By Peggy Fletcher Stack
| The Salt Lake Tribune
Mormon historians are cheering the newly released English edition of LDS scriptures, pointing to new wording about race and polygamy that provides a more accurate and complexview of the Utah-based church and its sometimes-controversial past.
It marks the first time in more than 30 years that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has updated its four books of scripture — the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price — and the changes are generating lots of buzz among members, scholars and bloggers.
The new edition, already available online at scriptures.lds.org, includes hundreds of minor spelling and punctuation changes to the holy script, as well as more substantive (though subtle) alterations of chapter headings, study helps and historical descriptions.
“What this reveals is something all religions eventually have to wrestle with — incorporating history into how we experience God,” says American religion historian Matthew Bowman, who last year released a one-volume history of the LDS Church. “The most significant changes to this new edition emphasize the importance of understanding the culture and context these scriptures were produced in.”
Taken together, says Bowman, a Latter-day Saint who teaches at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, the changes reflect an evolving and sophisticated understanding of that past and a “more thoughtful Mormonism going forward.”
Among the biggest changes were new introductions to two documents toward the back of the “quad,” as Mormons call a single volume of the four works.
The lead-in to Official Declaration 2, which describes the church’s 1978 announcement to lift its ban on black males holding the faith’s priesthood, makes clear that Mormon founder Joseph Smith had previously ordained several black men.
Subsequent LDS officials “stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent,” the new introduction says. “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.”
The new edition does not dispel any of the theological myths that arose to defend the practice, saying only that Mormon leaders believed it would take a revelation to undo the ban.
“I am thrilled by the new statement regarding blacks,” says Darius Gray, former president of the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons. “The language is more forthcoming than anything we’ve previously had on the past priesthood restriction, so I take great pleasure in seeing the changes.”
Still, they are “incomplete,” Gray says. “There is more that needs to be done.”
On polygamy, the new LDS scriptures alter the chapter headingto Doctrine & Covenants Section 132, which lays out the theology behind eternal marriage and plural marriage. They also provide a historical introduction to Official Declaration 1, known as “the Manifesto,” which signaled a commitment to end the church’s practice of polygamy in 1890.
Valerie Hudson, a Mormon political science professor at Texas A&M University, has argued previously that Mormon polygamy was a temporary exception and not an essential LDS doctrine.
“In these new introductions, we see that ‘plural marriage’ (notice, not ‘plurality of wives’) is to be viewed as a principle and not as a commandment, and that the ‘standard’ of marriage is monogamy,” Hudson, co-author of “Sex and World Peace,” writes in an email. “Small changes such as these can be momentous in their impact on the lives of current and future Saints, which is no doubt why they are attended to with such concern and finesse.”
Brian Hales, an LDS researcher who just published a three-volume work, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy,” sees the changes as “moving away from the 19th-century wording on polygamy” in some parts, while being more accurate to the history in others.
“We are admitting our past,” he says, “better than we ever have before.”