An Apology for the Pre-1978 Ban on Ordaining Worthy Blacks?

Should the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apologize for its pre-1978 ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood?

Many critics are demanding it, and some believing members of the Church are publicly asking for it, as well.

I’m not joining them.  Though, if the Church ever issues such a statement, I’ll be fine with it.

Do I regret the pain and sorrow that the ban and its side effects caused to good and worthy people who could not, during their lives, enjoy the blessings of the priesthood and the temple?

Yes.  Very much.

The stories of faithful Saints like Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel are deeply inspiring to me, but, at the same time, deeply painful.

Do I regret the damage that the ban did, and continues to do, to the reputation of the Church?

More than I can say.

Was I delighted to see it come to an end?

I was ecstatic.

As a genuine geezer who grew up in “the mission field” (California, in my case), I was very much alive and aware during the late 1960s, when the priesthood ban became a matter of public controversy.  My neighborhood and high school had very, very few blacks — it wasn’t purely WASP, either; there were many Hispanics at my school and quite a few Asian-Americans — but there was one black teacher.  I never had him for a class.  Still, I knew him somewhat, and I can remember how I felt when he asked me where I was going to college and I told him “Brigham Young University.”  He congratulated me, and said it was a fine school, but the Stanford/BYU, Wyoming/BYU, and similar controversies (provoked by the Church’s exclusion of black men from its priesthood) had been all over the news, and I felt as if I had just kicked him in the teeth.

The ban on ordaining worthy black men to the priesthood was in significant tension with my basic worldview, theological and otherwise, and I was delighted to see it go.

That said, however, I don’t know where it came from.  Others confidently declare that it was an error, even an evil, rooted in racism.  And perhaps it was.  (Hugh Nibley speculated that the Lord was waiting for the Church’s white membership to overcome its own racism; the fault, in his view, lay not with blacks and not even with the leaders of the Church, but with the Saints as a whole.)  But, while they may know that, I don’t. 

Yes, Brigham Young (and others whom I revere as prophets and apostles) made comments that, certainly by today’s standards, were egregiously racist.  I don’t attempt to defend those statements; the men who made them were, in that respect, very much of their time, region, socio-economic status, and educational level.  They should, I believe, not be judged by the relatively-recently-attained high standards of contemporary American racial sensitivity.

Nor should Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, who was surely a very noble and great man and quite arguably America’s greatest president.

“I will say then,” Lincoln declared in his fourth debate with Senator Stephen A. Douglas (Charleston, Illinois; 18 September 1858), “that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”  (Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 3:145-146)

It would be a crime against accurate historical understanding and against Abraham Lincoln to condemn him altogether for his racial attitudes.  They scarcely sum the man up.  And they weren’t unusual at the time.

Likewise, abhorrent as I find some of the things that Brigham Young said about blacks, they’re relatively insignificant against the background of everything else he did and said, and they don’t deserve the last word about his character.  Not even close.  I’m not convinced that Brigham and other past Church leaders were worse on racial matters than their contemporaries.  Should they have been better?  It would have been very nice.  And perhaps, in practice, they actually were, to at least some extent.  But God has never been able to work through perfect people.   They’re unavailable.  And it’s not about us, anyway.

“For what we preach,” said the Apostle Paul, “is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (Corinthians 4:5-7, NIV).

All of us, leaders and members of the Church alike, are “jars of clay” or, as the King James Version puts it, “earthen vessels.”  We’re unworthy of the message of the Gospel.  But God is gracious to us.

As the priesthood ban became an issue in the late 1960s, I heard all sorts of differing and sometimes contradictory explanations for it — though I don’t believe that I’ve ever before heard precisely the explanation offered up by a BYU professor of religion to the Washington Post last week.  Accordingly, I concluded that we just didn’t know the actual reason for it, and that remains my view to this day.

I’m struck, though, by the fact that — and, so that all will understand, I need to confess right now that I’m a believer who accepts the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as genuine prophets and apostles — the Lord plainly seems to have permitted the ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood to continue until June 1978.  However it originated, that seems to me significant.  And, while I’m not clear on how the prohibition began, I’m absolutely clear on how it ended: with a breathtaking revelation to the then-leaders of the Church.

Should the Church apologize for the ban?  Its leaders will do what they believe is wise, under the inspiration (as I believe) of heaven.  From my vantage point, though, right now, I don’t see precisely how they can.  I, at least, don’t know that the ban wasn’t the Lord’s will.  Maybe it wasn’t.  Maybe, though, it was.  He seems to work through lineages in a way that seems quite foreign to me — but then, if God always did things the way I think they ought to be done, he would appear to be entirely redundant, and maybe, in fact, only a projection of Me.  Which would be, to put it mildly, disappointing.

From among all the nations, he chose Israel.  From among Israel, he chose the descendents of Levi to bear the priesthood.  He assigned very different blessings to the various tribes of the Hebrews, and he doesn’t seem to have been overly fond of the Canaanites.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus largely restricted his teaching to fellow Jews.

Those believers who denounce the pre-1978 priesthood restriction as racist simpliciter and who seek an apology from the Church contend, with considerable plausibility and persuasive force, that the ban was inconsistent with the fundamental values of Mormonism itself, and commonly cite these marvelous words from 2 Nephi 26:33 in support of their position:

“He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. “

But the very book from which that verse is cited is replete with time tables, prophecies, commandments, and narratives that distinguish Gentiles and Jews, Nephites and Lamanites, and that plainly discriminate between the House of Israel and, pending their possible adoption into it, those outside.  Heathens and Hebrews aren’t, simply and in every way, “alike unto God.”  In this respect, it’s entirely congruent with the Bible, which surely distinguishes between men and women.

I have no doubt whatever that, ultimately and fundamentally, “all are alike unto God.”  In the meantime, though, that seems rarely to have been the case, historically speaking.  Perhaps because of the imperfections of the human instruments, his prophets and his people, through whom he’s had to work.  Perhaps, though, because that’s the way he intended things to work. 

But, in that case, Why?

I honestly have no idea.

As the Narnia books repeatedly point out, “He’s not a tame lion.” “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.”  (Isaiah 55:8, NIV)

Just some hasty and rather late-night relections on a difficult issue.  I thank God with all my heart that, in 2012, the policy of denying priesthood ordination to blacks, that difference, is no more.

Print Friendly

  • Matthew Crandall

    great blog post. I wrote on the same topic here, it might be of interest. http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/01/28/when_mormons_fail.html

  • peredehuit

    You have probably seen this, if not … https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

  • Bob Oliverio

    This has been a huge frustration for me as a new member and my wife as a lifelong member. This racist policy needs a public apology from the current Church leaders. It has no basis in Christianity and no foundation in Church history other than the ignorance of Brigham Young. If we had come clean years ago – Romney may well have been President!

    I welcome thoughts

    • kiwi57

      It’s so very magnanimous of you to welcome thoughts on someone else’s blog. Here are mine.

      You said that the ban had “no foundation in Church history other than the ignorance of Brigham Young.”

      How do you know what it was based upon? Were you present when it was first discussed among the leading brethren? Have you read every pertinent primary document? Have you seen every such document?

      Isn’t your opinion remarkably dogmatic, given that it is based upon incomplete information at best?

      Given that the “racist policy” was abandoned over 35 (that’s thirty-five) years ago; and

      Given that it was laid to rest in a single day, something no other church I know of is capable of doing; and

      Given that the doctrine of vicarious ordinances on behalf of the dead means that the real, eternal impact upon those who lived under it is exactly zero, just as if it had never existed, something no other church could even imagine; and

      Given that we do not now have (and never have had) racially segregated congregations, something that is certainly not true of most of our more strident critics; and

      Given that the majority of living Latter-day Saints were not even alive when the ban was in place, please tell me: exactly what is there for us to apologise for?

      And to whom? Who was actually harmed by the policy?

      • DanielPeterson

        kiwi57: “It’s so very magnanimous of you to welcome thoughts on someone else’s blog.”

        I noticed that, too. Mr. Oliverio seems to imagine that I’ve set up a new message board on which he can hold forth.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X