An interesting thing happened to Mormon Sunday school teacher Brian Dawson. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that a student in Mr. Dawson’s youth Sunday school class asked him why his Nigerian wife joined a church that had at one time excluded blacks from the priesthood and Mormon temples. The student wondered where the priesthood ban came from so Mr. Dawson agreed to discuss it with the class:
“You know, he began, we could rely on the personal witness of believing black members, but there is also a church-approved document the class could read together. It’s called ‘Race and the Priesthood’ and was published in December 2013 on the faith’s own website.
“The students eagerly agreed, so the following week Dawson arrived, armed with the essay and several articles from the church’s official Ensign magazine about early black Mormons, including Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James and Green Flake…
“The essay noted the priesthood ban was rooted more in earthly racism during Brigham Young’s era than heavenly revelation.
“Pointing that out — and that future missionaries should understand this history — was where Dawson’s troubles began.” (Peggy Fletcher Stack, “This Mormon Sunday school teacher was dismissed for using church’s own race essay in lesson,” May 5, 2015)
Mr. Dawson was later contacted by his bishop and told, “Anything regarding black history before 1978 is irrelevant and a moot point,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The bishop “insisted that Dawson agree never again to bring up the essay or discuss ‘black Mormon history’ in the class.” Mr. Dawson countered,
“‘If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents,’ he asked the bishop, ‘who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?’
“The bishop replied, according to Dawson, ‘The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.’”
It’s natural to wonder why the Spirit would tell Mr. Dawson one thing while giving his bishop an opposite message. I don’t know if Mr. Dawson entertained this question, but he chose not to submit to his bishop’s demands and was released from his position as teacher.
The Dawsons then appealed to a higher authority in the Church. The Salt Lake Tribune says,
“Eventually, their local LDS leaders agreed that Dawson’s materials were legitimate but decided he shouldn’t teach them anyway.
“It was too much for the kids, they argued, and church was not the right venue for the discussion.”
The Dawsons are reportedly baffled by all of this. The point of the Mormon Church essays on controversial aspects of Mormon history was explained in 2014 to journalist Laurie Goodstein:
“There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.” (Steven E. Snow, quoted in The New York Times, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives,” November 10, 2014)
On its website, the Mormon Church urges all people to “read the essays as written” and “encourages members to study” them (“Gospel Topics” introduction).
But don’t talk about them at church. Don’t teach them at church. Don’t confuse teenage LDS members with the “reliable, faith-promoting information” they contain.
In her interview for this Salt Lake Tribune article, Mormon author Tamu Smith notes that even though the LDS Church essay on Race and the Priesthood has been announced to church leadership and is included in the newest curriculum for high school and college students,
“‘many seminary teachers [for high school], institute [college] teachers, and even some people teaching at Brigham Young University are blind to it — even when you point things out to them.’
“It’s ‘great’ that the essay is on the church website, Smith says, ‘but people don’t believe it.’”
I almost think the Mormon Church would like it to stay that way.