Why the Priesthood Ban for the African Race?

Introduction: The following are notes used by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson on several broadcasts of Viewpoint on Mormonism that aired from March 19th through March 29, 2013. The purpose of the series was to demonstrate that the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been less than honest when it comes to the history and reasons behind a ban that prevented members of African heritage from holding either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood. This guiding principle was in effect until 1978 when it was rescinded “by revelation” under 12th LDS President Spencer W. Kimball.

This controversy came to surface again in February 2012, when BYU Professor Randy Bott gave an unauthorized interview with journalist Jason Horowitz from the Washington Post prompting a quick and terse response from the LDS leadership.

The LDS Church statement regarding the Washington Post article:

The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said. The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form. 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. We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.

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In his book, Mormonism and the Negro (1963 ed., p. 8), Mormon professor and author John J. Stewart offered the following three alternatives when it came to the “LDS policy on Negroes”:

1) Be apologizers for the Church, say that it is old fashioned, outmoded on this point; prejudiced.

2) Confess that we do not know the reason for this policy, although we accept it; that we have a blind faith in it.

3) Proclaim that it is a correct and reasonable doctrine, that it is tenable, that we have no reason either to apologize for it nor evade questions about it. We must then explain the reasons for it and show that it is consistent with the rest of LDS doctrine.

Stewart said,

“The first two alternatives are totally unacceptable to me: If we are apologizers for the Church on this point, then we admit in effect that all Gospel doctrine is not sound; we say in effect that either the original position of the Church was incorrect on this matter, or, if it was correct, that we as a Church do not enjoy continuous revelation and thus become outdated on this doctrine. If we deny continuous revelation in the Church then we place ourselves in much the same position as all other so-called Christian sects, and isolate ourselves from God.”

Stewart continued,

“If we accept the second alternative, that of blind faith in the doctrine, something that we do not understand but do not question, then we place ourselves in much the same position as churches that favor blind faith. And we find ourselves having to evade rather than face issues. But our theology teaches us that our faith should be an intelligent faith, not a blind faith."

A position considered untenable by Mr. Stewart has now been the official position taken by the modern LDS leadership. It has chosen to claim historical and doctrinal amnesia when it comes to the priesthood ban and declared that any possible reasons offered are based in either speculation, opinion, or even folklore. In doing so, they have confirmed what many outsiders have believed all along, i.e., that LDS leaders really don’t have the ability to discern when God is, or is not speaking. Of course, such a position was never considered by leaders who discussed this controversial position prior to 1978. Prior to 1978 LDS leaders were very clear as to why the ban was put in place.

Why the Ban? 

Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a sin 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. The volition of the creature is free; this is a law of their existence, and the Lord cannot violate his own law; were he to do that, he would cease to be God” (Brigham Young, August 19, 1866, Journal of Discourses 11:272).

Now then, in the kingdom of God on the earth, a man who has the African blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of Priesthood; Why? Because they are the true eternal principals the Lord Almighty has ordained, and who can help it − men cannot, the angels cannot, and all the powers of Earth and Hell cannot take it off, but thus saith the Eternal, ‘I am, what I am, I take it off at My pleasure’, and not one particle of power can that posterity of Cain have, until the time comes the [Lord] says He will have it taken away. That time will come, when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of, and more. In the Kingdom of God on the Earth the Africans cannot hold one particle of power in Government” (The Teachings of President Brigham Young: Vol. 3 1852-1854, Fred C. Collier, ed., p. 43. Speech given to the Joint Session of the Legislature in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, February 5, 1852. Brackets in original).

That the negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits, few will doubt. It cannot be looked upon as just that they should be deprived of the power of the Priesthood without it being a punishment for some act, or acts, performed before they were born. Yet, like all other spirits who come into this world, they come innocent before God so far as mortal existence is concerned, and here, under certain restrictions, they may work out their second estate. If they prove faithful in this estate, without doubt, our Eternal Father, who is just and true, will reward them accordingly and there will be in store for them some blessings of exaltation” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way To Perfection, p.43).

There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient; more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:61. Italics in original).

“NO NEUTRALS IN HEAVEN. 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” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:65-66. Italics in original).

“There is no truth more plainly taught in the Gospel than that our condition in the next world will depend upon the kind of lives we live here. ‘All that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.’ (John 5:28-29.) Is it not just as reasonable to suppose that the conditions in which we now live have been determined by the kind of lives we lived in the pre-existent world of spirits? That the apostles understood this principle is indicated by their question to the Master when the man who was blind from his birth was healed of his blindness, ‘Master, who did sin, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2.) Now perhaps you will have a partial answer to some of your questions as to why, if God is a just Father, that some of his children are born of an enlightened race and in a time when the Gospel is upon the earth, while others are born of a heathen parentage in a benighted, backward country; and still others are born to parents who have the mark of a black skin with which the seed of Cain were cursed and whose descendants were to be denied the rights of the priesthood of God” (Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living, pp.164-165).

“Why is it in this Church we do not grant the priesthood to the Negroes? It is alleged that the Prophet Joseph said--and I have no reason to dispute it--that it is because of some act committed by them before they came into this life. It is alleged that they were neutral, standing neither for Christ nor the devil. But, I am convinced it is because of some things they did before they came into this life that they have been denied the privilege. The races of today are very largely reaping the consequences of a previous life” (Sermons and Missionary Service of [Apostle] Melvin J. Ballard, p.248).

The reason that spirits are born into Negro bodies is because those spirits rejected the priesthood of God in the Pre-existence. This is the reason why you have Negroes on the earth. …All of this is according to a well worked-out plan, that these millions and billions of spirits awaiting birth in the pre-existence would be born through a channel or race of people. Consequently, the cursed were to be born through Ham. . . . This is why you have colored people, why you have dark people and why you have white people” (Alvin R. Dyer (at the time was an Assistant to the Twelve, later to be 1st Presidency under McKay), “For What Purpose?” March 18, 1961. From Typed Manuscript at LDS Archives. Ellipses mine).

“The Negro race have been forbidden the priesthood, and the higher temple blessings, presumably because of their not having been valiant while in the spirit. It does not pay to be anything but valiant” (Apostle George F. Richards, Conference Reports, October 1947, p.57).

We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in the pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds” (Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems – as they affect the church,” August 27, 1954, p.11).

Though he did not specifically mention the priesthood ban, Dr. Terry B. Ball, a BYU Professor of Ancient Scripture and the Dean of Religious Education, made a similar connection to performance in the pre-earth life and mortal status. In a BYU devotional talk titled, “To Confirm and Inform: A Blessing of Higher Education” given on March 11, 2008, he said:

“I believe Isaiah wants us to liken the farmer to our Heavenly Father and the seeds to ourselves. Have you ever wondered why you were born where and when you were born? Why were you not born 500 years ago in some primitive aboriginal culture in some isolated corner of the world? Is the timing and placing of our birth capricious? For Latter-day Saints, the answer is no. Fundamental to our faith is the understanding that before we came to this earth we lived in a premortal existence with a loving Heavenly Father. We further understand that in that premortal state we had agency and that we grew and developed as we used that agency. Some, as Abraham learned, became noble and great ones (see Abraham 3:22–23). We believe that when it came time for us to experience mortality, a loving Heavenly Father, who knows each of us well, sent us to earth at the time and in the place and in cir­cumstances that would best help us reach our divine potential and help Him maximize His harvest of redeemed souls.”

“The fact that descendants of Cain are presently denied the right to hold the priesthood is not based wholly upon the actions of their fathers. Deeper reasons go back into the pre-earth life, to the appointments that were made in sending spirits into the world to obtain bodies among the several families of the earth.” (Hyrum L. Andrus, Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price, 1967, p.404).

Who was responsible for this teaching? 

This doctrine did not originate with President Brigham Young but was taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. At a meeting of the general authorities of the Church, held August 22, 1895, the question of the status of the negro in relation to the Priesthood was asked and the minutes of that meeting say: ‘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" (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, p.110. See also Milton R. Hunter’s Pearl of Great Price Commentary, 1948, pp.141-142).

The principles that the Prophet Joseph taught are the doctrines that we must abide in, or we shall be overthrown. …It was manifest to him that the seed of Cain would not come in remembrance before the Lord for their final redemption, until the seed of Abel the righteous should all have their opportunity” (Franklin D. Richards, October 5, 1896, Collected Discourses 5:220. Ellipses mine).

“The former decree of God concerning the Negro has been reaffirmed in modern times. According to George Q. Cannon, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the following 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 off-spring.’ Other reports confirm the fact that Joseph Smith taught that the Negro cannot yet receive the priesthood” (Hyrum L. Andrus, Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price, 1967, p.402).

Intermarriage with the Seed of Cain would bring the curse on posterity

“But let me tell you further. Let my seed mingle with the seed of Cain, [and] that brings the curse upon me, and upon my generations, [after me – should we do this] we will reap the same rewards with Cain” (The Teachings of President Brigham Young: Vol. 3 1852-1854, Fred C. Collier, ed., p. 44. Speech given to the Joint Session of the Legislature in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, February 5, 1852. Brackets in original).

“Surely no one of you who is an heir to a body of more favored lineage would knowingly intermarry with a race that would condemn your posterity to penalties that have been placed upon the seed of Cain by the judgments of God” (President Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living, p.168).

If I were to marry a Negro woman and have children by her, my children would all be cursed as to the priesthood. Do I want my children cursed as to the priesthood? If there is one drop of Negro blood in my children, as I read to you, they receive the curse. There isn’t any argument, therefore, as to inter-marriage with the Negro, is there?…Now we are generous with the Negro. We are willing that the Negro have the highest kind of education. I would be willing to let every Negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. But let them enjoy these things among themselves. I think the Lord segregated the Negro and who is man to change that segregation? It reminds me of the scripture on marriage, 'what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.' Only here we have the reverse of the thing— What God hath separated, let not man bring together again” (Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems as They Affect the Church,” August 27, 1954, p.21).

“Interracial marriage with the Negro is forbidden. Those who are allowed to have the Priesthood during their mortal life should not intermarry with those who are not allowed to have it. Marriage between the two would result in children coming to that marriage who would not be entitled to the Priesthood” (John Lewis Lund, The Church and the Negro, 1967, p.110).

Never a doctrine? 

It is clear that this statement purposely skirts the real issue at hand. Mormon leaders of the past knew exactly why blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood. Ninth Mormon President David O. McKay supported this doctrine, not from personal opinion or speculation, but from Mormon scripture.  In a letter dated November 3, 1947, he wrote,

"I know of no scriptural basis for denying the Priesthood to Negroes other than one verse in the Book of Abraham (1:26); however, I believe, as you suggest, that the real reason dates back to our pre-existent life.” 

First Presidency

“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 father’s 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 receive all the blessings we are entitled to’” (Official statement of the First Presidency to BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson, dated August 17, 1951, quoted in John Lewis Lund, The Church and the Negro, p.89).

“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind; namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of the principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the principle is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood, is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the Priesthood by Negroes” (Official statement of the First Presidency to BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson, dated August 17, 1951, quoted in Hyrum L. Andrus, Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price, 1967, pp.406- 407).

13th President Ezra Taft Benson - It was “God’s Way”

“The arm of flesh may not approve nor understand why God has not bestowed the priesthood on women or the seed of Cain, but God's ways are not man's ways (Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Reports, October 1967, p.34).

“Disparaging Remarks”

“I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2005, p.58).

Do the following qualify as disparaging remarks?

Brigham Young

 “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” (Brigham Young, March 8, 1863: a conference talk in the Tabernacle, Journal of Discourses 10:110).

John Taylor

“And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God” (John Taylor, August 28th, 1881, Journal of Discourses 22:304. See also Latter-day Prophets Speak: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Church Presidents, p.157, Daniel H. Ludlow, ed.).

“Why is it, in fact, that we should have a devil? Why did not the Lord kill him long ago? Because he could not do without him. He needed the devil and a great many of those who do his bidding just to keep men straight, that we may learn to place our dependence upon God, and trust in Him, and to observe his laws and keep his commandments. When he destroyed the inhabitants of the antediluvian world, he suffered a descendant of Cain to come through the flood in order that he might be properly represented upon the earth” (John Taylor, October 29, 1882, Journal of Discourses 23:336).

Joseph Fielding Smith

“Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. A curse was placed upon him and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures. Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with a black skin and have been denied the privilege of Priesthood and the fulness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain. Moreover, they have been made to feel their inferiority and have been separated from the rest of mankind from the beginning” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, p.101).

This is the same Joseph Fielding Smith who also said:

“The Latter-day Saints, so commonly called ‘Mormons,’ have no animosity towards the Negro, Neither have they described him as belonging to an ‘inferior race’” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions 4:170).

Apostle Mark Petersen

“In spite of all he did in the pre-existent life, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get a celestial resurrection. He will get a place in the celestial glory. He will not go then with even the honorable men of the earth to the terrestrial glory, nor with the ones spoken of as being without law” (Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems – as they affect the church,” August 27, 1954, p.17).

Declaration 2 an inaccurate statement

June 8, 1978

To all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world:

Dear Brethren:

 As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.

 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, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.

 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, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple.

What was the Promise?

Brigham Young

“How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam's children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed. When the residue of the family of Adam come up and receive their blessings, then the curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will receive blessings in like proportion” (Brigham Young, October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:290-291).

Joseph Fielding Smith

"Since Cain slew his brother Abel in order to obtain all the rights of priesthood to descend through his lineage, the Lord decreed that the children of Cain should not have the privilege of bearing the priesthood until Abel had posterity who could have the priesthood and that will have to be in the far distant future. When this is accomplished on some other world, then the restrictions will be removed from the children of Cain who have been true in this ‘second’ estate” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions 2:188).

According to the above statements, it appears that the lifting of the ban in 1978 was very premature.

For more information, please see:

Article: Curse of Cain

You Tube: Policy or Doctrine?

You Tube: Was the Ban Racist?