An Open Letter to All Noble and Great Ones
Posted by Matthew on September 29, 2012
Before we get to the meat of this post I want to begin with a proposition which I consider for this post foundational. I lay this proposition here at the front to define my audience. In addition to the obvious fact that this is written for a Mormon audience, I want to define my audience for this post as those who see denying Blacks the priesthood as a mistake. I see it as a sort of Mountain Meadows Massacre, different in many obvious ways, but similar in the sort of embarrassment I have for it related to the religion I know is true. If you aren’t embarrassed by that and especially if you think such embarrassment is wrong, then you aren’t part of the intended audience. Feel free to comment, but at least you are forewarned that we may end up talking past each other on this point.
Now to the heart of the post. What should we make of Abraham 3:22-23?
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
A pretty straightforward interpretation of this verse is that ahead of time God picked out the people who would be his rulers and his selection was based on whoever was best. In the larger context of the chapter this is important in two ways. 1) This becomes an opportunity for God to point out to Abraham that he was one of the people God picked before he was born. 2) This is a step along the way toward a sort of Anselmian argument for Jesus Christ that is being made here, namely, if some people are (were at the beginning) more like God than others, someone must be (and must have been at the beginning) the most like God of anyone–that person is Jesus Christ.
The most difficult part of these verses is the fact that God identifies that he is going to use these noble and great ones to be his “rulers” of which Abraham is one. The reason this is difficult is that we actually know now who God’s rulers are. To me it seems like a stretch to think that, for example, President Monson, isn’t in that group. So it creates a link between what we see today in terms of people in positions and gradations of goodness in a premortal realm. It doesn’t explicitly say of course that God took the best one’s and designated them prophets and then worked his way out to apostles, general authorities and other officers of the church, stake presidencies, bishoprics, relief society presidencies, elders quorum presidencies, primary presidencies, etc. But does it really matter whether he did that or he just picked some subset to forordain? Conceptually the message is the same regardless of how precisely he applied the rule.
Note: to be fair to the scripture nothing in it indicates that innate goodness will ensure success. In fact we know there are counter examples. Still if we tried to apply today’s statistical language back onto this verse it seems odd to not interpret this verse as suggesting there is a correlation.
More worrisome though, we find here the basis for the type thinking for why Blacks shouldn’t have had the priesthood, namely, they weren’t chosen to have it because … they weren’t as good. Yuck!
Let’s consider instead the famous verse of equality: 2 Ne 26:33.
[The Lord] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
Certainly these separate passages aren’t incompatible. One can believe both (1) that some people are better from the beginning and are chosen to be God’s rulers and (2) that in terms of God’s invitation for salvation, all are equal. But why bother?
Or put that question in a different way (and in two parts)
1) Do we reject this part of the Zoramite prayer?
Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and … we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children;
I reject this language and attitude.
2) Isn’t the concept in the Zoramite prayer less poisonous than the concept in Abraham 3:23?
I think it is less poisonous because the Zoramites at least gave God the credit for selecting them. Instead, in Abraham 3:23, we are left with the concept that God selects…whoever is already the best.
I am not shy of a spirited (but respectful) debate on this point. In this case, if you’d like, please take the side that there is something valuable going on here in Abraham 3:23 that I am missing. I’ll then respond to your comments arguing, as best I can, that you’re wrong.
It would be really cool though if you convince me that I’m wrong and you could redeem this scripture for me. If not we can place this scripture aside, ignoring it, until we can make sense of it in some positive way. And either way, let us commit never to use this scripture as a foundation for linking blessings, privilege or office in this life with goodness in the past.
PS let me begin with my own defense of this scripture. Let’s see what you think. This is God’s test, to us all, and especially to those who see themselves as leading in His work. On the one hand he gives us this one single scripture and on the other he gives us many, many scriptures like the parable of the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). We answer this test by choosing which scripture to look to in order to define ourselves.
PPS I can see how this post could easily be misconstrued as an argument that the leaders in the Church are prideful. That is not my intention at all. And in fact, in my own experience, I have found quite the opposite to be true.