Acknowledging Institutional Mistakes is a Strength Not a Weakness: Wisdom from Oral Histories with Mormon Women of Color

I was elated to interview Nadine in 2015 for my dissertation on Mormon women of color navigating issues of race and gender (now a book). As an older professional Southern Black woman and somewhat recent convert, Nadine gave me a window into what attracted her to the church—clarity on religious questions, community, and opportunities for involvement. She also showed me a powerful strategy for dealing with some of Mormonism’s thorniest problems like polygamy and the priesthood-temple ban: prayerfully reject them.

What I eventually used was the principle of personal revelation, which I had believed as a Baptist and which was key to me in looking at the LDS faith. I prayed and the answer I received was that neither the priesthood ban and the temple ban nor polygamy had been of God. . . . [Joseph Smith] said that the key part of our religion is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And that everything else—everything else—was all just appendages to that key tenet. And I was like, I can go for that. And you know, all these other things, they are appendages, so I don’t really have to worry my head about that. I had already received clear revelation that the priesthood ban and the temple ban and polygamy were not of God—so I could join the church.

Interesting, right? By rejecting these practices and teachings that were confirmed to her through personal revelation as not being authored by God, she was able to embrace the church. She was able to choose baptism. She was able to participate and love all the good things the church did offer.

Nadine didn’t need the historical church to be perfect. She was a child of the South, raised in a context of overt racism. Historical racism from white-led institutions did not surprise her. She could accept that reality. What she couldn’t accept was the idea that racist practices—and practices which she found harmful to women and families—were authored by God.

Nadine’s experience of finding space to choose the church—through rejecting church practices she knew in her bones to be harmful and ungodly—has made me consider a) why more Mormons don’t do this and b) how the church might create space for members to do this and thus retain and gain more members.

Why don’t more Mormons who see troubling and hurtful teachings feel free to reject them and embrace the good in the church, like Nadine did?  I think this is due to both Mormon culture and institutional church emphases. Mormon culture too often advocates a black or white, all or nothing, it’s all true or it’s all false mindset when it comes to church truth claims. It’s a very rare Sunday at church when I hear someone acknowledge something they find problematic or don’t accept regarding church teachings or practices. Rather, there are strong cultural norms to not dissent or challenge basically any teaching. Faith in Mormonland is generally characterized by agreement with institutional discourse—not by doing the hard work of sorting out what is godly and what isn’t in our culture and institution.

Institutional church discourse has certainly helped contribute to the above cultural phenomenon. Repeated emphases on prophetic authority and God/Jesus directing the church imply that basically all church policies and teachings are authored by God. There is some lip service to the idea that church leaders are fallible, but as the old joke about Catholics and Mormons goes, Mormons don’t tend to believe it.*

But what if church leaders could shift their discourse by offering more institutional humility? I for one would be a far more comfortable member if I saw church leaders acknowledging and yes, apologizing, for mistakes and harmful practices. I’d feel comforted if my leaders were people who were willing to admit to institutional shortcomings. That would build my confidence in my leaders and in this institution far more than repeated assertions of prophetic authority and God directing the church. The unwillingness to acknowledge shortcomings (so evident in the defensive tone of the church’s PR response to the recent horrific AP story on sexual abuse) indicates a serious weakness to me. Robustness, strength, and maturity entail recognizing humanity, acknowledging missteps, and committing to do better.

One of the most impactful articles I read as a young Mormon feminist is “Lusterware” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (summarized in this post). She makes the excellent point that too often we church members mistake things in the church that are earthly, weak, and fault-ridden for things that are godly, perfect, and just as they should be. This can lead to disillusionment and the questioning of one’s membership when those things (or people) we held up as godly turn out to be fallible.

Like the essay indicates, members need to be more judicious about the things they pedestalize. But church leaders could certainly help members do this if they opened up more space for them to develop discernment in church contexts. Opening up space could entail introducing discourses that acknowledge institutional fallibility; that talk about how the institutional church is on a journey of progression; that its leadership is listening, learning, and making mistakes, but committed to doing better.

I’ve thought a lot about Nadine’s oral history, and I think she was really onto something. The freedom she felt to privilege her personal revelation and reject unjust and hurtful church practices ultimately enabled her to embrace the church. I wish more people could self-authorize and find that freedom. I’d like more people to feel free to stay or join, if that’s what they would like to do. I wish the institutional church would help create room for that through discourses of humility and progression.

*The joke is along the lines that Catholic doctrine states that the pope is infallible, but Catholics don’t believe it; Mormon doctrine states that the prophet is fallible, but Mormons don’t believe it.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. nicolesbitani says:

    Thank you for writing this. It made me feel seen as an active, nuanced member who relies on personal revelation this way.

  2. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks for articulating this. The more people speak up (and write) about using personal revelation this way, to negotiate a personal space of integrity, the more the practice will spread in the LDS community. I personally tried for years to incorporate some kind of polygamy into my faith, since I thought I had to, and since my ancestors did. It was such a relief to stop trying, and it felt spiritual and right.
    A young teenage daughter of mine went to a bat mitzvah last night. She said her friend explained in her speech the laws she was planning to live and the laws she rejected and why (the law that men should only dress as men and women should only dress as women, for example). When she read from the Torah, she then told the congregation what she agreed with in the verses and what she didn’t agree with.
    It happens in LDS wards too. I heard a talk a few weeks ago where a thoughtful women explained what she liked about an apostle’s general conference talk, and where she thought the speaker’s metaphor pointed us in the wrong direction and why.
    I heard someone introduce themselves as “a passionate, if critical” participant in the Christian tradition. I liked that. We don’t have to be passionate or critical – we can be both.

    • Matt says:

      “Passionate, if critical” Yes!! Thank you.

    • Caroline says:

      Holly, I too tried for years to figure out a way to make polygamy work in my head in way that didn’t leave God and the eternities fundamentally unjust, and I ultimately couldn’t do it. I’m so glad to have let that teaching/practice go and to have decided that it did not come from God.

      I love that your daughter’s friend gave that speech! Hearing that would make my heart sing with joy. To see a kid (or anyone) finding space within an LDS church context to be passionate, critical, and engaged — that would mean a lot to me.

  3. Matt says:

    This may seem like a non sequitur, but stay with me. In 1965 my first-grade teacher made me eat the yams that were part of our thanksgiving-week school lunch. I threw up in front of everyone in the school’s cafagymatorium. I don’t know if it’s the taste, the texture, or the trauma of that day in 1965, but to this day I cannot eat yams. But yams are as much a Thanksgiving food as turkey. How can I call myself a good American when I don’t like yams? Everyone loves yams.

    Flash forward to 1977. I attend the temple for the first time before entering the mission filed and the patriarchy and sexism leave a yam-like taste in my mouth. How could I call myself a good Latter-day Saint if I don’t like the temple? Everyone loves the temple.
    Throughout my life in the church I have felt like an outsider because I don’t like polygamy yams, or patriarchal order yams, or priesthood/temple ban yams, or other yam dishes. I have learned there are plenty of other wonderful dishes on the church’s Thanksgiving table. Thank you for validating my feelings on this subject.

    Side note: Six years ago my wife and I retired to a small rural town. Guess who is buried in the cemetery here. Yup, my first grade teacher. Now every Thanksgiving I leave a yam on her headstone. It’s so therapeutic. 😊

    • Caroline says:

      I love your metaphor, Matt. I too have a few traditional yam dishes that I just can’t do (generally centering around patriarchy and race) — but there are certainly others at the table that I can appreciate. Thanks for sharing your yam story! Love that you have come full circle with your first grade teacher.

  4. Lori says:

    I echo what Nicole said. This resonates with me, as I have also rejected certain teachings based on personal revelation. It sometimes makes for uncomfortable interactions with church members who are unaccustomed to such freedom to think for themselves, but it is vital to my ability to continue to participate as an active member of the church.

    • Caroline says:

      I love that you are open about your rejection of certain teachings, Lori. I am often open when I speak to people one on one, but I tend to be less open when I teach in church. I need to do better at claiming my truth and living in my integrity — and modeling what I’m talking about here in this post.

  5. Katie Ludlow Rich says:

    I can hardly imagine a day where church members could openly share what they believe and what they reject at Church in a spirit of trust and acceptance, but the idea sounds freeing and unifying.

    • Caroline says:

      Yup. We have a long way to go, Katie. I think some wards are better at tolerating a certain amount of heterodoxy — but not many. I did love our Gospel Doctrine 2 class that we had in my ward a few years ago — a small discussion class aimed at questioners/doubters, committed to openness and honesty.

  6. Marilee Coles-Ritchie says:

    Based on a recent Sunday School experience, this was helpful for me.

  7. Miriam says:

    I love this perspective! If we believe in personal revelation, then let’s actually believe in personal revelation

  8. Carol says:

    Thank You for your comments. I have been hurt a few times as a Mom raising my children in the LDS church. My husband has fully supported the church, until a Bishop told him to get in or get out. This Bishop I had given my permission to and respected. Others male and female violated my needs and could have supported me. I just remembered that these are all humans like myself and have it not affect my testimony. Hopefully, we will work towards developing a strong testimony and let negatives help us grow.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.