Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood/Nature of the priesthood ban

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The nature of the Mormon priesthood ban

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Question: Was the Mormon priesthood ban simply a policy or was it doctrine?

According to the Church, the priesthood ban was a policy implemented by Brigham Young

According to the Church, the priesthood ban was a policy implemented by Brigham Young. There was no priesthood restriction in place during the time of Jospeh Smith.

Background

Members of the Church who were considered to be of African descent were restricted from holding the LDS Church's lay priesthood prior to 1978. The reason for the ban is not known. There is no contemporary, first-person account of the ban's implementation. There is no known written revelation instituting the ban. In 1949, the First Presidency, led by 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

The First Presidency went on to state that "the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate." Because of this, understanding the reason for the implementation of the priesthood ban is difficult.

However, once the ban was in place—whether as a matter of revelation, or as a policy that arose out of the Church's 19th-century origins—members and leaders did not feel that they could simply "change" things.

Many modern Protestant denominations believe in a "priesthood of all believers," and settle doctrinal differences via councils, meetings, or plebiscites. As new social realities develop (e.g., the civil rights movement, women's suffrage, "gay rights," etc.), denominations adapt or modify previous stances.

This is not how the Church functions, and non-members may not appreciate this fact. Members or leaders of the Church do not feel that they have the right to alter previous practices or doctrines without direct revelation from God. Much as the ban confused and troubled many members—black and white—leaders did not feel at liberty to alter them without divine guidance. It is also important to realize that priesthood, in the LDS tradition, is not a right, nor is it something to be used to grant or enhance spiritual or social "status."

Furthermore, efforts to use political pressure against the Church may have slowed the change, since members do not believe that God will allow the Church to appear 'manipulated' by outside forces to create a convenient 'revelation' merely to satisfy social pressures.

It also important to give credit to Church members' strengths in the pre-1978 period:

  • Church doctrine never held that blacks were less than human or without souls, as some denominations did
  • Joseph Smith taught that any mental or economic weakness suffered by blacks was not due to any in-born defect, but simply due to not having ample opportunity to advance and receive the same education as whites
  • Church members were overwhelmingly abolitionist and were even persecuted and driven out because of their anti-slavery leanings
  • the Church never had segregated congregations; all members worshipped together
  • the Church supported equal civil rights for many years before the 1978 revelation: to the Church, the issue of priesthood was not one of civil rights or granting status, but of revelation.
  • sociologic studies demonstrated that pre-1978 Mormons were no more or less racist than their contemporaries

Racist doctrine?

The most unfortunate legacy of the ban is perhaps an aspect that was least intended. Since many members were sincerely concerned about the justice of the ban, many sought to explain it through a variety of hypotheses. Such "doctrinal folklore" was never official, but became widespread as members sought to reconcile their ideas about the justice and mercy of God with the ban's reality. In a good faith effort to understand, members drew on ideas about blacks then current in Protestantism generally.

Leaders of the Church have repeatedly emphasized that such explanations were misguided and never represented official doctrine.

For example, 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. [1]

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 [apostles] to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place. [2]

Recent remarks by the current prophet, President Hinckley, demonstrate that members of the LDS church must put aside any thoughts or legacy of racial intolerance or unkindness:

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. [3]

Gospel Topics, "Race and the Priesthood"

Gospel Topics, (2013)
In 1850, the U.S. Congress created Utah Territory, and the U.S. president appointed Brigham Young to the position of territorial governor. Southerners who had converted to the Church and migrated to Utah with their slaves raised the question of slavery’s legal status in the territory. In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.

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Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith make derogatory racial comments in the 22 October 1963 issue of Look magazine?

The critics appeal to an audience that is ignorant of the abysmal history of most of Christianity's dealings on race issues

A statement by Joseph Fielding Smith in the 22 October 1963 issue of LOOK Magazine is used as an illustration of the Church's racism,

I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Negro. "Darkies" are wonderful people, and they have their place in our church.

President Joseph Fielding Smith Look magazine, 22 October 1963, 79 [sic][4]

Racism has become one of the most strident and damaging accusations that can be leveled in our society, and as such has become a useful weapon for those who wish to harm an organization or individual. As Southern Baptists know, "Few chapters in American religious history prove as embarrassing as the response of the American churches to the issue of race."[5]:33 Thus, the critics appeal to an audience that is ignorant of the abysmal history of most of Christianity's dealings on race issues. They are obviously hoping their target audience will not notice that Latter-day Saints have always had integrated churches while other Protestant churches struggle with the residual division brought about by their own prolonged discrimination or outright expulsion of black members. Emerson and Smith assess the problem in the following manner:

Our examination of a variety of data and consideration of a variety of levels of social influence suggest that many race issues that white evangelicals want to see solved are generated in part by the way they themselves do religion, interpret their world, and live their own lives. These factors range from the ways evangelicals and others organize into internally similar congregations, and the segregation and inequality such congregations help produce; to theologically rooted evangelical cultural tools, which tend to (1) minimize and individualize the race problem, (2) assign blame to blacks themselves for racial inequality, (3) obscure inequality as part of racial division, and (4) suggest unidimensional solutions to racial division.[6]:170

LDS are, of course, not immune from the same human foibles. We, like all Christians, might wish that we had played a larger role in correcting social injustices. We must all look at our past and learn from it. But for the here and now, the LDS do have a decided advantage in our centralized leadership and our historical practice of maintaining congregations based on geographical boundaries rather than personal preference or race. Our members have never traveled past a white or black church to get to their own. We cannot fire ministers who do not succumb to the wishes of a congregation to remain racially segregated. Yet, we join all concerned followers of Christ in acknowledging that we have work ahead of us in putting aside differences accumulated through centuries of misunderstanding and intolerance.

We can only hope that the critics will desist in their racially divisive campaign against other religions. We challenge them to focus their talents on the important question of pastor Gregory E. Thomas as he says, "we must again note that a predominant pattern of church life for black churches has been that of racial separation. The question remains: why?"[7]

Bruce R. McConkie: "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"

One statement alone, given by Bruce R. McConkie to Church seminary and institute teachers shortly after the 1978 revelation granting priesthood to all races, answers each and every objectionable statement or action that the authors can dredge up from bygone eras:

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.[8]

A Look Through LOOK Magazine: Not one article, photo, or ad in a full 154 pages of this colorful oversized magazine interrupts its perky Caucasian landscape by featuring an African-American

Now that the reader is aware of the true position of the LDS church on the subject of racism, let us review the authors' favored medium for authoritative information, LOOK magazine. It provides an excellent lesson in how easily sources can be excised from the very surroundings that explain them when the intent is to sensationalize rather than to inform.

The cover of the October 22, 1963 issue reflects the prevailing social culture of the nation. It pictures a radiant Jackie Kennedy-like woman sitting in a new car, smiling with her laughing toddler who is standing on the car seat next to her. The child is dressed in an unbuttoned red cardigan, the collar of her crisp white blouse peeks over the sweater and her pleated plaid skirt is accessorized with stylish black and white oxfords and bobby socks.

This issue highlighted new 1964 cars. The full-page ad on page 55 tells us "what every girl should know." Women of that era evidently needed to know that "the man who drives a Super Torque Ford is a man of substance" and that she should "marry him at the first opportunity."

Not one article, photo, or ad in a full 154 pages of this colorful oversized magazine interrupts its perky Caucasian landscape by featuring an African-American. They are not to be seen in ads, Catholic schoolrooms, or even on a featured college football team. Looking at this slice of life from the sixties, the only reason one would have to think blacks even lived in the United States is one photo on page 118 where a few blacks are pictured as the recipients of charity. The patronizing hypocrisy of examining one small church's "attitude toward Negroes" in this sort of environment has, of course, not yet settled into the mainstream of American consciousness.

"Memo From a Mormon: In which a troubled young man raises the question of his church's attitude toward Negroes" is an article that indicates a growing awareness by the magazine of the need to talk about "Negroes," but there is no urgent need to talk to them or with them. The article itself is well done and fairly presented from the point of view of a young man who wished an end to the practice of allowing blacks full membership but restricting them from participation in the lay priesthood. The rogue quote used by the authors is only found in the "Editor's Note" attached to the article. William B. Arthur, managing editor of LOOK, interviewed Joseph Fielding Smith, then acting president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. The full quote, following an explanatory paragraph, is as follows:

"I stand by every word in the article," President Smith said, after reading it aloud in Mr. Arthur's presence. "The Mormon Church does not believe, nor does it teach, that the Negro is an inferior being. Mentally, and physically, the Negro is capable of great achievement, as great and in some cases greater than the potential of the white race. He can become a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, and he can achieve great heights. The word 'inferior' is indeed unfortunate."

Mr. Arthur asked President Smith if a Negro boy can pass the sacrament in the Mormon Church, as 12- and 13-year-old white Mormon boys do. President Smith replied, "No". He then was asked whether Negro boys could prepare the sacrament, as 14- and 15-year old white Mormon boys do. The answer was "No." "Can he bless the sacrament or perform baptism, as the 16-, 17-and 18-year old white Mormon boys do?" Mr. Arthur asked. Again the reply was, "no."

"The Negro cannot achieve priesthood in the Mormon Church," President Smith said. "No consideration is being given now to changing the doctrine of the Church to permit him to attain that status. Such a change can come about only through divine revelation, and no one can predict when a divine revelation will occur.

"I wouldn't want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Negro. 'Darkies' are wonderful people, and they have their place in our Church."[9]:97

Interestingly, the article ends here. However, a statement from the body of the featured article is worth noting as it pinpoints the uncomfortable situation for LOOK's selectiveness in highlighting only Mormons.

The Negro who accepts the doctrines of the Church and is baptized by an authorized minister of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is entitled to salvation in the celestial kingdom, or the highest heaven spoken of by Paul.

It is true that the work of the ministry is given to other peoples, and why should the so-called Christian denominations complain? How many Negroes have been placed as ministers over white congregations in the so-called Christian denominations?[9]:76

A Convenient Double Standard

Perhaps the annoyance of President Smith over the double standard being applied to Mormons would be better understood if placed next to the image of Ferrell Griswold, pastor of the Minor Heights Baptist Church, addressing Klan supporters as Birmingham public schools began their first week of desegregation in the same year.[5]:41 Would the critics really have the reader believe there were no Christian leaders among those who refused blacks their basic civil liberties and denied them entrance to their churches, schools, civic centers and voting booths? While President Smith was quoted as saying "darkie" in 1963, what were other high profile white religious leaders saying and doing to give blacks basic rights, let alone positions of leadership within their own churches? Two scholars outline how white leaders left the battle for civil rights to the black churches.

In response to King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech that his children might one day play together with white children, [Billy] Graham, who had been invited but did not attend the 1963 March on Washington, said: "Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children." This was not meant to be harsh, but rather what he and most white evangelicals perceived to be realistic.[6]:47

Three years later on October 9, 1966, Martin Luther King gave his "The Pharisee and Publican" sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in which he said:

So often Negroes in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and other places have been taken to that tree that bears strange fruit. And do you know that the folk lynching them are often big deacons in the Baptist churches and stewards in the Methodist churches feeling that by killing and murdering and lynching another human being they are doing the will of Almighty God? The most vicious oppressors of the Negro today are probably in church.[10]

It is easy to look at the worst in one another, as the critics have chosen to do. There are enough quotes indicting every religious tradition to make any thoughtful person cringe. There are also well-researched, honest and informative books and articles available from scholars on every aspect of race and religion. So one has to ask, with so many others, why do critics persist in this course of action? What purpose does it serve for them?

The critics' barrage of the most negative and obscure data they can muster against the LDS might lead one to conclude that all other Christian churches were fully integrated with all races participating in leadership positions in 1963, or even in 1978 when blacks were given the priesthood by the LDS Church. The following quotes from varied and respected sources are provided so the reader has the appropriate historical context. They are not meant in any way to criticize other churches who are working so diligently to close the racial divide.

Virtually all Protestant denominations have separate Negro churches, and thus the areas of association for religious purposes have been very small.[11]

By the 1830's most southern evangelicals had thoroughly repudiated a heritage that valued blacks as fellow church members.[12]

The black Methodist church, created not from a desire to be separate but from a desire to worship without discrimination at the hands of white brethren, was to become the most enduring legacy of Methodism's refusal to accord the black communicant all of the rights and privileges of membership in the body of Christ.[13]:318

After the war the southern churches, continuing the legacy of slavery, were among the first institutions to call for the separation of the races; by the twentieth century they had become bastions of segregation. With no desire to intrude into places where they were not welcome, most black Southerners were more comfortable in their own congregations.[13]:293

By November 1968 a survey research by the Home Mission Board revealed that only eleven percent of Southern Baptist churches would admit African-Americans.[14]

The most extensive research on integration was undertaken jointly by the United Lutherans, Congregational Christians, and Presbyterians (U.S.A.). They found that 1,331 out of 13,597 predominantly white churches have nonwhite members or attenders. That is just short of 10 per cent.[15]

Still in 1964, no more than 10 per cent of the white Protestant congregations had Negroes worshiping with them. Even these 10 per cent had only a few members or occasional attenders, so that throughout the US probably no more than 1 per cent of all Negroes worshiped in integrated congregations on Sunday mornings.[16]

According to the 1998 National Congregations Study, about 90 percent of American congregations are made up at least 90 percent of people of the same race.[6]:136

About eighty percent of all black Christians are in seven major denominations.[17]:68

In 1977, the American Baptist Churches in the USA had a larger number of blacks than any other non-black denomination… An interesting irony of the racial overtones still prevalent is that the American Baptist Churches of the South are now predominately a black sub-convention of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. There has been little white involvement since the influx of black Baptists.[17]:68-69

As can be seen by this parade of statistics, the critics' talents might be more profitably spent in their own congregations rather than in pointing at the proverbial mote in their neighbor's eye.

Critics' attempt to pass off centuries of Christian belief in a "curse" as being a uniquely Mormon invention

Now let us look at the critics' stumbling attempt to pass off centuries of Christian belief in a "curse" as being a uniquely Mormon invention. The authors of Mormonism 101 ask, "If the Mormon God has removed the curse that was once on the black race, why has he not also removed the mark?"[18] Again, we should review the widely available literature on the origins of this unfortunate concept:

This interpretation of Noah's curse was no southern invention; indeed, it had been in circulation long before the discovery of America. Even so, it proved especially useful to white masters of the South because they had been put on the defensive by the powerful emancipationist movement.[19]

The story of Noah's Curse was so ingrained into the orthodox Protestant mind that it was sometimes invoked far from the pulpit. Speaking before the Mississippi Democratic State Convention in 1859, none other than Jefferson Davis defended chattel slavery and the foreign slave trade by alluding to the "importation of the race of Ham" as a fulfillment of its destiny to be "servant of servants."[13]:107

Once again, the reader is left to decide whether critics are completely ignorant of the history of race theory, anthropology, and the centuries-old Christian use of the Bible to justify slavery or if they are simply race-baiting. One is truly forced to ponder this as they selectively use quotes and remove portions that may reflect positively on Mormons. They turn to such sources as little-known "Mormon writers" instead of using authoritative sources that the LDS recognize as accurately representing their beliefs. They relentlessly refuse to deal with modern Church practice and teachings that are well attested to by living leaders, preferring instead to use dated and out-of-context quotes that obviously clash with our modern social sensibilities.


Question: Were blacks denied access to Mormon temple open houses?

There is no priesthood requirement to tour a temple during an open house, and all were welcome

A message to FairMormon reads: "I heard that, prior to 1978, blacks were denied access to temple open houses because they carried the “mark of Cain.”" Is this true?

It would be surprising and unfortunate if a black person in the 1960's was turned away from a temple open house during the period that the priesthood ban was in place. Blacks were certainly allowed in during a temple open house, and many did tour the temple during these times. There is no priesthood requirement to tour a temple during an open house, and all were welcome. This is not to say, however, that such an unfortunate denial of entry did not take place. Sadly, prevailing racial attitudes during the 1950’s and 1960’s make it quite possible that a member might have denied such entry, even going so far as to say that the person carried the “mark of Cain.” Even highly placed Church leaders made statements during this period which would now be considered quite racist. Such attitudes are, of course, repugnant to modern Latter-day Saints.

FairMormon is not aware, however, of any policy of forbidding entry to open houses to people of a given race or ethnicity.

Notes

  1. Dallin H. Oaks, Interview with Associated Press, in Daily Herald, Provo, Utah, 5 June 1988.
  2. Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006. off-site
  3. Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61. off-site
  4. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 233. ( Index of claims )
  5. 5.0 5.1 Andrew M. Manis, "'Dying From the Neck Up:' Southern Baptist Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement," Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 1999)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Richard O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  7. Thomas, "Black and Baptist in the Bay State," 75.
  8. 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.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Jeff Nye, "Memo from a Mormon: In which a troubled young man raises the question of his church's attitude toward Negroes," LOOK (October 22, 1963)
  10. Marty Bell, "Fire in My Bones: The Prophetic Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.," Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 1999), 13.
  11. Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of An Idea in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 447.
  12. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989), 107.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Forrest G. Wood. The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
  14. Dana Martin, "The American Baptist Convention and the Civil Rights Movement: Rhetoric and Response," Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 1999), 44.
  15. Robert Root, Progress Against Prejudice: The Church Confronts the Race Problem (New York: Friendship Press, 1957), 59.
  16. J.C. Hough, Black Power and White Protestants: A Christian Response to the New Negro Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 177.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Gregory E. Thomas, "Black and Baptist in the Bay State," American Baptist Quarterly (March, 2002).
  18. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 243.
  19. H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But… Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1972), 131.