Friday, June 10, 2011

Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon

The 1978 Official Declaration 2, granting priesthood to "all worthy males" in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, caused many members to engage in a collective sigh of relief. For many of us, we no longer had to engage in the mental gymnastics required to maintain belief in what was then considered an important doctrine (that black men of African descent could not hold the priesthood, thus preventing them from full participation in their local wards and stakes), and the fairly universal sentiment prevalent in society that the Civil Rights war had been over for at least a decade and that restricting blacks in any way was considered racist. Looking back on that time, I wish the declaration had occurred a decade earlier, when I was a missionary in France, so I wouldn't have had to deal with the conflicting emotions involved in having to obey the counsel of my Mission President regarding what we should do if we knocked on the door and a black person answered: We were to excuse ourselves, say we had the wrong address, and then move on to the next potential convert.  ...


Title: Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon
Author: Keith N. Hamilton
Publisher: Ammon Works, LLC
Genre: Non-fiction, biographical, doctrinal (LDS)
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 331
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9844958-0-1
Price: $29.99

Reviewed by Thom Duncan for the Association for Mormon Letters

... Prior to OD-2, there had been numerous books and articles by General Authorities and others justifying the denial of priesthood to African Americans. After OD-2, other than Bruce R. McConkie's repudiation of his own and others' teachings -- "It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject." -- (CES Religious Educators Symposium on 18 August 1978 – Brigham Young University), little was said about the Priesthood denial or the reasons for its reversal. Even less available were articles and writings on how those most affected by the Declaration – black male members of the Church – felt about it.

*Last Laborer* by Keith N. Hamilton does a wonderful job at filling that gap. A black lawyer (the first black man to graduate from BYU's J.  Reuben Clark Law School) and post OD-2 convert to the LDS Church, Hamilton takes 331 pages to share with readers his personal history, his conversion to the Church, and offers a surprisingly supportive testimony of the "traditional" understanding of the reasons behind the Priesthood denial -- surprising because of the seeming racist origins of a doctrine that says there were fence-sitters in the War in Heaven and those fence sitters came to earth as members of the Negro race. Hamilton, unfailingly loyal to his church of choice, sees no systemic racism at all. Through the eyes of unwavering faith in the Church and its leaders, Hamilton finds no offense in the idea that, according to earlier Church leaders, Cain was cursed with a skin of blackness for murdering Abel, preferring to emphasize the belief prevalent among many other blacks of African descent that they are descendants of Ham, son of Noah.  Hamilton's understanding of the Priesthood denial is not rooted in the culture of his time; commendably, he chooses to embrace the eternal view that God is at the helm of the world, is in control of history, and has His own reasons for doing what He does which -- though we mortals may not always understand how -- will ultimately be for our own good and lead us to eternal life with Him in the Celestial Kingdom.

I have been a student of Church history and doctrine since my own conversion sometime after the mid-point of the last century. I thought I had read everything available about the behind-the-scenes actions of Prophets and General Authorities leading up to that momentous day in June 1978. Therefore, I was delighted to learn more of the personal struggle that President Kimball went through prior to receiving the revelation that we now call Official Declaration 2. When I first heard of the revelation (via a phone call from my sister to my office), I had no idea that the Brethren had been discussing this issue (giving black men the priesthood) for over ten years. In my then naive (and somewhat romanticized) understanding of how revelation comes to man, I had assumed something different than what actually happened – that the "revelation" was a gradual unfolding of understanding, a manifestation of the reality of the principle of "line upon line, here a little there a little."

Since Hamilton's book is written from a clearly faithful point of view, readers should not expect to find apologetic explanations that try to justify some of Brigham Young's (and others') more racially-laced comments, as, for example: "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." (Journal of Discourses, Vol.  10, p. 110). Which is not to say that Hamilton entirely skirts controversial issues. He quotes from an article by historian Ronald K.  Esplin which takes the position that the priesthood denial was instituted in Nauvoo by Joseph Smith (other historians have suggested that the practice was begun by Brigham Young, thus casting doubt on its legitimacy) and that Brigham Young believed it came from God. Hamilton uses this quote and many others to make the point that, in the absence of a written revelation to the contrary, members are free to decide for themselves if the practice of priesthood denial to black men had its origins in history or revelation.

Hamilton firmly believes, as evidenced by the many times he bears his testimony to that effect, that the practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of denying priesthood to black men was grounded in revelation, not history, and definitely not racial prejudice. At the same time, he takes no ideological position but allows his readers to come to their own conclusions.

The book is rich in detail about Hamilton's own conversion and is generously laced with his strong testimony of the Church and his Savior.  He has come to terms with Church teachings past and present about black men and the priesthood. Unlike some other African-American Mormons I personally know, Hamilton has not "settled" into a faithful position while waiting for further light and knowledge to help explain what many faithful members, black and white, view as the embarrassing trappings of a racist past. To Hamilton, truth is "one eternal round." The Priesthood ban was God's will and its removal was God's will. To fully appreciate "Last Laborer," readers must approach it not merely as a history of the priesthood and blacks (though it does have a fair amount of history) but more as a book that seeks to elevate the discussion to how God has dealt with his children since before we became mortal beings.

The over-arching message of this well-written, interesting, and inspiring book can be found in the title, "Last Laborer," taken from the Parable of the Last Laborer in Matthew 20:1-16 wherein Jesus teaches his disciples that it doesn't matter at what point in one's life one accepts the gospel -- all are welcome and all are equally worthy to receive God's blessings. The message from that passage of scripture, which is expanded upon by Hamilton, is that the Gospel is, indeed, for everyone, male and female, black or white, married or single. For Hamilton, the fact that those blessings seem to have been partitioned out over the history of the Church is evidence that God is at the helm and that, indeed, "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven."

1 comment:

Mormon Chronicles said...

Here is a somewhat related in the New York Times,