Mormons and race

For at least 126 years, from 1852 to 1978, people of African descent could not fully participate in my church. I don’t know why. But what I do know is my own belief that all people are created equal and deserving of being treated with dignity, respect, and love.


Salt Lake Temple

I remember the first time I learned that the ban had existed. My family was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was in second grade. I had already developed my love of geography and I frequently checked books out from my school’s library about different places. One day, I decided to check out a book about Utah. I had never been there, but I was well aware as a young Latter-day Saint that my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was headquartered there and that Mormons played a key role throughout the state’s history and on to the present day. The book was part of a series of books about each of the 50 states, and at the back of each book was a timeline of the state’s history. It was there, under 1978. I don’t remember what the exact text was, but I was a bit taken aback. I asked my mother whether it was true—if the priesthood had been extended to black members of the Church, then it must have been restricted from them before. She confirmed that, yes, prior to 1978, black men could not be ordained to the priesthood.

It has troubled me ever since, like it has so many other Mormons. At times I have sought answers, but at nearly every single attempt I have been dissuaded from doing so. I remember one occasion in high school. The details are sketchy now, but I had been discussing it with my mom, on the way to Mutual one evening. When we walked in the meetinghouse door, my home-teaching companion was standing there. My mom suggested that I approach him with my concerns. His response? Repeating the sentiment expressed by President Gordon B. Hinckley some time earlier in his interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes: it’s behind us, and it doesn’t matter now.

The ban may have been in the past, but it still felt like it mattered. As a Mormon, you grow up expecting that your church will have adequate answers to your questions. After all, if it can purport to answer the questions that have perplexed Christian theologians for centuries, and encompass the entirety of Truth no matter its source, then surely it can straightforwardly answer honest questions about its own history—and, as religions go, its relatively short, modern, seemingly well documented history at that. As an American, and particularly as a Southerner, I was well aware of this nation’s fraught history with race, and that for much of that history our nation had been on the wrong side of it—very clearly on the wrong side for a very long time. Surely the restored Church of Jesus Christ hadn’t itself been on the wrong side of history as well, just because it was established on American soil.

But most importantly, the ban seemed so contradictory to, well, everything I had been taught as a Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught me that God lived and that all people—everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, or where they lived, or the time they lived in—are His children, and that the Atonement and gospel of Jesus Christ was for all of them. That was the crux of everything we did—it was the Church’s raison d’être. It was the point of temple work, and of missionary work, and it was, essentially, the guiding principle in how Church members were to live their everyday lives: all people, as children of God, are deserving of dignity and respect. That was the Church I grew up in, and the priesthood ban seemed a direct contradiction of all of it.

Where did the ban come from? Perhaps the reason no one had an adequate answer for my concerns is that there are currently no clear answers on this issue. As a friend recently pointed out, we record virtually everything as a Church—it’s our M.O. as an organization. Yet the record on the origin of the ban is scant: a private letter here, notes in a personal journal there. In a recent statement on the issue—quietly released without fanfare in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, yet the most open and straightforward I have ever seen the Church on this issue—the Church states that it appears that the ban was first publicly announced by President Brigham Young in 1852. There is no evidence of racial restrictions on the priesthood during the time of the Prophet Joseph Smith, a Northerner who openly opposed slavery (though he did enforce Nauvoo’s laws against interracial marriage). [Note 1]

Over the years, Church leaders and members theorized doctrinal reasons—none of which bears repeating here—justifying the restriction on ordination to the priesthood and participation in temple ordinances. The Church’s recent statement clearly affirms, “None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” So who and when appear to have an official answer, but why? Was it doctrinal, divine direction given through revelation to God’s prophet? Or were Brigham Young and his contemporaries just racist, bowing to political and social pressure existing among Church members and more broadly in mid-19th-century America? Many Latter-day Saints view the Church’s recent statement as an affirmation of their prior belief that, yes, Brigham Young was simply racist.

I feel the Church’s statement is much more circumspect. After all, if Brigham Young were racist—a significant character flaw for the official mouthpiece of God, someone who is supposed to transcend time and culture—then his broader authority as a prophet is called into question. Then again, Mormons don’t believe in prophetic infallibility in, say, the same way Catholics believe in papal infallibility. God works through imperfect, mortal, flawed instruments, humans who are just as capable of wrongdoing and prejudice as anyone else—see, for example, the stories of David and Solomon, and myriad others, in the Old Testament.

And restrictions on the priesthood or other aspects of the gospel are hardly a new thing, unique to this dispensation. In Old Testament times, only men of the tribe of Levi were permitted to hold priesthood authority and perform the ordinances of the tabernacle and, later, the temple. In the New Testament, Jesus first directed Peter and the apostles to carry the message of the gospel to the Jews.

Then Peter received a revelation, a vision recorded in Acts 10. In it, he “saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.” Peter heard a voice instructing him, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” Peter protested: “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” The voice rebuked him: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” [2] A subsequent visit from Cornelius, a centurion who was a just man but nonetheless, as a Roman, a non-Jew, affirmed the meaning of the vision: the time had come to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

But what had Peter been protesting? Was it that he misunderstood the meaning of the vision? Yet, as the chief apostle, he had prophetic authority to receive revelation and guidance for the Church—and one would assume that this authority came with the ability to understand divine inspiration, including visions. For the inquiring believer, his misunderstanding casts a pall on his authority.

But what if he understood perfectly the meaning of the vision? Perhaps his protest was not a simpleminded resistance to breaking Jewish dietary law but, rather, a prejudicial resistance to taking the message of the gospel to non-Jews. Yet again, his prophetic authority—which, as the administrator of the ordinances of salvation for all mankind, transcends time, place, and social constructs—is called into question.

Ultimately, I don’t know. [3] Just as I don’t know why the ban on ordaining those of black African descent to the priesthood was instituted. Were Brigham Young and his associates racists? Maybe. Does that compromise their position as authorized servants of God—and, subsequently, the position of the current president of the Church, Thomas S. Monson, and all of us who hold the priesthood today, myself included, as holding authority that has been passed down in an unbroken line from the Prophet Joseph Smith? Honestly, perhaps it does. But I have felt on numerous occasions that President Monson does indeed hold all the priesthood keys and that the priesthood that I hold is real and valid. How to reconcile the two, I wouldn’t know.

But all our focus on the origin of the ban overlooks what I feel is a much more important issue: why did it continue for so long? If it began in 1852, as the Church’s recent statement indicates, it continued for another 126 years—the vast majority of the history of the Church—under 11 different Church presidents. Were they all racist? And, if so, did their personal prejudices mislead the Church and its members for well over a century?

Yet one of those presidents, Wilford Woodruff, stated this:

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. [4]

Another of those presidents, David O. McKay, grappled with the question of ordaining blacks of African descent to the priesthood and permitting them to participate in temple ordinances. The Church’s statement recalls:

By the late 1940s and 1950s, racial integration was becoming more common in American life. Church President David O. McKay emphasized that the restriction extended only to men of black African descent. The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood and instituted missionary work among them. In South Africa, President McKay reversed a prior policy that required prospective priesthood holders to trace their lineage out of Africa.

Nevertheless, given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy, and they made ongoing efforts to understand what should be done. After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.

Under President McKay, the First Presidency issued a letter, using the language of the time, supporting full civil rights for all citizens:

… we believe the Negro, as well as those of other races, should have his full constitutional privileges as a member of society, and we hope that members of the Church everywhere will do their part as citizens to see that these rights are held inviolate. Each citizen must have equal opportunities and protection under the law with reference to civil rights.

We feel nothing but love, compassion, and the deepest appreciation for the rich talents, endowments, and the earnest strivings of our Negro brothers and sisters. We are eager to share with men of all races the blessings of the gospel. We have no racially segregated congregations.

It does not appear that President McKay and his contemporaries were racists.

That same letter asserts that “the question of bestowing or withholding priesthood in the Church is a matter of religion and not a matter of constitutional right.” It affirms Church leaders’ belief “that the conferring of the priesthood must await [God’s] revelation,” and it asserts that the ban “is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God.”

Did the ban originate in the possible racism of Brigham Young and his contemporaries? Maybe. But I’m not as ready as other Mormons to jump to that conclusion, or to say that it was the only reason for the origin and long continuation of ban. Either Brigham Young was a prophet or he wasn’t—and if he was, then God either allowed him to lead the Church astray or He didn’t.

Did the ban continue because of the possible racism of subsequent presidents and General Authorities of the Church? Perhaps. But the 1969 letter from the First Presidency I quoted above, with its unequivocal support of full civil rights for all, makes it appear that at least some of them were not racist. Yet again, either they were God’s authorized servants or they were not, and God either allowed them to continue to lead the Church astray or he did not.

Either President Spencer W. Kimball was a prophet, and his announcement in 1978 that extended priesthood and temple blessings to all people without regard to race was a revelation from God, or he wasn’t a prophet, or the 1978 announcement was a P.R. move disguised as a revelation—which is all it would need to be if, indeed, the ban originated and continued in his predecessors’ racism. I am inclined to believe the former and neither of the latter.

Ultimately, while I take comfort in the Church’s recent statement and its willingness to be so open about this and other aspects of our history, I am unprepared to say why the ban began or why it continued for so long. I simply don’t know, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory, conclusive explanation from the Church itself or from fellow Church members.

But what I am prepared to say is that racist theories for the ban that were perpetuated by Church leaders and members in the past are unequivocally wrong. Independent of my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but affirmed by my faith in it, I believe that God is the Father of all mankind and that we are all unquestionably equal in his eyes. His Son, Jesus Christ, wrought an infinite Atonement for everyone, regardless of race or gender, and those of one race will be saved no faster than their brothers and sisters of any other race. In this light, it is our duty and privilege to treat everyone with the dignity, love, respect, and equality they deserve as children of God, and our laws and our government and social institutions should do the same.


NOTES

  1. According to Church member Richard Lyman Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling
  2. Acts 10:11–15
  3. Admittedly, if I had to place a bet, I would guess that it was a misunderstanding of the meaning of the vision. But that nonetheless calls into question Peter’s authority as God’s mouthpiece.
  4. Doctrine and Covenants Official Declaration 1

This article appeared on pages 16–19 of Issue 12 | October 2013.

2 thoughts on “Mormons and race

  1. I was a graduate student at UCLA from 1975-1985. Clearly, during the first part of those years the ban was still in effect. I was studying African history, an in so many graduate classes I had to squirm as this issue was brought up. I had and still have a firm testimony of the Church. But also I had and still have a firm belief that Heavenly Father loved all of his children, and that something was askew here. In 1978 many of us literally cried tears of joy because the burden was gone. I confess that I have never minded the “we don’t know why” position. I think it’s because the reasons that I heard in Church were so much worse and unacceptable than not knowing. Also, it seems to me that there probably are many,many things that we don’t know because we aren’t ready to understand them.

    I think that Brigham Young was a man of his time, and as such understood race in a very different way. ( I was very impressed by the wording of the latest statement because it refers to terms such as “privilege” that are discussed by Social Scientists, but probably not understood by the general Church population.) Brigham Young was racist in much the same way that Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin were all racist. But I think this is the wrong question to ask. The question I would ask is are WE racist? Why did Church members feel relatively comfortable about this position for so long? Were we praying about this? Why were stories about the mark of Cain or the War in Heaven routinely told in classes on Sunday? Heavenly Father requires us to ask the right question before he gives us knowledge, and as far as I can tell, not enough of us were asking the right question. We weren’t ready, and I think that is no one’s fault but our own.

    I live in a Tea Party state where a Stake President said, over the pulpit, something to the effect that a vote for Obama in the last election was a vote for sin. I voted for Obama, I’m very comfortable knowing that I actually was not voting for sin, and I still have a testimony of the Church. Life is complicated.

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