Sunday, 1 March 2015

Blacks and the Priesthood Elephant

As I began thinking about elephants, I remembered that I don’t like apologetics.  Specifically, I’m not a fan of trying to argue one into (or out of) belief.  This post has no intention of changing your mind.  I wrote it for myself.  I post it because I appreciate feedback, because perhaps someone else can enjoy it, and because I will come back here to read it again.  In the temple I had a picture in my mind, not of me defeating this elephant, but becoming comfortable in its presence, even embracing it.

Blacks and the Priesthood Elephant
I chose the blacks and the priesthood elephant because it seems to have fewer rabbit trails than some of my other elephants.  As I studied I came to realize how little I knew about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their position on race.  Many of my issues quickly became nonissues because the Church does not hold the horrible standpoint I had assumed it held.  While the blatant racism of the past cannot be ignored, the church’s move in renouncing not only racist practices, but also racist beliefs, is significant.   I choose not to hold the Church’s previous treatment of blacks against the Church because we learn line upon line, because they have completely forsaken their past ways, and because they now embrace all people equally.

While a few black members were given the priesthood in early days of the church, in 1852 Brigham Young announced that black men would no longer be ordained to the priesthood.  Subsequently, people of African descent were forbidden temple access.  However, at no time was anybody, because of race or colour of skin, denied membership in the Church.[1]  As I read the Old Testament I am quick to overlook Joshua’s misconstrued understanding of the relationship between the sun and the earth.[2]  I extend grace to Jesus who referred to the mustard seed as the smallest seed when it is not.[3]  In both of these instances I am happy to admit that limited scientific understanding and preconceived notions of the world mold the Bible to its day.  Jesus and Joshua spoke from their culture, to their culture.  The Church continues to reside within ever shifting cultures.  As society comes to know more the Church embrace the truth it learns, allowing new understanding to shape thought patterns.  The Church did not fall upon this earth in a perfected state.  Rather, it too must learn line upon line, precept upon precept.[4]  As it is with individuals, God will not reveal instruction to the Church if it is not ready to accept it or if for some other purpose God determines that now is not the time. 

Reading the address given by Brigham Young on February 5th 1852 stirred within me anger and distrust towards the man.  His diction and metaphors dehumanized Africans and is unjustifiable.  When I say that he was a product of his times and upbringing, I do not excuse what he said.  It was wrong.  However, in as much as I plead for mercy when I accept untruths that saturate our society, I will offer that mercy to Brigham Young.  Racism was a societal sin for which Brigham Young deserves no more blame than those who taught him that blacks are inferior.  While I wish the church lead the way in the civil rights movement, it appears as if General Authorities of the church were dragging their feet.  However, they wanted change.  When, in 1978, new revelation finally arrived, the leaders and people of the Church were ready and accepted it.[5]  They embraced this revelation as “a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, [that] erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past.” [6]  Before I move on I feel the need to address the pain, hurt and missed opportunities that resulted from the restrictions faced by blacks.  Because of these policies, missionaries seldom taught black individuals.  Therefore African missed out on the blessing of being part of the Church.  Those who did join likely felt inferior, recognized the blessings they could not receive, and never felt truly like they belonged.  I cannot begin to imagine or describe the harm done to the lives of individuals because of this teaching.  I wish I had the authority to apologize  But I do not.  I wish God had spoken sooner.  I will not pretend to know why he didn’t, but his love for Africans has not changed.  He has always loved them fully.  Thankfully the Church is a living, changing, growing organism that has come to embrace all people equally.

I once read and believed material which offered a reason as to why blacks could not have the priesthood.  It connected choices made in the premortal life to the colour of skin one was born with, but only until 1978.  While this information was presented by those who sought to mock the Church, I never questioned it because I never received any other explanation why those of African descent were refused priesthood.  I found the previous explanation aggravating because it justified past racism.  I was pleased to learn that while “Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions, [n]one of these explanations is(sic) accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”[7]  I had been most bothered by the reason I was given as to why blacks could not have the priesthood, but in reality, “the reasons for these restrictions have not been revealed”[8] for this time.  We are encouraged to forsake previous explanations and forget “everything that I [Bruce R. McConkie] have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation.” [9]  Because of this invitation I have not dwelt on past teachings.  Though previous explanations were given, I embrace a Church with modern day revelation, cling to the new revelation and bury past darkness in new light.

We are invited to look forward, to imagine a church full of people from all nations.  For Christ invites “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.”[10]  You and I are literally siblings.  We are equal.  No skin colour, no nationality, no race, distinguishes us before God. [11]  We are his children, and racism is not acceptable.  I am glad that “[t]oday, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous 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.”[12]  I don’t think I could be part of a racist Church.  I do not know how members before 1978, with black friends and family, held firm to their faith in the Church.  Perhaps they are like the Martin’s family, who despite being of African descent, joined the Church in 1972.  The Martins had found truth and could not deny it.[13]  The imperfections of the individuals and leaders of the Church does not make the Gospel any less true.  Perhaps the vague and lofty claim that the Church is true, claims only that the truth of the Gospel and priesthood power can be found within it.

In refusing to dwell on the past I have overlooked the possibility of a change in doctrine.  Determining if doctrine has changed requires a definition of doctrine; however, there are various definitions.  2 Nephi 31 spells out the doctrine of Christ.  In short: faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end.  This has not changed.  The teaching, that what we did in the pre-mortal world determines our state is this world, a teaching that can be supported through scripture[14] is still upheld today.  While many, including Elder George F. Richards speculated that in the pre-mortal life some spirits were less valiant and thus given black bodies, he offers this only as a satisfying (to him) speculation.[15]  It is foolish to assume that we can understand why God assigns any particular body to any particular spirit.  I would think that his considerations are vast and the situations individual.  Each spirit assigned to a body of African descent was chosen for the individual experiences it would have and the opportunity to grow.  It is important to remember that many while many on this earth do not have the chance to hold the priesthood, to marry in the temple or be sealed to their families for all eternity, they are not denied exaltation.  This life is a time to gain a body, to learn and to grow, but it is not the only chance to hear the gospel or prepare for eternity.  As early as 1852 Brigham Young suggested that there would come a time when blacks would “have the privilege of all we have the privilege and more.” [16]  It was frequently understood that the ban on blacks in the priesthood would come to an end, if not in this life then in the next.  The end of this ban, therefore does not signify a change in doctrinal principles, but a long awaited, dare I say, fulfillment of prophecy. The change of practice is then less concerning than the forsaking of previously held explanations of why blacks were forbidden the priesthood and the teachings that Africans were an inferior race.  But, with the understanding that this Church exists within cultural contexts, and is not yet perfect, let us rejoice that new light has been given, that racism is shunned, and that saving ordinances can be preformed for Africans (and everyone else) who were unable to perform them in their lifetime.

I must remember that the Church is made up of imperfect people who learn individually and as a group, line upon line, precept upon percept. While harmful words and practices are part of our past, the Church renounces all past racism and extends the gospel invitation unto all.

Post Script

Elder Dallin H. Oaks suggests that in 1978 the leaders of the Church took a semi-proposal to the Lord, asking according to their desire, that all worthy men might receive the priesthood.[17]  The changes made regarding the place of blacks in the church have me hoping that the Church will one day rid itself of restriction regarding homosexual relationships.  When I compare these issues, I am saddened to think that Church members are not yet ready to accept gay couples into their congregations.  Many tell me that gay marriage is not God’s will and will never be accepted.  As I read quotes from before 1978, I recognize the similarities between what was said of race and what is said of homosexuality.  I hope for the day when the church leaders beg God to allow equality for gay marriages.  If it is not God’s will, let him plainly tell them how the gospel can still be a blessing to the lesbian couple with three kids.  However, I hope change is in God’s plan.  Furthermore, I hope change will be excitedly accepted by Church members who long to see the blessing of the Gospel extended to homosexual couples.


[1] Race and the Priesthood,
[2]Joshua 10:3.
[3]Mark 4:31.
[4] 2 Nephi 28:30.
[5] Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 2.
[6] Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” CES Religious Educators Symposium Address, August 18, 1978.
[7] Race and the Priesthood.
[8] Alan Cherry and Jessie L. Embry, “Blacks,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992.
[9] McConkie, All Are Alike unto God.”
[10] 2 Nephi 26:33
[11] Howard W. Hunter, “All Are Alike Unto God,” February 04, 1979.
[12] Race and the Priesthood.
[13] “Lesson 157: Official Declaration 2,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, 2013
[14]Abraham 3:23
[15]George F. Richards, “Conference Talk,” 1939, p. 59.
[16]Brigham Young, 5 February 1852, When I read this quote in the context of the whole, I have a hard time believing he meant to say that. Perhaps he didn’t.
[17] “Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ Reaction to Priesthood Revelation,” (Salt Lake City, UT: July 20, 2007).

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