I ride an e-bike into work, and because an e-bike is expensive, I bring it into my office rather than lock it up at one of the bike racks on University of Kentucky campus. Because an e-bike is heavy, I also take it up the elevator to get up to the third floor, where my office is. My e-bike takes up a lot of space, but I’ve figured out how to share the elevator with others as I make my way up to my office. I lead my back in, getting the front wheel as far toward the back of the elevator as I can, and then swing it around to the left as I pick up my rear wheel and try to tuck it in to the opposite (front) corner of the elevator. It takes a little bit of effort, but I know I can get it in there; because I also know it’s going to take some effort to get my bike out, I usually face the rear of the elevator during the ride, which is short enough that there’s no point in turning around to face “the front” of the elevator only to turn back around again to take control of my handlebars and wheel the bike back out.
I shared the elevator with someone this morning, and I wondered whether he found it odd that I would face the back of the elevator during the ride. This thought came in particular because of a metaphor that two Latter-day Saint general authorities have shared while speaking at Brigham Young University recently. Here’s how the Salt Lake Tribune covered the more recent recounting of the metaphor, by Dallin Oaks of the First Presidency:
Oaks played a clip — shared by general authority Seventy Clark G. Gilbert, the commissioner of the Church Educational System, at BYU’s August 2022 Education Week — of an old episode of “Candid Camera,” a hidden-camera reality TV series. Three or four people employed by the show get into an elevator and face the wrong way. Another person gets on the elevator and, observing the others, turns to face the wrong way, too.
“As students, do you dare to be different?” Oaks asked. “Are you willing to face the opposite direction in the world’s elevators? More important than what you do as a student are the choices you are making in your personal life — the priorities you are adopting consciously or subconsciously. Are you going forward against the world’s opposition?”
I had a perfectly good reason to be “fac[ing] the opposite direction” in this particular elevator, and I was interested by the way that it stood in contrast with Oaks and Gilbert’s metaphor. Then again, it’s also an imperfect metaphor; yes, Oaks and Gilbert assume that there is only one right way to stand in an elevator, but I don’t know that there was any of the element of social pressure in my elevator ride that is central to their telling of their story. However, thinking about this just reminded me of another story that’s been on my mind—one that demonstrates that the social pressure of “the world’s opposition” is (at least sometimes) clearly a good thing, even in a faithful, orthodox, Latter-day Saint perspective.
This weekend, I finished John Turner’s excellent biography of Brigham Young, which made it clear that Young (at least sometimes) believed that slavery was ordained of God. Turner notes that Young was sometimes oppositional to (some forms of) slavery, but one sudden about-face in 1852 demonstrates just how far Young was willing to go in some of his defenses of the indefensible:
“I am a firm believer in slavery,” Young now declared. When the Council (the assembly’s upper chamber) first took up an “act in relation to African slavery,” he outlined several rationales for the proposed law. He observed the wealth that southern Mormons had invested in slaves, but he also made a strong theological defense of the institution, maintaining that “[i]nasmuch as I believe in the Bible, inasmuch as I believe in the ordi- nances of God, in the Priesthood and order, and decrees of God, I must believe in slavery.” For Young, the heart of the issue was that Africans were cursed by God with dark skin and servitude. Furthermore, arguing that American slaves enjoyed a “much more comfortable” life than Euro- pean workers, Young suggested that a well-treated slave “is much better off than if he was free.” The argument, common in southern critiques of northern as well as European capitalism, reflects Young’s familiarity with working-class England and his relative lack of personal experience with southern slavery. Like many proslavery apologists, Young suggested that the institution was a positive good, both for slaves and their owners.
It seems clear to me that Latter-day Saint leaders today would not at all agree with Young’s position here. There are lots of ways that Latter-day Saint leaders fall short in terms of race and racism, but to their credit, I have total confidence that each of them would describe the abolition of slavery as a good thing. Here’s the funny thing, though: To the best of my knowledge, there exists no Latter-day Saint revelation declaring that slavery is not the will of God and that it is, in fact, a very bad thing. Rather, during the 19th century, Americans began “turning around in the elevator,” and Latter-day Saints eventually joined them—only to find that the door was on the other side the whole time.
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