Last week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a new, detailed statement on “Race and the Priesthood” on its “Gospel Topics” website.
For those unfamiliar with the topic, during Joseph Smith’s lifetime the church ordained a number of black men into the priesthood, an expected progression for any male member of the church in good standing. However, in 1852 Brigham Young stated that if “there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ [that] spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are; I know that they cannot bear rule in the Priesthood.” In Young’s mind, Cain’s murder of Abel prevented Abel from further reproduction with his wives. Therefore, he had to wait until the other descendants of Adam received their blessings in full.
This policy had major ramifications for the small number of African American members of the church (and for the much larger number of Latin American members with African heritage who joined the church in the second half of the twentieth century). Not only were black men excluded from the priesthood, but all persons of African descent were excluded from the temple ordinances Latter-day Saints deem essential for exaltation to celestial glory. Throughout much of the twentieth century church leaders speculated that persons of African descent had not been valiant in their pre-mortal existence with Heavenly Father, that they had sided with Satan rather than Christ in the “war of heaven.”
Finally, in 1978, a revelation received by Church President Spencer W. Kimball lifted all of the above restrictions. Moreover, recent past statements by the church have disavowed explanations of the priesthood ban that former church leaders espoused.
Still, despite the rapidity with which the church embraced a racially egalitarian future after 1978 and despite a number of past statements on the subject, the issue has continued to rankle. It generates negative publicity. Some prospective (and a good number of current) members find it a difficult subject.
Why has the church been unable to address the issue more definitively? After all, most predominantly white American churches have their own unsavory pasts of racism and other forms of discrimination or exclusion? Most churches repent and move on (though one could well argue that they move on too quickly).
In my mind, there are two reasons why the LDS Church returns again and again to this issue. The first is the question of culpability. Was the priesthood ban the result of God’s will? Or was it simply a reflection of the sinfulness and limited understanding of Brigham Young and other church leaders? Neither option is particularly appealing. If the priesthood ban was God’s will, why would God do that? Even if the reason remains a mystery, it is quite something to believe in a God that chose to withhold blessings from one racial group among the human race. If the priesthood ban was merely a result of human error or sin, that also raises uncomfortable questions. Mormons do not consider their leaders infallible, but it is easier to deal with a few missteps and shortcomings than something as unsavory as Brigham Young’s opinions about black people. If Brigham Young was wrong about the Curse of Cain, where else have church leaders erred? Polygamy, for instance? How fallible can prophets be?
Second, skin color is a significant theme in Mormon scriptures. The Lamanites of the Book of Mormon are cursed with dark skin because of their unrighteousness and lack of faith, but it also promises — in the original text — that one day they will become a “white and delightsome people.” [The Book of Mormon also contains strikingly egalitarian passages that promise that all people -- white and black -- are "alike unto God."] Less well known, the Book of Abraham (revealed by Joseph Smith between 1835 and 1842) discusses a “Pharoah, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham” as “cursed … as pertaining to the Priesthood.” This suggests that the idea that persons of African descent should not hold the priesthood may well predate Brigham Young.
Now the church has spoken again on the subject. The highlights of the statement:
1. “There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.”
2. “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”
3. “The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority” present in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.
4. The church felt increasing unease over the priesthood ban because of its expansion in both Latin America and Africa.
5. “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.”
I have previously written that the church would be best served 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.” The new statement strongly implies that this was the case, though it does not say so forthrightly. Thus, the church does not say that its prior prophets erred, but readers would probably infer that they did and that the priesthood ban (and accompanying restrictions) never reflected God’s will. Again, it would probably help to actually say so, but from my vantage point this is still a major advance over past statements. As suggested above, I also think it would be an additional help to discuss the priesthood ban in conjunction with the theme of skin color in Latter-day Saint scriptures.
Thus, the new statement will not satisfy all outside critics or answer all member questions that the the topic generates. Still, it is remarkable and praiseworthy. I am impressed with the statement’s use of both primary sources and broader scholarship in an attempt to help church members come to grips with their church’s history of racism. Before outsiders cast stones, they might question whether or not their church or denomination makes a better attempt to grapple with the complexities of its past.