CES Reply: The Priesthood Ban

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Blacks Ban:  As you know, for close to 130 years blacks were not only banned from holding the priesthood but black individuals and families were blocked from the saving ordinances of the Temple.  Every single prophet from Brigham Young all the way to Harold B. Lee kept this ban in place.

Now we finally get to something I find genuinely troubling, too. Frankly, I’m not particularly enamored with the Church’s record on the subject. I have spent a great deal of time defending the Church’s exclusion of black members from leadership prior to 1978, and my arguments have fallen flat with others and, frankly, with me.

After the Church reversed its policy excluding black leaders a little over thirty years ago, several church leaders dusted off 2 Nephi 26:33 and made it the centerpiece of several very good sermons on the subject. I particularly like Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s sermon, which contained this startlingly candid admission of error.

“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past 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.”

– Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” August 18, 1978

Fine. So why do so many members of the Church feel it necessary to defend some of the more racist nonsense that these people were spouting prior to the 1978 revelation? Those who honestly and open-heartedly examine the life of Brigham Young will come to the conclusion that he was a mighty man called by God to lead the Church and do a great work.

But as evidenced by some of the issues you raise, anyone who believes he was infallible is missing the boat.

Indeed, pretty much all of the racism that wormed its way into Church policy can be traced back to Brigham, who gave more credence to popular 19th century theories about the ancestry of the African people than he should have. It certainly doesn’t come from Joseph Smith, who received the fundamental revelations that form the spiritual foundation for the Church as it existed then and today. That scripture quoted above from 2 Nephi, for instance, has been around for over 180 years. Joseph Smith himself ordained several black men to the priesthood. When asked about “the situation of the negro,” as was the language of the time, here was Joseph Smith’s reply:


“They came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine of many of those they brush and wait on.”

– History of the Church, Volume 5, page 216.

That’s not to say that Joseph Smith was Martin Luther King, but the view expressed in the preceding paragraph is remarkably enlightened for that time period. I doubt even Abraham Lincoln, who firmly believed that blacks were inferior to whites, would have been nearly as egalitarian.

The idea that the African people descended from Cain and were a cursed race did not originate with the LDS Church. It was a popular 19th Century justification for slavery, and while Brigham Young certainly believed it, there is no scriptural justification for using that idea to exclude black members from Church leadership. Indeed, the idea was not codified as church policy until long after Brigham Young’s death.

David O. McKay, president of the Church from 1950 to 1970, made this very clear when he stated:

“There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”

David O McKay, 1954

The idea of “scriptural precedent” disturbs me somewhat. Critics of the church seize on volatile statements in the Book of Mormon that talk about a curse being placed on the Lamanites which included a “skin of darkness,” but the irony is that the Lamanites are believed to be ancestors of Native Americans, not people of African descent. Indeed, Church leaders, both then and now, consider Native Americans to be part of the House of Israel and heirs to a magnificent destiny. No one has ever tried to use those inflammatory passages in the Book of Mormon to justify keeping the priesthood from Native Americans, even though these passages are far more explicit and defamatory than the cryptic verses used to link Africans to Cain.

President McKay repeatedly stated that the priesthood ban was a policy, not a doctrine, although it would take a revelation to reverse it. My question, as well as everybody else’s question, is if it’s just a policy, then why would it take a revelation to reverse it? And why didn’t the revelation come to President McKay, who reportedly prayed very ardently to receive such?

There’s no definitive answer. I believe, however, that since President McKay was, like many of his generation, a believer in segregation, he had difficulty imagining a colorblind world. It took someone willing to fully accept the idea that “all are alike unto God,” and all the ramifications of that to open the door for the revelation. I don’t think that someone arrived on the scene until Spencer Kimball became President of the Church in 1974.

Prophets, Seers, and Revelators of 2013 – in its December 2013 Race and the Priesthood essay – disavowed the “theories” of yesterday’s Prophets, Seers, and Revelators for their theological, institutional, and doctrinal racist teachings and “revelation”. Yesterday’s racist doctrine and revelation is today’s “disavowed theories”.

Your use of the word “revelation” – quotation marks yours – is interesting. Can you show me the revelation that banned blacks from the priesthood? You can’t, because none exists. The idea that lifting the ban was a renunciation of a revelation cannot be sustained by the facts. In addition, President McKay’s statement that the ban was a policy, not a doctrine, further undermines your position here.

Joseph Smith permitted the priesthood to at least two black men.  Elijah Abel was one of them.  Walker Lewis was another.

So, Joseph Smith gives the priesthood to blacks.  Brigham Young bans blacks.  Each and every single one of the 10 prophets from Brigham Young to Harold B. Lee supported what Spencer W. Kimball referred to as a “possible error” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 448-449).

A possible error, yes, because error is possible. Prior to your faith crisis, you apparently believed that prophetic error was impossible, despite the central nature of agency to Mormon theology.

Heavenly Father likes blacks enough to give them the priesthood under Joseph Smith but He decides they’re not okay when Brigham Young shows up. And He still doesn’t think they’re okay for the next 130 years and the next 9 prophets until President Kimball decides to get a revelation.

Heavenly Father’s love for all people has been clear in the Book of Mormon since the founding of the Church. 2 Nephi 26:33 states that “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.” The fact that the Church didn’t fully live up to that principle is the fault of man, not God.

The same God who “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” is the same God who denied blacks from the saving ordinances of the Temple for 130 years.   Yet, He changed His mind again in 1978 about black people.

Quoting from the Book or Mormon musical, are we? Of course God didn’t change his mind about black people. God instead had to wait for fallible white people to reject racism.

Of course, the revelation He gives to the Brethren in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978 has absolutely nothing to do with Jimmy Carter’s IRS potentially revoking the Church’s and BYU’s tax-exempt status, Stanford and other universities boycotting BYU athletics, we can’t figure out who’s black or not in Brazil, and that post-Civil Rights societal trends were against the Church’s racism.

On the contrary, I’m sure the revelation had a great deal to do with all of those things. Why would that be a problem? Revelations don’t come in a vacuum and never have. Remember, the Word of Wisdom was received because Emma was tired of cleaning up the tobacco stains all over the floor in the School of the Prophets. Revelations come when we ask questions, and we ask questions when there are pressing circumstances that require an answer.

Christ’s true Church should have been the one leading the Civil Rights movement, not be the last major Church on the planet in 1978 to adopt it.

Indeed! That’s probably why Church issued strong statements in support of the Civil Rights Movement well before the 1978 revelation. The following statement was read by a member of the First Presidency in the October 1963 General Conference:

During recent months, both in Salt Lake City and across the nation, considerable interest has been expressed in the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the matter of civil rights. We would like it to be known that there is in this Church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed.

We say again, as we have said many times before, that we believe that all men are the children of the same God, and that it is a moral evil for any person or group of persons to deny any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience.

On this one, the Church beat Congress to the punch. The landmark Civil Rights Act, which codified these ideas into law, didn’t pass until 1964.

As a believing member, I had no idea that Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to black men.

Then I would think discovering that Joseph gave the priesthood to black men would be extraordinarily encouraging, as that info demonstrates that the early Church was remarkably egalitarian for its time.

I’m supposed to go to the drawing board now and believe in a god who is not only a schizophrenic racist but who is inconsistent as well?

No, you’re supposed to go to the drawing board and rethink your faulty premise that prophets have their agency extracted from them when they become prophets.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine. Yesterday’s 10 prophets are today’s heretics.

Just as all of us will be tomorrow’s heretics when new light and knowledge enters the world.

Tomorrow: Mark Hoffman… and More!