In the February 2017 issue of The Ensign, Keith A. Erekson, LDS Church History Library Director, tries unsuccessfully to sell historical research short. And why does Erekson, who is a trained historian, try such an ironic task? Apparently, he doesn’t want religious doubt to creep in because of recent discoveries concerning LDS history. His reasoning is: there are still gaps in our knowledge. To quote Erekson:
In the study of history, the absence of evidence is not a valid cause of doubt.
First, before dealing with the merits of this statement, I need to make one point “perfectly clear.” It is not Erekson’s business to determine what an individual’s “valid cause of doubt” is. He has let his ego get in the way of his better judgement.
Second, the above quote follows the statement:
. . . though we have records of the priesthood’s being withheld from men of black African descent, no record has survived that authentically explains why the practice began.
This statement is disingenuous; I wonder how long he struggled to come up with the word “authentically.”
There are basically 2 possible explanations for the ban:
- It was directed by God. Unfortunately this explanation throws God “under the bus.” And for many Mormons, this is unacceptable for any number of reasons.
- It was the result of the prejudice of Brigham Young (continued by successors until 1978). We do have statements by BY that indicate the depth of his racial feelings. And the LDS Church currently disavows any theological justifications for the priesthood ban and explains how racism created a context for the Mormon policy. Plus it is important to note that the ban resulted in Utah being one of the most racially prejudice areas in the United States outside of the South. This behavior alone would indicate that the ban was a product of man and not God.
Since I’m not willing to “throw God under the bus,” and there is reasonable evidence that human prejudice was the important factor, Erekson is on “thin ice” when he states that there is no record “that authentically explains why the practice began.” While we don’t have perfect knowledge about the ban and never will, we do have enough evidence to point to BY as the author and not God.
Erekson is selling his profession short. Mormon history has made great strides in the last few decades. Unfortunately, LDS leaders have so far been slow to deal with the continuing ticker tape of historical revelations.
Erekson would have been better served if he had written about the inadequacies of past LDS manuals and Deseret Books as they discuss Mormon history, and praise the on-going efforts of contemporary historians as they endeavor to set the record straight. He might even try to explain why the Church leaders felt that a sanitized version of Mormon history was even necessary.
Sure there are holes and gaps in our knowledge of the past. But let us not use these as an excuse for ignoring history as we currently understand it. LDS leaders need to deal with historical revelations on a more timely basis, and not just claim there are holes and gaps.
Postscript: For a more positive review of Erekson Ensign article read Benjamin the Scribe.