Mormonism, Blacks and the Priesthood

In the NBC Rock Center program of Mormon in America, a statement was made that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints treated blacks as second class citizens. In her segment that focused on a typical Mormon Family, Kate Snow stated this:

Remember as late as 1978, Black Mormons were second class citizens. Banned from the priesthood and barred from the temple.

This statement was made when Snow interviewed Al Jackson, who is an African American and an active member of the Church. Her first question to him focused on his perception of being the only “black” Mormon in a sea of white faces. His answer, simple and direct, shared that it did not bother him at all.

What, then, is the nature of the Blacks not being able to hold the priesthood until 1978? How is it that the Church would not allow any blacks to hold the higher priesthood authority? What changed their minds and why did it take so long? These are the questions that most sincere individuals that are not of our faith would like to know. The short answer is that we do not have a sufficient answer as to how and why blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood. There are some qualified answers that may help facilitate an understanding, but these answers do not stem from or are supported as official from the First Presidency or the Quorum of the twelve apostles.

Understanding history of Blacks, Slavery and the growth of the United States

One of the best resources that members of the Church can refer their friends to is a website solely devoted to members of the Church that are of African descent. This website is blacklds.org. According to this website, one reads:

We hope to correct racial myths and misunderstandings that linger from critics of Mormonism as well as from Latter-day Saints themselves. We strive to build the Gospel vision that we are all children of God, of great and equal worth in His sight.

One of the links leads to a timeline history that provides basic details on American History, Slavery in the United States and the rise of the Mormon Faith. Some of the markers of this timeline reveal that much of the sentiment of early American society held particular views about the Blacks and Slavery.

  • Slave rebellion against southern slave masters where it is estimated that 60 whites were killed and 15 homesteads were destroyed. In response, approximately 3000 whites murdered innocent African Americans as a result – their agenda to squash the rebellion.
  • Baptism of Elijah Abel in 1832 and then the first Black man to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood in 1836 where he later received ordination and calling as a seventy and the first African American to serve as a “missionary” in Ohio.
  • Missourians become upset with an article written by W.W. Phelps regarding Slaves being free and a Mob Manifesto is produced before the official Governor Boggs Extermination Order was established.
  • Blacks were allowed to enter into the Kirtland Temple along with all other members of the Church who were considered worthy to enter (See History of the Church 2: 368-69).
  • Murder of Elijah Parish Lovejoy by an angry mob because of his Anti-Slavery newspaper (which also had been destroyed many times prior to his death).
  • In the same year that Joseph Smith is arrested, Baptists argue that Slavery is Biblical and in which came the birth of the Southern Baptist Convention where they viewed the inferiority of Blacks and the right to enslave them – which was repealed in 1996.

There are several other statements from a historical perspective about how social treatment of African Americans being second class citizens was more of a social issue in early American Society than that of Joseph Smith. One should also understand that the Prophet Joseph Smith himself advocated the freedom of Slaves and the error of slavery against a social norm of racism.

Many of the Church’s critics do not go so far to focus on the cultural context of American Society and Slavery and even on how such was developed. Their focus is more on producing schisms and hatred with misrepresentations of the facts than spreading the truth – as they are commonly proclaiming. Much of their criticism rests on later teachings of Brigham Young and other early Leaders who were brought up in the cultural context of American Slavery and Abolition movement. Some of these, including Brigham Young made particular statements, that today we would be even appalled to hear if someone were to make them.

The Curse of Cain, Ham, and the Negro Race

One cannot discuss the Church without discussing the very heart of the topic that many of the critics publish. The idea that because Cain was cursed by God in Genesis, the Negro race is far inferior to that of the White race was not solely a Mormon belief. This also includes the idea of Ham’s curse of being the servants of servants to his other two brothers.

In a book published in 1843 (and which is available online as a free eBook through Google Books) is titled: Slavery, as it relates to the Negro, or African race; examined in the light of circumstances, history and the Holy Scriptures by Josiah Priest. Here is what is significant for discussion:

If…the three standing original, radical, and primeval complexions of the human race, red, black and white, were not produced by climate, nor other natural circumstances, how, then, were they produced? …

It was with this question that we set out at the commencement of this section, which we proceed to answer as follows:

God, who made all things, and endowed all animated nature with the strange and unexplained power of propagation, superintended the formation of two of the sons of Noah, in the womb of their mother, in an extraordinary and supernatural manner, giving these two children such forms of bodies, constitutions of natures, and complexions of skin as suited his will. Those two sons were Japheth and Ham. Japheth, He (God) caused to be born white, differing from the color of his parents (which the author establishes is a red hue color), while He caused Ham to be born black, a color still farther removed from the red hue of his parents than was white, events and products wholly contrary to nature, in the particular of animal generation, as relates to the human race. It was, therefore, by the miraculous intervention of the Divine power that the black and white man have been produced, equally as much as was the creation of the color of the first man, the Creator giving him a complexion, arbitrarily, that pleased the Divine will.

Josiah Priest follows this up with the following assessment:

This solution of the mystery of the origin of the Negro’s color, we trust, will be acceptable, as there appears in the wide field of conjecture and investigation, no other paths that lead to light but this.

Pertaining to Ham’s birth and his skin color, the author continues:

It will not be forgotten, that we have said above, that Ham, one of the sons of Noah, was born black, with all the peculiarities of the true woolly headed Negro man, by the direction of the Divine power, and contrary to the common dictation of nature.

In a Wiki article published by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), the concept of the Mark of Cain pre-dated some of the statements that were made by early Latter-day Saints (which FAIR categorizes as “folk doctrine” to explain away the reason for the priesthood ban):

The idea that the “mark of Cain” and the “curse of Ham” was a black skin is something that was used by many Protestants as a way to morally and biblically justify slavery. This idea did not originate with Latter-day Saints, although the existence of the priesthood ban prior to 1978 tends to cause some people to assume that it was a Latter-day Saint concept.

The Wiki article references Dr. Benjamin M. Palmer and his view on the support of the Civil War and the South’s cause to continue the practice of slavery and slave ownership.

Along with this Dr. Samuel Cartwright published an essay in the prestigious New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal titled “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” (Nolen-Hoeksema, S. 2011, pp. 5-6). This particular disease that Dr. Cartwright referred to is called Drapetomania which is referred to as the disease causing the Negroes to Run Away. The date of this publication is 1851. Dr. Cartwright also believed this:

If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the Negro anything else than “the submissive knee-bender,” (Which Almighty declared he should be,) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the Negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the Negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the sane ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

In addition to this, Dr. Cartwright also expounded that a Negro ought to be punished if the master/overseer began to notice the slave elevating himself to the same equal level as that of his master – after being treated kindly and not harshly. The punishment supposedly served to remind the slave his true status in relation to the slave master/overseer. This, of course, is based on the idea that the Negro is cursed as recorded in the Bible and through the lineage of Ham.

The Priesthood ban – an unanswerable question and no official revelation

Since the acceptable social norm of the “mark of Cain” and the “curse of Ham” was prevalent in American Society at that time, we now turn to the heart of this issue. The Priesthood ban and understanding the reality that it is not an easy question to answer. Despite this, there are some qualified thoughts that provide some insights into the possibility of why the ban was given in the first place – one of which is this particular author’s position, which will be explored shortly. Suffice it to say, the priesthood ban never came as a revelation upon the Church. Despite the lack of any revelatory evidence, the Priesthood ban seemed to stem from when Brigham Young had become the second Prophet of the Mormon Faith and when the Saints removed themselves to the Utah Territory.

Here, one has to remember that as the Church began to grow, many people were converted from other faiths. Because they were converted from other Christian faiths, many of those who were baptized brought with them their previously held ideas about the Negro and the African Race. These ideas had been part of their religious upbringing and devotion:

Early members of the Church were, for the most part, converts from Protestant sects. It is understandable that they naturally brought this culturally-conditioned belief in the “curse of Ham” with them into Mormonism.

This same FAIR Wiki article (as previously discussed above) also provides a quote from Bruce R. McConkie where he comments about the early leaders and saints, and the previously held beliefs about the African Race. What is interesting to note is that when one reviews the timeline given at blacklds.org, they will find the first mention of the Priesthood ban as coming from two men: Abraham Smoot and Zebedee Coltrin believed that Joseph Smith instituted the priesthood ban. This claim is supposedly made in 1879 and disputed with factual evidence against Smoot and Coltrin. Also, in 1885, according to the same time-line, B.H. Roberts speculates on the Priesthood ban because of the newly canonized Pearl of Great Price.

There were two prevailing speculations as to why the blacks could not hold the priesthood. The first is that regarding what we have already discussed – namely the “mark of Cain” and the “curse of Ham”. The second refers to the Mormon doctrine of the Pre-existence and the possible neutrality of those spirits who became the Negro race. Brigham Young himself did not accept this particular position and taught. Neither did Joseph F. Smith and Charles Penrose, in which a First Presidency Letter was written to a M. Knudson on the thirteenth of January:

There is no revelation, ancient or modern, neither is there any authoritative statement by any of the authorities of the Church … [in support of the idea] that the Negroes are those who were neutral in heaven at the time of the great conflict or war, which resulted in the casting out of Lucifer and those who were led by him” (Published on Blacklds.org timeline; as quoted in Neither White nor Black by Bush and Mauss, published by Signature Books, p. 86).

Since there is no true origin of how the priesthood ban was instituted, one cannot ignore that this became a predominate belief among the members of the Church and those in leadership. What does avail, through adequate research, is that in the twentieth century, many leaders of the Church had gone into prayer about the priesthood ban and pleaded with the Lord as to when this would be given to those of African American descent.

This shows that there was no consensus as to think on the subject. Some leaders did believe and teach that those spirits who became members of the African Race were neutral in the war in heaven, while others disagreed and believed otherwise. This does not mean they were not effective leaders, it shows that some held differing views and perceptions. There is nothing wrong with this.

Regardless, the issue is unresolvable because there is no data concerning how the priesthood ban became the predominate focus of the Church, nor is there any sound reason as to what purpose such a ban would serve in being established. In a sense, it does seem to invoke a sense of treating one race far more inferior than other races. Yet, there is one overwhelming possibility as to the consideration of the accepted social norm of American Society, Slavery, the Civil War, and the abolition movement that gives some serious reflection as to why such a ban went into effect.

The Priesthood ban was not meant to punish the Negro, but to punish American Society

Yes, this is a very audacious claim to make. However, given the historical context of the growth of America as a young country, the schism between the right to own slaves and freeing slaves, and the rise of the Mormon faith may very well be the very answer that gives credence as to why the priesthood ban went into effect. Simply put, the acceptable social norm of American Society treated the African race as an inferior race – including those among the Abolition movement where they believed that the Negro’s would not effectively be assimilated into a predominate Anglo-Saxon and European society of the young country. This is summed up in a perception that Dr. Samuel Cartwright expressed in his essay (which we already referred to). This idea is treating the Negro on equal terms and levels as that of a white person.

Between the time of American Slavery, the Abolition Movement, the subsequent Civil War that divided a nation, and the southern segregation of blacks and whites (as well as other parts of the United States) and the final movement of the Civil Rights of 1950’s to the 1980’s; blacks were considered an inferior race, as well as treated as second class citizens. Through this predominate social dilemma, and those that had come to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, carrying with them their already established presuppositions of the African Race, the idea of black men having the same priesthood authority as those of European and Anglo-Saxon races would elevate the black man.

This elevation of equality between the races is exactly what was considered as being culturally unacceptable in American society. In other words, America was not ready to allow black citizens the same rights and privileges of those of Caucasoid descent and ethnicity. Since America was not ready for such equality, it would be conceivable to conclude that by ordaining young men to the priesthood would present further stigmatism against the blacks. In short, because of the priesthood ban, it may very well have been to prevent further social stigmatism against the African American Race.

Again, this idea and position is not an official position, but a sound and objective conclusion from the research done in relation to Mormon History and the Priesthood ban. Yet, is one that makes sense given the social culture of our society during these times of our own history and development. In essence, the priesthood ban punished American society for their ineptness to realize that the African Race was just as equal to any other human race and until American thought, belief, philosophy and even educational pursuits had adopted a change, the priesthood ban would not be lifted.

1978 and the Priesthood Ban finally being lifted

Spencer W. Kimball was called to the position of Prophet, Seer, and Revelator on December 30, 1973 at the age of 78. Five years later, he received a revelation that allowed all worthy males to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. This particular revelation became canonized as Official Declaration- 2. This declaration was presented at the 148th Semi-Annual General Conference on September 30, 1978 by President N.Eldon Tanner, who had served as First Counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball. This letter that was read, dated June 8, 1978, went out to all general and local priesthood officers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world. In this letter, President Kimball writes:

He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards of the Church.

It is interesting to note that there were some key events that occurred in 1978. One was the case of Bakke v. Regents of University of California and the decision from the United States Supreme Court ruling that established racial quotes are illegal due to Allan Bakke having been denied admission to UC Davis medical school – despite his high grades and scores among other minority applicants. However, the case did not dismiss the fact that there could potentially be future racial discrimination. In addition, 1978 also held significant debates over busing and affirmative action.

The long road to desegregation, and equality among blacks started in the 1950’s. Laws were legislated and enacted by Congress on several occasions, however, American society still held to racial ideology concerning the African Race. It was in 1978 that there became a true sense of equality among whites and blacks that American society had fought for, and in some respects fought against. It was through the civil unrest and civil rights movements that the acceptable social norm of American society changed. With this, came the revelation that the ban was lifted in order for all worthy males to receive and hold the priesthood as well as partake in the temple ceremonies. America became ready to accept blacks as equal members of their society and social structure.

Criticism from a presentist argument disregards intellectual observation and historical research

Despite the efforts of this article, as well as many other articles that have been published, critics continue to address the same arguments from a modern day thinking and perception. For instance, if Dr. Samuel Cartwright were alive today, his medical diagnosis would be laughed at, his essay would not be published in any respectable journal, nor would the so-called Dysaesthesia Aethiopis be labeled as a mental illness. Today, Josiah Priest’s thoughts on the origin of the African race would not receive any respectable consideration. Yet, these two men received attention for their valued opinion and research in a society that held to views that treated the African American race as being inferior. The argument critics use is called a presentist argument and simply means that one argues from a position of a modern perception and reality in order to interpret a past perception and reality that vastly differs from today’s acceptable social norm. In other words, they argue from today’s standards and understanding of what is racist and racial prejudice – as well as racial discrimination – based on our understanding and concept today as a means to understand and interpret events that have happened in the past.

In essence, the critic’s argument is one for shock and not based on relevant facts or sound reasons. They hold to the idea that because our society no longer tolerates any form of racism or racial discrimination, this means that the Mormon Church held racist and discriminated against blacks and treated them as second class citizens. This is further from the truth. The reality is, Mormonism no more held racist views about the African Race than those of other Christian faiths – especially when it is well-established that the early members themselves came from Protestant faiths that held to views about the Negroes that were predominate before, during, and held long into the late 19th and early 20th centuries of American society and thinking.

The reality is, as established, there is no real answer to the question as to why blacks were banned from holding the priesthood or allowed to attend to the Temple ceremonies. In fact, it is established that there is no evidence this ban was ever given as a direct revelation. Despite this, the reality is that when one looks at Mormonism and the Priesthood ban, they do well to investigate the acceptable social norm of American society that Mormonism grew up in, and the various views that particular Protestant Christians brought with them when they became members of the Mormon Church. The only true answer is that only our Heavenly Father knows all things in His sovereign and infinite wisdom and we must not concern ourselves to speculative thoughts that have no basis in sound reason and honest investigation. Once we understand this, we can move on to more important things about the Gospel of Jesus Christ – namely that we have the hope and assurance through the atonement that we can once again live with our Heavenly Father.

Resources and References

A list of essential articles to read at blacklds.org

FAIR Wiki: Mormonism and Racial Issues/Blacks and the Priesthood

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2011). (ab)normal psychology. 5th edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill

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