Even though black priesthood ordination officially ended under Brigham Young, it was far from a universally understood idea. In 1879, two years after Brigham Young’s death, Elijah Abel, the sole remaining black priesthood holder (Lewis had died in 1856) appealed to John Taylor for his remaining temple blessings: to receive the endowment and to be sealed to his wife. Abel had received the washing and anointing ritual in the Kirtland Temple and was baptized as proxy for deceased relatives and friends at Nauvoo but was living in Cincinnati by the time the endowment and sealing rituals were introduced.
Elijah Abel. Image from Wikimedia.
John Taylor presided over an investigation into Abel’s priesthood—an investigation that concluded that Abel was ordained an elder in 1836 and then a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy that same year. Abel claimed that Joseph Smith himself sanctioned his ordination as an elder, and he produced certificates to verify his claims. John Taylor nonetheless concluded that Abel’s ordination was something of an exception, which was left to stand because it happened before the Lord had fully made His will known on racial matters through Brigham Young. John Taylor was unwilling to contradict the precedent established by Brigham Young, even though that precedent violated the open racial pattern established under Joseph Smith. John Taylor allowed Abel’s priesthood to stand but denied him access to the temple. Abel did not waver in his faith, though, and died in 1884 after serving three missions for the Church.
With Abel dead, Jane Manning James, another faithful black pioneer, took up the cause. She repeatedly appealed for temple privileges, including permission to receive her endowment, and asked on one occasion to be sealed to Q. Walker Lewis. She was also repeatedly denied. The curse of Cain was used to justify her exclusion. Although Church leaders did allow her to perform baptisms for dead relatives and friends and to be “attached” via proxy as a servant to Joseph and Emma Smith, she was barred from further temple access.
Between the 1879 investigation led by John Taylor and 1908 when Joseph F. Smith solidified the bans, LDS leaders adopted an increasingly conservative stance on black priesthood and temple admission. They responded to incoming inquiries by relying upon distant memories and accumulating historical precedent. Sometimes they attributed the bans to Brigham Young, and other times they mistakenly remembered them beginning with Joseph Smith. George Q. Cannon also began to refer to the Book of Abraham as a justification for the ban. As finally articulated sometime before early 1907, leaders put a firm “one drop” rule in place: “The descendants of Ham may receive baptism and confirmation but no one known to have in his veins Negro blood, (it matters not how remote a degree) can either have the priesthood in any degree or the blessings of the Temple of God; no matter how otherwise worthy he may be.”
In 1908, President Joseph F. Smith solidified this decision when he recalled that Elijah Abel was ordained to the priesthood “in the days of the Prophet Joseph” but suggested that his “ordination was declared null and void by the Prophet himself,” contradicting a statement he had made in 1895 when he reminded LDS leaders that Abel was ordained to the priesthood “at Kirtland under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” Joseph F. Smith then recalled that Abel applied for his endowments and asked to be sealed to his wife and children, but “notwithstanding the fact that he was a staunch member of the Church, Presidents Young, Taylor, and Woodruff all denied him the blessings of the House of the Lord.”
This new memory became so entrenched among leaders in the 20th century that by 1949, the First Presidency declared that the restriction was “always” in place: “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.” The “doctrine of the Church” on priesthood and race was in place “from the days of its organization,” it professed. The First Presidency said nothing of the original black priesthood holders, an indication of how thoroughly reconstructed memory had come to replace verifiable facts.
Even though President David O. McKay pushed for reform on racial matters, he was convinced that it would take a revelation to overturn the ban. Hugh B. Brown, his counselor in the First Presidency, believed otherwise. Brown reasoned that because there was no revelation that began the ban, no revelation was needed to end it. McKay’s position held sway, especially as he claimed he did not receive a divine mandate to move forward. As early as 1963, however, Apostle Spencer W. Kimball signaled an open attitude for change: “The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory,” Kimball acknowledged. “I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.” That forgiveness ultimately came with President Kimball at the helm in 1978 when he received a revelation that “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” (Official Declaration 2).
A Return to Equality
The 1978 Official Declaration is the only revelation in the LDS canon on priesthood and race. It returned the Church to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples. It confirmed the biblical standard that God is “no respecter of persons” and the Book of Mormon principle that “all are alike unto God.”
On December 6, 2013, the Church further clarified its position with an official essay titled “Race and the Priesthood,” which was approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It states,
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.
Historical and doctrinal questions not addressed in LDS Church curriculum are being widely debated and discussed online, so when Church members come across information that is unfamiliar, they may feel surprise, fear, betrayal, or even anger. This is why Laura Harris Hales has assembled a group of respected LDS scholars to offer help in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History. Together these authors have spent an average of 25 years researching these complicated topics. Their depth of knowledge and faith enables them to share reliable details, perspective, and context to both LDS doctrine and Church history.
Read more about race and the priesthood and other church history topics in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.