An Unfortunate Attempt to Explain the Pre-1978 Priesthood Ban

A popular Brigham Young University professor of religion suddenly finds himself at the center of a very unpleasant controversy, and I feel sorry for him.  I’m confident, though I don’t know him, that he’s a good, well-intentioned man.

There are reports that some BYU students are planning to demonstrate or protest against remarks that he made in an interview with the Washington Post.  I hope that this won’t happen; I hate to see people pile on him.  If he had consciously done something hateful or cruel, that would be one thing.  But this is, I think, quite another.

That said, I want to register my strong disagreement with what he said.  Here is the relevant portion:

“‘God has always been discriminatory’ when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people ‘all that he seeth fit.’ Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.
“‘What is discrimination?’ Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?’ Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. ‘You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.’”

The professor — by the way, there are no “BYU theologians”; there are essentially no Mormon theologians period (an interesting topic in its own right) — is correct in saying that, according to the Latter-day Saints, God has always discriminated with regard to priesthood.  Priesthood is conferred only upon those judged worthy, for example.  And, of those, only on males.  And only on those of certain ages.  And, more to the point, in the past it has been restricted largely if not entirely to those of certain lineages (e.g., to the posterity of Abraham, or to the descendents of Levi) and denied to certain lineages (e.g., to blacks of African descent).  The Savior himself typically restricted his mortal preaching to Israelite audiences.

But we don’t know why.

And our speculations as to the reason(s) have been essentially worthless, and sometimes harmful.  (Elder Bruce R. McConkie had some very pertinent things to say about this in the immediate aftermath of the 1978 revelation on priesthood.)  God has not seen fit to explain why he commanded or at least permitted the denial of priesthood to blacks.

There is no question that there are many worthy women who could fulfill priesthood callings at least as well as their male counterparts do, if the priesthood were conferred upon them.  My wife is certainly one of them; she is my superior in every relevant quality of spirituality, service, and righteousness (and I’m entirely serious about that, not merely engaging in some sentimental but empty gesture of placing her, and womanhood generally, on a pedestal).  Yet God has not authorized the conferral of priesthood upon women.  Why not?  I have no idea.  I’ve heard various hypotheses, but I find none of them convincing. The Lord hasn’t explained himself on this one.

So the proper answer, when asked to explain such discrimination — and it is “discrimination,” in the sense that it distinguishes between individuals and groups — is and should be, simply, “I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6).

We just don’t know.

We certainly don’t know that God withheld the priesthood from blacks in order to protect them, or because they weren’t “ready” for it, or because it “benefited” them to be denied access to the temple or opportunities to serve missions, and the like.

We just don’t know.

And if we ever learn the reason, that knowledge will come through the Lord’s chosen prophets and apostles, not through BYU professors like me.

The most offensive thing about the quoted statement, though, is its rather complacent, patronizing, condescending tone.  (I’m assuming, here, that the quotation accurately reflects the professor’s actual words, in proper context.  Having been interviewed — and misrepresented — many times in the media, though, I should caution that that may or may not be true.)  To compare pre-1978 blacks to very young children — female, no less! (more grounds to take offense, if one wants to sniff dismissive sexism here) — comes across rather badly.  It infantilizes them, which isn’t even remotely a good thing.  I don’t want to push this too far, but it’s actually reminiscent of the sorts of defenses that were made of antebellum slavery in America, and of the “white man’s burden.”

As I say, I’m sure that my BYU colleague is a good and kind man who meant no harm.  And I won’t condemn him.  I hope that this controversy passes quickly, that he is not made “an offender for a word,” and that no long-term negative consequences befall him for his remarks.

But I want to distance myself — and my church — from what was said.  I strongly disagree with it, and it doesn’t represent Mormonism as I believe and understand Mormonism.

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