Question: In the 1950s, did Mormons teach that the only way a black man could get into heaven was as a slave?

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Question: In the 1950s, did Mormons teach that the only way a black man could get into heaven was as a slave?

The claim is likely based on talk presented by Elder Mark E. Petersen at BYU in the early 1950s. At the time, much of American society believed that blacks were socially and culturally inferior

Television personality Bill Maher said, "...[I]n the [19]50s, the Mormons preached that the only way a black man could get into heaven was as a slave." [1]

While it is unknown to what sources Bill Maher looks for his information about the Church, it is possible that they were influenced by a talk presented by Elder Mark E. Petersen at BYU in the early 1950s. Elder Petersen's comments were made during a very different time from the one in which we now live. At the time, much of American society believed that blacks were socially and culturally inferior, and that the nascent American civil rights movement was a bad idea. The 1978 revelation on the priesthood was almost 25 years in the future.

It has never been a doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ that blacks would enter heaven only as slaves

It is unknown exactly what Maher was using as the source of such a comment, as it has never been a doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ that blacks would enter heaven only as slaves. It is possible, however, that Maher misread and was referring to an address given by Elder Mark E. Petersen at Brigham Young University on 27 August 1954 entitled "Race Problems—As They Affect the Church." Elder Petersen said in this address:

Think of the Negro, cursed as to the priesthood.... This Negro, who, in the pre-existence lived the type of life which justified the lord in sending him to earth in the lineage of Cain with a black skin.... In spite of all he did in the pre-existent life, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get a celestial resurrection. He will get a place in the celestial glory. He will not go then even with the honorable men of the earth to the Terrestrial glory, nor with the ones spoken of as being without law.[2]

At the time of Elder Petersen's remarks, black members of the Church did not and could not hold the priesthood in this life. The reasons behind this are complex, and still debated.

Despite the restriction on priesthood, Elder Petersen asserted that black members of the Church who were faithful to their covenants would be exalted in the celestial kingdom

However, despite the restriction on priesthood, Elder Petersen asserted that black members of the Church who were faithful to their covenants would be exalted in the celestial kingdom, the highest degree of glory in LDS theology (see D&C 76:50-70). Those who attain to this glory are "the church of the Firstborn," brought forth in the "resurrection of the just," who have "overcome all things." They are "just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant."

It is not clear what he meant by saying a faithful black would have to go "as a servant." Glory within the celestial kingdom is not differentiated, since the "glory of the celestial is one, even as the glory of the sun is one" (D&C 76:96). Only the telestial kingdom has differentiated levels of glory between members in LDS theology, "for as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world..." (D&C 76:98).

However, many LDS members and leaders have understood D&C 131:1-4 as teaching that there are three "subkingdoms" within the celestial kingdom. As Elder John A. Widtsoe explained this view:

To enter the highest of these degrees in the celestial kingdom is to be exalted in the kingdom of God. Such exaltation comes to those who receive the higher ordinances of the Church, such as the temple endowment, and afterwards are sealed in marriage for time and eternity, whether on earth or in the hereafter.[3]

Under this view, access to the celestial kingdom requires baptism (which black members could receive), while access to the two higher "subdegrees" requires temple ordinances, for which black members were not eligible to receive, in this life, under the pre-1978 policy.

As Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, without reference to black members or the priesthood ban:

...they who are clean in their lives; who are virtuous; who are honorable; but who will not receive this covenant of eternal marriage in the house of God, shall come forth-and they may even enter into the celestial kingdom, but when they enter there they enter as servants-to wait upon those "who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory." (italics added)[4]

The difference, of course, is that it was not that black members would not receive the "covenant of eternal marriage in the house of God," but that they could not because of the priesthood ban. The same is true of any person, of any race, who will not receive the covenant of eternal marriage, for whatever reason. Black members have always had the opportunity to eventually receive that blessing, even if after this life—though at the time of Elder Petersen's talk, the timing of that opportunity was unknown.

Given the policy in place at the time of Elder Petersen's remarks, black members would be eligible for exaltation, though they like others who had not received all the ordinances would assist and help others as "servants"

Thus, given the policy in place at the time of Elder Petersen's remarks, black members would be eligible for exaltation, though they like others who had not received all the ordinances would assist and help others as "servants." This is not slavery, but a partnership between exalted beings. A modification would have required a lifting of the priesthood ban. Elder Petersen appears to be pointing out that black members are candidates for exaltation, even if the priesthood ban was never lifted in this life. (The lifting of the ban was a subject of intense debate at the time.) This eventual exaltation would presumably mean that the priesthood would have been received in the spirit world after this mortal existence. It is clear from other comments in Elder Petersen's talk that he expected this eventuality.

Elder Petersen acknowledged that leaders and members did not have full information on the removal of the priesthood ban

Elder Petersen acknowledged that leaders and members did not have full information on the removal of the priesthood ban, and that those who spoke of the timing of the removal were expressing their own ideas. In 1978, as a result of the revelation on the priesthood, further knowledge was available and the change was welcomed by virtually all members of the Church.

Elder Petersen's comments were, to some degree, a reflection of the cultural beliefs of his time and generation in the U.S.

Elder Petersen's comments were, to some degree, a reflection of the cultural beliefs of his time and generation in the U.S., and were based on his interpretation of the limited light and knowledge he had available. Many of the expressions he used in his speech are objectionable to a twenty-first century audience that has better learned the lessons of racial equality and tolerance.

It is clear from the context of this talk that Elder Petersen did not believe that any group or race would be slaves in heaven. That notion goes against all teachings concerning the nature of the Celestial kingdom. It is a notion that is completely reprehensible to any responsible member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Anyone who believes that there will be slavery in heaven is absolutely mistaken.

Latter-day Saints need feel no responsibility to defend what may, by today's standards, seem to be racist statements attributed to fallible Church leaders in the past

Latter-day Saints need feel no responsibility to defend what may, by today's standards, seem to be racist statements attributed to fallible Church leaders in the past. No mortal man is above error, and there has been only one perfect person in all of human history. Each of us, to one degree or another, reflects the culture in which we are raised. As President Gordon B. Hinckley reminded Church members:

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...

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.[5]

No person will be judged by the fallible ideas or policies of men; "the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel, and he employeth no servant there" (2 Nephi 9:41).


Notes

  1. Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO, 16 February 2007. {{{1}}}
  2. Mark E. Petersen, "Race Problems—As They Affect The Church," address at Brigham Young University, 27 August 1954. This address is not available at the BYU Speeches web site. The text is (perhaps not surprisingly) available on various anti-Mormon web sites. Its absence from the BYU site would seem to suggest that the Church disavows the concepts taught in this address.
  3. John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, arranged by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 200–201. GL direct link
  4. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 62.
  5. Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61.