Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece and represents the thoughts and experiences of one black LDS man. Read the Church's 2013 essay "Race and the Priesthood" to learn more.
The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with regard to race remains one of the most difficult topics for many members to discuss. And the discussions that do occur can often feel contentious. This is to be expected, as the topic lies at the intersection of race and religion, two of the most contentious topics in society. Unfortunately, the LDS Church is not free of these discussions, and the answers remain elusive to many. Persistent misinformation and confusion around the priesthood and temple restriction that the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints placed upon men and women of African descent from 1852 until 1978 have been a particular stumbling block for me in my personal faith story.
The fact that we have had minimal instruction and discussion on this topic does not help matters. Before the winter of 2013, members like myself, no matter their personal heritage, were left to draw their own conclusions based upon Official Declaration 2 and the doctrine as presented in the standard works of scripture. There was also a lot of very hurtful speculation both from the lay membership and leadership floating around that fueled how many members formulated their thoughts toward African Americans. Today, this is no longer the case, as the Church has provided a Gospel Topics essay entitled “Race and the Priesthood” to help members cut through the speculation and folklore surrounding the nature of the priesthood and temple restriction. This essay has been a crucial tool, along with my study of both scripture and the words of our prophets, in helping me to overcome this stumbling block once and for all.
Although I identify primarily as African American, I was raised primarily by my mother, a woman of largely Anglo-Saxon and Germanic Mormon pioneer stock. My mother strove to raise me with a universal love for all people, regardless of race. My father, a descendant of East Texas freedman farmers and their forebears in bondage, largely agreed with this approach, yet insisted upon me learning the realities of what it means to be a black man in the United States of America, and all of the challenges that that entails. Even though I was raised to be aware of racism, and to confront it whenever possible, my upbringing in a cosmopolitan and diverse environment such as Seattle, Washington, could not have prepared me for the racial animus that I would encounter upon moving to the state of Utah to pursue my undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University.
My mother chose to largely shield me from the knowledge of the defunct practice of priesthood and temple restriction, but my father (who did not live with us) made a few comments here and there which piqued my curiosity. These comments largely centered on how he and his siblings were treated by his Mormon classmates while growing up as one of the few Black families in Richland, Washington. Whenever I brought up these questions to my mother, she would quickly change the subject, but not without reassuring me that the Church no longer believed that way and that the justifications and speculation around the reasons and purpose for the ban were not official Church positions and that anybody who told me otherwise was speaking from their own prejudice rather than the official LDS Church position. This became a litmus test for me to determine whether or not what I was taught in Church or heard from other members was true or false. Anything that mentioned valor, or lack thereof in the pre-existence, I would disregard without a second thought. I took this attitude and this meager knowledge with me to Provo.
I had previous experience with racism within the LDS community. The first time that I was ever called the “n-word” was at my mother’s parents’ house in Hibbard, Idaho. The person who called me this word did it several times. They were the children of one of my grandparents’ neighbors. I was five years old at the time. This was my very first experience with being treated differently due to the color of my skin and the pain that that can bring with it.
While I rarely experienced such open discrimination in Provo, I saw more Confederate Battle Flags than I ever wanted to. I also ran into several people who perpetuated falsehoods and speculation around the priesthood and temple restriction. This included a BYU professor who told me one day after class almost word for word his opinion expressed in his unfortunate Washington Post interview. This opinion largely centered on the thought that God kept these blessings from people of color because we were not ready for them and lacked the spiritual and mental capacity to handle them (Jason Horowitz, Washington Post, February 28, 2012).
These incidents, combined with some other factors and inconsistency around LDS Church history would eventually drive me away from the Church during my junior year at BYU. The final straw was learning of Elijah Abel and the fact that the LDS Church had ordained men of color to the priesthood prior to 1852, and that the priesthood was never taken from these men as long as they remained faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Learning that the Church had once given the priesthood to men of color, only to take it away seemed a huge shock to me.
In addition to this, I had read many statements made from Church leaders during the period of restriction that I could not interpret as anything but racist. It felt like a direct contradiction to President Hinckley’s assertion that, “. . . no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ” (“The Need for Greater Kindness,” April 2006). I didn’t see how this could be true now, and not true back when the leaders themselves had made these assertions. This led me to believe that the Church had lied to me for my entire life, and I lost faith and trust in my leaders. There remains no doubt in my mind that the policy was racist, and I felt that there was no way that God would allow His church to be led by or to engage in racist practices. So, I stopped going to church, and I started looking elsewhere for fulfilment and knowledge. Even so, in the back of my mind, I could not shake the persistent knowledge of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even as I lived in defiance of what I knew within my being, I could not escape it.
Eventually, it was through much prayer and study of both LDS Church history and the scriptures that I arrived at the conclusion that the gospel was still true and that I should return to church. It didn’t happen all at once, and there were several aborted attempts to return as I struggled to make the dissonant knowledge that I had of the wrongness of discrimination by skin color fit into my spiritual paradigm. I continued to struggle with the priesthood and temple restriction, however, and given my background, it wasn’t something that I felt that I should ignore. After much pondering and prayer, and discussion with other African American saints, I came to the conclusion that I should read 2 Nephi chapter 26. This scripture states:
"For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (The Book of Mormon, 2nd Nephi, Chapter 26, verse 33).
This scripture brought me peace. Heavenly Father has never denied those who came unto Him. Whatever the reason was for denying the blessings of the priesthood and the temple from worthy Saints due to their heritage, I do not believe it came from my Heavenly Father. I felt this as surely and as strongly as I had felt the witness that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior and had died for the sins of the world. I received further confirmation of this during general conference in October 2013, when President Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated the following:
"And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
"I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes" (“Come, Join with Us”).
This rang so true to me at the time. I actually had to go back and read it again to make sure that I had heard correctly. I know that we do not believe in infallible, perfect leadership, but this was the very first time that I had heard such stated from the pulpit at general conference—by a member of the First Presidency of the Church, no less. This further validated to me the witness that the priesthood and temple restriction was not rooted in Church doctrine. I was hopeful that more general authorities would address the priesthood ban going forward. Unfortunately, the Church has only addressed its racial history one more time, but it would be significant.