New Mormon scriptures tweak race, polygamy references

Monday , March 04, 2013 - 2:21 PM

Peggy Fletcher Stack

Mormon historians are cheering the newly released English edition of LDS scriptures, pointing to new wording about race and polygamy that provides a more accurate and complex view of the church and its sometimes-controversial past.

It marks the first time in more than 30 years that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has updated its four books of scripture -- the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price -- and the changes are generating lots of buzz among members, scholars and bloggers.

“What this reveals is something all religions eventually have to wrestle with -- incorporating history into how we experience God,” says American religion historian Matthew Bowman, who last year released a history of the LDS Church. “The most significant changes to this new edition emphasize the importance of understanding the culture and context these scriptures were produced in.”

Among the biggest changes were new introductions to two documents toward the back of the “quad,” as Mormons call a single volume of the four works.

The lead-in to Official Declaration 2, which describes the church’s 1978 announcement to lift its ban on black males holding the faith’s priesthood, makes clear that Mormon founder Joseph Smith had previously ordained several black men.

Subsequent LDS officials “stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent,” the new introduction says. “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.”

“I am thrilled by the new statement regarding blacks,” says Darius Gray, former president of the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons. “The language is more forthcoming than anything we’ve previously had on the past priesthood restriction, so I take great pleasure in seeing the changes.”

Still, they are “incomplete,” Gray says. “There is more that needs to be done.”



On polygamy, the new LDS scriptures provide a historical introduction to Official Declaration 1, known as “the Manifesto,” which signaled a commitment to end the church’s practice of polygamy in 1890.

Valerie Hudson, a Mormon political science professor at Texas A&M University, has argued previously that Mormon polygamy was a temporary exception and not an essential LDS doctrine.

Brian Hales, an LDS researcher who just published a three-volume work, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy,” sees the changes as “moving away from the 19th-century wording on polygamy” in some parts, while being more accurate to the history in others.

“We are admitting our past,” he says, “better than we ever have before.”

Mormons seem pleased with the new versions.

“Pretty much everything I’m seeing is a victory for the more modern, scholarly approach to the scriptures with a greater awareness of modern sensibilities,” Mormon blogger Julie M. Smith writes at timesandseasons.org, “and the removal of a few generations of unjustifiable accretions of tradition to the record.”

LDS officials, who commissioned these revisions eight years ago, seem excited by the product, calling them a “blessing” to future church members.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

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