The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are “found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother’s arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray....” ( Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 9:289)The message that the Lord will never allow the prophet to lead the people astray is repeated again and again. So, seemingly, all faithful Mormons should ignore any concerns they might have and simply follow the teachings of the prophet.
“...learn to do as you are told. ...if you are told by your leader to do a thing, do it, none of your business whether it is right or wrong.” (Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, 6:32)
“If you do things according to counsel and they are wrong, the consequences will fall on the heads of those who counseled you, so don’t be troubled.” (William Clayton’s Journal, p. 334)
“God made Aaron to be the mouthpiece for the children of Israel, and He will make me to be god to you in His stead, and the Elders to be mouth for me; and if you don’t like it, you must lump it.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 363/History of the Church, 6:319-20)
“I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 13:95)
“Recently, at the Church-wide fireside meeting held for the women of the Church, Young Women President Elaine Cannon made the following statement: “When the Prophet speaks,....the debate is over.” (Ensign, November 1978, p. 108). I was impressed by that simple statement, which carries such deep spiritual meaning for all of us. Wherever I go, my message to the people is: follow the prophet"
Except that the church also teaches that 'man shall be punished for his own sins,' which means that they will be held responsible for their actions, and the excuse of simply following the prophet becomes less tenable. Perhaps it would be wise to take a closer look at the claim of prophetic infallibility. Is it really true that a prophet has never misled the Mormon people? And even if, as in the Adam-God theory taught by Brigham Young (declared in General Conference in 1852 and published as doctrine in the Journal of Discourses - remember it is Brigham Young who declared that everything he preached as a sermon and released to the members was Scripture; this theory is now disavowed by the church) some teachings are later declared to be non-doctrinal by the authorities, have any of these early 'inspired' teachings caused the loss of either spiritual or civil rights, or have they caused distress or harm to anyone?
Joseph Smith, while originally upholding slavery and slave laws in the interest of public order, later declared himself an abolitionist* and, in fact, bestowed the priesthood on a black member. For non-members - Mormons teach that an essential part of the restoration of the true gospel (the foundation of the LDS church) was the return of the priesthood to the earth. There are two orders of priesthood, the Aaronic which is the lower level and is usually held by boys aged 12 - 18 (although adult convert men will also hold the Aaronic priesthood first). The Aaronic grants "the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins." When proven worthy, and if you're old enough (although the early church didn't have hard and fast rules about age and very young men were often given the higher priesthood), you are ordained into the Melchizedek priesthood which, among other things, gives the recipient the power to give blessings of healing, comfort and counsel to others and to preside over the family. The priesthood is a fundamental part of Mormon beliefs, and many ordinances are dependent upon holding it.
After Joseph Smith was killed the policy of the church changed and righteous black members were not only excluded from the priesthood, they had their temple ordinances revoked because of their 'negro blood.' Keep in mind that in the Mormon idea of heaven, temple ordinances are essential in order to achieve the highest degree of glory. The justification for the revocation of ordinances was that black skin was the outward sign of a curse of God - in the case of blacks, the curse of Cain. This idea is found throughout Mormon scripture with the Lamanites (native Americans) having dark skin as a result of a curse, and scripture in the Pearl of Great Price reading, "For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people." (Moses 7:8).
At Joseph Smith's death, after a certain amount of jostling for position, Brigham Young was declared the next appointed prophet and a fundamental change in church policy began. On February 13, 1849 Brigham Young responded to the question, "What chance is there for the redemption of the Negro?" by saying, "the Lord has cursed Cain's seed with blackness and prohibited them the priesthood." Black members could no longer bless their children if they were ill, or act as priesthood leaders in their own families. Non-Mormons will not realize how significant, how seminal this is but members will recognize just what this ban was doing to faithful black Mormons.
What makes the policy even more pernicious is the teachings that became common in the church to justify the position. Remember that, according to Article of Faith #2 "we believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgressions," so why were blacks being banned from the priesthood for a sin that was not theirs? The answer was, according to then Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, "according to the doctrine of the church, the negro because of some condition of unfaithfulness in the spirit — or pre-existence, was not valiant and hence was not denied the mortal probation, but was denied the blessing of the priesthood." Smith made it clear that this was his own opinion, but the concept was popularly taught throughout the church until well into the 1970's. I remember asking about the ban and being given this response.
In 1942 an official statement was released that said:
The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: "Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to."The same statement goes on to say that the conditions people are born into are predicated by their pre-mortal behavior - again, a teaching I personally received (we commonly prayed giving thanks that we had been born as Americans for example, and were subtly encouraged to feel superior to other nations because we had been so valiant as to be born into the 'greatest' nation).
The ban went beyond priesthood however, it also kept black members from the highest ordinances of the temple - temple endowments and temple marriages, effectively barring black members from the highest degree of glory. These ordinances could, of course, be performed after the member had died and the ban had been lifted, but during their own lifetime these members could not enter the most sacred areas of the temple.
Why does that matter? The temple, Mormons believe, is the place on earth where no evil can enter. It is the place where a member can truly feel the spirit of the Lord, receive personal revelation unsullied by outside influences, and have the deepest spiritual experiences. Mormons attend the temple regularly after having gone through on their own behalf to receive their own endowments, performing work for the dead but also garnering "the blessings of the temple" which most faithful members will regularly testify to. Black members, however, were not allowed these blessings.
Further, the teachings, both official and unofficial, and the policies of the church provided an atmosphere of fear and bias. It justified many members in racial beliefs and actions and built a barrier, one formed of not only misunderstanding but of an institutionally created bias, between white members and blacks. In the late 1960's an alleged prophecy by John Taylor began to spread among Mormons, a prophecy that the U.S. Constitution was going to hang by a thread (a common theme in early Mormon prophecies) and the streets would run with blood. Blacks would invade the temples and rape and murder the members. The belief in this "prophecy" was so strong that all bishops were instructed to read a statement that debunked it. However, it was church policy and culture that made the radical and ridiculous belief possible.
So how long was the ban meant to last?
"You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind …. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the ‘servant of servants’; and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree." [prophecy that slavery will not end until blacks somehow are no longer 'cursed' with a dark skin]
"When all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood, and of coming into the kingdom of God, and of being redeemed from the four quarters of the earth, and have received their resurrection from the dead, then it will be time enough to remove the curse from Cain and his posterity. He deprived his brother of the privilege of pursuing his journey through life, and of extending his kingdom by multiplying upon the earth; and because he did this, he is the last to share the joys of the kingdom of God".
"How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam's children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed"
So church policy was to bar black members from some of the most essential rights and blessings of the church and to implicitly (and at times explicitly) encourage their white members to view them as 'less valiant' and inferior. This policy was, according to more than one prophet, to last until everyone else on earth, every other human being both living and dead, had been taught the gospel and given the opportunity to accept baptism and the other ordinances.
Until, of course, 1978 when President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation that black could now enjoy full membership in the church (note - they'd tried to get the ban lifted in 1969 but were blocked by then apostle Harold B. Lee).
So, church policy can indeed be reversed and the beliefs of prophets, publicly stated, aren't always actual true revelation from God. In fact, many statements of past Prophets, statements that they themselves clearly and sincerely believed to be of God, are now said by church officials to be times when those prophets were "speaking as men." The problem is, apparently the prophets themselves can't tell the difference, and in the mean time the members of the church believe and act on those statements.
Many faithful Mormons, particularly between the 1950's and the revelation of 1978, chose to disbelieve the teachings that blacks were somehow different and inferior. They chose to treat all people with compassion and empathy. They chose to follow the second commandment of Christ to, "love your neighbor as yourself." While the church chose to remain silent on Civil Rights and, according to the NAACP, made "no effort to conteract the widespread discriminatory practices in education, in housing, in employment, and other areas of life," there were members actively promoting equality, marching for civil rights and demonstrating and protesting.
I would hope that Mormons today would view those members, the members who were willing to look beyond the cultural conditioning and institutional bias of the church, as true followers of Christ. I would hope that they would imagine that some day, a revelation could be made that found that homosexuality has a biological foundation and that gay members do not choose their sexual orientation but are created with it by a loving God, a revelation that all those who are faithful and wish to form loving, permanent, eternal families are to be granted that privilege and that previous biased actions and statements were merely well-meaning leaders "speaking as men." I would hope that they could think now about how they would want to have acted, whether they would, knowing that, have preferred to extend rights to their brothers and sisters that they themselves hold dear, knowing that the exercise of those rights in no way changes or diminishes their own families and relationships.
I would hope that they would act with love.
*In fact anti-slavery statements by church leaders in Missouri were among the things that caused friction between Mormons and gentiles (the Mormon word for non-members). In 1833 W.W. Phelps published the statement, "in connection with the wonderful events of this age, much is doing towards abolishing slavery, and colonizing the blacks, in Africa," causing outrage in the community and forcing Phelps to publicly recant his statement. After this, Joseph Smith and others published statements outlining a far more racist (and thus acceptable) stance, outlining the Curse of Cain theory and providing the foundation for the later actions of the church.