Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood
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Blacks and the priesthood
- Critics with an agenda, as well as sincere seekers with a laudable abhorrence of racism have used this fact to portray the former (or present) Church and its members as racist.
- Critics argue that God would not allow His church to ever deny blessings or privileges based on race.
- They are critical of the Church waiting until 1978 to lift the ban on ordaining black members to the priesthood.
- They mine quotes made by Latter-day Saint leaders prior to 1978 to portray the church as racist in its doctrines.
- They cite passages from LDS scripture that Latter-day Saints used to provide a rationale for the priesthood ban.
- They question the revelatory process that brought about the policy shift, portraying it as a response to social pressure or government threats to remove the church's tax-free status.
The Church's Response
The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race that once applied to the priesthood.
—Introduction to "Official Declaration 2," Doctrine and Covenants (2013 edition) off-site (lds.org)
Sometimes God withholds certain blessings from certain people without explaining why He does this. Sometimes this is a willful decision on His part expressed via direct revelation to his prophet. At other times, God allows his prophets to act as they feel best. In the case of the priesthood ban, we do not know which of these scenarios is applicable. What we do know, however, is that the ban was lifted by revelation in God's due time.
Past church leaders should be viewed as products of their times, no more racist than most of their American and Christian peers (and often surprisingly enlightened, given the surrounding culture). A proper understanding of the process of revelation creates a more realistic expectations of the Latter-day Saint prophet, instead of assumptions of infallibility foisted on the Saints by their critics.
Previous statements and scriptural interpretations that are no longer in harmony with current revelation should be discarded. We learn "line upon line, precept upon precept," and when modern revelation has shed new light, old assumptions made in the dark can be done away with.
Members of the Church who were considered to be of African descent were restricted from holding the LDS Church's lay priesthood prior to 1978. The reason for the ban is not known. There is no contemporary, first-person account of the ban's implementation. There is no known written revelation instituting the ban. In 1949, the First Presidency, led by President George Albert Smith, indicated that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord."
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.
—First Presidency statement, August 17, 1949
The First Presidency went on to state that "the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate." Because of this, understanding the reason for the implementation of the priesthood ban is difficult.
Several 19th and 20th century Church leaders (most notably Brigham Young, Bruce R. McConkie and Mark E. Petersen) offered rather specific opinions on what they believed was the purpose of the priesthood ban. Some believe that Church leaders implemented the ban in order to respond to threats and dangers facing the Church by restricting activities among black Americans in the pre-Civil War era, and that these policies and procedures persisted. Upon the lifting of the priesthood ban in 1978, Elder McConkie stated,
Forget everything I have said, or what...Brigham Young...or whomsoever has said...that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
It is important to understand the history behind the priesthood ban to evaluate whether these criticisms have any merit and to contextualize the quotes with which LDS members are often confronted.
This is complex and sensitive issue, and definitive answers as to why God allowed the ban to happen await further revelation. There are some things we do not know, and we rely on faith that God will one day give us the answers to the questions of our mortal existence. The sub-articles listed below explore various aspects of the priesthood ban in detail.
- Origin of the priesthood ban?—
The origin of the priesthood ban is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Its origins are not clear, and this affected both how members and leaders have seen the ban, and the steps necessary to rescind it. The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban. (Link)
- Understanding pre-1978 statements by members and leaders of the Church—
Critics frequently parade justifications for the ban by past General Authorities that are considered quite racist by today's standards. While these have not been officially renounced, there is no obligation for current members to accept such sentiments as the "word of the Lord," and they most certainly do not reflect the Church's current position and teachings. (Link)
- LDS scriptures cited in support of the ban?—
Critics claim that the LDS scriptures link a person's skin color to their behavior in the pre-existence, and that the Book of Mormon is racist and promotes the idea that the "white" race is superior. Some contend that even though the doctrinal impact of pre-1978 statements have been greatly diminished, the LDS scriptures still retain the passages which were used for proof-texts for the ban and hence cannot be easily dismissed. A parallel can be drawn between Protestant denominations that have historically reversed their scriptural interpretations supporting slavery and a modified LDS understanding of their own scriptures that relate to the priesthood ban. Through more careful scripture reading and attention to scientific studies, many Protestants have come to differ with previous interpretations of Bible passages. A similar rethinking of passages unique to the LDS scriptures, such as Abraham 1:26-27, can be made if one starts by discarding erroneous preconceptions. (Link)
- Lifting the Priesthood ban—
Critics claim that the Church has never produced a copy of the revelation granting Blacks the ability to receive the priesthood. (Link)
- Did social pressure play a role in lifting the ban?—
Critics try to raise doubts about the authenticity of the 1978 revelation by claiming that it was dictated by social or governmental pressure. (Link)
- Repudiated ideas—
There exist previously taught ideas which have been repudiated by Church leaders since the ban. Among these are the notion that Blacks were somehow not as "valiant" in the pre-existence, and that interracial marriage is forbidden. (Link)
- Less valiant or neutral in the pre-existence during the "war in heaven"—Critics claim that LDS scripture states that those with lighter skin color "are favored because of what they did as spirits in a pre-earth life." Critics note that some Church leaders taught that people who were born with dark skin were "neutral" in the pre-existence. (Link)
- Inter-racial marriage—Even prior to rescinding the priesthood ban, the Church advised against inter-racial marriages only because such marriages might have more difficulties in being successful. Leaders lumped such advice together with advising married partners to seek those of the same culture and socio-economic level. The counsel was specifically stated not to be absolute, but merely general advice for maximizing marital success. (Link)
- Joseph Fielding Smith's racial reference in LOOK Magazine in 1963—
Critics point to a 1963 statement by Joseph Fielding Smith LOOK Magazine in which he used the word "Darkies" as representative of the Church's racism. These critics, however, are applying a double standard to the Church in 1963. Not one article, photo, or ad in a full 154 pages of this colorful oversized magazine interrupts its perky Caucasian landscape by featuring an African-American. They are not to be seen in ads, Catholic schoolrooms, or even on a featured college football team. Looking at this slice of life from the sixties, the only reason one would have to think blacks even lived in the United States is one photo on page 118 where a few blacks are pictured as the recipients of charity. The patronizing hypocrisy of examining one small church's "attitude toward Negroes" in this sort of environment has, of course, not yet settled into the mainstream of American consciousness. (Link)
- The "curse of Cain" and "curse of Ham"—
We often hear that Latter-day Saints believe and teach that blacks are descendents of Cain, and that they are cursed. In fact, on some occasions prior to 1978, blacks were denied access to temple open houses because they carried the “mark of Cain.” What critics never point out, however, is that the "curse of Cain" is a Protestant invention that was created in order to justify slavery in the 1800's. One would get the impression listening to critics that the Latter-day Saints originated the idea of the curse, and they point to the priesthood ban as evidence of such, while ignoring that fact of segregated congregations in Protestant churches of that era. (Link)
- Policy or doctrine (Link)
A compilation of statements made by Church leaders both before and after the rescinding of the priesthood ban in 1978. (Link)
- Banned from temple open houses—
Were blacks banned from visiting temples prior to dedication, while other non-members were welcomed? (Link)
- [note] Bruce R. McConkie, "New Revelation on Priesthood," Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 126-137.
- [note] Dallin H. Oaks, Interview with Associated Press, in Daily Herald, Provo, Utah, 5 June 1988.
- [note] Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006. off-site
- [note] Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61. off-site