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Book Review: Blacks and the Mormon Priesthood: Setting the Record Straight

By Marcus H. Martins, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Note: The month of June 2015 marks the 38th anniversary of Spencer W. Kimball and the members of the First Presidency deciding to allow those with black skin to begin receiving the priesthood. Let’s take a look at a book written with the intention of “setting the record straight.” For a podcast series of Viewpoint on Mormonism that aired during the first week of June 2015, click on these links: Part 1  Part 2

Written in 2007 by the son of the LDS general authority Helvécio Martins, a Brazillian who was the first man of color to serve in such a position, Blacks and the Mormon Priesthood is an attempt by Marcus H. Martins to explain why the LDS doctrine banning blacks to the LDS priesthood before June 1978 was ever allowed.

The book is short (only 82 pages) and so perhaps it should be called a “booklet.” Regardless, it was written by a passionate man who believes that there were good reasons for the ban, even though he has a hard timing being definitive in his assessment. As he writes on page 4,

A young African-American sister once wrote me asking whether it was “abnormal” to feel annoyed by the priesthood ban. I told her that all human being have feelings, and we cannot fully stifle this important part of our humanity. My only suggestion—and I have done this myself—is to not allow the issue to trouble our children and grandchildren.  Whether we like it or not, the priesthood ban is part of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation.  But just like the Mountain Meadows massacre and other unfortunate episodes, the ban may be remembered as an undeniable fact in history—but never as a significant factor in the present.

This is fairly convenient. Martins, who has served several terms as bishop and as a mission president in Sau Paulo, Brazil from 2011-2014, believes what’s more important than the past is the present and the future. According to his philosophy, what happened in the past should not mar what is available now. This is a myopic way to view the situation. It’s akin to saying that the Holocaust was a real event yet shouldn’t trouble us today. However, if the Holocaust really happened, shouldn’t this affect our psyche today? Shouldn’t this historical event serve as a warning when other groups take on Nazi-like characteristics (i.e. the way ISIS would like to physically eliminate anyone who disagrees with their ideology)? And shouldn’t our children be warned so we can say with some conviction, “Never again”? In the same way, if the teaching banning blacks from the Mormon priesthood is considered wrong after 1978, shouldn’t it also be considered wrong before 1978?

Because he doesn’t like to dwell in the past, for some reason Martins decided not to offer any pre-1978 quotes from the LDS leadership. He writes on pages 5 and 6,

I have also avoided the temptation of rehashing statements made by Church leaders before 1978. As I mentioned previously, the priesthood ban is a fact in history but not a factor in the present. . . .

According to this reasoning, the “restored” church and its leaders ought to be followed, no matter how wrong their writings might be. The feeling conveyed is that LDS leaders before 1978 should somehow be ignored, as racist as they might be considered today. After all, as Martins says on page 27, “we have to be careful with the problem of misquotations and misinterpretations disguised as official pronouncements by Church leaders.” (p. 27)

He goes on to say,

Often we hear popular statements that begin like this: “A Church leader once said. . .” When we hear people say something like this or ask a question based on a supposed statement by a Church leader, we should ask, “Who said that? Who was the Church leader? What exactly did the Church leader say? Do you have an exact quotation? Where was the statement made, and in what context?” When we find people appealing to authority, or the “Church-leader approach,” often they don’t know exactly what was said. (pp. 27-28)

What needs to be made clear is that the teaching of prohibiting blacks from receiving the priesthood was an official teaching of the church. To support this claim, we can produce several First Presidency statements from the mid-twentieth century to explain how this ban was supposedly commissioned by God Himself. (See here for a blog on this topic written by MRM’s Sharon Lindbloom.) In addition, consider the pre-1978 quotations where official church leaders explained this as a doctrine mandated by God and not just mere opinion of men. I guarantee that the quotations provided in that link are exact and the context is sound. The honest Latter-day Saint needs to carefully consider what was said, even going back to the original sources, in order to determine just what was taught. If you are a Latter-day Saint, do yourself a favor by researching these pre-1978 quotes instead of ignoring them, as does Martins.

With these many quotes as a background, I find it disingenuous when Martin states on page 31:

As I have analyzed the available information about the priesthood ban, I have concluded that it was never part of the everlasting gospel, and I have found peace in the idea that the Lord allowed the ban to remain in his Church in order to fulfill his inscrutable purposes.

Notice how he justifies the ban:

I was able to enjoy most of the privileges of membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was baptized and received the Holy Ghost. I could pay my tithing, read the scriptures, pray, partake of the sacrament, hold many callings, keep the commandments of the Lord, and be blessed for doing so. None of these privileges of membership was denied me. On the other hand there were a few significant privileges of membership in the Church that I could not enjoy before June 1978. I could not officiate in priesthood ordinances as my peers did, nor enter a temple and receive my own endowment, nor be sealed to my parents. Other than that all other privileges of membership were available to me.

For now, he adds on page 50, he says that he is content.

After–and if—I receive the guarantee of my exaltation, then I might ask some questions. Although, by then, after having received so much of the Lord’s love, I may find that no questions will be needed anymore.

To me, Martins’ attitude is akin to suggesting that slavery in the south wasn’t so bad after all because it allowed God “to fulfill his inscrutable purposes.” Think about what a former slave could write after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union army:

There were many benefits to being a slave. After all, I was able to eat plenty of food.  My medical needs were taken care of. I could work hard with my hands. There was so much available to me. On the other hand, there were a few things I couldn’t enjoy. I couldn’t take a day off to take a stroll down the lane. There was no freedom to choose my line of work. And I could never know what it meant to be my own boss. Other than that, all the privileges of slavehood were available to me.

The rationale offered by Martins is corrupt. Yes, it is true that God is sovereign and all things that take place—both good and bad—fall under His sovereign will. But I believe it is possible to say that slavery, as it was practiced in the United States, was wrong for all persons in all times in all situations. No man should be allowed to rule over another against the other man’s will. In the same way, why can’t Martin just say that the descriminatory ban on blacks was wrong and never God’s will?

Obviously, to do so would be to admit that LDS leaders created a doctrine that was never directed by God. And if the leadership could miss the mark so badly here, what else could they mispresent today?  If these leaders before 1978 were not providing guidance from God on the issue of banning blacks from the priesthood, then shouldn’t their other teachings be also similarly scruntinized? Maybe they should not be considered “prophets” but mere caretakers who might be one step behind the guidance of popular culture.

Meanwhile, Martins understands that many besides the critics have problems reconciling the teachings of the leaders before 1978. On page 7, he writes how “most Latter-day Saints today find old statements on racial matters hard to reconcile with today’s understanding of the universal scope of the restored gospel.” And on page 14 he explains:

Once again, there are no scriptures or official declarations setting forth such a hypothesis as heavenly truth. However, in the minds of Church members in the early twentieth century this hypothesis made sense, and a good number of people accepted this as an explanation; some even wrote articles and book chapters in its defense. People have a right to their opinion. But having a right doesn’t mean that personal opinions may automatically become doctrine even though they may have seemed quite logical and popular at one point in time.

What about doctrine?

What does it take for a teaching in Mormonism to be considered doctrine? It seems clear that what the leadership teaches from the general conference pulpit and in church manuals ought to be considered authoritative. In the tenth chapter of the 2009 church manual Gospel Principles, the standard works are said to be the go-to source for scripture. But it doesn’t stop there, as it continues:

In addition to these four books of scripture, the inspired words of our living prophets become scripture to us. Their words come to us through conferences, the Liahona or Ensign magazine, and instructions to local priesthood leaders.

We should point out that the Gospel Principles manual has been officially recommended as a resource that should be taken seriously. Apostle Russell M. Nelson explained in an Ensign magazine article (approved according to the quote given above:

In addition, all Church members will benefit by a return to the basics. A careful study of core doctrines as presented in the new and improved Gospel Principles manual will help members strengthen their understanding of the fundamental teachings of the gospel (“The New Gospel Principles Manual,” Ensign, January 2010, pp. 29-30).

The following year he said,

It is our hope that the new Gospel Principles manual will take a prominent place in the homes and lives of all Latter-day Saints. The new edition will inspire teaching and enhance personal study. Brothers and sisters, by reinforcing your study of the core doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ, your testimony will grow, your happiness will increase, and you will find a greater abundance of the blessings of the Lord in your life (“The New Gospel Principles Manual,” Ensign, January 2010, p. 31).

The church explained in the July 2014 Ensign magazine:

Teach the doctrine. Approved curriculum materials from the Church, such as scriptures, general conference talks, and manuals, contain doctrine—eternal truths from God (“We Teach by the Power of the Holy Ghost,” Ensign, July 2014, p. 10. Boldface in original).

If the Gospel Principles manual and the Ensign are telling the truth–and there’s no reason to assume they aren’t–then how did the “inspired words” of these “living prophets” direct the LDS believers to believe before 1978? The teaching banning blacks from the priesthood was taught very early in LDS Church history. (Again, I encourage the serious reader to go back to the pre-1978 quotes for a more complete look.) Consider this 1896 letter from Apostle Franklin Richards:

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 (October 5, 1896, Collected Discourses 5:220. Ellipses mine).

James Faust, who was a member of the First Presidency, said what comes from the leadership ought to be accepted as doctrine. He stated,

One cannot successfully attack true principles or doctrine, because they are eternal. The revelations that came through the Prophet Joseph Smith are still correct! It is a mistake to let distractions, slights, or offenses pull down our own house of faith. We can have a certain testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Redeemer of mankind, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet commissioned to restore the Church in our day and time without having a complete understanding of all gospel principles. But when you pick up a stick you pick up both ends. And so it is with the gospel. As members of the Church we need to accept all of it (“Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2003, pp. 21-22).

Apostle Boyd Packer stated,

Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed (“For Time and All Eternity,”Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1993, p. 22).

And Apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin explained,

To those who have strayed because of doctrinal concerns, we cannot apologize for the truth. We cannot deny doctrine given to us by the Lord Himself. On this principle we cannot compromise (Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Concern for the One,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2008, p. 19).

Yet the ban of blacks to the priesthood was a doctrine. (What else could it have been? Speculation from the leaders?) As tenth president Joseph Fielding Smith said,

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” (The Way to Perfection, p. 110. See also Milton R. Hunter’sPearl of Great Price Commentary, 1948, pp. 141-142).

He also taught:

It is true that the negro race is barred from holding the Priest­hood, and this has always been the case. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught this doctrine, and it was made known to him, al­though we know of no such statement in any revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Mormon, or the Bible. However, in the Pearl of Great Price, we find the following statement written by Abraham: “Now this first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal. Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his king­dom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.” Pearl of Great Price, Abraham 1:25-26 (Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Negro and the Priesthood,” Improvement Era, April 1924, p. 565).

A 1951 letter from the First Presidency contains the admission that the teaching was “doctrine”:

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).

Despite so much information that is readily available to us regarding this topic, it is incredible how many Mormons really don’t know much about the history of this teaching.

Using to explain the ban

In 2013, the LDS Church produced a “Gospel Topics” essay regarding Race and the Priesthood. Although it attempted to come to grips with the genesis of the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood, it still fell short. According to this essay,

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.

This paragraph makes Young look culpable while the succeeding leaders who “advanced many theories” look confused. To say “none of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church” is nothing more than disingenuous. However, the acknowledgment of the ban is at least made and is located on the website.

One would think that the church would want everyone to read and learn from this recent essay. However, referring to this article ended up getting one LDS Sunday School teacher in trouble. In a newspaper article titled “This Mormon Sunday School teacher was dismissed for using church’s own race essay in lesson” LDS leaders in Utah reprimanded a teacher of young teens for using this essay. According to the Salt Lake Tribune article,

Eventually, their local LDS leaders agreed that Dawson’s materials were legitimate but decided he shouldn’t teach them anyway. It was too much for the kids, they argued, and church was not the right venue for the discussion.

This article shows several things:

1)  Many Mormons—local LDS leaders included—do not know the history behind the ban.

2)  The beliefs and teachings on this issue by early LDS leaders are discounted as somehow being “racist” when these men taught—in no uncertain terms—that this doctrine was from God.

3) These leaders apparently get a “free pass” from well-meaning Mormons who want to defend the current leadership at all costs.

While I was putting this review together, a Salt Lake Tribune article dated May 5th, 2015 came out that just about floored me. Written by religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack, the article (“This Mormon Sunday school teacher was dismissed for using church’s own race essay in lesson”) began like this:

It all started with a question. The Mormon youth simply asked his white Sunday school teacher why the man’s Nigerian wife and her family would join a church that had barred blacks from being ordained to its all­male priesthood until 1978. Why, the student wanted to know, was the ban instituted in the first place?

To answer the teen’s inquiry, Brian Dawson turned to the Utah­-based faith’s own materials, including its groundbreaking 2013 essay, “Race and the Priesthood.” His research prompted an engaging discussion with his class of 12-­ to 14­-year­-olds. But it didn’t please his local lay leaders, who removed him from his teaching assignment — even though the essay has been approved by top Mormon leaders and appears on the church’s official website

The article quotes LDS Church spokesman Doug Andersen, who said how

the LDS Church “has communicated the value of these essays in many ways, including direct correspondence to priesthood leaders. In addition, church­-owned media, social­-media sharing and Facebook have been effective in making these essays more widely available. The essays are also translated into numerous languages.

Still, many faithful Latter-day Saints apparently are unaware of the existence of gospel topic essays:

Despite the essay being included in the latest curriculum for LDS high school and college students, she says, “many seminary teachers [for high school], institute [college] teachers, and even some people teaching at Brigham Young University are blind to it — even when you point things out to them.” It’s “great” that the essay is on the church website, Smith says, “but people don’t believe it.” It was neither signed nor penned by the governing First Presidency, nor has it been mentioned, alluded to, or footnoted in speeches by LDS authorities at the faith’s semiannual General Conferences.

Regardless, the essay is readily available on the website. . . for anyone who can find it on the Mormon website. (It’s really not easy to do unless you know what you’re looking for!) And so Brian Dawson–married to a black woman named Ezinne–decided to share this information with his young teenaged church students so they could see what the church has to say about the issue. According to the article,

Last fall in Honolulu, Dawson, a BYU­-Hawaii graduate and a returned Mormon missionary, faced a gaggle of teens in his Sunday school class. He heard the question and took a breath. You know, he began, we could rely on the personal witness of believing black members, but there is also a church-­approved document the class could read together. It’s called “Race and the Priesthood” and was published in December 2013 on the faith’s own website. The students eagerly agreed, so the following week Dawson arrived, armed with the essay and several articles from the church’s official Ensign magazine about early black Mormons, . . .

The essay noted the priesthood ban was rooted more in earthly racism during Brigham Young’s era than heavenly revelation. Pointing that out — and that future missionaries should understand this history — was where Dawson’s troubles began. After the class, students told their families about the conversation. One parent complained to Dawson’s bishop. “Anything regarding black history before 1978 is irrelevant,” Dawson recalls his bishop saying, “and a moot point.” Then, the former teacher says, his bishop insisted during a February interview that Dawson agree never again to bring up the essay or discuss “black Mormon history” in the class. Dawson declined — even after believing he would be “released” from teaching the class for disobedience. “If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents,” he asked the bishop, “who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?” The bishop replied, according to Dawson, “The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.” And so it went. Dawson says he reminded his local LDS leader that he simply was responding to a sincere question, not creating some alternative curriculum.

Isn’t it interesting how a teacher who was trying to report official church teaching by using official church resources ended up getting reprimanded?

Meanwhile, Mormons like Marcus H. Martins apparently just want to move on. In the second-to-last paragraph in his book, Martins writes,

But I can tell you this much, that I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true and living church on the face of the earth, that it is led by living prophets, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. There are many things we don’t understand, and some may be hard to beat, but this is the place. (82)

It’s convenient. In essence, Martins has no assurances that what his “restored” church is teaching him today is from God. Consider this very possible scenario after Martins is gone from the earth in 50 years. Suppose the LDS leaders in that day suggest that the church’s former leaders (such as Monson, Packer, Holland, etc.) were “homophobes” because they denied the priesthood to homosexual marriage partners. Or maybe polygamous unions banned today will be allowed in Mormon temples tomorrow. And what if women receiving the Aaronic and Melchizidek priesthoods will become allowed in 2035?  Either the practices described here are moral today. . . or they are not. If they’re not moral today, why should they be considered moral tomorrow? Yet the possibility that later leaders will change the doctrines of this church remain very possible.

A person can say he “knows” his church is led by living prophets and believe “this (church) is the place,” but what if these leaders’ teachings are nothing more than man-made doctrines? Later leaders have the power to throw previous leaders and their teachings under the proverbial bus.

For those who love truth, Blacks in the Mormon Priesthood will very likely cause more angst rather than properly sort out the issue. Does the Mormon leadership really intend for its membership to grasp what and why their leaders have taught in the past? Based on the story of Brian and Ezinne Dawson, I think the answer is obvious.

For more on the Gospel Topics essays Race and the Priesthood (originally posted 12/6/2013), check out our Viewpoint on Mormonism’s podcast response that originally aired January 2014:

Part 1      Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5

Part 6     Part 7     Part 8      Part 9     Part 10

Part 11    Part 12    Part 13   Part 14   Part 15 

An excellent article that discusses the essay, point by point, can be found on IRR’s website here. Also, see these MRM articles: “Were the reasons behind the priesthood ban on blacks based on ‘theory’?”  and “A Doctrine that was to Always Be” 

In addition, additional resources you may want to consider

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