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

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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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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