Race, the Priesthood, and Temples: A History of the Priesthood Ban (and How It Ended)

The Priesthood and Temple Restrictions Begin

At the same time that outsiders persistently criticized Mormons as facilitators of racial decline, Mormons moved in fits and starts across the course of the 19th century away from “blackness” toward “whiteness.” It is a mistake to try to pinpoint a moment, event, person, or line in the sand that divided Mormon history into a clear before and after. Rather, the policies and supporting doctrines that Church leaders developed over the course of the 19th century increasingly solidified a rationale and gave rise to an accumulating precedent that each succeeding generation reinforced, so that by the late 19th century, LDS leaders were unwilling to violate policies they mistakenly remembered beginning with Joseph Smith.

Although Brigham Young’s two speeches to the Utah Territorial Legislature in 1852 mark the first recorded articulations of a priesthood restriction by a Mormon prophet-president, it is a mistake to solely attribute the ban to seemingly inherent racism in Brigham Young. His own views evolved between 1847, when he first dealt with racial matters at Winter Quarters, and 1852, when he first publicly articulated a rationale for a priesthood restriction.

In 1847, in an interview with William (Warner) McCary, a black Mormon who married Lucy Stanton, a white Mormon, Brigham Young expressed an open position on race. McCary complained to Brigham Young regarding the way he was sometimes treated among the Saints and suggested that his skin color was a factor: “I am not a president or a leader of the people,” McCary lamented, but merely a “common brother,” a fact that he said was true “because I am a little shade darker.”

In response, Brigham Young asserted that “we don’t care about color.” He went on to suggest that color did not matter in priesthood ordination: “We have to repent and regain what we have lost,” Brigham Young insisted, “we have one of the best Elders, an African in Lowell—a barber,” he reported. Brigham Young here referred to Q. Walker Lewis, a barber, abolitionist, and leader in the black community in Lowell, Massachusetts. Apostle William Smith, younger brother to Hyrum and Joseph Smith, had ordained Lewis an elder in 1843 or 1844.

By December of 1847, however, Brigham Young’s perspective had changed. Following his expedition to the Salt Lake Valley that summer, he returned to Winter Quarters. There he learned of McCary’s interracial exploits in his absence. McCary had started his own splinter polygamous group predicated upon white women being “sealed” to him in a sexualized ritual. When his exploits were discovered, he and his followers were excommunicated. Young was also greeted with news of the marriage of Enoch Lewis, Q. Walker Lewis’s son, to Mary Matilda Webster, a white woman in the Lowell Massachusetts Branch. In response, Brigham Young spoke forcefully against interracial marriage, even advocating capital punishment as a consequence. Like Joseph Smith before him, Brigham Young opposed racial mixing and made some of his most pointed statements on the subject. Yet none of the surviving minutes from the meetings that Brigham Young held that year raise priesthood as an issue negatively connected to race. It would be five more years before Brigham Young articulated his position on that subject.

Brigham Young most fully elaborated his views in 1852 before an all-Mormon Utah Territorial Legislature as it contemplated a law to govern the black slaves that Mormon converts from the South brought with them as they gathered to the Great Basin. In fact, the very universalism of the gospel message in its first two decades created the circumstances for the restriction. Among those gathered to the Great Basin by 1852 were abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, black slaves, white slave masters, and free blacks.

In casting a wide net, Mormonism had avoided the splits or schisms that divided the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians over issues of race and slavery during the same period. Mormonism welcomed all comers into the gospel fold, black and white, bond and free. These various people brought political and racial ideologies with them when they converted to Mormonism—ideas that initially existed independently of their faith. In 1852, however, Brigham Young prepared to instruct his diverse group of followers according to prevailing racial ideas—white over black and free over bound.

The Curse of Cain

Brigham Young tapped into long-standing biblical interpretations to draw upon Noah’s curse of Canaan, but more directly to link a racial priesthood ban to God’s purported “mark/curse” upon Cain for killing his brother Abel. “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know they cannot bear rule in the priesthood.”

In America, as scholar David M. Goldenberg demonstrates, the idea that black people were descendants of Cain dated back to at least 1733 and in Europe to as early as the 11th century, long before Mormonism’s founding in 1830. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon these same centuries-old ideas to both justify Utah Territory’s law legalizing “servitude” and to argue for a race-based priesthood ban.

Brigham Young insisted that because Cain killed Abel, all of Cain’s posterity would have to wait until all of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood. Brigham Young suggested that “the Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the Priesthood, nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Abel had received the Priesthood.” It was an ambiguous declaration he and other Mormon leaders returned to time and again. It suggested a future period of redemption for blacks, but only after the “last” of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood. However, Brigham Young and other leaders failed to clarify what that meant, how one might know when the “last” of Abel’s posterity was ordained, or even who Abel’s posterity were.

Brigham Young was also departing from his own earlier position on Q. Walker Lewis’s ordination to the priesthood. And when he suggested that the priesthood was taken from blacks “by their own transgressions,” he was further creating a race-based division to cloud black redemption and make each generation after Cain responsible anew for the consequences of Cain’s murder of Abel. Although Joseph Smith rejected long-standing Christian notions of original sin to argue that “men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression,” Brigham Young held millions of blacks responsible for the consequences of Cain’s murder—something in which they obviously took no part.

Less Valiant in Heaven?

Even though Brigham Young and other 19th-century leaders relied upon the curse of Cain as the reason for the priesthood and temple restrictions, another explanation gained ground among some Latter-day Saints in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because the curse of Cain so directly violated the role of individual agency in the lives of black people, some Mormons turned to the premortal realm to solve the conundrum. In this rationale, black people must have been neutral in the War in Heaven and thus were cursed with black skin and barred from the priesthood. In 1869, Brigham Young rejected the idea outright, but it did not disappear.

In 1907, Joseph Fielding Smith, then serving as assistant Church historian, argued that the teaching was “not the official position of the Church, merely the opinion of men.” In 1944, John A. Widtsoe also argued against neutrality when he said, “All who have been permitted to come upon this earth and take upon themselves bodies, accepted the plan of salvation.” Nonetheless, he argued that because black people themselves “did not commit Cain’s sin,” an explanation for the priesthood restriction had to involve something besides Cain’s murder of Abel. “It is very probable,” Widtsoe believed, “that in some way, unknown to us, the distinction harks back to the pre-existent state.”

By the 1960s, Joseph Fielding Smith slightly altered the idea, from “neutral” to “less valiant” and offered his own explanation. In his Answers to Gospel Questions, he claimed that some premortal spirits “were not valiant” in the War in Heaven. As a result of “their lack of obedience,” black people came to earth “under restrictions,” including a denial of the priesthood. The neutral/less valiant justifications grew over time to sometimes overshadow the curse of Cain explanation.

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