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Mormon Church Disavows Previous Teachings on Blacks and Priesthood

Mormon Church Disavows Previous Teachings on Blacks and Priesthood

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Blacks Get Priesthood

Blacks Get Priesthood
Brigham Young University campus newspaper announcing the 1978 “revelation” granting the Mormon priesthood to men of color.

In a bold, clear statement entitled Race and the Priesthood, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has repudiated the racist teachings of its former Church leaders. Some of the teachings repudiated are: “that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.” This is a laudable move and it is easy to see why those both in and out of the LDS Church have praised it. 

However, this action now calls into question the oft-repeated assurances made by these same leaders that “God Will Never Allow the Prophet to Lead the Church Astray” as exemplified by the following statement: 

“I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord” (Conference Report, Apr. 1972, p. 99; or Ensign, July 1972, p. 88). (Online - Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3, lesson titled, “Follow the Prophet” .) 

So, were the decades of racist teachings of previous LDS leaders that are now being repudiated “the mind and the will of the Lord” when they were given? This is certainly what past Mormon leaders claimed for over a hundred years. Were they wrong all along?  If these teachings were not from God (as the current statement implies by calling them ‘theories’), then the Mormon prophets and apostles responsible for them have done exactly what the LDS Church said they could never do—they have led astray millions of trusting Mormon people.

So while this is a welcome acknowledgment, the ramifications are stunning. How do you trust a church or its leadership that has engaged in significantly “leading astray” its members on the issue of the origins of the darker-skinned races, especially in light of the fact that this teaching was perpetuated for decades by some of the highest ranking leaders of the LDS Church? Key spiritual figures in Mormon history like Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, David O. McKay, and Harold B. Lee all provided clear teaching regarding Blacks and those of African descent. It is these teachings (including some that came in the form of official statements of the First Presidency) that are now repudiated as racist and false ‘theories’ according to current Mormon leadership. 

Despite the welcome repudiation, it is somewhat troubling that the current statement attempts to distance Joseph Smith from these racist policies and to place the blame on Brigham Young for promoting his personal views—views that subsequent leaders simply perpetuated.  This is misleading at best. What the LDS Church does not acknowledge today is that these earlier positions were attributed by its past leaders to God himself. In fact, what the LDS Church now deems ‘theories’ were viewed as divinely instituted commands that could only be altered by a revelation from God. 

The required “revelation” finally came in 1978 in the wake of public pressure, negative public relations, and the growing unease of having a newly-built Brazil temple that would be off-limits to most Brazilian Latter-day Saints (many of whom had contributed financially to the work). After all, just one drop of African blood excluded a person from holding the priesthood and entering the Mormon temple. The announcement rescinding the policy that kept Blacks from holding the Mormon Priesthood (and all its associated rights and privileges) was greeted with both relief and joy, not unlike the reaction of LDS people to this latest statement on race and priesthood. 

That joy and relief may need to be tempered in light of the obfuscation and lack of forthrightness on the part of current LDS leaders. What follows is a comparison of past statements by Mormon authorities on this issue and, where relevant, quotes taken from recent statements available on the official LDS church website. 

Past LDS Statements

Current LDS Statements

Joseph Smith: “Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on national equalization” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 270).

 

“One of these cursings was a mark placed upon Cain, which mark would be carried by his posterity throughout all generations. According to the teachings of the Pearl of Great Price this mark was a black skin. … Joseph Smith identified the negroes as the descendants of Cain.… Therefore, it is due to the teachings of the Pearl of Great Price and the Prophet Joseph Smith and the other early leaders of the Church that the negro today is barred from the Priesthood.” (Milton R. Hunter, Pearl of Great Price Commentary, 1948, pp. 141-142).

“At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended.”

Official Statement on Race and the Church

“This doctrine did not originate with President Brigham Young but was taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. … Joseph Smith has left very little on record in his own words outside of the Pearl of Great Price.  During the course of a discussion in Nauvoo in 1842, on the question as to whether the Negroes or the Indians have received greater ill treatment from the whites, the Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘The Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the Negroes, or sons of Cain.’ (D.H.C., 4:501.) But we all know it is due to his teachings that the Negro today is barred from the Priesthood” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, pp. 110-111).

“There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.” (Race and the Priesthood statement by the LDS Church)

This is a smokescreen statement that avoids the real issue: where did the false LDS teaching on race and the priesthood originate? Prior to this statement, LDS leaders attributed the origin of the priesthood ban to Joseph Smith’s teaching. Failing to acknowledge this is leading people astray.

“And so it is with the Negroes. There were those in the spirit world whose performance caused them to forfeit the right to bear the Priesthood of God and enjoy its attendant blessings in this world.” Mormonism and the Negro, p. 38. [Note: LDS Apostle Delbert Stapley referred to this book as “an enlightening exposition and quite well reflects the Church position in regard to these people.” Delbert Stapley to George Romney, January 23, 1964, on LDS Church letterhead.] http://www.boston.com/news/daily/24/delbert_stapley.pdf

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life.” (Race and the Priesthood statement by the LDS Church)

More than a theory, this was a defining doctrine, dogmatically defended for over a hundred years.

“The attitude of the Church with reference to the 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. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle” (emphasis added, Official statement of the First Presidency on the Negro Question, August 17, 1951, quoted in Mormonism and the Negro, John L. Stewart, p. 16 of the supplement by William E. Berrett).

“The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”

Official Statement on Race and the Church

Either this statement is a lie, or earlier LDS leaders were lying when they claimed this was a commandment from God and a doctrine of the church. Either way, current LDS leaders need to repent, not just issue carefully worded PR statements.

“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind; namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality.… Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the Priesthood by negroes” (Official statement of the First Presidency on the Negro Question to BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson, dated August 17, 1951, quoted in Mormonism and the Negro, John L. Stewart, pp. 16-17 of the supplement by William E. Berrett, emphasis added).

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” (Race and the Priesthood statement by the LDS Church)

So is this simply a “theory” or a “direct commandment from the Lord” that at one time was “doctrine of the Church”?

“The Church has never denied to the Negro a place in the celestial Kingdom if he will repent and accept the Gospel. The restriction in relation to the Priesthood is another matter. It is not the authorities of the Church who have placed a restriction on him regarding the holding of the Priesthood. It was not the Prophet Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young. It was the Lord!” emphasis added (Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith in Way to Perfection, quoted by John L. Stewart, Mormonism and the Negro, p. 48. [Note: LDS Apostle Delbert Stapley referred to this book as “an enlightening exposition and quite well reflects the Church position in regard to these people.”]

“For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago.” (Mormon Newsroom article on racial remarks)

Or, more accurately, for over 120 years Black males were denied the priesthood because their skin color showed them to be morally and spiritually inferior and cursed by God.

“This doctrine did not originate with President Brigham Young but was taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. At a meeting of the general authorities of the Church, held August 22, 1895, the question of the status of the negro in relation to the Priesthood was asked and the minutes of that meeting say: ‘President George Q. Cannon remarked that the Prophet taught this doctrine: That the seed of Cain could not receive the Priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the Priesthood until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain’s offspring’” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, p. 110.).

“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.” 

(Race and the Priesthood statement by the LDS Church)

“’Any man having one drop of the blood of Cain in him cannot receive the Priesthood. But the day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessing which we now have’ (History of Wilford Woodruff, p. 151).… Now what is our policy in regard to intermarriage? As to the Negro, of course, there is only one possible answer. We must not intermarry with the Negro. Why? If I were to marry a Negro woman and have children by her, my children would all be cursed as to the priesthood. Do I want my children cursed as to the priesthood? If there is one drop of Negro blood in my children, as I have read to you, they receive the curse. There isn't any argument, therefore, as to inter-marriage with the Negro, is there? (Apostle Mark E. Peterson, Race Problems - As They Affect the Church, 1954, p. 19).

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past…that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.” (Race and the Priesthood statement by the LDS Church

There needs to be much more than a disavowal, there needs to be owning and repenting of the degrading and debased way Blacks were treated and viewed. It was a system abusive to a whole race of people, denying them the religion’s highest spiritual hope simply because of the color of their skin and their racial heritage.

These quotes, along with many more like them, coupled with private correspondence from LDS Prophets and Apostles arguing for the continuation of the Church’s racist policies (which we intend to make available on our site alongside this article), paint a clear picture of a religious organization that defended and perpetuated its racist views for decades.  This was spiritual abuse of the highest order, unparalleled in any other mainstream Christian denomination. The LDS Church denied to a whole race of people (and anyone who shared in that racial heritage) the spiritual authority (priesthood) and religious rituals necessary for reaching ultimate salvation within that religious system. They did so solely on the basis of skin color and racial heritage which LDS leaders attributed to supposed pre-earth life no one could remember. LDS leaders also further shamed this whole race by teaching that to interracially marry a person of African heritage was to taint all offspring of the marriage and the subsequent generations and leave them likewise cursed and denied ultimate salvation. 

Now the current Mormon leadership refuses to deal honestly with the issues and in so doing they continue to both mislead the public and their own members. 

  • First, they have failed to acknowledge that prior LDS leaders did lead the church astray in an area that touched on salvation and eternal destiny of men. These men, using the titles of “Prophet” and “Apostle,” claimed their teachings on race and the priesthood were God-ordained doctrines when, in fact, they were merely man-made theories (as the current statement now acknowledges).

  • Second, they have now misrepresented decades of institutionalized racism by calling it “theories” and have feigned ignorance regarding the source of these teachings.  This in essence excuses the reprehensible attitudes and behavior of previous leaders and compounds the organizational guilt. To fail to take responsibility for their own prejudiced past and the leaders who promulgated it is to share in the guilt and to continue to perpetuate a culture of deception.

  • Third, this example illustrates the danger of the Mormon teaching that “God will not allow the leaders to lead the Church astray.” By emphasizing this teaching to its members, LDS leaders have made it so they are accountable to no one and the doctrines they teach are not to be questioned. But this mentality is exactly what allowed egregious racism and discrimination to flourish in Mormonism for over a hundred years despite periodic challenges by other LDS Church members.   

It is time for LDS leaders to admit that one of the greatest means of leading the church astray has been their teaching that God would not allow the church to be led astray. By attributing their teaching on race and the priesthood to God, recording it in their scriptures, promulgating it as doctrine, and requiring a “revelation” to remove it, previous leaders of the LDS Church showed themselves to be false prophets of a man-made religious organization. Current LDS leaders, by failing to deal honestly and openly with this issue, show they are cut from the same cloth.