Even though Joseph Smith ordained a number of black people to the priesthood, Brigham Young, who replaced Joseph Smith as the prophet, initiated a ban on ordinations for black men in 1852 that would last until 1978. I learned about this priesthood ban from the perspective of the rural Idaho community I grew up in. The explanations for the ban were "it was all God's timing", "it was the culture of their day", or even the occasional theory that the blood of Cain hadn't been thinned out enough through inter-breeding.
I just went with it.
If God tells the prophet to ban black people from the priesthood, then that's the way it's going to be. In primary, I was taught the song "Follow the Prophet", an ominous melody in a minor key with lyrics like, "Don't go astray/He knows the way!" I grew up hearing that the prophet will never lead us astray. Ironically, this isn't taught by the prophets, but Mormons still believe it. According to Mormons, without a prophet, we would all be as lost and as miserable as the people in the Middle Ages were when they had no living prophet on the earth to guide them. Prophets in Mormonism are meant to lead and guide, to offer direction in times of confusion, to speak for God. Everything the prophet says is understood to be doctrine. Because he's the prophet. He will never lead us astray.
Well, except for the times when he does:
"We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen. " - Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith
The phrase Mormons use at times like this is "speaking as a man." Of course, prophets make mistakes, Mormons say. They are human after all. Isn't it miraculous how God can do such great works through imperfect men?
But situations like this bring up a tension in Mormonism. If the prophet sometimes "speaks as a man" instead of speaking for God, that means he sometimes leads people astray. On the other hand, he can never lead us astray.
So which is it? Sometimes or never?
This tension was something I kept neatly tucked away on my handy Mormon mental shelf, the way most Mormons do. If you just don't think about it, then it goes away. That worked quite nicely for a while. Until early in 2014, when I read the church essay titled "Race and the Priesthood." In that essay the church says:
"Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents [prophets] restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.""Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form." - "Race and the Priesthood"
Phew. On one hand, this was an official disavowal of all the weird theories I had heard growing up and it meant that I didn't have to worry about the blood of Cain stuff. On the other hand, it also meant that the only explanation for why blacks were banned from the priesthood was because the prophets were, in Mormon lingo, "products of their time." In other words, the prophets were just plain racist.
Here's a quote showing just how racist a prophet could be:
"The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God children stand in equal positions before Him in all things....Indeed, some of God's children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does. From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel." - Prophet George Albert Smith in a letter to Lowry Nelson
It makes me cringe to think that I once revered these men. I thought they were a guiding light to turn to at times when the "philosophies of men" create social and moral confusion. I thought they were supposed to lead social progress, not reluctantly comply with it, but the Civil Rights movement had been going on for decades before the church finally got with the program. And on top of that, the prophets were obviously racist! They were actively opposing the progress. Not leading it.
My next defense (I say defense because sometimes Mormons view facts as an attack on their faith) against these problems as a Mormon was to say that these were past prophets, and all that really matters is that we follow the current prophet. But that argument didn't work at all! We are supposed to believe in all the prophets, especially Joseph Smith. And making the distinction between the past and current prophets did nothing to refute the fact that the right thing to do as a member in the 1960s would have been to NOT follow the prophet.
What else were the prophets wrong about? Polygamy? It would be easy to see how prophets could be "products of their humanity" and confuse their sexual desires with the will of God, the way prophets had mistaken their own racist inclinations to be the Gospel truth. Couldn't living prophets be wrong too? What about women being banned from the priesthood? Or homosexual marriages being banned from temples? The prophets are probably "products of their time" in these aspects as well and will eventually give in to the pressure to do the right thing as society becomes more loving and Christ-like than the church, the way it happened in the 1970s.
The excuse that prophets were "products of their time" isn't a good excuse. If a prophet confuses his own will with God's will and gets things wrong in matters as important as the ability of black people to go to the temple, then he is no prophet in my mind. The right way to go in the 1960s was the opposite way that the prophet of the Mormon church was leading, and there's no reason to assume that following the prophet is the only correct choice in the present time. Prophets claim to have a special connection with God, but if I can't tell the difference between when the man is speaking and when God is speaking, then I think that's dangerous. It means I am putting the prophet's own thoughts and feelings on the same level as the word of God, even when it's not from God!
After realizing this, I decided that I would think for myself from that point forward. No more depending on the prophet to make my moral decisions for me. No more leaving it up to chance whether the guidance I followed was actually from God or not. If I lived in the 1960s, the right thing would have been to take a step back and ask the question, "Is the prophet wrong?" And if that was the right question to be asking in the 1960s, then it was definitely the right question to be asking in 2014.