will improve our society at large.

It’s well written, and rather inspirational. Hinckley has a very strong optimism, and it’s infectious. I will admit, though, I think sometimes his optimism brought out the skeptic in me, especially when he talks about America’s glorious history. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve had some pretty great moments. But we’ve also had some embarrassing ones, and I’m not used to such one-sided praise of any society. So there were a few moments when he kind of lost me. But they usually weren’t about the main point, so I’ll still go ahead and recommend it. Overall, it gave me hope for the future. ♦

Broken Things to Mend

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I love Jeffrey R. Holland. He’s one of my favorite speakers of all time, whether the subject is religious or not. So I picked up a copy of Broken Things to Mend, which is a collection of some of his talks.

Overall, the collection is good. And by that, I mean that it seriously fell beneath my expectations—but I can’t really fault that. My expectations were unreasonably high. See, when Elder Holland gets it right, he really gets it right. He kind of pulls your heart out of your chest, squeezes it a few times, and then puts it back in there a little better than he found it. But I suppose I can’t expect him to do that every time he opens his mouth.

If you feel broken, there are a few talks in this collection that will make you weep. (Like the title sermon.) And then you’ll put yourself back together again, and be so glad to know you’re still good enough, even as broken as you feel. But then there are a lot of other talks in here that are just good, inspirational talks. Not mind-blowing. Just good.

Long story short, I recommend the book. But if you’ve got a very specific need, I would sooner recommend you just go to lds.org and search for one of Holland’s individual talks. ♥

Christmas Readings for the L.D.S. Family

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Check out this glorious artwork. This is Christmas Readings for the L.D.S. Family, compiled by George Bickerstaff. In the aftermath of my grandfather’s death (- I like using aftermath; it makes it sound like Grandpa died fighting off a rabid polar bear, instead of peacefully in a hospital bed-), we found this collection in the study, and brought it home with all the American history tomes.

I was hesitant about this one: first of all, look at the cover. I mean, there’s technically nothing wrong with it, but it does seem to say, “I’ve been sitting on this shelf for the last 40 years, and not in a ‘classic’ way.” I can overlook the artwork, however, in favor of the content. I mean, a good Christmas story is still good, even with 60’s art.

But then we come to my second hesitation: “…for the L.D.S. family.” L.D.S. stands for Latter-day Saint, as in Mormon. These are Christmas readings for Mormons. What, exactly, is so different about Mormon Christmas? Less rum in the punch, is all I can come up with. So this probably means the writers were L.D.S., and the guy got published through a local L.D.S. publishing company.

Which is true. Several of the stories were originally written for L.D.S. magazines, and a few of them are just people’s memories (dug up from their family histories) of Christmases long past among the Mormon pioneers. In an anthropological moment, one of the stories casually mentions “Father’s other wife, Hannah.”

So I had my qualms. But it’s less than 100 pages, and it’s easy reading, and most of the stories are less than 4 pages long. No big deal. And really, I got a better deal than I expected. (Easy to do that when the book is free, but still.) There were at least 2 stories that I might consider putting into a collection of my own.

There was, of course, at least one story so sappy it kind of made me gag. But you know, it was written in ’54, and it was written about a teenage boy, and it was written by a grown woman, so there was a whole lot of “Look, I totally know how to use teenage slang!”

All in all, I don’t think I would recommend buying the book. But if you’ve got easy access to it, and you’re looking for a few heartwarming Christmas stories, give it a shot. I think my favorite part was the poetry section at the end, which was (in my humble opinion) higher quality than most of the stories. ♦

The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries Ancient and Modern

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So, the thing about Talmage is this. The man is an incredible scholar. He’s a well-versed theologian. He expresses himself extremely well – probably the closest thing to C.S. Lewis the Mormon church has to offer (at least that I’ve found.) If you want to understand a doctrine, read Talmage’s commentary on it.

The trouble is, sometime when James E. Talmage was a young man, he must have had a terrible accident involving a thesaurus. The man has no capability of using small words. If “the” wasn’t a necessary glue in the English language, he would probably shun it. For example, I might write, “There were problems in the building of the temple.” Talmage writes, “Let it not be imagined that the work was carried through without hindrance or set-back.” Some of his style can be attributed to the time-period – he was writing in the early 1900’s – but he’s pretty academic.

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Here’s Talmage. He looks like a pretty intelligent fellow.

Having said that, The House of the Lord is good. It’s short (which is refreshing for Talmage), and it does an excellent job of explaining why temples are important to Mormons. I learned things I never knew, and I grew up in the church, attending the temple. I would recommend it to anyone familiar with Mormonism who wants to learn more about temple work.

I would not recommend it, however, to someone who’s just starting to learn about Mormons and their temples. For one thing, there’s the vocabulary issue. But the book was also written a hundred years ago. Talmage talks about each of the temples in existence at the time (there were less than ten), but since then, there have been well over a hundred new temples built.

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My version was published in 1968. It has an appendix explaining a few of the changes since Talmage’s day, but most of the new temples were built in or since the 90’s.

I’d say if you want to get more of an overview on temples, visit mormon.org or take BYU’s free online temple course.

It’s worth the read if you’re looking for an interesting, historical look at temple work, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a first in the genre. ♦

Want more Talmage quotes?

The New Testament

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How exactly do you review a religious work? I mean, the New Testament is quite possibly the most influential text ever written. As far as literature goes, I would argue that it’s the best of any scripture I’ve read, because it’s in fairly chronological order and tells a full story – sort of. Except that the story gets told four times, then commented on, and then there’s a slightly related prophecy at the back.

The New Testament is one of my favorite books to read, because I’m a Christian. Reading an account of Christ brings a spirit of humility and general goodness into my daily routine, as well as providing an example of the kind of person I want to be. My faith in Christ has made me who I am, and continues to shape me into a better person. I also find it poignant that in the spiritual economy of things, God felt that my salvation was worth the life of a God. So this book influences me deeply. Still, I’m not sure I would recommend it for a book club unless your group of friends is really interested in religion.

I would, however, recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it at least once, regardless of religious beliefs. (So maybe if your book club hasn’t read it yet, you ought to give it a shot.) People talk about Jesus all the time – trust me, you’ll find opportunity to discuss it. Also, I would recommend the epistles of Paul to most of my LDS friends, because I think sometimes we get so caught up in modern scripture that we forget about them. And they’re some of the best doctrinal commentary I think I’ve ever read.

Jesus Christ is the example we’ve set most of our society on (or claimed to), and I feel like this is a must-read. It builds faith for those seeking faith, and builds understanding for those seeking to understand faith. And if you’re trying to be a good person, I think it does a good job of providing a hero to follow. The King James Version (which I read) is a little dry and Shakespearean, but if you can follow the language, it’s worth it for the poetic effect. If not, pick up a more modern translation. ♥

That Primary Kid

The Primary kids needed a pianist on Sunday, so I filled in. I’ve played piano for most of my life, so it’s easy enough for me to play children’s songs; plus, it gave me a reason to stay in church without having to pay attention in sunday school.

There’s always some chill time in Primary, because there’s a lesson before (or after) singing time. This one was on the ten commandments. I sat hidden behind the piano, sneaking goldfish crackers when the kids weren’t looking, and wondering how the teacher was going to cover “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (She talked about respecting your body, then said there would be more details when they were older.) I also enjoyed watching the kids tell a newer teacher all the wrong names when she asked which child was which.

At the start of the lesson, the teacher wanted to remind the kids that we obey God’s commandments to show we love Him. She started by asking, “Who do you love?” The junior kids were all about their parents, friends, baby siblings, etc. But the second time around – when she taught the senior kids – everyone was wisecracking and claiming they didn’t love anybody.

“Nobody?” she asked. “Really? You don’t love a single person in the whole world?” A few of the younger girls giggled and started chattering out of turn.

In the midst of the noise, that kid in the back row stood up and held something up between his thumb and forefinger. “This pufferfish!” he shouted emphatically. “I love this pufferfish!”

Maybe everybody’s just used to ignoring this kid, but somehow I think I was the only one who noticed. I was quietly dying behind the piano, trying not to laugh out loud as the teacher kept on smoothly with an explanation about how much God appreciates our obedience. This is why I volunteer for Primary. ♦