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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Joseph Fielding Smith and the True Nature of Prophets

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due. 
-Alexander Pope

This year brings with it another lesson manual in the "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church" series. Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be our guide for Priesthood and Relief Society lessons every 2nd and 3rd Sunday of the month through 2014.  This is the 12th manual in this series dating back to its conception in 1998.

If I am being perfectly honest, I am not particularly excited for this year's manual.  Not only have I grown somewhat tired of the "Teachings of the Presidents" manuals (which, in reality, are all the same basic lessons, sprinkled with quotations from the church president who graces the cover of that year's respective manual), but I am not a fan of President Joseph Fielding Smith.  Yes, I realize that this probably isn't the most popular thing to say, and many Mormons will tuck tail and run as far away from this blog post as possible at my saying so, but these are my honest feelings and I don't shy away from them.

I'm not trying to come across as cynical or "anti-Mormon" here.  I have, after all, praised the manual of my favorite church president in a previous blog post. Nor am I suggesting that President Joseph Fielding Smith was a bad man. In reality, I believe that President J.F. Smith was a very good, kind and caring person who left behind a legacy of love, especially for those who knew him best. With that being said, I still have my issues with President J.F. Smith, particularly with regards to some of the wild and crazy things he said and passed off as being Mormon "doctrine."  For example:
"Not only was Cain called to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. A curse was placed upon him and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures.  Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with a black skin and have been denied the privilege of the priesthood and the fullness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain. Moreover, they have been made to feel their inferiority and have been separated from the rest of mankind from the beginning. Enoch saw the people of Canaan, descendants of Cain, and he says, 'and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.'" -Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Pp. 101-102.
"There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. I, Pp. 61.
"I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the negro. Darkies are wonderful people and they have their place in our church." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Look Magazine, Oct. 22, 1963, Pp. 79.
"Creation did not take millions of years. We can hardly be justified in trying to harmonize the days of creation with the extended periods of millions of years according to the reckoning of the so-called scientists." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. I.
"It has been truthfully said that organic evolution is Satan's chief weapon in this dispensation in his attempt to destroy the divine mission of Jesus Christ." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, Pp. 184.
"You cannot believe both gospel and evolution.  I say most emphatically, you cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God. You must choose the one and reject the other, for they are in direct conflict and there is a gulf separating them which is so great that it cannot be bridged, no matter how much one may try to do so.
If you believe in the doctrine of the evolutionist, then you must accept the view that man has evolved through countless ages from the very lowest forms of life up through various stages of animal life, finally into the human form. The first man, according to this hypothesis known as the "cave man" was a creature absolutely ignorant and devoid of any marked intelligence over the beasts of the field." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. II.
"Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body, neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed.  I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called Christian world expects us all to be -- neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. II, Pp. 287-288.
"We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books this will never happen." -Joseph Fielding Smith, May 14, 1961, address given at Honolulu Stake Conference.
Some may wonder why I have elected to share these unpleasant quotes (and there are many more) if I profess to be a believing and practicing Mormon. After all, what possible good could come from pointing out the negative comments that were made by a church leader from the past? In addition, aren't we as Mormons counseled to avoid speaking ill of church leaders?

My answer to this questions is: yes and no.

Yes, it is true that sometimes the ugly facts of history don't always need to be brought to light, and yes, it is not right to speak ill of church leaders.  This simply is not my intent. You may find that hard to believe after my pronouncement that J.F. Smith is not my favorite guy, accompanied with my brief list of some of Smith's less-than-pleasant quotations, but I'm serious. It is not my intent to defame President J.F. Smith or any other church leader.  My intent is simply this: to use the example of President Smith (along with the examples of other church leaders and apostles) to prove a very basic point: church leaders are NOT what we have come to believe they are.

One of the major problems that exists within Mormonism today is the struggle between church DOCTRINE and church CULTURE (I have expressed my feelings about this phenomenon in the past here, here, and here).  Oftentimes, we as members of the church will come to embrace an ideal that is based entirely on our PERCEPTION of how things should be as opposed to the way things ACTUALLY are.  A good example of this would be the fact that many Mormons today, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe that evolution is a fraud and that a belief in said scientific theory is sinful.

Another example (the one I want to focus on in this post) is how many members erroneously bestow church leaders, particularly members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with demigod status. For many Mormons, these leaders are seen as larger than life figures, endowed with a greater measure of intellect, understanding and foresight than the average person. And though as a practicing Mormon I too believe that church leaders are afforded moments of heavenly clarity to help address a given problem (revelation), I also believe that we Mormons do ourselves (and our leaders) a terrible disservice by assuming too much in respect to their abilities, understanding and even character.

Sure, most Mormons accept the obvious fact that church leaders (past and present) are imperfect human beings that are simply trying to do their level best, but we usually only recognize these deficiencies in a very loose and unassuming manner.  Brigham Young may have been a bit rough around the edges and Ezra Taft Benson may have been a little too politically polarizing but that is usually the extent to which we will accept prophetic error.  After all, church leaders will never lead us astray!

But when we speak of some of the serious human frailties that beset our leaders, most Mormons will run for the hills.  If, for example, I call Joseph Fielding Smith a racist (and yes, I believe he exhibited some racist tendencies), or accuse him of being scientifically illiterate (as I believe he was), many a Mormon may sound the trump of blasphemy, assuming that such accusations are unfit for a Prophet, Seer and Revelator.  This is simply not the case.  Pointing out the sometimes painful realities of the past, along with the implications they bring in tow, does not mock our leaders, but rather liberates them.  For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, insisted that he was a deeply flawed individual who was not to be held up as a standard for moral decency:
"I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, and administering to the poor and dividing his substance, than the long smooth faced hypocrites. I do now want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not. God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them." -Joseph Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, Pp.204. May 18, 1843.  
Perhaps we really should take the Lord at his word when he tells us, time and time again, that he chooses the "weak things of the Earth" to complete His will (Doctrine and Covenants 124: 1).

So why then are we as a church so reluctant to admit when church leaders go wrong?  We shouldn't be.  As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf reminded us in the most recent church conference:
"There have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us -- His imperfect children -- and imperfect people make mistakes.
President Uchtdorf is spot on!  Again, this doesn't simply suggest that church leaders will make the trivial mistakes of day-to-day life, but that they, like us, will make serious blunders that are "not in harmony with our values principles and doctrine."

Of course, this doesn't mean that we have the right to accuse church leaders of wrongdoing in a reckless or wanton manner. We should use sound judgement and even caution and restraint in our critiques.  Blanket accusations driven by misguided intentions usually reveal the character of the accuser more than they do the accused.  So when I make my assertion that Joseph Fielding Smith was a racist, or that he was scientifically illiterate, I do so not out of animosity for the man, but rather to point out the painful but important FACT that many of our church leaders (even those of the recent past) failed our brothers and sisters of color, and distorted the realities of provable and observable science, thereby misleading and confusing many in the church.  These weren't just trivial mistakes but were, in fact, substantial errors of judgement.

So what are we then to conclude from such mistakes?  For many members, these (and many other) errors on the part of church leaders suggests to their conscience that the church is not what it says it is. The sins and mistakes of those endowed with the prophetic mantle become the catalyst for the decay of faith.  Many may proclaim, "How would God allow a prophet to say such racist things?" or "Polygamy is just so obviously wrong that I cannot believe God would command it."  These and many other justifiable concerns have been the understandable grievances of many a church skeptic. On the other hand, such skeletons in the proverbial Mormon closet have been a source of embarrassment to many devout Mormons who either prefer to turn a blind eye to such facts (see no evil, hear no evil), decry such truths as heresy ("It's just anti-Mormon propaganda"), or justify prophetic blunders as "the will of God."

All of this, I believe, serves to illustrate the validity of my original claim that church culture has distorted the reality of what a prophet actually is.  Prophets are not Herculean figures of absolute and infallible character but rather imperfect (and dare I say even sometimes weak) human specimens called to a unique and sometimes confusing position.  Case in point: Christ's original Twelve Apostles.

It has always puzzled me why so many members of the Mormon church know so much about the prophets of Mormonism (we study their lives, teachings, etc. with great interest), while knowing relatively little about the original apostles of old (can you name all 12 of the original apostles?).  In my opinion, their lives, their calling and their respective ministries provide the blueprint of what a prophet ultimately is and is not.

Christ's original Twelve Apostles did not represent the best and the brightest that ancient Judea had to offer, but rather they were a hodge-podge rabble of men from diverse backgrounds.  At least four were fishermen (a common trade of a layperson in that era), while one (Matthew) was a tax collector and another (Bartholomew) was a nobleman of royal blood.  The Twelve had diverse opinions on the topics of religion and politics, not to mention dramatic differences with regards to upbringing, socio-economic status, etc. Some of the Twelve were extremely charismatic (Peter and John), while others were more reserved (Phillip and Andrew). Some were militant absolutists in their understanding of theology (Simon the Zealot), while others were more skeptical by nature (Thomas).  Despite their differences, we can say that Christ's original Twelve shared at least two things in common: (1) they were products of their time and (2) they were flawed human beings.  

As products of their time, Christ's original apostles understood their world through the very narrow prism of ancient Judea.  As opposed to seeing themselves as "Christians" (that term didn't even exist, let alone what such a term might actually mean), these men were Jews living under the yoke of Roman rule.  The political rhetoric of their day suggested that not only was the arrival of the anticipated Jewish Messiah close at hand, but a showdown with "Gentile" forces was brewing. When Jesus came on the scene, they were oftentimes confused by his message. Christ's doctrine of forgiveness and his apparent willingness to submit to the legal authority of his day didn't always jive with the apostles' preconceived notions of what a Messiah would be. Jesus' insistence that he had "not come to destroy the law" but rather to "fulfill" it (Matthew 5:17) must have been a hard pill for a bunch of Jewish men, indoctrinated with the Law of Moses, to accept. Even after Jesus had been resurrected, these same men struggled to understand what Jesus meant by "feed my sheep" and to teach the gentiles.

As Elder Holland aptly points out:

No matter how hard they tried, these men could not fully understand everything Jesus was telling them.  Some struggled more than others; some made greater mistakes than others.  Peter denied Christ three times, while Judas completely betrayed him.  Fairly egregious mistakes for an Apostle of Jesus Christ, wouldn't you say!?!

So why then do we understand how Peter, Judas, etc. could screw things up in such spectacular fashion and be apostles, but not extrapolate this concept to men like Joseph Fielding Smith?  Sure, J.F. Smith is not guilty of denying Jesus, but he is certainly guilty of not accepting an entire race of people. Would Jesus have approved?

And such is the case with many prophets of old.  Instead of being the great men we want them to be, they are oftentimes deeply flawed individuals who made serious mistakes.  For example:

- Abraham was a serious coward who didn't stick up for his wife: Genesis 20.

-Jacob and Rebekah deceived their husband and father, the Prophet Isaac, and thereby stole Esau's blessing: Genesis 27.

- Moses killed an Egyptian and hid him: Exodus 2:12

- Joshua could not detect the deception of the Gibeonites and was forced to make a deal with them: Joshua 9.

- David had sex with Bathsheba and then sent her husband to die in battle to hide the affair: 2 Samuel 11.

- Jonah hated the people in Nineveh and wanted to see them destroyed (or be but to death himself) rather than be sent to preach to them: Jonah 4.

Those are just a few of the many blunders made by prophets of old.  Why then are those today somehow different?  Why do we speak of the serious errors in judgement made by David, Jonah, Peter, Judas, etc. but not of the serious blunders made by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc.?  Do we feel the need to "white wash" our history because it doesn't agree with our incredibly over-sensitive spiritual palate? Are we seriously THAT insecure?!?

Prophets are going to make mistakes.  There is no avoiding it.  Sometimes those mistakes are going to be downright severe.  Sometimes they are going to misjudge things due to their own biases, shortcomings and prejudices.  As Paul reminds us, "For now we see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). Or as the Lord reminded Joseph Smith:
"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and are given unto my servants IN THEIR WEAKNESS, after the MANNER OF THEIR LANGUAGE, that they might COME TO UNDERSTAND" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24) My emphasis.
Nowhere does it say that God will give the perfect, infallible and unfiltered truth in a way that transcends all of the social, cultural and linguistic issues of the time in which a given prophet might find himself. In reality, God tells us the exact opposite.  As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reminds us:
So be kind regarding human frailty -- your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a church led by volunteer, mortal men and women.  Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but he deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of this work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil's fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can't quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
So yes, it's true, Joseph Fielding Smith said some wild and crazy things.  He isn't my favorite church president.  I'm not completely thrilled that we are studying him this year.  But with all of that being said, this year is a WONDERFUL opportunity for us all to remember that being a prophet is not about being prophetically perfect.  It's about helping those under your charge to do the very best they can in order to become better human beings and sons and daughters of God, and in this respect, Joseph Fielding Smith, like many other prophets, was a resounding success.  As President Smith taught:
"Look for the good in men, and where they fail to posses it, try to build it up in them; try to increase the good in them; look for the good; build up the good; sustain the good; and speak as little about the evil as you possibly can."  
Words that were spot on for his time and unsullied for the ages.


bamball said...

Excellent, I've been trying to formulate my own words and feelings regarding this, but now I can just send a link! Much easier and less mental strain. Thanks.

Otis_1969 said...

As a "Darkie" member of the church, I have struggled with the sort of stuff you talk about. It makes me mad that a prophet would say those things becaue I don't think they come from god above. Thanks for giving me the template to understand why prophets said stuff like this. It makes sense to me now. And it's okay to call them racists and still prophets. Like calling Washington a founding father and a racist I guess. Thanks, my man! Thanks.

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