By the First Presidency
Should Doctrine and Covenants Section 116 be removed and placed in the church’s historical records? This question was posed to the 2023 World Conference by a resolution from Community of Christ’s Coastal Bend USA Mission Center.
According to Eric Cox, the resolution’s mover:
Section 116, while directing the need to ordain men of all races, also cautioned against being hasty in ordaining men of the “Negro” race. Our concern is that this could be interpreted as not recognizing the full worth of all persons and not affirming the potential of all races. Further it can create misunderstanding of the Enduring Principles of the Community of Christ.
After initial consideration, an amendment was proposed to “decanonize” Section 116 but keep it in Doctrine and Covenants. The amendment’s purpose was to remove the section’s authoritative scriptural status while keeping it in plain view so as not to ignore part of our history. Also, the amendment intended to motivate the church to wrestle with questions of scriptural authority and interpretation. Following discussion, the Conference referred the resolution and amendment to the First Presidency.
The Presidency has begun a study of this resolution and related topics. As part of its exploration, the Presidency has considered the following statement from Apostle Lach Mackay, one of our World Church historians:
Our Church History Principles call on us to avoid judging the past based on present understandings, and context is critical in understanding both history and scripture. To remove this section would be to ignore that counsel.
This 1865 section reaffirms that men of every race should be ordained but suggests that they “be not hasty,” perhaps recognizing that almost nine of ten Black Americans were recently freed from enslavement and had limited leadership and educational opportunities through no fault of their own. We encouraged the same cautious approach in 1984 when moving to ordain women.
It is the second half of verse 4b that is more problematic for me, and it later was used to diminish and oppress Black men. Our response shouldn’t be to cover it up by removing it. We instead should confess, repent, and seek to be transformed by our past, which can happen only if we know about it.
The last sentence of verse 4, “Be ye content, I the Lord have spoken it,” seems to reinforce its message. But the two earliest manuscripts, one a certified true copy of the original text, tell a different story. The last sentence is supposed to be its own, separate, stand-alone, one-sentence paragraph.
I believe the intent was not to reinforce verse 4, but instead was to reinforce the answer to the original question in the meeting minutes, “Should men of colour be ordained?” Yes! I the Lord have spoken it.”
I encourage the First Presidency to consider correcting this in the next printing of the Doctrine and Covenants. We also should revise the section’s introductory heading, which includes dated language from 1970.
Understood in context, Section 116 captures some of our early, halting steps toward inclusion and the recognition of the Worth of All Persons. Parts of this section are worth celebrating, and parts of it are worth mourning, but when understood in context, it is not worthy of cancellation.
Additionally, the Presidency has developed important questions for follow-up discussion:
- What does it mean to remove this section when other passages in our books of scripture are racist and discriminatory? Is the issue really the need for greater scriptural literacy in how we understand and apply scripture today?
- How do we ensure that we fully understand the perspectives of our Black members on this proposal?
- How do our Enduring Principles, Basic Beliefs, and mission statement inform our discussion?
- What is the historical context of Section 116, and what did it accomplish in the church’s life at the time it was given?
- Could a new preface to the section address many concerns?
- What paragraphs of Section 116 are more universal, and what parts are more particular to its historical context? What would be lost by removing the entire section?
- How do nations other than the USA view this section?
- Should other scripture passages be clearly referenced as having priority over this one?
- Would removal of this section be a dominant culture(s) trying to erase a portion of our history with which we now are uncomfortable? What are the implications of doing that?
No doubt, other questions and perspectives for consideration will arise from ongoing exploration. If you would like to offer questions or perspectives on this topic, you may send those to the First Presidency. We will keep the church informed as our study continues.