I’m voting “NO!”
The 2023 Conference’s Resolutions came out today, and there were several that have stuck out to me. One that was especially concerning to me was the resolution from the Coastal Bend USA Mission Center. I would like to repeat the resolution in its entirety and give my thoughts on it.
G-2 Recommendation to move Doctrine and Covenants Section 116 to Historical Records
Whereas, Section 116 of the Doctrine and Covenants, first given in 1865, has caused some concern and misunderstanding of our beliefs relating to the worth of all people and the inclusion of people of all races in the work of the church; therefore, be it
Resolved, That the First Presidency consider removing Section 116 from the Doctrine and Covenants and placing it in our historical records with other sections that have been removed.
The Book of Abraham was a book which Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to be the writings of Abraham. This book directly and explicitly discriminates against people of color. While we never canonized it, other churches in the Latter Day Saint movement have used this book to justify racially-based priesthood bans. This same racism was present in the early years of the Reorganization, and there was a hot debate about whether people of color should be preached to. Others wondered if they should have access to the priesthood or not. Some wondered if people of color could be ministers or if they needed white supervision. This came to a head in the 1865 conference, right as the US’s Civil War was winding down.
While this was the chief focus of the conference, there was no resolution made there. In fact, the Council of Twelve and the First Presidency agreed that a revelation would be needed to clarify the matter. I like to say that every D&C section is an answer to a question, and this is no exception. On May 4, 1865 Joseph Smith III received by revelation what would become D&C 116. This settled the matter that people of color should be preached to and have access to the priesthood. We then canonized this revelation as binding scripture on September 13th, 1878 with WCR 216.
This section isn’t very long; only 4 short verses. I would like to just just give it once again here:
A. Hearken! Ye elders of my church, I am he who hath called you friends. Concerning the matter you have asked of me:
B. Lo! It is my will that my gospel shall be preached to all nations in every land, and that men of every tongue shall minister before me:
C. Therefore it is expedient in me that you ordain priests unto me, of every race who receive the teachings of my law, and become heirs according to the promise.
A. Be ye very careful, for many elders have been ordained unto me, and are come under my condemnation, by reason of neglecting to lift up their voices in my cause, and for such there is tribulation and anguish:
B. haply they themselves may be saved (if doing no evil) though their glory, which is given for their works, be withheld, or in other words their works are burned, not being profitable unto me.
A. Loosen ye one another’s hands and uphold one another, that ye who are of the Quorum of Twelve, may all labor in the vineyard, for upon you rests much responsibility;
B. and if ye labor diligently the time is soon when others shall be added to your number till the quorum be full, even twelve.
A. Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race to offices in my church, for verily I say unto you,
B. All are not acceptable unto me as servants, nevertheless I will that all may be saved, but every man in his own order, and there are some who are chosen instruments to be ministers to their own race. Be ye content, I the Lord have spoken it.
This revelation could be summarized as:
- All people are to be preached to (1B)
- Every race has access to the priesthood (1C)
- Chastisement for racist priesthood members not preaching to people of color (2)
- The Council of Twelve should support each other in preaching efforts (3)
- Ordain people of color when they are ready (4)
- People of color can be ministers among their own people (4)
To me, formally decanonizing this scripture would essentially be saying that we DON’T believe that people of color should be preached to or have access to the priesthood, which is a truly disturbing idea and would be a MAJOR step backwards for us as a church. The fact that this was proposed by a mission center in a state that formerly allowed racially-sanctioned chattel slavery is especially troubling to me.
If this was the intention, then I honestly cannot believe that this Resolution was even entertained and it NEEDS to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
That being said, D&C 116 is not a perfect document, and has in fact been used discriminatorily over the decades.
Verse 1C says that “Therefore it is expedient in me that you ordain priests unto me, of every race who receive the teachings of my law, and become heirs according to the promise.” Joseph Smith III intended the use of “Priests” to broadly mean all clergy, but there are some leaders on the congregational and Mission Center/Stake levels in the church who have taken this to mean that people of color are barred from the Melchizedec priesthood.
Verse 4A says “Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race to offices in my church”. I have heard that this has been used by racist church leaders on the congregational and Mission Center/stake level to not ordain people of color, much like how some still don’t ordain women. However, the context of this revelation becomes crucial. In this time the US was coming out of the Civil War and we were entering the era of reconstruction and many formerly enslaved people were just getting their feet beneath them. White people may have been eager to ordain these emancipated folks, but many would have more pressing personal matters to attend to before they could minister to others. I see this verse as cautioning giving people too many responsibilities at an already stressful and pivotal point in their lives.
Additionally, the use of the term “negro”, as far as I can understand it as a white person, is an antiquated term.
Verse 4B says “All are not acceptable unto me as servants” this, again, could be used to racially discriminate. However, even today we do not universally ordain members of our church, and we certainly didn’t back then either.
Verse 4B also says “… every man in his own order, and there are some who are chosen instruments to be ministers to their own race. …” This could very well be used to theologically justify “Separate but equal”. However, again, the context of this scripture is imperative. At this time it was debated whether people of color could be ministers – administrators – or if they needed white supervision. To me, this clearly says that white supervision is NOT needed.
The problems with D&C 116 that I just outlined are undeniable. I see the appeal in eradicating these problems from our scriptural canon so they can’t be used as justification for racism.
However, it is also undeniable that this would also erase the scriptural precedent for all races having access to the priesthood. This could usher in a new era of racial discrimination in the church, which CANNOT be allowed to happen. This is why I am strongly against Resolution G-2.
Instead of decanonizing D&C 116, would would prefer to see ambiguous or antiquated terms be clarified and updated with modern vernacular. Modifying revelations is nothing new; a large portion of the Joseph Smith Jr era revelations were tweaked over the years as circumstances needed, and I believe we could follow that precedent.