One of the most challenging items Latter-day Saints grapple with in their history is the priesthood and temple restriction for those of African decent in force between 1852 and 1978. This video tries to shed light on what led up to the ban, why it may have gone on for so long and thoughts on how God could have allowed this to happen. I still tried to keep it to a cliff-notes version but due to the topic, it ran longer than many of the other videos. I will also be producing a ‘part 2’ which will address misunderstood scriptures also relating to this history.
So in this video I wanted to talk about the priesthood and temple ban that was from 1852 to 1978. I want to talk about the history leading up to the ban, how the ban was explained and became entrenched, what led to the overturn of the ban and how that happened, the aftermath that followed, and then finish with some thoughts about how God would allow this to happen. I first want to share some official statements from the Church recently. In 2012 the church issued a statement, some of which contained this paragraph. “At some point, the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the church, but it has ended. The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church.”
Then many don’t know this, but the inside of your scriptures, if you go to your electronic version, so your 1981 printed copy won’t have this, but in 2013 the Church added a new introduction to the Official Declaration number two, which was the revelation reversing the ban. In this I just have one sentence I’ll read: “Church records offer no clear insight into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice.” So interesting. Then in 2013 the Church put out a Gospel Topics essay entitled “Race in the Priesthood.” I wanted to share one paragraph from that. They talk a lot in there about the racist culture of the time, and remember a lot of times we use a thing called presentism where we evaluate somebody’s past with our current view of things.
It was a very racist culture that the Church was founded in back then, and many things were used to justify that that had been around for, in some cases, centuries the opinions that were used. But as far as one sentence that I wanted to share from that essay says, “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 unrighteous actions in a primordial life, that mixed race marriages are a sin, or that blacks or people of any race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
So let’s start with the history leading to the ban. First of all, the Book of Mormon says, “All are alike unto God,” and in five places in the Doctrine and Covenants it talks about going to preach the gospel to all the world, to every creature. So this really was the instruction to the saints. In the very early days in Missouri, W.W. Phelps wrote a piece welcoming free slaves to Missouri there, and it’s what really created all of the challenges, most of the challenges I should say in Missouri. They destroyed the press there and they drove the saints out of Jackson County. This was a big part of why. After all the problems when W.W. Phelps had put this out, he really did a 180 in his approach there. But that was the first foray into some of the challenges this was going to bring. Joseph Smith allowed blacks to have the priesthood. Some of the famous ones that we know of, very specifically, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis up in Mole, Massachusetts.
I love this quote from Joseph Smith talking about blacks. Many thought they did not even have souls. Here’s a quote from him: “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.” I love this story of a man in Nauvoo who was selling liquor on Sunday to raise money to buy his child out of slavery. It was against the law there in Nauvoo. Joseph was the mayor of the town and had to inflict a fine on the man, but the next day he brought him a horse and gave it to him, and it was enough money he could sell to buy his child and free his child from slavery there. Also, when Joseph ran for president in 1844, part of his platform was an anti-slavery approach to the nation.
Also, Brigham Young. Many often look at Brigham Young’s statements in the past and view him as a racist. It is interesting to see in March of 1847, William McCary was another black man who was ordained to the priesthood. He was in Winter Quarters, and he felt like he was being picked on, abused by the saints there in Winter Quarters. Brigham Young met with him in March of 1847, and I want to share with you five snippets of things that Brigham Young told William McCary. One is “Your body is not what is your mission.” Two, “It’s nothing to do with the blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh,” kind of paraphrasing, Acts 17:26. He says, “We have one of our best elders, an African.” This was Q. Walker Lewis up in Lowell, Massachusetts, so Brigham obviously knew he was an elder and he was an African, and he was one of our best. He says, “We don’t care about the color,” and he says, “Show by your actions that you don’t care for what they say.”
The very next month, William McCary, Brigham was gone, but William McCary began to apostatize and really set up a separate group and was trying to target the women there with interracial polygamy. He was doing a sexualized sealing induction into this. It was really a very sad tale. They drove him out of town, excommunicated him from the church. Parley P. Pratt was the first one with this situation. This was the first comment about tying the priesthood ban to any type of a curse, and he says it was due to the curse of Ham that William McCary had that made him unworthy to hold the priesthood, so that was in April of 1847. Now in 1849, Lorenzo Snow was meeting with Brigham Young privately and asked Brigham, “when will the door be unlocked for the Africans?” And Brigham says at that point that it won’t be until all of the children of Abel, the seed of Abel, will be able to have the opportunity to have the priesthood, til they will have the priesthood, the seed of Cain as he viewed the blacks there.
So it was what happened during that two year period. Well, he learned about the William McCary situation. He found out that Q. Walker Lewis’ son, Enoch Lewis, got married to a white woman, which was against the laws. It was against the laws until 1967 in our country, and they had a child. That was a huge challenge for Brigham and for any in the nation the way they viewed that. Then they were also considering people from the south coming into Utah and the challenges that was going to bring with having their slaves come in. What would be the rules with regard to that? There weren’t a lot of slaves that ended up coming. In 1860, they had about 59 blacks in Utah. 29 were considered slaves. There Brigham did have a good attitude. In fact, he told one lady when she was looking to sell a slave, he asked if she would please sell it to somebody benevolent, and if she couldn’t find somebody, that he would buy him from her and release him to his freedom.
So he articulated in 1852 to the legislature, that that was the first public announcement that blacks could not hold the priesthood, and he viewed it as the reason was that they were at the seed of Cain, and this was a common thought. The LDS.org essay, “Race and the Priesthood,” the Gospel Topics essay talks about how this was a common held belief since 1730 that the blacks were from the seed of Cain, but Brigham ties it now to the priesthood. He also says he was afraid of intermarriage, and that that would potentially ruin the church if nobody could qualify to hold the priesthood down the road. That was part of his justification that he used. Again, this is in the Gospel Topics essay.
Now, an interesting sidebar wasn’t just the Latter Day Saints that had challenges with integration. The Latter Day Saints, they were banning people from having the priesthood, but they allowed them to be baptized and to worship together in the congregations. By 1852, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists all had schisms or complete fractures over this issue. After the ban, there were different periods of controversy and challenge and debate. Orson Pratt was a defender against what Brigham was using as the justification for the ban being the seed of Cain. He felt like that was against Article of Faith number two that mentioned being punished for somebody else’s sins, a multi-generational curse, if you will. In 1869, in the School of the Prophets, Lorenzo Young asked Brigham if possibly it was due to the being neutral in the preexistence, that the blacks were were neutral and not valid in the preexistence, and that was the reason why their skin color was and that that was the reason for the the priesthood curse.
He said, “Absolutely not.” He says, “They received a body. There were no neutral spirits that received bodies. That that was the reward for keeping your first estate.” After Brigham’s death though, that certainly picked up some new life, and many were, of Orson Pratt’s opinion, that we couldn’t use a past curse as their rationale, so this did take on a quite a bit of life after Brigham, especially at the turn of the century. Now, one of the challenges that came was polygamy, and the nation made fun of the saints here in Utah often as degenerate, that the children from polygamy, they compared them to multiracial children. In fact, this is a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. It talks about it. It’s a really helpful read. In fact, this is from the cover of Life magazine in 1904. If you look closely at that child right there, African American.
This is another good book on that, All Abraham’s Children, Armand Mauss, Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage. That’s a great book on that too. So decade after decade, this just went on and more justification, more tradition, more cultural, that became very entrenched. So as time went on, things did begin to change, especially with President David O. McKay in the 1940s and 50s. He did soften the stance on different things. He did pray. He said he didn’t feel inspired though to lift the ban at that time. May have been that he needed to do, and there was a lot of work that needed to be done with the leadership and the Church as a whole to bring them along. In 1963, then Elder Kimball wrote to his son, he said, “I know the Lord could change the policy and forgive the possible error.” And then we had the civil rights in the 60s. We had a tremendous growth. It was beginning to start with the international church, and then they had the temple announced in Brazil in the mid 70s.
A lot of these things were adding a lot of focus to the issue. Interesting experience, in 1969 Hugh B. Brown in the First Presidency pushed for a procedural vote to reverse the ban. He felt like because it was a policy as they had looked at it, that it could be reversed by a procedural vote, and it lost by one vote. It was Herald B. Lee who said that he felt that it needed to be a revelation to be overturned. In 1973, Lester Bush wrote an article and dialogue. He had done a tremendous amount of historical research that had showed how Joseph Smith had approved of ordaining a brother into the priesthood and how Brigham Young had instituted it as a policy. There’s evidence that Spencer W. Kimball had a copy of this and had it marked up, so there were a lot of those kinds of things that were happening leading up to the revelation that did come in 1978. It was the only revelation received in the history of the Church that was given to the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles all at the same time.
I wanted to share with you a few of the quotes from some of the people that participated in that. Bruce R. McConkie, as he described this powerful pentecostal experience, he says, “And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.” He said, “It was in a miraculous and marvelous manner beyond anything that any then present had ever experienced.” Elder Hague, I really love this one. He said that, “As President Kimball arose from the altar, we surrounded it according to seniority, I being number 12. He turned to his right and I was the first member of the circle that he encountered. He put his arms around me, and as I embraced him, I felt the beating of his heart and the intense emotion that filled him. He then continued around the circle embracing each of the brethren. No one spoke. Overcome with emotion, we simply shook hands and quietly went to our dressing rooms.”
I love what Elder McConkie said. He said, “The reason the Lord chose to reveal this to the First Presidency and the Twelve rather than only to His prophet is due to the tremendous import in eternal significance of what was revealed. The Lord wanted independent witnesses who could bear record that the thing had happened.” Then it was a sustained by the entire body of the Church and canonized now as the Official Declaration Number Two. So following this grand revelation, it’s interesting to see some of the things that have been said after this. One of the famous ones was Bruce R. McConkie. Here’s the quote: “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. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past.”
President Hinckley and the 2006 April General Conference said, “How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood, whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?” Then a couple of other quotes, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, April 2013 conference: “Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to him, but He deals with it. So we should we. And when you see imperfection remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.”
Then to finish up with a couple other things. I wanted to share the LDL sociologist, Armand Mauss, spoke at the Fair Mormon Conference in 2002, and he proposed kind of a hypothetical Q and A. It was kind of a fun process, but I took three quick snippets out of that, three questions and answers that I thought you’d find interesting. “Question: Why would early LDS leaders such as Brigham Young make seemingly racist comments?” “Answer: Because he was a 19th century American, and hardly any white people at that time, North or South, believed in equality for blacks. Slavery was still an unsettled issue throughout the nation with some even in the south opposed to it, and many even in the north who were willing to tolerate it. Brigham Young’s ideas were really right in the mainstream of American thinking at the time. They were very close to the ideas of other prominent Americans from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, who himself did not even free all slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation.
“Question: But don’t Mormons believe that their church is led by prophets of God? How could prophets have permitted racist ideas and practices to become parts of their religion?” “Prophets are not perfect,” is the answer, “and don’t claim to be, nor do they always act as prophets in what they say and do. People in all ages, including those who become prophets, grew up without questioning much that is assumed by everyone else in their respective cultures, unless some experience motivates them to seek revelation on a given matter.” “Question: Well, maybe so, but racism is such an obvious evil that I would think authentic prophets would have been more sensitive to it.” “Answer: Why? It seems obvious to all of us now, but not to who believed in Manifest Destiny, the White Man’s Burden and the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Even the original apostles of Jesus assume that non-Jews cannot become Christians unless they first accepted Judaism and circumcision. The Apostle Paul disputed that, but the idea persisted.” You might even recall Peter had to have a vision to take the gospel to the Gentiles rather than just the Jews.
And one of my favorite quotes ever is from apostle Ezra Taft Benson at the time, 1975, and he said, “If you see some individuals in the church doing things that disturb you, or you feel the Church is not doing things the way you think they could or should be done, the following principles might be helpful: God has to do work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to man their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the Samuel principle. The children of Israel wanted a king like all the other nations. The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to the Lord about it. The Lord responded by saying, ‘Samuel, they have not rejected thee, but they rejected me that I should not rein over them.’ The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning, but they still insisted on their king, so God gave them a king and let them suffer. They learned the hard way. God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds He grants unto men according to their desires.”
Now if you look today, the church is growing like wildfire in Africa. We have 500,000 members there now. In the October 2018 conference, 12 new temples were announced. Two of them were in Africa in Nigeria and Cape Verde. So one last question I ask myself, I ponder this, is could Brigham have received a revelation from God to withhold the priesthood and temple from the Africans? I say to myself, it’s definitely not for any of the reasons we’ve talked about in this video and all excuses have been given, but it could have been because of the racist attitudes of the members of the church and the byproduct of the culture that they lived in and went on for over a century. When the people were ready, the Lord obviously revealed it in an unbelievable manner to everybody, and if that was truly the case, Official Declaration Two could be viewed as a call to repentance.
Official Church Statement: Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/articl…
Official Church Gospel Topics Essay – Race & The Priesthood https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-t…
Introduction to Official Declaration 2 (at end of D&C) added in 2013 https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-tes…
All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage, by Armand Mauss
Neither White Nor Black, by Lester Bush and Armand Mauss
Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, by Paul Reeve
LDS Perspectives Episode 43: Discussing the Priesthood Ban with members of the Genesis Group http://www.ldsperspectives.com/2017/0…
LDS Perspectives Episode 83: A History of Blacks and Global Mormonism with Russell Stevenson http://www.ldsperspectives.com/2018/0…
Marvin Perkins at 2014 FairMormon Conference: Black Man Speaks Candidly About LDS, Race, Past Priesthood Restriction https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfzFS…
Darius Gray presents at SLCC Lecture in 2007: Blacks in the Bible
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.
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