Confessing and Forsaking Institutional Sins

Posted by on January 19, 2012 in history | 21 comments

By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.
-Doctrine and Covenants 58:43

I believe this scripture applies to women as well as men. I also believe it applies to institutions. After all, some of the greatest sins of all time were committed by groups of people acting together through institutional power.

Missouri

Missouri

A great institutional sin committed against the members of my faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), occurred in the state of Missouri in 1838, when Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered that “…the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace…” Boggs was certainly accountable for this atrocious misuse of power but he was not acting alone. He came into power through election by Missouri citizens, many of whom supported this unjust act.

In 1976, over a century later, Mormons were living in Missouri and enjoying the same civil protections as other Missouri citizens. Yet, they still felt the sting of the injustice inflicted on their predecessors through the extermination order of 1838. Recognizing the responsibility of the state of Missouri to confess and forsake this institutional sin, Missouri Governor Christopher Bond officially rescinded the extermination order and expressed “on behalf of all Missourians our deep regret for the injustice and undue suffering which was caused by this 1838 order.”

Two years later, in 1978, the LDS Church forsook an institutional sin of its own when it ended a racist policy that forbade priesthood ordination of men of African descent. The official declaration of the church at that time described the worthiness of men who had previously been denied priesthood ordination without actually apologizing to them for the many decades in which this injustice had existed.

Even today, the church statement on the matter does not confess that any institutional sin took place, but implies that God Himself withheld the priesthood from men of African descent until 1978.

This was not the first occasion in which the LDS Church forsook an institutional sin without confessing it. In 1890, the church officially ended the practice of polygamy, while carefully avoiding any implication that there was anything wrong with polygamy. More than 120 years later, the church statement on the matter claims that polygamy was implemented, “in obedience to direction from God.” The LDS Church reminds the public that contemporary polygamists are not members in good standing of the LDS Church without acknowledging that many of these people believe in polygamy because of teachings of the LDS Church that were never rescinded.

I have absolutely no authority in the LDS Church whatsoever. I cannot make any statements on its behalf. However, I am part of this institution. I am proud that I contribute to the good the LDS Church does in the world. I also feel responsibility for its unrepented institutional sins. The church has never officially confessed but I will. I am sorry that my church practiced polygamy in the 1800’s. I am sorry that its failure to renounce this disgusting doctrine has resulted in splinter groups that continue the practice, victimizing women and young men. I am sorry that my church made nonsensical rules basing priesthood ordination on race. I am sorry that its failure to ever apologize for such racism has made some members feel justified when they continue to cling to racist attitudes today. I confess these sins that my church has already forsaken.

Related posts:

21 Comments

  1. April, I too struggle with the practice of polygamy. I read biography of one of my pioneer grandmothers over Christmas. I cringed through the part of her life when her husband courted another woman when she had 4 children. The younger woman’s unsure letters to my grandmother to ask for help with making the best of the situation stirred mixed emotions. I wanted to dislike the 2nd wife, but I felt so much sympathy for her. It’s a tough situation for all. They were both incredible women.

    If polygamy in the mormon church is an institutional sin, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on biblical polygamy. I’m still working out my own thoughts on this issue.

    • The Bible documents many practices that were accepted at the time because people were still primitive and uncivilized, and fortunately, our more advanced society is learning to abandon such practices. I believe God wants us to continue to advance and discard uncivilized practices because this process of learning and growth helps us become more like the celestial society we are supposed to become.

      Besides polygamy, there are many other repulsive practices that were condoned by the Bible, such as genocide and slavery. Looking at marriage, specifically, this blog made an amusing comic (in a that’s-not-funny-because-it-is-true kind of way) that describes some of the marriage systems, including polygamy, that the Bible condones. I am so glad we Mormons haven’t tried to restore all of them! http://unicornbooty.com/blog/2011/10/01/marriage-according-to-the-bible-infographic/

  2. In the aftermath of the Prop. 8 debacle in California, Elder Marlin Jensen extended his apologies for the pain that people had experienced as a result of the church’s involvement in the pro-Prop. 8 campaign. He did not apologize for the church’s involvement. I wish he had, but I understand that from his perspective that involvement was the result of divine (or at the very least perceived as divine) inspiration and as such should not, at least in the opinion of church leadership, be apologized for. But he at least had the grace and compassion to look at people who had suffered, recognize that reality, and offer his heartfelt sympathy and sorrow that they had been hurt.

    Maybe the church thinks it can’t apologize for past policies and practices that it continues to believe arose out of divine inspiration. Doing so would seem, at least in the eyes of the kind of faithful who tend to be in church leadership, to be apologizing on God’s behalf, implying that God is not, after all, perfect. But, it seems to me, it wouldn’t be too much to ask that the church at the very least apologize for the hurt and harm these past practices caused. They very clearly *did* cause harm of various stripes. And, in the case of polygamy, continue causing very, very real, active harm in the shape of splinter groups who continue to justify their practices based on early Mormon teachings and practices and in which women, young girls, and young boys are demonstrably hurt by the practice of polygamy. (I think the racist priesthood ban also continues to cause harm, but probably in a more abstract sense than that experienced by people hurt by ongoing practices of polygamy.)

    In my opinion, the church having the grace and compassion to recognize that its past policies and practices caused real harm, no matter how firmly it continues to believe those policies and practices were inspired by God, would go a long ways towards helping alleviate some of that pain, even if such an apology isn’t as comprehensive as some of us would hope for.

    Thanks for tackling such a difficult topic so well, April. I always so enjoy your posts because they are direct and unflinching, while being both even-keeled and compassionate, in their treatment of some of the hard realities in Mormonism.

  3. Thanks for this post, April.

    I hear from inside sources that GA’s came very close in the 90′s or 00′s to issuing a formal and public apology for racist doctrines that tried to justify withholding priesthood from blacks. Fence-sitter in the preexistence ideas and such that still seem to get bandied about in certain circles. No doubt they wanted those ideas to be buried forever, but they apparently backed away from that official apology. Too bad — those ideas really do need to be repudiated once and for all.

  4. April,

    I personally don’t agree that any of the items you label as “institutional sin” are actually sins in any way. I do not claim to understand why God does what He does, but He definitely does not have to explain Himself to me. And it seems like God has very often had laws or policies, for lack of a better word, that humans don’t really understand too well. Certainly not extending the priesthood to anyone but Jews at one point would have seemed discriminatory. But I don’t think that just because I don’t know the reason for the policy doesn’t mean there isn’t a good one.

    Caroline,

    I don’t know if this would compromise your journalistic integrity but I would be very interested to know who your “inside sources” were on that issue. That being said there definitely are some erroneous ideas that some members perpetuate as explanations for things we don’t really understand.

    • I think this last is what the church could and should apologize for. So long as we’re considering God as the, or even a potential, source for the past policies, it’s asking a lot for the church to apologize for the policies themselves. It does not at all seem like asking too much for the church to apologize for the demonstrable harm caused by those policies, especially when high-level church leaders themselves (e.g., Mark Petersen) contributed to those harms. As you rightly point out, Ryan, lots of church leaders and members have promulgated truly awful ideas as explanations for things that we don’t actually understand and those ideas have done harm. I don’t think it’s asking the church to compromise itself and its position that the policies themselves were divinely inspired by asking it to apologize for the harm done by ideas that are clearly speculative and not based on principles of the gospel, but which were nonetheless widespread and influential. We saw Bruce R. McConkie do this very thing in the wake of the 1978 revelation. I see no reason why the church as an institution couldn’t do similarly.

    • My question is why not ask God for an explanation? We’ve been told “seek and ye shall receive.” Many of the stories that are basis of the church, including the origin story of Joseph Smith, are based on someone asking a question of God. And yet, we often hear people say that we shouldn’t question why God does what “he” does. Why not?

      I have asked God questions relating to these issues, and the answer was never, “you don’t get it, just accept it.” Never. If God is willing to explain why she/he/they/it did something, why is it wrong to expect the church to do the same thing? And wouldn’t an explanation, aside for pinning it on God, remove the random explanations members come up with on their own? If I can ask God anything and get an answer that is not, “just accept it,” I feel that I can hold the church to the same standard.

      • I’m not sure what you mean. Can I ask what questions you have asked and answers you have received? If you have asked, can you explain why: women can’t be witnesses? only men have the priesthood? blacks were not given the priesthood until 1978? I’m not being facetious in any way. If you have asked and received answers to these questions, I would honestly love to know what they are. I do not deny the possibility that God has answered the questions you have asked Him. But the Church as a whole apparently has not received revelation on these issues, which have been around for a long time.

  5. April,

    I should clarify that I do not believe any of the items you mentioned constitute institutional sin by the LDS Church.

  6. The following quote kind of summarizes some things:

    When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” … God said, “When a prophet of Adonai arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision. … Not so with My servant Moses… With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles…

    (Then) Miriam was stricken with snow-white scales. … And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to us the sin that we committed in our folly.” So Moses cried out to Adonai, saying, “O God, pray heal her!” (Numbers 11:35-12:15)

  7. Excellent post! I gave it 5 stars!!

    In reading the comments, the first thing I thought about was the Mountain Meadows Massacre apology. This makes me wonder if the church perceives itself as not needing to apologise for polygamy or institutional racism because neither of those involved murder (which makes Prop 8 tricky as gay members have committed self-murder).

    Overall, I am not sure the church needs to apologise for the decisions of others in today’s climate of financial compensation… for example, as a church member, I do not feel responsible for enforcing, supporting, or encouraging polygamy. I am very much against it, every whit. So- am I obligated, as a member of the church, to apologise and pay restitution for it? Because my great-grandparents participated in polygamy (grandma had some sad stories to tell about that), could I be obligated to expose my financial worth in order to be judged if I need to make payments to the other descendants of polygamy as a type of compensation?

    In short, I am more of a fan of making leaders responsible for poor choices, rather than making the church responsible for it as a whole (I don’t want to get sued by someone because I am a member of the church, therefore am obligated financially because of past or current church policy). For example, I was told just this week of a bishop who was teaching that God was nationally and ethnically Samoan; this resulted in his excommunication and the closing of the ward. I don’t feel the need to apologise for him or his teachings any more than I feel the need to apologise personally for polygamy. Besides my own moral compass is powerfully drawn opposite to the oppression of anyone, and because I do not want to be held financially responsible for misappropriated church funds, I am okay that the church disavows a practice and excommunicates members found participating in polygamy or otherwise. I think this is where the issue with prop 8 becomes most tricky– it becomes a financial liability for the church and its members when the church apologises for something (I would guesstimate that those involved in MMM vs. polygamy or ethnic priesthood exclusion or prop 8 would be significantly fewer, therefore less expensive to compensate).

    In short, I think that if there could be an apology of conscience that did not allow for lawsuits aimed at financial compensation, I would be more open to it for the church, but in the day and age of nuisance suits, I don’t want to lose my house because the church has a history of leaders who could not comprehend the value of humans beyond gender, ethnicity, or other “worldly”, mortal attributes.

    • I agree with you that the Church as a whole should not be apologizing for mistakes made by local leaders.

      Also, as tragic as any suicide may be, I wholly reject the argument that somehow the LDS Church’s position (or that of its members) on the issue of same-sex marriage is to blame for individuals’ suicides.

      • Ryan, if you spent your life hearing that something about you was inherently wrong, as sinful, was of the Devil, how would you feel? How would you feel if you did everything you were supposed to do, everything to change yourself, because you were promised that doing so would fix you. But it doesn’t work. You did everything you were supposed to do, but it doesn’t make the inherent sin go away. There is something wrong in you that God hates, and you can’t get rid of it. That is how the church often talks about homosexuality, although it has changed a bit in recent years. I’m willing to bet that you have never been told by your church that something in you, in your soul, is sinful and keeps God from accepting you. It is extremely painful, and when you realize that you can’t fix it, that there will always be something that God won’t accept about you, it can destroy you.

        So while I agree that people are responsible for their own decisions, the church has campaigned against many groups of people, including homosexuals. They teach that they are the only true church, the only way to salvation. Then they tell people that they can’t have access to that salvation because of something they can’t do anything about. So if the church puts homosexuals in a position where they cannot receive salvation, no matter how good they are (which you can defiantly argue that the church does), then they need to be held responsible for the despair and destruction that causes.

        I’d like you to explain to my gay friends who attempted suicide that the church that taught them that God didn’t make them gay, and that they can fix themselves, that tells them the feelings they have for others are sinful, that God doesn’t love them, that they are an abomination, that the church is not responsible for their pain.

  8. DefyGravity,

    I think you probably know what I’ll say. That isn’t what the Church teaches. The problem is action, not attraction. I think what I find most offensive is your claim that the Church teaches God doesn’t love them. Frankly, that’s so disingenuous it’s sickening.

    Is it so wrong to have a civil discussion where we both accurately represent the other side’s viewpoint?

    • Ryan, I see your point about the law of God loving all, but church culture teaches that homosexuality is sick, gross, a bad habit — I have known men who have been asked about masturbation habits and even what their chosen sexual positions are when be interviewed for temple recommends, all in an effort to reveal homosexual tendencies, and which that can only be likened to a witch hunt. If you are feeling targeted and/or hunted by members of a church, and which can even influence family members to disavow you, then suicidal thoughts and even action in not unreasonable to consider.

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t it just been recently that there has been any distinction made in the LDS church teachings between homosexual action and attraction? And it’s still vague enough that people I know have clung to the idea that simply being attracted to the same sex makes you a horrible person. I know that what I was always taught growing up was that homosexuality was sinful, and a choice, and not much more explanation was given. A while ago someone I know was asked in a conversation “How do you just wake up one day and decide you like men?” I did interject that the gay guys I know say that their attraction existed from as young as they can remember. You’d think the LDS church leaders would make much more of an effort to be clear about what they mean, especially when so much misunderstanding about the concept still exists.I have a homosexual friend that told me that his bishop promised him that if he married a woman in the Temple that God would cure his homosexuality. It ended up being really bad council. That to me is extremely harmful and only brings an extra person into the pain of the situation. I asked my dad who was a bishop up until a few months ago if he receives any instruction or training on how to deal with situations where a member is struggling with homosexual attraction and he said no. That to me is neglectful of LDS church leadership. I understand that individual situations need different council, but at the very least they could come out with some basic guidelines or “what not to say” so that bishops aren’t just floundering with their own limited understanding and false assumptions. The church seems to have done really well at implementing modern ideas of psychology, communication, ect. into their Marriage and Family Relations manual, it seems like there is a huge need for similar implementation of modern understanding in many other areas too. The LDS church doesn’t hold a monopoly on true principles, just because an idea might come from study outside the church doesn’t automatically mean it’s false.

  9. This is a very bold post and I really admire you for it because I do consider each of those things to be institutionalized sins. As for examples of similar seemingly immoral laws in the bible that were purported to have been commanded by God, I consider those to be great examples of men passing their own ideas off as being commanded of God, or at the very least, a bad translation or faulty account. LDS people are warned about philosophies of men mingled with scripture, but it seems like most are unwilling to acknowledge that LDS scripture is also susceptible to that. I can’t believe in a God that gives his children a moral compass, and then gives commands counter to that. I believe God values our ability to discern right from wrong far more than he values our ability to simply do what we’re told. A good parent does not keep his children dependent on him, but teaches them to be good stewards over themselves. Of each of the examples that you mention above, polygamy probably affects me the most. I have very bad anxiety when anyone mentions Joseph Smith or defends the practice of polygamy as being commanded of God, the same way I’d feel around someone who claims that rape is justified. I can’t say I blame them for justifying it based on the filtered version of LDS Church History we grow up with, but knowing that’s what they base their justification on doesn’t make it any less painful for me, it actually is kind of an extra slap in the face. A few times when asked I’ve tried to gently explain what parts of the implementation of J.S.’s polygamy lead me to believe the way that I do, and most people brush them off as untrue on the basis that they “don’t feel good about it” when I bring it up. On that basis, the holocaust could also be considered a work of fiction. Anyway, I totally identify with pretty much everything in this post.

  10. Annie, that was beautiful.

    • Ditto Bones. Thanks, Annie B.

  11. When I wrote this post almost two years ago, this paragraph:

    “Even today, the church statement on the matter does not confess that any institutional sin took place, but implies that God Himself withheld the priesthood from men of African descent until 1978.”

    linked to a statement that was about a paragraph long and pretty much blamed god for the priesthood restriction. I am pleased to report that the text on that page was replaced earlier this month with a detailed account of the history of racism in the church.

    But it still lacks any official apology…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>