Question: What do we know about the origin of the priesthood ban on Church members of African descent?

Table of Contents

Question: What do we know about the origin of the priesthood ban on Church members of African descent?

The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban

The origin of the priesthood ban is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Its origins are not clear, and this affected both how members and leaders have seen the ban, and the steps necessary to rescind it. The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban, although a number of Church leaders offered theories as to the reason for its existence. The Church currently provides the following background information regarding the initiation of the ban in its Gospel Topics essay "Race and the Priesthood":

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church. [1]

Given that none of these theories regarding the reason for the ban is accepted today, Church members have generally taken one of three perspectives:

  • Some members assume that the ban was based on revelation to Joseph Smith, and was continued by his successors until President Kimball. However, Joseph Smith did ordain several men of African descent to the priesthood.
  • Some believe that the ban did not originate with Joseph Smith, but was implemented by Brigham Young. The evidence supports the idea that Brigham Young implemented it, but there is no record of an actual revelation having been received regarding it.
  • Some believe that the ban began as a series of administrative policy decisions, rather than a revealed doctrine, and drew partly upon ideas regarding race common in mid-19th century America. The passage of time gave greater authority to this policy than intended.

The difficulty in deciding between these options arises because:

  • there is no contemporary account of a revelation underlying the ban; but
  • many early members nevertheless believed that there had been such a revelation; and
  • priesthood ordination of African blacks was a rare event, which became even more rare with time.

The history behind the practice in the modern Church of withholding the priesthood based on race is described well by Lester Bush in a 1984 book.[2] A good timeline can be found at FairMormon's BlackLDS site: FairMormon link.

Many leaders have indicated that the Church does not know why the ban was in place

  • Gordon B. Hinckley in an interview:
Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?
A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don't think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There's a reason for them.
Q: What was the reason for that?
A: I don't know what the reason was. But I know that we've rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.[3]
  • Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, 'Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,' you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. 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.[4]
  • Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
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.[5]
  • Elder Alexander B. Morrison:
We do not know.[6]

Is racial prejudice acceptable?

  • President Hinckley in priesthood session of General Conference:
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.[7]


Notes

  1. "Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics, LDS.org.
  2. Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1984). ISBN 0941214222. off-site
  3. Anonymous, "On the Record: 'We Stand For Something' President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia]," Sunstone 21:4 no. (Issue #112) (December 1998), 71. off-site
  4. 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.
  5. Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.
  6. Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 24, page 4; citing Alexander Morrison, Salt Lake City local news station KTVX, channel 4, 8 June 1998.. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
  7. Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61.