Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood/Understanding pre-1978 statements

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Understanding pre-1978 statements by members and leaders of the Church regarding the priesthood ban

Summary: Critics frequently parade justifications for the ban by past General Authorities that are considered quite racist by today's standards. While these have not been officially renounced, there is no obligation for current members to accept such sentiments as the "word of the Lord," and they most certainly do not reflect the Church's current position and teachings.

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Gordon B. Hinckley: "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,

Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.

Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?

Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.

Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.

Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such. —(Click here to continue) [1]


Bruce R. McConkie: "Forget everything that I 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"

Bruce R. McConkie:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things.... All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I 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. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness, and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter any more. It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year [1978]. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles.[2]

While Elder McConkie likely was limiting his remarks to mistakes made by past leaders in regards to the timing of the lifting of the ban, application of his insights can arguably be extended to a forgetting of all harmful "folk doctrines" about which post-1978 correlated church materials are either silent or have effectively corrected.


Question: How have modern Church leaders reacted to the speculations of the past regarding the reason for the priesthood ban?

Modern Church leaders have advised us to avoid speculating without knowledge

Elder Dallin H. Oaks pointed out that some leaders and members had ill-advisedly sought to provide justifications for the ban:

...It's not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we're on our own. Some people put reasons to [the ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that.... The lesson I've drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.

...I'm referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking.

...Let's [not] make the mistake that's been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that's where safety lies.[3]

Interviewed for a PBS special on the Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said:

One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. ... I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. ...

It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. ... At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.[4]

Past leaders are not alive to apologize for statements that unwittingly contributed to difficulties for the faithful and stumbling blocks for those who might have otherwise have been more attracted to the overall goodness of Christ's gospel. Presumably they would join with another voice from the dust to plead for us to have charity towards them (Ether 12:35-36) despite their imperfections. Rather than condemning, we ought to "give thanks unto God...that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been" (Mormon 9:31).

Tolerance and equality are commanded

In 1972, Harold B. Lee cautioned:

We are having come into the Church now many people of various nationalities. We in the Church must remember that we have a history of persecution, discrimination against our civil rights, and our constitutional privileges being withheld from us. These who are members of the Church, regardless of their color, their national origin, are members of the church and kingdom of God. Some of them have told us that they are being shunned. There are snide remarks. We are withdrawing ourselves from them in some cases.

Now we must extend the hand of fellowship to men everywhere, and to all who are truly converted and who wish to join the Church and partake of the many rewarding opportunities to be found therein. We ask the Church members to strive to emulate the example of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, who gave us the new commandment that we should love one another. I wish we could remember that.[5]


Question: How is it possible for a Church leader or prophet to have been influenced by racism, yet be consistent with the Lord not allowing prophets to lead the Church astray?

The goal of the Church is to bring people unto Christ

This is a difficult question. At face value, the idea that the Lord will not allow prophets to lead us astray seems to be in direct conflict with the Church acknowledging that early Church leaders and prophets were influenced by certain racist tendencies of their times. For example, how could the Priesthood ban have been implemented and yet be consistent with the prophets "not leading the Church astray?".

The first thing we must do is step back and see what the Church and prophets are all about.

What is the goal of the church?

According to Spencer W. Kimball, and reaffirmed by the other prophets it is as follows:

First, to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; Secondly, to perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation; Thirdly, to redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth. (See Ensign, May 1981, p. 5.) All three are part of one work—to assist our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, in their grand and glorious mission “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) I renew that declaration today. [6]


The purpose of the Gospel is to bring people to Jesus Christ. The Church is the organization that Jesus set up on the Earth to bring people back to Jesus and back to God so we can be joint heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:17.)

The prophets will not lead the Church astray from the mission of leading people to Christ: This does not exempt prophets from saying or doing things that are incorrect

Will the prophets lead us astray from this mission. No. They won't. They will keep us on that path and we should follow them.

Will they say things, do things, and even make policy that isn't the best, or even is incorrect. Certainly. Just as one example, Joseph Fielding Smith did not believe that men would even go to the moon. He stated in the first edition of Answers to Gospel Questions,

Naturally the wonders in the heavens that man has created will be numbered among the signs which have been predicted—the airplanes, the guided missiles, and man-made planets that revolve around the earth. Keep it in mind, however, that such man-made planets belong to this earth, and it is doubtful that man will ever be permitted to make any instrument or ship to travel through space and visit the moon or any distant planet.[7]

He later accepted a flag from the Apollo astronauts. When asked about this by a reporter, he stated, "Well, I was wrong, wasn't I?"

In Jonah chapter 3 it says,

4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

But Nineveh wasn't overthrown. The people repented and the Lord spared them. This really upset Jonah. (This doesn't even get into the fact that he first ran away.)

The Lord uses imperfect people to run his Church

The Lord uses imperfect people to run his Church. He has promised he will make it all right in the end.

Karl G. Maeser taught:

On one occasion he was going with a group of young missionaries across the alps. They were crossing a high mountain pass on foot. There were long sticks stuck into the snow of the glacier to mark the path so that travelers could find their way safely across the glacier and down the mountain on the other side.

When they reached the summit, Brother Maeser wanted to teach the young elders a lesson. He stopped at the pinnacle of the mountain and pointed to those sticks that they had followed. And he said, “Brethren, behold the priesthood of God. They are just common old sticks, but it’s the position that counts. Follow them and you will surely be safe. Stray from them and you will surely be lost.” And so it is in the Church. We are called to leadership positions and given the power of the priesthood. And we are just common old sticks, but the position we are given counts. It is separate and apart from us, but while we hold it, we hold it. [8]

If we go in with the expectation that the prophets will never do or say anything wrong, we will be disappointed

If we go in with the expectation that the prophets will never do or say anything wrong, we will be disappointed. There are more examples of this than the one you gave. Even Joseph Smith was reprimanded by God on more than one occasion.

Just a few examples from history (There are also reprimands in the D&C) They started doing Baptism for the dead in the river in Nauvoo - until God stopped them. They started doing sealings of adoption- until God stopped them. Why didn't God stop the race issue? He did...but He just did it later in his time frame for His purpose.

So again, If we go in with the expectation that the prophets will never do or say anything wrong, we will be disappointed. Prophets are learning and are being taught just as we are learning and being taught. Bruce R. McConkie stated that quite clearly. [9]

But, if we go in with the expectation that the prophets will keep us on the Gospel path, complete with the ordinances we need to return to our Heavenly Father, then we will know that the prophets will never lead us astray.

In John 6, Jesus taught hard things:

66 ¶From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

We will get things wrong, because we are NOT Jesus Christ: He allows us to learn as we go along

Jesus has taught the words of eternal life. This is his Church. We will get things wrong, because we are NOT Jesus Christ. He allows us to learn as we go along. The prophets will not lead us astray from that goal of eternal life.

I also fall back onto the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. In my mind, the evidence is very clear. Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon in 1830. Nobody could have done that. There were things that Joseph Smith and scholars of the day did not know that are contained in the book. They would have written the opposite based on the science of the day.

If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. It also means we have a prophet today. Will they lead us astray? Is that statement even true that they won't? The prophets will not lead us astray from the Gospel path. Can they be incorrect on other issues-even involving the Church? Yes, they can. But, that isn't why we have a prophet. We have a prophet to help us return to our Heavenly Father. As such, we follow him. God will make it all right in our eternal lives.


Question: What did Church leaders after Brigham Young think of the priesthood ban?

John Taylor conducted an investigation and concluded the policy had started under Joseph Smith, rather than Brigham Young

In 1879, John Taylor conducted an investigation and concluded the policy had started under Joseph Smith, rather than Brigham Young, despite receiving mixed information.[10] As part of this investigation Zebedee Coltrin recalled that Joseph Smith said in 1834 that "the Spirit of the Lord saith the Negro had no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood." However, this claim is suspect given Coltrin's errors on the circumstances of Elijah Abel's ordination, participation in Kirtland temple ordinances, and retention in the Seventies quorum all under the supervision of Joseph Smith.[11]

President George Q. Cannon in 1895 asserted that some of Young's teachings about miscegenation and the seed of Cain had first been taught by Joseph Smith.[12]

B.H. Roberts was the first to argue, based on the Book of Abraham, that the curse of Cain had continued to modern blacks through the lineage of Ham

Nearly forty years after the ban started, B.H. Roberts was the first to argue, based on the Book of Abraham, that the curse of Cain had continued to modern blacks through the lineage of Ham.[13]

George Albert Smith, indicated that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord"

President George Albert Smith, indicated that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord."

The attitude of the Church with reference to 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.
—First Presidency statement, August 17, 1949

Joseph Fielding Smith opined that blacks may have been less valiant in the pre-mortal conflict between God and Satan

Joseph Fielding Smith opined that blacks may have been less valiant in the pre-mortal conflict between God and Satan (however, he rejected that they may have been neutral in the war in heaven).[14]

David O. McKay believed that the ban was "not doctrine but...policy"

  • David O. McKay believed that the ban was "not doctrine but...policy," as reported by Sterling McMurrin,[15] his son Llewelyn McKay,[16] and Elder Paul H. Dunn.[17] President McKay told Elder Marion D. Hanks that "he had pleaded and pleaded with the Lord, but had not had the answer he sought."[18]
  • The "Missouri policy theory" attributing the ban to Joseph Smith arising from condition in Missouri was first popularized in 1970 by author Stephen Taggert,[19] and President Hugh B. Brown reportedly embraced it.[20] Other authors found this theory wanting.[21]

Harold B. Lee was inclined to reconfirm the ban

  • Harold B. Lee was inclined to reconfirm the ban,[22] though Church Historian Leonard Arrington
...asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord's will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during'three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,...but the only answer he received was "not yet." Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee's son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.[23]

Following Joseph Fielding Smith's death, President Lee did say, "For those who don't believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks...It's only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we're just waiting for that time."[24]

President Kimball said that the day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but should the day come it will be a matter of revelation

President Kimball began his administration by holding a press conference. When asked about the ban, he said:

[I have given it] "a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord."[25]

He had previously written to his son:

"...I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough...I know the Lord could change His policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error (?) which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that He will do, I am sure."[26]

In 1976, he mentioned

"his concern for giving the priesthood to all men, and said that he had been praying about it for fifteen years without an answer...but I am going to keep praying about it."[27]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006)
  2. Bruce R. McConkie, "All Are Alike unto God," an address to a Book of Mormon Symposium for Seminary and Institute teachers, Brigham Young University, 18 August 1978.
  3. Dallin H. Oaks cited in "Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban," Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life's Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.
  4. Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.
  5. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 384. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. Spencer W. Kimball, "Remember the Mission of the Church" (April 1982)
  7. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions
  8. Boyd K. Packer, "It Is the Position That Counts" (June 1977)
  9. Bruce R. McConkie, "All Are Alike Unto God". (18 Aug 1978)
  10. Neither White nor Black, 77–78.
  11. Neither White nor Black, 60–61, 77–78.
  12. Neither White nor Black, 79–81.
  13. B.H. Roberts, "To the Youth of Israel," The Contributor 6 (May 1885): 296–97.
  14. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 65.
  15. Sterling M. McMurrin and and L. Jackson Newell, Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin On Philosophy, Education, and Religion (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996), 199–201; cited in Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 20, page 5, footnote 17. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
  16. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20, page 5, footnote 17.
  17. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20, page 5–, footnote 17.
  18. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20 working draft, 13.
  19. Steven Taggert, Mormonism's Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1970).
  20. Edwin B. Firmage, "Hugh B. Brown in His Final Years," Sunstone 11:6 no. (Issue #67) (November 1987), 7–8. off-site
  21. Newell G. Bringhurst, "The 'Missouri Thesis' Revisited: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People," in Newel K. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, eds., Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 13. ISBN 978-0252073564. ISBN 0252073568.
  22. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, 204–205.
  23. Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.
  24. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published November 16, 1972.
  25. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 1; citing Charles J. Seldin, "Priesthood of LDS Opened to Blacks," Salt Lake City Tribune (10 June 1978), 1A.
  26. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 4; citing letter of 15 June 1963 to Edward Kimball.
  27. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 7; citing F. Burton Howard to author, June 15, 1995; F. Burton Howard, interview by author, July 30, 2002.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims