The Latter-Day Saints and Race

The Latter-Day Saints and Race August 18, 2012

The Anxious Bench’s John Turner has a New York Times editorial this weekend titled “Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons.” (Turner is the author of a new biography from Harvard University Press titled Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.) In the Times piece, Turner calls on Mormons to confront directly their church’s historic policies with regard to race, including their ban on men of African descent from the priesthood, which was not formally lifted until 1978. Turner says that most Protestant denominations have

gradually apologized for their past racism. In contrast, while Mormon leaders generically criticize past and present racism, they carefully avoid any specific criticism of past presidents and apostles, careful not to disrupt traditional reverence for the church’s prophets.       

To an extent, this strategy has worked… [but] a fuller confrontation with the past would serve the church’s interests. Journalists frequently ask prominent Mormons like Mr. Romney and Ms. Love about the priesthood ban. African-Americans, both members and prospective converts, find the history distinctly unsettling. Statements by prior church presidents and apostles provide fodder for those Latter-day Saints — if small in number — who adhere to racist notions.       

The church could begin leaving those problems behind if its leaders explained that their predecessors had confused their own racist views with God’s will and that the priesthood ban resulted from human error and limitations rather than a divine curse.

You can read the rest here.


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  • Gramajane

    I think it was wise to not expect Blacks to serve others until we had served them for years and they wete far enough removed from slavery for it not to be awkward, as the Priesthood IS serving.
    — there are standing jokes about The Mormon Elders Moving company, and the Deacons ( age 12 and up ) painting fences and pulling weeds etc ) the Priests and Teachers ( ages 16 and up and age 14 and up ) are more likely to chop wood for widows or harder stuff. whatever the need is they have a service project.
    So also is blessing the sick a service ( no charge) and our black members were served by all other members.

  • TElden

    I am a “Mormon” and I was profoundly happy when the President of the Church announced that blacks would be able to hold the priesthood in 1978. As a former bishop in Chicago, I had many black people in my congregation and greatly enjoyed my association with them. But I believe that it was not a “mistake” that black people could not hold the priesthood prior to that time. God decides who gets the priesthood and in the Old Testament times, the priesthood was given only to one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Levites). Jesus said to His apostles: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you”(John 15:16). After the time of Jesus, the seven sons of Sceva tried to cast out devils in the name of Jesus Christ without having been called and given authority to represent Him: “And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:13-16). My own opinion is that the blacks were not prepared for the responsibilities of the priesthood and some of the members of the Church were not prepared to surrender their racial antipathy until 1978. The prophecy had been that the day would come when they would hold the priesthood and the prophecy was fulfilled.

  • Hats off to Mr. Turner for a fair and balanced article. I’d like to add a believer’s perspective on the matter in this article for Meridian Magazine which addresses several of the issues Mr. Turner brings up. The article is called “RACE IN MORMON HISTORY” and can be found at

  • Lorren Vissor


    Your opinion matches that of Professor Bott at BYU. His comments almost mirror yours. His opinion was that blacks were not ready to hold the priesthood prior to 1978. He compared it to handing the keys to a young driver.

    BYU responded by granting Bott early retirement.

    Your sentiment clearly illustrates what has happened as a result of the failure of the LDS church to repudiate this former doctrine. It’s only natural for a true believer to come to your conclusion. If this ban was commanded by God, the reason for the ban can only be attributed to those members of the black race.

    The LDS church has expended great effort to expel these attitudes. They’re immediate response to Randy Bott’s quotes were very clear that this was not the belief of the church. Unfortunately, they stop short of a full repudiation. By placing the onus on God, members are left with fertile ground to hatch their own racist opinions on the subject.

    While I completely disagree with your opinion, I appreciate the fact that you shared it here today. It clearly demonstrates that the issue isn’t behind the church. If former bishops in this church can continue to hold such an opinon, the church clearly has some work to do. I don’t fault you for your opinion. Like I said earlier, it’s the only natural conclusion for a true believer.

  • Joel

    The LDS Church has never rejected blacks for membership, unlike the vast majority of white protestant churches, nor has the Church ever segregated its black members from the white. Historically, the Priesthood has never been held in bondage. Even though the Civil War ended slavery, many things did not change culturally for the Blacks until efforts of the Civil Rights movements in the sixties and seventies. By 1978 it was obvious that the Blacks could finally regard themselves as being free from bondage, and were therefore given the Priesthood.
    Church leaders of the past have always told us that someday everyone would be able to receive the full blessings of the priesthood and Temple ordinances. Even Brigham Young back in 1852 said, referring to blacks, that the “time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more.” (Teachings of President Brigham Young)
    In 1947 President David O. McKay said, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood. In the meantime, those of that race who receive a testimony of the Restored Gospel may have their family ties protected and other blessings made secure, for in the justice and mercy of the Lord they will possess all the blessings to which they are entitled in the eternal plan of Salvation and Exaltation.” (Mormonism and the Negro, pp. 23)

  • Dan

    Joel, I stand all amazed at your response. I cannot even empathize with the mental cramping you must have endured to say that 1) the priesthood is never held “in bondage”, and 2) Africans weren’t out of bondage unti 1978, so voila!

    This would not make sense even if every black person had been enslaved in America. But it cannot possibly explain how the Mormon Church withheld the priesthood from an entire continent of free people. I have an explanation for you that is far easier on your brain: the Mormon Church was led by racist bigots from the days of Brigham Young up to Spencer Kimball (and beyond). The Mormon Church would still be officially racist and bigoted if it had not been forced to cave to Federal pressure about its tax-exempt status.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Just as a side note, one consideration in the LDS’s decision on race was that their numbers were booming in Africa, almost entirely unofficially, among independent groups that had discovered the church through reading. Some had even copyrighted the names “LDS” and “Mormon”! I discuss this process in my article “Letting Go: Understanding Mormon Growth in Africa,” in Journal of Mormon History, 35(2)(2009): 1-25.