Churches, like any other institutions, make mistakes, errors in judgment. After all, they are governed and populated by humans, and subject to human error. The issue becomes: Do churches need to repent for their mistakes or sins? My answer is a resounding YES.
Regarding the Meadow Mountain Massacre, an ugly incident in 1857 where early LDS settlers living in the Cedar City area slaughtered more than 120 Arkansas men, women, and children traveling across the territory, the repentance process for the LDS Church began a few years ago. In a straightforward article in the LDS-published Ensign (September 2007), Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director, Family and Church History Department, made the following statement: “nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, came close to justifying their deaths.”
Although this repentance was forced to a certain extent by the publication of a book on the Meadow Mountain Massacre by Will Bagley, and by the eminent release of the deplorable movie “September Dawn,” it was a step in the right direction.
According to an LDS website, there are 6 steps to repentance: feel Godly sorrow, confess to God, ask for forgiveness, rectify problems caused by the sin, forsake sin, and receive forgiveness. I’m not totally sure where the Church and its membership are in the repentance process as it relates to the Meadow Mountain Massacre, but apparently we are well into it.
Another controversial LDS issue concerns the blacks and the historic priesthood ban. In 1978, the LDS Church extended the priesthood to all worthy blacks, but failed to explain the exclusion’s historical origins or theological rationale.
In so doing, this left racist myths and speculations to continue to circulate among the membership, including those suggested by Randy Bott, a Brigham Young University professor of religion, and quoted in a recent controversial article in the Washington Post. The LDS Church public relations department, instead of dealing with the issue in a forthright manner, threw Bott “under the bus.” Bott, while wrong to pass on bizarre speculations, was reiterating comments that LDS Church members had unofficially circulated through the years.
The LDS Church’s attitude toward blacks went deeper than just denying blacks the priesthood. For example, Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building) at one time excluded blacks. According to the biography of David O. McKay by Gregory Prince and Robert Wright,
McKay’s first civil rights challenge as church leader came only days after he was sustained [as president] in 1951. Nobel Laureate Ralph J. Bunche visited Salt Lake City and was booked into the church-owned Hotel Utah, then the grandest hotel in town. Upon arriving, however, he was refused accommodation by the hotel, whose policy was to exclude blacks. Only after obtaining McKay’s consent did the hotel management make a one-time exception to its policy and allow Bunche to stay—on condition that he take all his meals in his room.
Several social scientists—including Stephen Taggart and Lester Bush–have suggested that the issue of blacks and the priesthood is one of historical prejudice and is not doctrinal. According to Joanna Brooks, ubiquitous Mormon blogger, the LDS Church should “finally articulate the most credible and reasonable explanation for Mormonism’s historic discrimination against black people: WE WERE WRONG” (emphasis mine). And I agree.
It is time for the LDS Church and its members to start (or continue) our 6-step repentance process concerning our historic dealings with the black community. Until we expiate for this serious misstep in our history, we will continually be making up sad justifications and excuses.
Note: John G. Turner in the nytimes.com (18 Aug 2012) makes a similar case regarding Mormons and blacks:
Most Protestant demoninations, however, gradually apologized for their past racism. In contrast, while Mormon leaders generically criticize past and present racism, they carefully avoid any specific criticism of past presidents and apostles, careful not to disrupt reverence for the church’s prophets.