A Doctrine that was to always be

For a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast on this topic that aired in January 2014, click on the following links: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5 

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

For much of its history, those of African heritage were banned from holding any priesthood authority. Prior to 1978 when the ban was removed, many LDS leaders publically explained why the prohibition was necessary. On February 29, 2012, the church posted the following on its official website:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding. (“Church Statement Regarding ‘Washington Post’ Article on Race and the Church.”)

Then, on December 6, 2013, the LDS Church published another article (“Race and Priesthood“) that contradicted the facts from earlier church history. Was the banning of blacks holding the priesthood originated by Brigham Young and then perpetuated for more than a century? Or was this teaching truly a”doctrine” as originated by Joseph Smith, which has been claimed by a number of church leaders?

A closer look at the doctrine that was to always be

On 3 December 1854 Brigham Young insisted that blacks would not be able to gain the priesthood until after the resurrection:

 When all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood, and of coming into the kingdom of God, and of being redeemed from the four quarters of the earth, and have received their resurrection from the dead, then it will be time enough to remove the curse from Cain and his posterity. (Journal of Discourses 2:143. Joseph Fielding Smith also quoted Young’s statement on page 106 of his The Way to Perfection.)

However, “Race and the Priesthood” exonerates Joseph Smith’s and instead lays the blame for the introduction of this teaching at the feet of Brigham Young. The article says:

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. 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.

 While the church wants to  blame Young as the originator of this teaching, Seventy Milton R. Hunter said the doctrine really should be traced back to Joseph Smith:

Brigham Young did not originate the doctrine that Negroes could not hold the Priesthood in this life but some day some of them may be granted that privilege, but he was taught it by the Prophet Joseph. The minutes of a meeting of the general authorities of the Church which was held on August 22, 1895, read as follows: “President George Q. Cannon remarked that the Prophet taught this doctrine: That the seed of Cain could not receive the Priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the Priesthood until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain’s offspring.” (Pearl of Great Price Commentary (Salt Lake City: Stephens and Wallis, 1948), 142.)

Joseph Fielding Smith also pointed to the minutes of this meeting and, like Hunter, called it a doctrine. (The Way to Perfection, 110).

Regardless of how the doctrine originated, LDS  leaders tenaciously held to this position, even during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, claiming that it was to continue “while time endures.” (Ibid., 101.) When a reporter asked in 1964 if blacks would receive the priesthood, LDS Prophet David O. McKay replied, “Not in my lifetime, young man, nor yours.” (Lund, The Church and the Negro, 45.)

In 1967 John Lund placed this teaching in the realm of “doctrine” and said it would always remain, explaining that

“those who believe that the Church ‘gave in’ on the polygamy issue and subsequently should give in on the Negro question are not only misinformed about Church History, but are apparently unaware of Church doctrine.” He added, “Therefore, those who hope that pressure will bring about a revelation need to take a closer look at Mormon history and the order of heaven.” (Ibid., 47, 104–5.)

In light of the previous teachings, no doubt many Mormons were surprised to learn that President Kimball supposedly received a revelation that would officially take away the restrictions barring those of black heritage from priesthood blessings. On 8 June 1978 a statement was read that included the following words:

Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood. . . . He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood. (Ellipsis ours. This portion is included in what is known as Declaration 2 found at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants.)

To which “promises” is Kimball referring? Prior to 1978 it was generally understood that the promise of priesthood for the “seed of Cain” would only come to pass after the resurrection and not before. The October 1978 opening of a temple in São Paulo, Brazil, may have been a contributing factor. Brazil has been a hotbed for Mormon growth but it is also a country comprised of people of mixed descent. Because many Brazilians are descendants of former slaves, it would be impossible to tell who was “unqualified” to participate in the priesthood under the old standard. The article “Race and Priesthood” explains:

Brazil in particular presented many challenges. Unlike the United States and South Africa where legal and de facto racism led to deeply segregated societies, Brazil prided itself on its open, integrated, and mixed racial heritage. In 1975, the Church announced that a temple would be built in São Paulo, Brazil. As the temple construction proceeded, Church authorities encountered faithful black and mixed-ancestry Mormons who had contributed financially and in other ways to the building of the São Paulo temple, a sanctuary they realized they would not be allowed to enter once it was completed. Their sacrifices, as well as the conversions of thousands of Nigerians and Ghanaians in the 1960s and early 1970s, moved Church leaders.

Mormons often make an issue that their four scriptures are to be the measuring rod for truth and that revelation cannot contradict what they contain. Harold B. Lee stated, “If it is not in the standard works, we may well assume that it is speculation, man’s own personal opinion; and if it contradicts what is in the scriptures, it is not true.” (Improvement Era (January 1969): 13. ) Given the fact that Abraham 1:26 in the Pearl of Great Price was used as a proof text to ban blacks from the priesthood, the 1978 reversal appears to violate Lee’s admonition. (According to Lund, The Church and the Negro: A Discussion of Mormons, Negroes and the Priesthood, 91, President David O. McKay wrote a letter on 3 November 1947 in which he said, “I know of no scriptural basis for denying the Priesthood to Negroes other than one verse in the Book of Abraham (1:26).”)

All of this information raises other questions. If the Mormon God has removed the curse that was once on the black race, why has he not also removed the mark? If the sole purpose of the black skin was merely to identify those who should not receive priesthood blessings, and that no longer applies, why are people still being born with this mark?

The official position of the Mormon Church since 1978 allows all worthy male members, regardless of race, to hold the position of priest. Meanwhile, the church wants to cut  ties to its racist past; in doing so, the leadership must rewrite their church’s history by making it appear that this teaching was never considered a doctrine. As the “Race and the Priesthood” article states,

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.

While blame for this doctrine is given to Brigham Young by the Mormon leadership, such a claim opens up a slippery slope that could swallow up any other “revelation” given by other LDS leaders. Quoting LDS historian Richard L. Bushman, The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

By depicting the exclusion as fitting with the common practices of the day, says Bushman, who wrote “Rough Stone Rolling,” a critically acclaimed biography of Smith, “it drains the ban of revelatory significance, makes it something that just grew up and, in time, had to be eliminated.” But accepting that, Bushman says, “requires a deep reorientation of Mormon thinking.” Mormons believe that their leaders are in regular communication with God, so if you say Young could make a serious error, he says, “it brings into question all of the prophet’s inspiration.” (“Mormon church traces black priesthood ban to Brigham Young,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 10 December 2013, A5.)

Mormon apologists demand the best of both worlds when they acknowledge the racist comments made by their past leaders and try to excuse them by pointing to offensive comments by non-LDS religious leaders during the same time period. This would make the LDS leaders nothing more than products of their time who are quite capable of ignoring God’s true will on this subject. If a leader like Young was capable of creating a racist doctrine that would be echoed by later LDS leaders for more than a century, then common sense would dictate that the other unique doctrines espoused by the church quite possibly are creations of men rather than God.

To read more on the issue of blacks and the Mormon priesthood, click here.