The Restoration of Christ's Church

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode. Today we’re going to be talking about some rather controversial issues having to do with race in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But before we jump into this episode I think it’s important to acknowledge something: This topic can be challenging and painful for people of any color — it’s certainly challenging for me. That said, frankly, as a white guy, this issue has not affected me to the same degree that it affects black men and women. I’m going to go over some history with you and share some of my personal thoughts on this subject, but it’s really important that we listen to what black members of our faith have to say about this. They can speak to these issues from a different perspective than I can. To that end, I’d strongly encourage you to seek out those resources, talk to your black Latter-day Saint friends and family about this, and if you like our channel feel free to check out some of the interviews we’ve published in the past — there will be more to come in the future. With that said, let’s jump in. Thanks for watching.

Hey guys, so currently in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all worthy men may hold the priesthood and all men and women may participate in sacred temple ordinances. But that wasn’t always the case — “for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.”

This was known as the priesthood and temple ban. Today what we’re going to do is dive into the history of the priesthood ban specifically, and see what we can learn about the development of this rather uncomfortable former practice. Let’s do it.

Alright, so first thing’s first: Did the priesthood ban originate with Joseph Smith or his successor, Brigham Young? According to the Church’s gospel topics essay: “There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.” On the contrary, there were black men in Joseph’s lifetime who did receive the priesthood, such as Elijah Able.

 In 1847, a couple of years after Joseph’s death, we even have a favorable acknowledgment from Brigham Young that black men held the priesthood. Referring to Q. Walker Lewis he said that “we have one of the best Elders[,] an African in Lowell—a barber.”

Yet a couple of years later in 1849 Brigham Young changed his position, saying privately to Lorenzo Snow that “the Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.” Of course, this idea that black people were cursed descendants of Cain was not unique to Latter-day Saints — it was a centuries-old idea that many people just commonly assumed to be true. And unfortunately, the tradition seeped into Latter-day Saint thought. Similarly, there were a lot of people both inside and outside the Church who believed that black people were cursed descendants of Noah’s son, Ham.

The first time Brigham Young talks publicly about a priesthood ban comes from a couple of speeches to the Territorial legislature in January and February of 1852 as lawmakers discussed the issue of slavery in the territory, which probably deserves its own episode. Brigham said, “…as far as the common comforts of life, salvation, light, truth, enjoyment, and understanding is considered the black African has precisely the same privilege as the white man. But they cannot hold the priesthood.” He also tacitly acknowledged that this was a practice beginning with him: “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ [that] spoke it before, I tell you, this  people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain … they cannot bear rule in the Priesthood.”

Now, it’s important to note that while some past leaders assumed or believed the ban did originate with God, there is no record of the ban ever being presented to the Church as a formal revelation from God at any time. In fact, let’s fast forward all the way to 1879. Brigham Young had passed on but Elijah Able was still alive and well. He approached President John Taylor and asked for permission to participate in some temple ordinances. Elijah had received the washing and anointing ordinance in Kirtland, and participated in baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo, but had not yet received the full temple endowment.

“Abel’s request prompted an investigation into the status of blacks in Mormonism. This was an internal inquest that demonstrates the lack of a firm and universally understood policy as late as 1879. … Although it is true that LDS leaders were not actively ordaining black men to the priesthood, even the highest officers in Mormonism were unsure of how to proceed in the case of Elijah Abel…” 

The investigation resulted in President Taylor acknowledging Elijah’s priesthood, and he let that ordination stand, but he assumed his ordination had been a mistake, and Taylor did not allow Elijah temple blessings. Elijah died in 1884 after serving his third mission for the Church, where, of course, he used the priesthood. President Joseph F. Smith, who had defended Elijah’s priesthood in 1879, changed his position in 1908, asserting that at some point Joseph Smith had nullified Elijah’s priesthood — though there seems to be no evidence that that conclusion was accurate.

As the collective memory of Elijah and other priesthood-holding black men faded, “…each new generation of LDS leaders continued to decide the issue based upon memories of prior precedent and previous statements, sometimes reaching back to Joseph Smith in their minds and other times to Brigham Young … each succeeding generation becoming increasingly locked into the previous generation’s precedent, especially as they grew to believe that it was a pattern established by Joseph Smith himself.” As we’ll see, the attitude of some leaders essentially became, “this is the way it’s always been, so this must be the way God wants it to be” — even though it wasn’t the way it had always been.

Despite there never having been a formal revelation instituting the ban, leaders eventually felt that there would need to be a revelation from God to change the longstanding practice.

Fast-forward to 1947. Mission President Heber Meeks writes to Utah State University sociologist, Lowry Nelson, looking for advice on how to do missionary work in Cuba considering the priesthood ban. Nelson writes back: “Your letter is the first intimation I have had that there was a fixed doctrine on this point. I had always known that certain statements had been made by authorities regarding the status of the Negro but I had never assumed that they constituted an irrevocable doctrine. I hope no final word has been said on this matter.” If Nelson is at all representative of the general membership, even in 1947 people still have the question of whether or not the ban is set in stone.

Nelson then wrote to then-president George Albert Smith. He got a personal letter back from the First Presidency, which said in part: “From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” 

Again, by this time the collective memory of Elijah Able and Joseph Smith’s precedent had been all but forgotten. This was the way it had always been, so it must be the way God wants it to be. We see evidence of this again in a 1949 statement from the First Presidency under George Albert Smith: “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.” The statement justifies the ban with the traditional curse of Cain rationale but supplements it with the idea that perhaps the racial restriction was based on decisions made by the premortal spirits of black people. 

The idea that some premortal spirits were less valiant or fence-sitters in the premortal conflict between God and Satan eventually became quite popular. The curse of Cain rationale was problematic because a multigenerational curse clearly violates Latter-day Saint article of faith #2, which asserts that “man shall be punished for their own sins” and not the sins of others. Attributing the ban to premortality addressed that issue. Ironically, it was a rationale that Brigham Young rejected. He said, “There were no neutral spirits in heaven at the time of the rebellion. All took sides.”

But the plot thickens: Fast forward to 1954. Then-President David O. McKay, whose name was on both of those statements from the First Presidency we just talked about, affirms in a private meeting regarding the priesthood ban: “There is not now,  and there never has been a doctrine in this Church that the Negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the Church of any kind pertaining to the Negro. We believe that we have scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the Negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice will someday be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”

You’ll notice that President McKay references yet another rationale for the ban that had gained traction — that it was justified by a few ambiguous verses in the Book of Abraham that speak of a priesthood restriction. Yet, that same year President McKay appointed a committee to do some research on the ban. They found that “there was no sound scriptural basis for the policy but that the church membership was not prepared for its reversal.”

If you fast-forward to a 1963 private exchange between Elder Spencer W. Kimball and his son we see a little foreshadowing concerning the ban. Elder Kimball defends the policy, but also says, “I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. … I know the Lord could change His policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.” 

Nevertheless, we get another First Presidency statement in 1969, and you’ll notice a familiar error: “From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the Church have taught that Negroes … were not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.” Despite past rationales for the ban, the position of the Church ultimately becomes… “we really don’t know why the ban is in place.” 

This statement came just after apostle Hugh B. Brown pushed to overturn the ban through administrative action. His move was blocked by fellow apostle Harold B. Lee, who insisted that any changes must come through revelation. When Harold B. Lee became the president of the Church in 1972, he stated his intention “to stand by and wait until the Lord speaks.”

In 1976 Spencer W. Kimball said that “he had been praying about [the ban] for 15 years without an answer … but I am going to keep praying about it.” By 1978 he still hadn’t received any kind of earth-shattering revelation from God — but he was still seeking that revelation. He said, “I knew that we could receive the revelations of the Lord only by being worthy and ready for them and ready to accept them and to put them into place.” After agonizing over the subject for some time, despite the lack of an overwhelming revelation, President Kimball decided that the time had come to lift the ban. 

He presented that decision to his counselors and members of the Quorum of the Twelve who were able to be present in the Salt Lake City Temple on June 1st, 1978. They unanimously supported President Kimball’s decision. President Kimball then led the group in presenting that decision to God through prayer, asking for confirmation that they were making the right decision.  And then, in spectacular fashion, the confirming revelation finally came. I would encourage everyone watching to read what those present said about their experience in this article. I think Gordon B. Hinckley captured the feeling well when he said, “Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that.” The two apostles not present that day were afterward informed about the revelation, and they supported the decision.

One way Church leaders receive revelation is through a recurrent process of praying and counseling together. It’s not very often that the president makes a unilateral decision. They talk things over and try to get on the same page. They want to be unified when making decisions. In fact, the Lord instructed them to be unified in the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 107 outlines the duties of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Quorum of the Seventy. Verse 27 says, “every decision made by either [or any] of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other…”. When big decisions are being made, unanimity is the ideal scenario.

But when it came to lifting the priesthood ban, before President Kimball, that unity among the Brethren didn’t exist. Church leaders, like everyone, are products of their time. They’re people — and people have strong opinions sometimes. As we’ve seen, leaders didn’t always agree with each other. So before the confirming revelation came to lift the ban, President Kimball worked with his counselors and the Twelve as a group and individually to sort of lay some groundwork and foster some unity. So when they took it to God, everyone present was on the same page. The week after the revelation, before the news went public, President Kimball met with the Quorum of the Seventy. In alignment with D&C 107 he told them, “…the time has come for all worthy men to receive the priesthood. I shared that with my counselors and the Twelve, and after getting their response I present it to you. But I won’t announce it to the world without first counseling with you.” The decision was unanimously approved, and soon went public.

“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 unrighteous 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.”

Some people wonder, did President Kimball just cave to external pressure to lift the ban? There certainly was external pressure to lift the ban, but I personally don’t think that that pressure was the deciding factor. President Kimball’s son, Edward, noted that after the ban was lifted, “Some commentators scorned the ‘convenience’ of a ‘revelation’ that allowed a way out of an intolerable bind, but others noted accurately that it had been some years since any significant demonstrations against BYU and the Church had occurred. External pressure was the lowest it had been for years.” That said, President Kimball did have to grapple with the social mores he’d grown up with. “I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.” 

And now for the big-ticket question: Another common question: Why didn’t God intervene and act sooner to lift the ban? Was the priesthood ban instituted by God or not? I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m happy to share some of my thoughts with you on this subject, but please understand that I am not an official spokesman for the Church. I speak only for myself. If some of these thoughts resonate with you, great. But I certainly encourage you to do your own prayerful research on this subject and come to your own conclusions.

With that understanding, when I take a step back and look at the history of the ban, I think it’s clear that it did not originate as a revelation from God. You’ll notice that even the gospel topics essay does not refer to the ban as a revelation. I don’t think it should have ever happened. In the Doctrine and Covenants, we’re told repeatedly that the gospel of Jesus Christ was to go forth unto “every creature.”  Our very own Book of Mormon teaches that the Lord “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God…” This practice did not live up to the standard set by our own scriptures. 

Now, in the past, I’ve thought about how in the Bible only the Levites could hold the priesthood. So, if there was a priesthood restriction then, maybe God saw fit to institute one now. Maybe you’ve had the same thought. But I don’t think it’s a fair comparison to make. “[The Levites’] function was to welcome the other tribes into the tabernacle and help them to make their sacrifices as prescribed by the Law. The tribe of Levi welcomed the other tribes in, while the Priesthood and Temple ban kept black men and women out. As Mormon scholar Ardis Parshall puts it, ‘Restricting priesthood to one narrow part of the faithful is not the same as restricting priesthood from one narrow part of the faithful.’”

In the past, I’ve also wondered, “well in the New Testament the gospel was first preached to the Jews and then later to the Gentiles. Maybe something like that was what happened with the priesthood ban.” But, as we’ve seen, Latter-day Saint history does not support that idea. From the earliest years of the Restoration, black men did hold the priesthood, just like white men.

I’ve also identified with the many people who sort of throw up their hands and say, “We just don’t know why the ban was instituted.” But while some of us may have that question today, it wasn’t a question that Brigham Young seems to have had. As we’ve seen in this video, there was no question in his mind about why the ban began. I’ve cycled through all sorts of justifications for the ban, and none of them add up for me. I simply think it was a mistake, which leads us to our next question”

Some people may wonder, if the leaders of the Church were wrong about something like this, how can we trust anything they’ve taught or are teaching? Let’s explore that question a bit more. For example, the Book of Genesis portrays the earth as flat, does that mean I can’t trust anything the Bible has to say? Just because science gets things wrong sometimes, should we abandon science altogether? Just because your very own eyes might occasionally play tricks on you, does that mean you’d be better off wearing a blindfold? Of course not. We rely on fallible or errant sources all the time. 

The fallibility of others does not require the outright rejection of others. Rather, I think it simply invites additional effort on our part. And as you know, “the Lord loves effort.” Fallibility is an invitation for you to prayerfully study things out in your mind and your heart — to seek inspiration and use your best judgment. Fallibility invites us to humbly rely more fully on he who truly is infallible — our Savior, Jesus Christ. Joseph Fielding Smith taught,

“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. … If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty-bound to reject it.” 

Some others may wonder, “If it [the priesthood ban] was a mistake,you might be wondering, “Then why didn’t God stop it sooner?

Personally, I think there’s a difference between God wanting something to happen, and God allowing something to happen. I don’t put the expectation on God to immediately and forcibly correct my errors, your errors, or the errors of prophets. The Lord is very clear in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants that he chooses the weak things of the world to do His work. He says that leaders will make mistakes and they will sin. In mortality, that’s just a given. Perhaps we’d do well to listen to the counsel of Moroni in the Book of Mormon:

Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”

In the Old Testament book of 1st Samuel, chapter 8, the Israelites wanted a king to rule over them, instead of judges. The Lord did not want that to happen, but He nevertheless told Samuel, “Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king.” It didn’t work out well for them. When Joseph Smith prayed about whether or not it would be OK to loan Martin Harris the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript, twice God said no. When Joseph asked a third time, God said, essentially, “Fine. Do it, and see what happens.” And of course, Martin lost the pages. 

When it comes to the priesthood ban, I think God was willing to wait patiently for our unified wills to align with His will. Sometimes, in consequence of our own decisions, God has us wander in the desert for a while before being permitted into the promised land.

I look back at this subject in our history, and there were things said and decisions made that were indefensibly and inexcusably racist. There are some questions I don’t have answers for yet, but there is one thing that I do know — and I hope this doesn’t sound like a copout because it’s kind of a big part of the gospel — Whatever injustices come our way in this life — be it racial discrimination or otherwise —  Jesus Christ can heal it. Whoever may have been denied priesthood or temple opportunities in decades past on the basis of skin color or heritage will see those opportunities again, whether in this life or the next. That does not justify the past, but it does provide hope for the future. 

This Faith and Beliefs video was much longer than normal, but honestly, we’ve still only scratched the surface of this topic. We talked a lot about the past in this video, but in more recent years the Church has been involved in a lot of great stuff regarding race relations that’s worth talking about, so we’ll get more into that in a future episode. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, please check out the resources I’ve listed in the YouTube description of this video. Again, check out some of our other videos that touch on this subject while you’re here — and have a great day!


Learning More:

Further reading: 

  • “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” by W. Paul Reeve (specifically chapters 4-7).
  • “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” by Gregory A. Prince & Wm. Robert Wright (specifically chapter 4).
  • I have yet to read these books but I’ve heard good things about them: “For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013,” by Russell Stevenson; and “The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History” by Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst. Here’s a review of these last two books via BYU: 

Explore More Articles and Videos