It’s slightly old but very good news now. The LDS Church has added to its scriptures. For me, the addition to Official Declaration 2 (the statement that “all worthy males” could now be ordained to the priesthood, undoing the policy restricting those of African lineage from priesthood and associated privileges) is particularly significant:
Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regards to race that once applied to the priesthood.
Breaking it down:
1) Baptism has only been denied when a nation’s politics would forbid it. I know this personally, because one of my father’s students in Mainland China (1980) asked to be baptized. Dad counseled with the Church hierarchy and was told to not baptize him, that the conditions weren’t right to proselytize China and one person’s baptism could endanger future work. Those of African descent have never been denied baptism because of their race/lineage.
2) During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, blacks were ordained to the priesthood.
This is a wonderful acknowledgment, but is not new information. Unfortunately, it will not stop those who think the restriction was God’s idea. The information on Elijah Abel’s priesthood did not come with Lester Bush’s 1973 paper but was known by Mormon historian Andrew Jensen (and others) long before. Jenson indicated that “an exception” had been made in Abel’s case. Sadly, in 1908, Joseph F. Smith reversed what he had said about Abel in 1879 when he produced two certificates verifying Abel’s ordinations. Smith finally went along with the Zebedee Coltrin version that once Elijah’s race was “discovered,” he was released from the quorum and his priesthood removed. The documentation, however, says otherwise. Though Abel was not allowed to be endowed, he was told in 1879 that he still held the priesthood, and two certificates proved it. His obituary also quoted those certificates.
Likewise, Walker Lewis’s priesthood ordination (1844) was mentioned in the mid-1850s by William Appleby, who inserted the “doctrine” of the day (POST-1847). To me, the most important evidence that there was no priesthood restriction prior to 1847 is that fact that Brigham Young referred to Walker Lewis as “one of the best elders, an African, in Lowell [Massachusetts].”
3) Early in its history, church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent.
Yes, this is the case, though it wasn’t a huge change. In 1852, Brigham Young declared that the “seed on canaan” were not entitled to the priesthood. How many did this affect? The United States was nearing the Civil War and most of the blacks in Utah were slaves. Would a slave have been ordained to the priesthood? None of the ordained blacks (Elijah Abel, Q. Walker Lewis, Joseph T. Ball, William McCary) was a slave, and we have no records of slaves’ ordinations. Additionally, a large portion of Utah’s slaves moved to California during the gold rush—and California was free, thus ostensibly making the slaves free.
What isn’t stated here is that the priesthood restriction affected black women as well as black men. They were denied temple privileges and were not allowed to serve as missionaries. We must also note that few non-Mormons understand how important the restriction was. Many compare it to the Catholic or other denominational priesthood wherein the priest or pastor is educated and then trained and certified to lead a congregation. It might seem a small and even typical thing, given the time frame, to not allow black men to become Mormon priests. But Mormonism has a lay ministry, so ALL Mormon men may be ordained to the priesthood, allowing them to participate in temple rites, to baptize, to give healing blessings (a privilege once also enjoyed by LDS women), and to become missionaries, bishops, etc. My husband, for example, is a professor AND a Mormon bishop.
4) Church records offer no clear in sights into the origins of this practice.
What’s important here is what’s not said. The 1949 Church statement declared:
The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.
At the very least, the addition to OD2 indicates that there is no documented revelation imposing a priesthood restriction. Will this placate those who believe that a secret meeting was held in which Joseph Smith explained the restriction? Will those who believe this henceforth change their minds because the statement says that records offer no insights? If the meeting was secret, there might not have been records.
How about those who claim that the restriction was inspired because Brigham Young would never have done anything Joseph would have disapproved?
It would seem quite easy to point out the glaring differences between Joseph Smith’s ideas on slavery and Brigham Young’s. Young himself was distributing pamphlets containing Joseph Smith’s abolitionist presidential platform when Joseph was killed. Why would Brigham have turned so abruptly on his predecessor’s unflinching opinion that “it is not right that one man should be in bondage to another”? (D&C 101:80)
Despite these contradictions, it is my guess that those who already believe the restriction came by revelation to Joseph Smith and was voiced in a secret meeting, will not change their minds. Even if they did modify their ideas on when the restriction started, would they ignore Brigham Young’s speculations on the origin of black skin? Doubtful. The additions do not address the Curse of Cain or pre-mortal behavior, so those who believe such myths will probably continue to believe them.
The rest of the church statement needs no comment. We do know that President Spencer W. Kimball sought divine help, but we also know that he approached the issue not only with prayer but with information provided by Lester Bush’s article. We also know that President Kimball asked the other quorum members to research the issue before meeting in the temple on June 1st. In other words, they studied it out (D&C 9) before praying about the possible change. They used introspection, information, and inspiration–as any of us must as we progress in our lives.
Finally, let me make a bold suggestion. I suggest that we Mormons have chosen the wrong paradigm to describe how the church functions under prophetic leadership. We seem to have gone with the Wilford Woodruff statement used to defend the manifesto, since he was speaking to people who had suffered and even gone to jail over polygamy:
[T]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty (Official Declaration 1).
Since we have multitudes of instances where one prophet contradicts another, it’s likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: “[T]his claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment” era after the 1960s to reinforce the ‘follow the prophet’ mantra that is now so familiar to us.”
Would we not all be better served by acknowledging that the Prophet is exclusively entitled to the mantle of leadership over the Church, and that he will always do the best he can to transcend his own culture and tradition in serving God, though not every utterance he makes will constitute the mind and will of the Lord? I would far prefer President Lorenzo Snow’s description of Church governance:
“Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.” 6 April, 1900
And to that, I say amen.