Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Blacks, Priesthood and Alma 13

As I was reading for next week's Sunday School lesson, I was immediately plunged into an interesting discourse from Alma, speaking to the apostate city of Ammonihah, which most likely fed into the pre-1978 belief that non-whites were not given the priesthood because of lack of worthiness, a thought particularly repugnant to us, now. This scriptural passage discusses the "holy order" of the priesthood, teaching us that priests were "called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God. . . " and that this was done "on account of their exceeding faith and good works". As you read further, it teaches that others would also have as great privilege as the priests, were it not for the "hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds".

This combination of statements seems to make it clear that those who are given the priesthood are righteous, while those who are not, are not. There are a few things to keep in mind before an understanding of these verses can truly be reached, however. First, if you read just a little further, Alma says, "in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son. . . ." This shows that, although conflated in language through much of this passage, being given the priesthood does not confer righteousness, rather righteousness prepares one for the priesthood. The priesthood was prepared from the beginning for all those who would humbly accept the atonement. This does not mean that all those who accept the atonement would be called to the priesthood, merely that the priesthood was prepared for them.

Historically, the priesthood and the gospel were given to one group of people before being shared throughout the world, such as was the case with Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham and other prophets. In the case of the gospel of the Messiah, He was given first to the Jews, the gospel of His coming to be preached later to the Gentiles. Although this means that the Jews were certainly blessed to have Jesus walking among them, it is no comment on the personal righteousness of the Jews. (If anything, it is the opposite, to say that the Jews were capable of crucifying the very Messiah they were waiting for.) The Gentiles were more blessed to receive a witness of Christ through the Holy Ghost.

Why would the Lord do things in this manner? Why limit the blessing of the Messiah to a group of people? Because, at least in part, it is our responsibility as children of God to help each other return to Him. The Jews were given the responsibility of teaching of the coming of the Messiah. The Lord would not deprive them or the Gentiles of the blessing of helping their brethren convert or of being helped by a fellow, imperfect being.

So how does this relate to the blacks and the priesthood? Simply in that, although whites were first given the bulk of responsibility to hold the priesthood and thus to preach the word of God to all people, there was a time when that was shared among all. It follows the pattern set out in scripture. This does not mean no blacks were given the priesthood, such as in the case of Elijah Abel, just as there were some non-Jews who were able to see Jesus and be taught by Him, but only that there is an order to the way God reveals the gospel and bestows the responsibility of the priesthood which accompanies it.

I don't think anyone can understand and come to peace with this issue without first truly believing that God is at the head of the Church, and that He has His reasons for His behavior, whatever those reasons might be. We can speculate, but not really know until we are taught by His prophet or by the Spirit. Secondly, one must understand and accept that the Priesthood is not a tool of showing favor or of granting power. It is a tool to teach righteousness (among other things), both to the wielder and to the receiver of its blessings. In the end, as Alma taught next in chapter 13, it does not matter who holds the priesthood and who upholds it, it matters only who is righteous and who is not.

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