Religion
3:27 pm
Sun March 17, 2013

Mormons Change References To Blacks, Polygamy

Originally published on Mon March 18, 2013 10:28 am

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this week the most significant changes to its scripture since 1981.

The Mormon scriptures comprise four books: the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.

Although there are grammatical revisions that will be contained in the 2013 edition of Mormon scriptures — available online now and in print format in August — the substantive changes come in terms of the introductions to the actual scriptural material.

"Those are what are really catching the attention of members of the church," Mormon scholar Terryl Givens tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

The two biggest additions to the new edition of Mormon scripture can be found in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, says Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, and they deal specifically with the church's original ban on black priesthood ordination and polygamy.

Givens says Joseph Smith himself ordained black members of the church to the priesthood. But after Smith's death, beginning in the late 1840s, Brigham Young apparently charted a new direction in terms, and began what became known as "the ban," under which people of African-American ancestry were not permitted to hold the priesthood or to participate in temple ordinances.

"That was a policy that remained in place until 1978. It's really the albatross around the neck of the church, and it was for many, many years," says Givens, co-author of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life.

"I think that this new introduction to the revelation ending the priesthood ban is a major step forward in many ways because it acknowledges that the practice may have originated — it seems to me, this is how I'm reading it anyhow — as a matter of error or cultural and historical conditioning rather than as the will of God," he says. "And that's a fairly significant statement for the church to make."

The changes also deal with polygamy. A new introduction included in Doctrine and Covenants, Givens says, declares that "monogamy is God's standard for marriage unless he declares otherwise."

"I think that one could read that almost as an inversion of many Mormons' historical understanding of plural marriage," Givens says.

Givens says he believes these additions to Mormon scripture show signs of a more modern Mormon Church.

"In many ways, what we're seeing with these changes is the privileging of history over theology in some ways," he says. "It's a kind of acknowledgement that the Mormon Church is rooted in a past that is replete with historical claims. And it's a magnificent thing for a church to allow professional historians to have a lead role in the way that scripture is presented and its story is told."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, the winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's biggest honor. But first, this week, the Mormon church released the most significant changes to their scripture in over three decades. We're joined now by Mormon scholar Terryl Givens to talk about these additions. Terryl Givens, welcome.

TERRYL GIVENS: Thank you. Good to be here.

LYDEN: So this week, the Mormon church releases this new digital edition of the four books of Church of the Latter-day Saints scriptures. And this is the first time since 1981 that the church has revised them. What changes are being found in these new editions?

GIVENS: Well, the vast majority of the changes are very minor - typographical, grammar, punctuation and so forth. But there are some rather substantive changes in terms of the introductions to the actual scriptural material. And those are what are really catching the attention of members of the church.

LYDEN: Well, some of these changes deal with long-standing tenants that have been debated a lot in recent years. Let's take the one about the ordination of men of African-American descent. What's going on there?

GIVENS: Well, it appears that Joseph Smith himself ordained black members of the church to the priesthood. But sometime after his death, beginning in the late 1840s, Brigham Young apparently charted a new direction in terms of the way that blacks were - the place that they found in the church and began what became known as the ban, according to which people of African-American ancestry were not permitted to hold the priesthood or to participate in temple ordinances. And that was a policy that remained in place until 1978. It's really the albatross around the neck of the church and was for many, many years.

I think that this new introduction to the revelation ending the priesthood ban is a major step forward in many ways because it acknowledges that the practice may have originated, it seems to me - this is how I'm reading it anyhow - as a matter of error or cultural and historical conditioning rather than as the will of God. And that's a fairly significant statement for the church to make.

LYDEN: So, Terryl, what exactly is the precise language that says that this is a change?

GIVENS: Well, the revelation ending the ban on the priesthood is called Official Declaration 2, and it appears in the church's Doctrine and Covenants. And there was essentially no introductory notes prior to this week. Now, there's a paragraph introducing the end of the ban that reads: The Book of Mormon teaches it all or alike unto God, including black and white. And it goes on to say that throughout the history, the church people of every race and ethnicity have been baptized and lived as faithful members.

It mentioned that during Joseph Smith's lifetime, a few black male members of the church were ordained to the priesthood. But then it notes that early in its history, church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent, and church records offer no clear insights into the origin of this practice.

LYDEN: There was another tradition, which has been frowned upon in the church in modern times, and that is the practice of polygamy. I understand there was also some specific language with reference to monogamy in the changes.

GIVENS: Yeah. And I think that there are two really significant developments in terms of that introduction. In this case, the scripture that we're talking about is called Official Declaration 1, which is also appended to the end of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. And the new introduction to this revelation, which ended officially the practice of plural marriage in 1890, begins by saying: The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that monogamy is God's standard for marriage unless he declares otherwise.

And I think one could read that almost as an inversion of many Mormons' historical understanding of plural marriage. For many years, it was taught that plural marriage represented a higher law, a law to which people could aspire if they were worthy and prepared for this higher law. Now, that's been inverted to the point that monogamy is declared to be the standard law for God of marriage. And polygamy represents a brief and momentary historical aberration from that norm. That's a fairly significant change in focus.

LYDEN: You've been looking at Mormonism a long time. How is it evolving?

GIVENS: Well, I think that we're actually entering one of the most interesting periods of the modern Mormon church. In many ways, what we're seeing here with these changes is the privileging of history over theology in some ways. It's a kind of acknowledgement that the Mormon church is rooted in a past that is replete with historical claims. And it's a magnificent thing for a church to allow professional historians to have a lead role in the way that scripture is presented and its story is told.

LYDEN: That's Terryl Givens. He's a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, coauthor of "The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life." Terryl Givens, it was a pleasure. Thank you.

GIVENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.