By Joel B Groat
In June 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, the LDS Church’s twelfth president, lifted the church’s century-long ban on men of African descent holding the LDS priesthood. It wasn’t until 2013 that the church addressed the underlying racism inherent in that ban. Although this is not a topic to be used in a first-time discussion with a Mormon, under the right circumstances the LDS Church’s past racism can be effectively contrasted with the beauty of the biblical gospel.
This approach highlights one of the most troubling historical and doctrinal issues for Latter-day Saints. In a survey released in 2012 of more than 3,000 people who had lost faith in the LDS Church, the subject of “Blacks and the priesthood” was the third most troublesome topic for Mormons who had left (closely following “Polygamy” and the “Book of Abraham”).
Even so, I would not recommend using this approach in a first-time or casual encounter with an LDS person. Here’s why:
1) Most Mormons have heard the accusation that their church is racist before and perceive it as a hostile attack on their church and faith; therefore, they will see the presenter as an “enemy,” not as a friend or concerned person.
2) The uncomfortable nature of this subject as it relates both to racism and the reliability of Mormon prophets makes it difficult to broach winsomely and compassionately without an appropriate relational context. You will need significant relational collateral, something that will be lacking in a “cold-call” conversation with a Mormon.
3) Because this approach morphs from historical to theological over the course of the conversation, it may be difficult to work through the process in just a single, limited-time encounter.
That said, once we’ve made a relational investment of time and compassion in the life of a Mormon, and Mormons know we are for them and not just out to demolish their religious system, this issue can be used to shine a light on some questionable and uncomfortable aspects of LDS religious history and theology, which in turn make the biblical gospel very winsome indeed.
The Uncomfortable yet Core Issue
The undeniable historical fact is that for more than 100 years, LDS Church prophets and apostles denied men of African ancestry opportunity to hold the Mormon priesthood. Without this priesthood authority through early June 1978, men of African descent could not officially bless their families, baptize their children, serve as missionaries, or hold any office in the LDS Church, and no person of African descent could enter a Mormon temple—the only place to perform the ceremonies necessary for gaining exaltation and eternal life in the presence of Heavenly Father.
The Disquieting yet Clear Rationale
Equally disturbing was the LDS explanation for why males of African heritage were denied the priesthood. Mormon leaders claimed they were obeying God in restricting priesthood access and provided two primary reasons for discriminating against those of African ancestry, both of which indicated that dark skin was God’s curse and a sign of moral inferiority.
The first rationale was that dark skin was the mark of Cain, so that being denied the priesthood was part of Cain’s curse. Dark-skinned people of African descent (or “Negroes” as second LDS President Brigham Young referred to them) were supposedly descended from Cain. Young taught this clearly and repeatedly. For example:
Now I tell you what I know: when the mark was put upon Cain, Abel’s children were in all probability young; the Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the Priesthood, nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Abel had received the Priesthood, until the redemption of the earth. If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ [that] spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain.
This view was not unique to Mormonism in the 1800s, but no other Bible-based Christian denomination has institutionalized it, claimed it came from revelation given by prophets, or supported it with canonized Scriptures as has the LDS Church.
The second explanation was that dark skin, specifically the dark skin of those of African descent, was a mark or curse of God placed on people because they had been less valiant or unrighteous during their pre-existent life with Heavenly Father. The LDS Church affirmed the exclusion of men of African heritage from the priesthood in an official Church statement in 1949, stating it was not a “policy” but a “direct commandment” from God. They reaffirmed this position in 1969 in another official statement explaining that it was God’s plan since before mortality that the “Negro” would not receive the priesthood.
These two explanations for dark-skinned people of African descent were well-known, widely accepted, and still referenced in LDS circles as late as 2012-13 when the LDS church issued its article “Race and the Priesthood,” in which it disavowed all such racist “theories” of its past. For example, in February of 2012, BYU religion professor Randy Bott, in a Washington Post interview, cited both of these reasons for the priesthood ban and went on to say that “God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to priesthood authority and that “blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
The Ban is Lifted but the Racism Remains
Those who know their Mormon history may be saying, “Wait, wasn’t this priesthood ban lifted in 1978?” Yes, it was. But I believe some LDS people were still advocating such racist views as late as 2012 for a couple of reasons.
First, while the church announced in June of 1978 that God had revealed that it was time to allow all worthy men access to the LDS priesthood, they did not disavow the Mormon scriptures and past teaching used to support the ban. So the explanation for why some people were born dark-skinned and of African descent was still accepted as God-revealed truth.
Second, Mormon leaders had repeatedly declared that God would never allow Mormon prophets and apostles to lead the church astray. Therefore, these teachings, and the scriptures that supported them—no matter how uncomfortably racist they seemed to many—were viewed as coming from God. Mormons were simply expected to be happy the priesthood restrictions had been lifted and not ask too many questions.
Throwing Brigham under the Bus: The Bold Disavowal
All that changed with the 2013 LDS.org article titled “Race and the Priesthood.” For the first time LDS leadership in this anonymously written article disavowed their past descriptions of Blacks as people who had been less valiant in the pre-existence and/or “the seed of Cain.” The official statement declared:
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.
In an attempt to explain where all this came from, the article ignored the LDS scriptures and multiple prophetic pronouncements used for decades to support these views and singled out Brigham Young. The essay states, “In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood,” and two paragraphs later adds, “the justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that has been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude’ in the Territory of Utah.”
This explanation, coupled with the repeated use of the word “theories” to describe the reasons for excluding those of African heritage, essentially places the blame on Brigham Young, who was influenced by cultural ideas that were widespread at the time. According to the article, “None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the church.”
The Implications in a Nutshell
When we juxtapose the past LDS teachings with the current Mormon statement, the following scenario emerges:
- For about 125 years the Mormon prophets and apostles taught these ideas not as “theories” but as doctrines originating in divine revelation, given in Scripture and reaffirmed by the living prophets from Brigham Young to David O. McKay as commandments from God. All Latter-day Saints were expected to view them as such.
- During that time they simultaneously affirmed: “Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.”  This reinforced the fact that their racist policies came directly from God.
- However, when faced with the embarrassing and damaging racist implications of views still being taught in the LDS Church over 30 years after the ban was lifted, current LDS leaders provided the following explanation on the official church website in 2013.
- None of the prior teachings related to race and the priesthood were doctrines of the church; they were simply theories.
- These ideas originated not with God but with Brigham Young, who was influenced by the social and cultural ideas of his time.
- They as a church were officially disavowing these theories as racist and wrong.
When taken together the implications are striking and sobering. Prior LDS prophets and apostles who argued for the continuation of the church’s racist policies and defended and perpetuated its racist views for decades. Some might even see it as a form of spiritual abuse that the LDS Church, in the name of God, denied a whole race of people and anyone who shared in that racial heritage the spiritual authority (priesthood) and religious (temple) rituals necessary for reaching ultimate salvation within that religious system.
Redemptively Relating the Information to Latter-day Saints
I believe the best way to use this information lovingly and compassionately is to ask a series of questions that guide the Mormon through the issues. Odds are your Mormon friend, co-worker, or family member has never put the pieces of the race and priesthood issue together. That’s why it’s important for you to be able to assemble them competently and clearly, but also with an attitude of care and compassion for the person with whom you are sharing.
The goal is to lead and link, letting the person make the connections and draw conclusions. In the end, the goal is more about using past LDS racist practices and policies as a backdrop against which the biblical gospel of grace has always been equally open for all people.
The following questions for discussion are grouped into categories that will build upon one another logically and chronologically. However, we need to be prepared to pace the discussion based on the Mormon’s openness and willingness to engage. We need to resist the temptation simply to use the historical information to make LDS leaders look bad, but instead pray that God will open the eyes of Mormons to a justification by grace alone that is the same for all people—including them.
Questions to get the conversation started:
- Has anyone ever accused you or your church of being racist because of being Mormon? What do you think they were basing that on? What did you say to them?
- So, were you (or your parents, if the person is younger) a member of the LDS Church in 1978 when the priesthood ban was lifted? What was that like for you/them?
Questions to establish the historical backdrop. Feel free to pause the discussion and offer supporting documentation if they question the validity or veracity of the historical facts:
- In your understanding, what was the reason for men of African descent not being allowed hold the priesthood prior to 1978?
- Do you know where the idea orignated?
- Were you aware that early LDS leaders said it originated with Joseph Smith and that ultimately it was the Lord who placed the restriction on those of African heritage? (You can find a list of documented quotes here and here.)
- Are you familiar with the LDS scriptures that Mormon leaders used to support this priesthood ban? (Check out the pertinent passages here and here.)
- Were you ever taught the Mormon doctrine that a person’s life and conduct in the preexistence affects when and where that person is born? My understanding is this doctrine was used to justify or explain why men of African ancestry were denied the priesthood. What did you think about this when you heard about it? What is your position on it now?
- What would a man and his family have missed out on by not being able to hold the LDS priesthood because he was of African heritage? (If they seem unsure or don’t know the answer, you can mention: blessing his family, baptizing his children, being sealed in the temple, even maybe exaltation in the celestial kingdom–all are examples of things he could not do without the LDS priesthood).
Questions to introduce and assess the statement on Race and Priesthood:
- Are you familiar with the series of Gospel Topics articles on the church website that started coming out in 2013?
- Have you ever read the article on Race and Priesthood? If yes, what did you think? If no, would you be interested in looking at it? (You can go here t see it here.)
- Past LDS prophets taught for over 100 years that both the priesthood restriction and the reasons for the ban were revelations from God and could not be changed. What do you think led them to believe and teach that?
- Current LDS leaders now say all the past teachings that justified the priesthood ban were simply “theories” and they now repudiate these theories as racist, wrong and false. According to the LDS Church today, these theories were the result of common social ideas of the day and not revelations from God, and therefore, they are not doctrines of the LDS Church. Given the past emphasis that these were divinely inspired teachings, what do you think led them to now conclude they are false, man-made, and racist?
- Can you understand why I, as an outsider looking in, agree with your current LDS leadership on the issues of racial equality, and disagree with your past leaders who claimed such racist ideas and practices came from God?
- Do you agree more with the position of current leaders or the past leaders? Why?
Questions for turning the theological corner:
- Are you familiar with verses written by the apostle Paul in the Bible that speak to the issues of racism and a curse? Would you mind if we looked at some of them? I’d like to know how you would apply them to what was taught about race and the priesthood.
NOTE: All passages below are taken from the KJV. However, feel free to explore whether or not the LDS person is comfortable using a version of the Bible besides the KJV. If they admit to having a hard time understanding it and are open to something like the NIV or ESV, then I would recommend having one of these versions available. The KJV can be downright obtuse given how language has changed, so if it will not be a hindrance to the LDS person, expose him or her to the Word of God with a translation that will be much clearer and easier to understand.
Galatians 3:6-11: Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
- Would you agree that, at least since the time of Christ, regardless of a person’s nationality and, by extension, skin color, every person needs to be justified (declared righteous) by faith?
- What is it in these verses that results in a person being under the curse? (You might note for them “works of the law,” and not continuing doing all things written in the book of the law.
- Is there anyone who has continuously done all things given as laws by God? Is there anyone then, who is not under the curse?
Galatians 3:13-14: Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
- Are you familiar with the concept of the double transfer or double exchange that has to do with us becoming acceptable and worthy to live with God the Father and Jesus Christ?
- What is it that separates us and makes us unworthy? (Our sin, not keeping all God’s commands.)
- Did you know that part of being made a curse for us involved Christ taking all our sin on Himself?
2 Corinthians 5:18-21: And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he [God] hath made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him [Jesus].
- How can God not impute or charge people’s trespasses unto them? (By placing them on Christ—making him sin for us).
- Since Paul is imploring people to be “reconciled to God,” it must not be automatic. How does a person get rid of all their sins and trespasses? We can find a clear answer in another Pauline letter that talks about the same theme.
Romans 5:15-17:But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one [Adam]; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.
- What is it a person must do to reign in life with Jesus Christ? (Receive the grace and righteousness of Christ as a gift.)
Here is where we can go back to the idea of the double transfer or double exchange for reconciliation to the God we have offended and alienated with our sin. This double exchange is God’s gift to us. All we have is our sin and trespass—it makes us a curse before God (regardless of our skin color). God the Father offers to trade us our sin for the perfect righteousness of Christ—thus making Jesus become a curse for us so we can become the very righteousness of God in Christ. The trade is a gift. It is free for the taking to the person who has faith and humility to receive it from the hand of the loving God who offers it (Rom. 6:23).
Now, it is quite possible that the Mormon person will resist this idea of salvation as a free gift and may even bring up James 2:17: “Faith without works is dead.” If a Mormon brings up this text, acknowledge that James does say this and make it clear that you are in agreement with what he is saying. We can then explain that a person who claims to have faith and has become reconciled to God but who does not have the fruit that should result from that reconciliation (works of love and mercy toward those in need, James 2:14-16) doesn’t really have saving faith. In other words, to claim to have faith but not live like a person who has faith raises questions about whether a person actually has genuine faith in the first place. But that doesn’t change the fact that God offers salvation and eternal life as a gift and that it needs to be accepted as such.
There are two directions to go from here.
One is to ask if they are aware that James points to the futility of law keeping as a means of pleasing God. James 2:10 is clear: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” In other words, there are only two options for a person to use commandment-keeping in order to please God: Either keep the whole law perfectly or be guilty of breaking the law. Is anyone able to keep the whole law? No? Then aren’t we all (myself included!) guilty before God of breaking his commandments rather than keeping them? This is why Jesus perfectly keeping the commandments and giving us His righteousness and perfection as a gift is such good news.
Another possible direction is to ask Mormons if they know who was one of the earliest Mormon leaders to teach that both grace and works are needed for salvation. It was Brigham Young. Given what we know about Brigham Young, though, is he really a good source for doctrine? This is the person who taught that Adam was our Father and our God, only to have a later Mormon prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, denounce that teaching as false doctrine.
It was Brigham Young who denied “Negroes” the priesthood because they were the seed of Cain, a teaching that current LDS leaders decry as a racist theory that should be totally rejected as false. Might it not be better to go to the Bible and read Romans and Ephesians like a child, asking God for help in understanding His Word without people like Brigham Young clouding the waters?
As always, these comments and questions are provided as guidelines for directing the tone, spirit, and flow of the conversation and not intended to be followed necessarily word-for-word or point-for-point. The key is to be Spirit-led so we are compassionate instead of combative, humble instead of arrogant, and invitational instead of confrontational, with our ultimate desire and goal being that the Mormon be invited to trade his sin for the righteousness of Christ and find true salvation and eternal life through repentance and faith in Christ alone.
Are the LDS leaders and Scriptures reliable?
While it is commendable that the LDS Church has acknowledged the racist and wrong nature of its prior teachings, current LDS leaders have still failed to deal honestly with the issues, and in so doing they continue to both mislead the public and their own members.
- First, they have failed to acknowledge that prior LDS leaders did lead the church astray in an area that touched on the salvation and eternal destiny of men. These men, using the titles of “prophet” and “apostle,” claimed their teachings on race and the priesthood were God-ordained doctrines when, in fact, they were merely manmade theories (as the current statement now acknowledges).
- Second, current leaders have now misrepresented decades of institutionalized racism by calling its doctrinal basis “theories” and have been less than honest regarding the source of these teachings. This serves to excuse the reprehensible attitudes and behavior of previous leaders.
- Third, this example illustrates the danger of the Mormon teaching that “God will not allow the leaders to lead the Church astray.” By emphasizing this teaching to its members, LDS leaders have made it so they are accountable to no one and the doctrines they teach are not to be questioned. But this mentality is exactly what allowed racism and discrimination to flourish in Mormonism for over a hundred years despite periodic challenges by other LDS Church members.
Questions for reflection and discussion with a Mormon:
- Would it be possible for a Mormon prophet to teach something he claimed was from God but only have it be his own mistaken opinion?
- Were you aware that past leaders taught this could never happen – that God would never allow a Mormon prophet to lead the church astray? If they claim to be unfamiliar with this teaching see, for example, here and here.
- Do you think that a current LDS leader would ever repudiate the doctrinal teaching of a past leader or say it was a theory that was mistaken or wrong?
- Hypothetically speaking, what would you think of a leader who did that?
- What would you think of the leader from the past who taught something as doctrine to the church, but current leaders label his teaching a false theory that the LDS Church now rejects?
- How should we view writings accepted as Scripture that contain material used by LDS leaders to justify the racist policies and teachings of the past that are now rejected?
- Now that the racist teachings concerning those of African heritage as the seed of Cain and descended from him via Ham the son of Noah have been rejected and repudiated as false, would it be safe to set aside the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses that are the basis for these views as merely erroneous opinions of Joseph Smith also influenced by his culture?
- Since the Book of Mormon contains similar views related to dark skin as a sign of God’s disfavor or cursing, would we be justified in also setting it aside as a literary work that reflects social and cultural ideas of the 19th century and is not really ancient Scripture?
- Since the LDS Church accepts the Bible as Scripture, and it came prior to LDS Scriptures that are now in question, would you be willing to take time to read just the Bible and read it as a child, opening yourself to let God speak to you directly from the apostolic writings of men like John and Paul? Would you consider reading the whole letter to the church at Rome in the New Testament?
Obviously, this is a lot of material and makes it a more advanced subject. But the questions raised in this chapter, in light of what LDS leaders originally taught about the topic of race and the priesthood, could have a major effect for someone who may not have thought through this topic before. Done in the right way for the right person, this information could be the “beginning of the end” and show how Mormonism’s leaders do not have a direct connection with God when true doctrine is concerned.
Joel B. Groat (Grand Rapids, Michigan) received his MTS in New Testament from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Michigan. He is currently the director of ministries at the Institute for Religious Research (IRR.org) where he has served for the past 30 years. Joel authored the Spanish DVD course La Fe de Mi Prójimo (My Neighbor’s Faith).
 Understanding Mormon Disbelief, http://www.whymormonsquestion.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Survey-Results_Understanding-Mormon-Disbelief-Mar2012-1.pdf.
 The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. Richard S. Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2009), 1:468-71. Italics added. The discourse is usually dated on February 5 but was apparently given on January 5. http://mit.irr.org/brigham-young-slavery-because-of-curse-of-cain-5-january-1852.
 See quotes listed in a table in this article: http://mit.irr.org/mormon-church-disavows-previous-teachings-on-blacks-and-priesthood.