Thoughts on “Race and the Priesthood”

It happened very quietly.  I don’t recall any kind of press release or announcement for it.  But on Friday, on, an essay explaining the LDS Church’s stance on race and the priesthood appeared.  Here’s the link.

It’s very clear, and although it’s certainly a gloss on the issue, it does say some things that have needed to be said officially and unequivocally for years.  To me, this is the key paragraph:

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 know that this blog is read by lots of people who aren’t Mormons.  Let me briefly explain.  Mormonism has a lay clergy, and ‘the priesthood’, which we conceive as the authority granted by God to perform ordinances (baptism, other sacraments), and preside over local congregations, is given exclusively to men who meet certain worthiness requirements.  But when I was younger, men of African descent were denied the priesthood. That policy was changed, we believe by revelation, in 1978.

When I was growing up in Indiana in the ’60s, I didn’t even know a racially based policy of priesthood exclusion existed.  It’s quite possible that this is due to me not being very bright. But it certainly wasn’t something anyone talked about in sacrament meeting.  It was sort of whispered about: ‘I heard that . . . do you think it’s possible that. . . .’  But one day a seminary teacher told us about the policy, and said black people were excluded from the priesthood because in the pre-existence (Mormons believe we all lived as spirits before being born on earth), they hadn’t been valiant.  They’d sat on the fence in the war in heaven.  So I went home, and asked my Dad what he thought about it.  My Dad’s an opera singer, having previously been a construction worker–he was not then particularly well-read in Mormon theology.  Which he admitted to me.  But then he said something like this: ‘I don’t know why that policy exists.  And I certainly don’t know as much as your teacher.  But that can’t be true.  It just doesn’t make sense to me, and it feels wrong.’

That conversation was a great relief to me.  It seemed weird to me too, and I was glad that my teacher’s explanation wasn’t the only possible answer.

But then I went to college, to BYU, in 1974.  And a friend of mine gave me a copy of a talk he’d read, and suggested I read it too.  Said, ‘this is great.  This is the best thing I’ve ever read.’  It was a talk by Alvin R. Dyer, a prominent Church leader.  It was called ‘For What Purpose.’  Here’s the link.

I really debated in my mind whether I should link to Brother Dyer’s talk.  He was a fine man, a good man, and many people today still hold him in high esteem.  And this talk, well, it’s appalling. Three degrees of pre-existent spirits, with racial difference earned by spiritual indifference or rebellion before birth. It’s nonsense, of course. But it was prominent back in my youth–a version of it was published in pamphlet form available for sale in the BYU Bookstore.  And I think there’s value in confronting our past. And persistent, omnipresent racism, even at this level, is part of our past, as Americans and as Mormons.

Culture is an incredibly powerful force. We are shaped by our cultures far more than we are even aware. We’re usually not even aware of how completely our cultures define us. And Church leaders, even prophets are no different.  And it seems to me that struggling against one’s own culture to figure out God’s will must be hardest task of all.

The article, “Race and the Priesthood” includes a link to an article on the BYU Studies website called “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.”  It’s by Edward Kimball, President Kimball’s son and a fine historian in his own right.  I can’t link to the BYU Studies article–don’t have permission–but here’s their website. It’s a tremendous article, describing how President Kimball struggled for months to receive the revelation on Priesthood. He’d go to the temple day after day, pray for hours on his knees. Day after day, he’d think ‘it’s impossible.’ And he’d pray, and day after day, it seemed ever so slightly less impossible.

Now, my initial reaction to that article was to wonder what the heck the problem is.  Racism’s obviously wrong, the policy’s clearly insane and damaging; fix the problem, man.  But that’s me, born to an academic family in 1956, coming from that particular cultural context.  You read about President Kimball’s struggle, and he clearly knew he had to do something that he personally found very very difficult.  What is that, but a man sloughing off his own cultural predilections? And even when he did it, even when he was finally able to say ‘yes, this is God’s will, we’re reversing the policy,’ he still couldn’t quite bring himself to embrace inter-racial marriage.  That, for him, was that one final step he found himself unable to take, though obviously that’s changed today.

If church leaders shared the racist ideology of their day, that’s because they were human beings, breathing the air of racism, drinking the water of racism, eating crops grown in racist soil. It was all-pervasive. We forget that.  We think of the American civil rights movement moving smoothly from triumph to triumph, mostly just combating a small group of racist redneck losers. But in the 60s, the consensus among American whites was that civil rights was moving way too fast.  We needed to slow down.  So, yeah, integrate schools.  But at what pace?  At ‘all deliberate speed.’  The one really vague phrase in Brown v. Board, which was taken to mean ‘take your sweet time.’ That was the early sixties, a time when all TV commercials featured white actors and all television programs featured white characters (with the occasional black maid or servant).

We live today in a culture that considers racism evil. I’m glad we do. I prefer drinking that water, eating that food. I consider it congenial. But I am as much a creation of America2013 as Joseph Fielding Smith or Alvin R. Dyer was of America1913. I undoubtedly hold deeply sinful and foolish attitudes too. I don’t really believe in Original Sin, in the idea that people today are sinful because Adam ate the apple. But I do believe in original sin in this sense–we’re, all of us, still ethnocentric. We inherit it, we inhale it, it’s in our air and water.  And undoubtedly encounter the world in ways that are incompatible with God’s will.

So I’m glad that the Church has now officially repudiated folk doctrines like the ones espoused by Brother Dyer. I’m glad we have this, on, this simple, clear statement.  But I do note a kind of studied ambiguity about why the Church, in the 1850s, initially embraced priesthood exclusion.  And I suppose that’s inevitable; a gloss; spin.

And yet, and yet. . . . When I attend my ward, in Provo, Utah, it’s wonderful to see the cultural, racial and ethnic diversity that so casually prevails, uncommented on, without tension or effort, just brothers and sisters worshipping together.  Free, or maybe just a little bit freer, at last.

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Race and the Priesthood”

  1. Matt K

    “The 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 programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff [2004], 199). To disavow and condemn the racist teachings, views and preachings of a former Mouthpiece for the Lord is to admit that he was wrong and led people astray. So who is to say in 150 years they won’t condemn the current ones? How can anyone then take a hard-line stance, like Prophet-In-Waiting President Boyd K Packer’s hard-nose views on the same-sex marriage issue? How can one know what is truly of the Lord, like that He loved all mankind equally, and what is just being eaten and drunk in the thought-process of that time period? After sitting next to you in many a Sunstone symposium, I have chosen to leave while you choose to stay. I still love reading your writing, but I will never again accept apologist answers as accuracy by association. Food for thought, no?

    1. Bill

      But if a prophet can lead you astray and another prophet leads you astray by telling you that they cannot lead you astray, are you still not lead astray?

  2. Matthew Ivan Bennett

    My dad once told me that, as a young man, saw a black man in the Salt Lake Temple. And he was confused, because he knew that blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood. He asked an elder about it and the elder said, “Oh, that man isn’t black, he’s from Australia.”

    So the policy against blacks wasn’t consistently applied to men of dark skin; it was, by some, specifically applied to Africans.

    The perception of color among different peoples is fascinating. My wife, who has brown hair to me, is thought of as a blonde by her Latino students.

    I understand that, in some South American countries, black and white are class terms and not confined to skin color.

  3. sarahloo

    I am so glad for this statement as well. I have heard people spouting off this theories still, people my own age! People who weren’t raised in a culture of racism, bringing out these old arguments in Sunday School and elsewhere. The saddest thing to me is when the culture around us has moved on but some conservatives in the church insist on clinging to doctrine the Brethern aren’t even teaching any more!

  4. Jenny

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Anti-Mormons are grabbing at this statement and making claims about this being against Book of Mormon teachings and challenging the authority of our leaders. This was very refreshing for me.

    In Sunday School yesterday, we just studied D&C 134 which is the church’s declaration in 1835 about our civic duty and obeying the law. The last paragraph grabbed my attention though. It says ” we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life”. Perhaps this lends a clue to the original policy excluding African Americans who were at the time slaves and not to be interfered with. I know the church at the time was against slavery but having this policy of non-interference based on obeying laws may have influenced the exclusion originally.

    I’d like to think that it was not originally borne of racism within our ranks but of course the culture of the society would lend its mores to the underlying reasoning behind the exclusion as time went on and slavery was ended. Interesting thing to think about.

  5. Margaret Blair Young

    Thank you. I love the last paragraph especially. I am one year older than you, but lived in Bloomington, Indiana as you did. My daughter is there now, singing on the same stage as your father sang on. She loves the diversity of her ward. It is a new day. Thank God.

  6. Rebecca England

    Very thoughtful response, Eric. Like you growing up, I asked my dad a lot of questions, including why blacks were excluded from the priesthood. I remember him telling me of the time he went to visit apostle Joseph Fielding Smith in 1960-ish. My parents had been influenced by Lowell Bennion’s teachings and found the priesthood restriction and justifications for it contrary to basic gospel doctrine. The story is something like this. Dad asked Elder Smith if a member-in-good-standing must believe that blacks were cursed, and therefore unworthy of the priesthood. Elder Smith’s response was yes, because it’s in the scriptures. My dad then asked him to show him the scriptures that justified that position. Together they reviewed all the possibly relevant scriptures. Then Elder Smith did a surprising thing during that visit. He reversed his earlier statement and said that no, the scriptures do not require a good member to believe that blacks are cursed, and therefore denied priesthood. I also heard stories of my grandparents (who were in the London and then Salt Lake Temple presidencies during the 1960s) having to calm white patrons upset when they observed blacks not of African descent participating in the temple endowment. The restriction bothered me a great deal as a youth and so I was thrilled that June day in 1978. My reaction to this long-needed followup statement rejecting racist beliefs and teachings by leaders and members, past and present, is gratitude and relief. Yes, finally. An important step in the right direction. And I appreciate the church’s effort to own up to its racist history. (p.s. Brown v. Board was in 1954, not early 60s.) Best to you, Eric.

  7. becca

    17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.

    18 I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and [a]from the holy city, which are written in this book.

    Herein lies the WHOLE problem….

    And if it is corrupt, what is corrupt. Who knows, who decides and will it change? It’s all or nothing, or it’s nothing at all.

    1. Andrew Cannon

      If you’re making an argument that revelation was closed with the Bible, then you’re talking a different theological language than Mormons. (Especially considering that the passage quoted was from the Revelation of John, which wasn’t part of ANY collection of writings when it was written, but I don’t think that’s the point).

      However, if your question really is how we can know what was wrong and what was right in the actions and teachings of those who came before us, then I think the answer really IS hard to figure out. We tend to have blind spots where our assumptions sit, fat and obstinate. I do trust, though, that as we thirst for the water of life, we will be inspired in what we need to change and in how we can build on the work and inspiration of those who came before us.

  8. Carrie Ann

    Your writing makes the world a better place. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Some day I hope to read the same words about sexism. I really do.

  9. juliathepoet

    Thank you for the link to the talk. I have heard of it, mostly from my grandmother, who felt that as a woman, a convert, (in a ward with many who had “prophetic lineage”) a person who lacked a high school diploma, that no one would care about her thoughts or personal revelation. She did address her thoughts and feelings with her bishop once, who told her there was nothing wrong with feeling that way, as long as she did not repeat it to anyone, or become an activist in any way.

    When my father and uncle came back from their missions, they had a lot of papers collected, but none of them were organized. She is one of the most well read “high school dropouts” I have ever met, and many things she read in their collections of mimeographed papers disturbed her. She gathered up all the talks concerning race, especially *the Negro problem* and read and then prayed about them. She received the answer that none of them were true, and that God did not curse people based on their skin color, only men did that. She had another talk with her bishop, and she almost left the church when he defended the things said in the talks.

    The next Sunday she fasted for an answer, and at the end of the fast, she decided that she might not be able to change what was said at church, but in her home, racism was incompatible with the gospel. She burned all of the talks, and FHE was focused on all people being equal in the eyes of God. Her children were in college, getting married, and in 1976, I was born.

    1. juliathepoet

      My grandmother never publicly opposed the church on this ban, and I didn’t know how deeply it impacted her until I was 20, and we were discussing personal revelation. Her whole heart came stumbling out, in a torment of words, mixed with the emotions of a heart, bloodied by too many years of silence. We both wept.

      I asked her why she had not talked about her feelings, after the ban was lifted, and she said that the spouse of one of her children came from a family of direct descendants from a prophet. At a baby shower, the family discussion turned to the ban being lifted, (less than a month before) and the consensus was that the ban had been right. Over the years, it continued to be a theme at family reunions, and other gatherings, reminding the family that the church may have been forced by outsiders, and that real Mormons knew that blacks were an inferior people, both spiritually and temporally. It was not uncommon to openly question whether the gospel should be taught to non-whites in Africa.

      I was floored by the conversation then, and was even more floored to read the comments on the site you linked to, all within the last few years. I left a comment, but it is in moderation, and I don’t know if it will be shared. I wanted to share it here. Thanks Eric, for opening up my eyes, even if I was disturbed by what I saw.

      “I would hope that the official statement, issued this week, puts to rest the racism that has infected the church for far too long. (Here is the link, in case you missed it: )

      I found this link on a post about how needed the statement was, but it was mostly curiosity, to see what lengths people had to go to, to justify racism, that led me to read all of the talk. Knowing the post was published in the last few years, I kept thinking, that by the time we got to the comments, there would be a basic denial of this faulty “doctrine.”

      As someone whose grandparents struggled with the racism, of the pre-1978 ban, and a grandmother who almost left the church because she did not believe that her Jewish/Catholic parentage made her better than anyone else, I was always taught that the change in 1978 was long overdue.

      I had a seminary teacher who taught us that racism in the church might take a generation or two, to completely eradicate, that we (as the future leaders at the local level, and possibly farther up) must take a stand, and nit let racism influence our friendships, business relationships and choices, or our chance to learn from the experiences of black members, both during the ban, and after it was lifted. I believe it is absolutely vital that we recognize that the ban was not part of the restoration, and that Joseph Smith had welcomed black men and women as members, and that Joseph publicly ordained black men as Elders, not by accident, but because he had the prophetic vision to know that a man’s skin color tells us nothing about whether he is righteous.

      In the years since the ban was lifted, I have had beautiful experiences, with dedicated members of the church who are African, and if African descent. While previous statements have not been quite as clear about whether the doctrine taught in this post was wrong, there are many statements by General Authorities, stating that the ban was not based on doctrine. I would hope that all members of the church would dismiss these blatant teachings of racism, no matter who said them. The comments here help me understand why it was vital to say bluntly, that racist ideas about the ban have always been speculation, no matter who said them or what tgeir calling was, or is.

      Andy, I hope that in light of the new statement put out by the church, that you will include a link to it, and a clear statement that unequivocally states that while this may be a historically accurate account of what was said, that it is not the teachings of the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that has been officially disavowed, as racist and not in line with gospel doctrine.”

      Guesses on if it gets published?


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