Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood

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PERSPECTIVES MEDIA QUESTIONS RESOURCES 2014 CONFERENCE

    Blacks and the priesthood

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QUESTIONS


Members of African descent were restricted from holding the LDS Church's lay priesthood until 1978. Understanding the priesthood ban is difficult, because the historical record is not entirely clear about the ban's institution. There is no contemporary, first-person account of the ban's implementation.

  • Were former (or present) Church leaders and its members racist?
  • Why would God allow His church to deny blessings or privileges based on race?
  • Why were some passages from LDS scripture cited as rationale for the priesthood ban?
  • What was the revelatory process that brought about the policy shift?
  • Was the lifting of the ban a response to social pressure or government threats to remove the church's tax-free status?


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS RESPONDS TO THESE QUESTIONS

"Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics, (2013)


Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.


Since that day in 1978, the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans, African Americans and others of African descent has continued to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual’s race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.

The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is “no respecter of persons”24 and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of race—is favored of Him. The teachings of the Church in relation to God’s children are epitomized by a verse in the second book of Nephi: “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
(Click here for full article)


CONCLUSION


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.

DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

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) expressed strong opinions on what they believed was the purpose of the priesthood ban. Some believed 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.[1]

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.

TOPICS


  • Origin of the priesthood ban?
    Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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  • Understanding pre-1978 statements by members and leaders of the Church
    Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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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. (Click here for full article)

  • Less valiant or neutral in the pre-existence during the "war in heaven"
    Brief Summary: It is true that LDS scripture states that those with lighter skin color "are favored because of what they did as spirits in a pre-earth life?" Is it true that some Church leaders taught that people who were born with dark skin were "neutral" in the pre-existence? (Click here for full article)
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  • Inter-racial marriage
    Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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  • The "curse of Cain" and "curse of Ham"
    Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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  • LDS scriptures cited in support of the ban?
    Brief Summary: Is it true 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. (Click here for full article)
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  • Joseph Fielding Smith's racial reference in LOOK Magazine in 1963
    Brief Summary: 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. (Click here for full article)
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Endnotes

  1. [note] Bruce R. McConkie, "New Revelation on Priesthood," Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 126-137.
  2. [note] Dallin H. Oaks, Interview with Associated Press, in Daily Herald, Provo, Utah, 5 June 1988.
  3. [note]  Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006. off-site
  4. [note]  Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61. off-site


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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