Mormons and Race

Mormons and Race December 12, 2013

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.


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  • nateoman

    I agree with most of what you’ve written here, but I have two nits to pick. First, I don’t think that any Mormon leaders or members have ever claimed that in the pre mortal existence Blacks sided with Satan. In Mormon theology, no one that sided with Satan comes to earth and receives a body. The claim was that Blacks were less valiant or neutral in the pre-mortal war in heaven. For the record, I personally reject this claim and regard it as a racist, ex post attempt to explain the ban which had an origin in the nineteenth-century racism of Mormons in general and Brigham Young in particular. However, it’s worth being accurate in what one is rejecting.

    Second, while I agree with you that race pervades the Book of Mormon as a theme, I don’t think that this has much to do with the priesthood ban. There are two reasons for this. First, prior to the 1970s and 1980s the Book of Mormon was not as widely read as it is today. In the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century when the priesthood ban and its accompanying theology were put in place, the content of the Book of Mormon had relatively little theological influence on Mormon discourse and theology. The second reason is in tension with the first reason but ultimately reconcilable with it. The racial theology of the Book of Mormon centers on the Lamanites and their redemption. It has never been read by Mormons as applying to those of African decent as opposed to Amerindians. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon ultimately gives the Lamanites pride of place in the cosmic story of redemption. (I’d also argue that later passages of the Book of Mormon undermine the racial theology put forward by Nephi.) This isn’t to deny that there are troubling and racist overtones to certain Book of Mormon texts or that Mormons have at times adopted racist stances towards Amerindians. However, I am skeptical that the Book of Mormon has much to do with the priesthood ban except perhaps in the tertiary sense of encouraging the construction of racial theologies.

  • John Turner

    Thanks, Nate.

    Per your first point, thanks. I read the following quote from Joseph Fielding Smith out of its full context (but you’ll see why I was slightly misled):

    “There were no neutrals in the war in heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits.”Just a short while later, JFS continues: “The punishment of Satan and the third of the host of heaven who followed him, was that they were denied the privilege of being born into this world and receiving mortal bodies.” Both quotes are from Doctrines of Salvation (1954).

    Per your second point, I agree with you that the BOM did not contribute to the priesthood ban. The passage in the Book of Abraham, though, does seem relevant. And it does raise some doubt about assigning all of the blame for the ban to Brigham Young.

    In any event, thanks for such a thoughtful response.

  • nateoman

    I agree that the Book of Abraham us relevant. The textual history gets complicated. The BofA for example wasn’t part if the Mormon canon in 1852 although the text had been published. FWIW, I think there is a tendency in Mormon historiography going back to Lester Bush’s work in the early 1970s that tries to isolate Joseph Smith from the origins of the ban. There are two reasons for this. First, Joseph ordained Elijah Abel and made no recorded statements restricting the priesthood to Whites. Second, this historiographic move was politically important in the context if the early 1970s when Bush was writing. On the other hand BY was intensely loyal to JS and saw himself of carrying forward Joseph’s work. I sure he would have insisted that his doctrine was grounded in Joseph’s teachings. Seeing that he quarreled intensely with others that knew JS thought equally well — eg Orson Pratt and John Taylor — I don’t think we need to accept BYs interpretation of JS’s thought. Still, I am fine locating racism more broadly within Mormon culture and thinking in the nineteenth century and I don’t see the Church statement as denying this. I think, however, that it is fundamentally correct to locate the origin of the ban in teachings and practices first explicitly articulated by BY.

  • John Turner

    I agree, since there’s no evidence that anyone articulated it before BY. Also, BY’s egalitarian comments in the strange encounter with Warner McCary in 1847 suggest that the policy was not then in effect.

  • Y. A. Warren

    >Most churches repent and move on (though one could well argue that they move on too quickly).<

    (Exodus 34:6-7) – "Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."

    When will religions stop starting the clock over to controlr power in the earthly sense?

    To my way of thinking, the "take away" message is that when religion and politics are married, as they are in the United States, and elsewhere, they pervert each other to the core.

  • JohnH2

    There are a few more complications which should probably get mentioned:

    The lifting of the ban came via revelation, which revelation had been sought for years by President Kimball, as also by President Lee and President McKay. President McKay reportedly received revelation that, even though the ban was policy, he was not to lift it and that lifting required revelation from the Lord.

    There was at least once an attempt to lift the ban as a matter of policy, but apparently some members of the Twelve thought that the ban did have revelatory backing and so needed revelation to lift it.

    President McKay believed the ban to be a matter of policy and not doctrine, President Kimball thought that it was an error. Usually matters of policy can just be changed so there is the question as to why it was lifted via revelation, why attempts to receive the revelation earlier either didn’t occur or received that they weren’t to lift the ban, and why revelation was needed.

    In regards to the Book of Abraham it says that Pharaoh is cursed by being of Canaan via Ham. In the Bible Ham’s son Canaan was cursed. In Jubiliees is is also Ham’s son Canaan, though for a different reason (for living in land promised to Shem). In the Book of Moses (7:6-8) it is the people of Canaan that are cursed, and this with blackness, due to killing the people of Shum. I know that there have been arguments that it traces back to Cain but the Canaanites were not cursed prior to killing the people of Shum per the Book of Moses, being the only source that appears to suggest the cursing happened prior to the flood and that skin color had something to do with it.

  • Darren

    The racial story of the Book of Mormon may not be so, pardon the pun, black and white.

    The Lamanites were “cursed” for rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ and sub sequentially “marked” with dark skin. The Amlicites were “cursed” because they fought against Christ’s gospel but did not receive a “marked” skin until they later imposed marks upon their own bodies thus fulfilling the lord’s pattern to “mark” those who were “cursed” for their sinful actions. The “mark” of dark sin was not seen as a result of sin but perhaps more as a symbolic consequence of the sin they committed. The Nephites never looked upon the Lamanites and concluded they were sinful due to their skin color but because of the wicked choices the Lamanites made. At times though, the Lamanites were pronounced more righteous than the Nephites. At times the “curse” was lifted after repentance and then came the lifting of the “mark”.

    As for the priesthood ban, my view is that a) Joseph Smith never indicated anywhere that blacks should not have the priesthood. B) Sometime after or even during the Mormon exodus, LDS leaders came under the impression that Joseph Smith had rescinded the priesthood from blacks he ordained into the priesthood. C) The matter was taken into consideration and even before the Lord by LDS leaders. D) Confusion as to the certainty of the priesthood “rescindication” (if that’s a word) increased in no small part from the fact that God was silent on the matter. E) When God does not speak, man is always confused. F) God’s silence was an apostasy of sorts within the LDS Church. Not due to sin per se but due to God simply remaining silent. Living revelation is crucial to God’s kingdom on earth. It literally halts without it for without it, only man can govern it making it corrupted. G) With *LOTS* of pleading ad iron-clad determination, was the ban finally lifted. H) The priesthood ban is one of the most confusion points of doctrine in all of LDS history. I) By no coincidence, the lifting of it was one of the clearest and brightest moments in revelation history within the LDS Church. All who attended the temple session which the revelation came to lift the ban heard the exact same voice, give the exact same message, at the exact same time. This is unprecedented in LDS history so far as I can tell. There should be no doubt at all the lifting was divinely inspired and guided.

    Here’s a point of topic I have not encountered not regarding the priesthood ban but the ban on blacks attending the temple (and, yes, I can see how the two are connected but let’s focus on the temple ban). It would be absurd for anyone to think that because of racism, the LDS Church banned blacks from attending the temple. Crucial to the doctrine of exaltation, every man must be sealed to at least one woman. LDS doctrine is explicitly clear that Adam was the first human male and Eve was the first human female and that all of humanity, of all races, are descendants of Adam and Eve. If we are all to be sealed to our spouses and we are all descendants of the exact same parents then essentially the entire human race is to be sealed together. Why then exclude a race because that race is deemed “inferior”? If we are to exclude a race, any race, due to their race that would not that usher in the earth being “smitten with a curse” (it will fall away from God) as per Elijah not restoring the keys of the sealing power? If the priesthood and temple ban were from racism then LDS leaders were only preaching condemnation of all the human race from God, no?

    I do reject racism as the reason for the ban but I do very much see “racialism” as very much central to the doctrines (“teachings”, does not mean they were ever part of official LDS Church canon) of the priesthood and temple bans. The exact reason why is unknown but I do not think they were racist.

  • Matthew Crandall