Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece published in 2017 and represents the thoughts and experiences of one black Latter-day Saint. 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.
In December of the same year, the Church released the first in a series of essays designed to clarify the information around several difficult topics for members regarding Church history. Simply titled, “Race and the Priesthood,” the essay sent a shockwave throughout the black LDS community. Here, in print, for the first time, on lds.org, were several concepts that many of us had arrived at through independent study and much prayer. In my personal opinion, one of the most important things that was present within this essay was the acknowledgment of the existence of multiple African American Latter-day Saint pioneers. Chief among these was Elijah Abel, who was a priesthood holder:
"During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. In a private Church council three years after Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young praised Q. Walker Lewis, a black man who had been ordained to the priesthood, saying, 'We have one of the best Elders, an African'" (lds.org, Gospel Topics, Race and the Priesthood, paragraph four).
I had never before seen an official LDS Church publication acknowledging the existence of these brethren, much less a full acknowledgment of their priesthood, and in the case of Abel, the participation in temple ordinances. Here was more proof that the initial creed of the LDS Church did not prohibit priesthood or temple blessings based upon ancestry. In fact, this early practice, along with the fact that no evidence exists of the practice of denying the priesthood or temple blessings to members of African descent prior to 1852, leads me to reliably conclude that there is no doctrinal basis for excluding black men and women, and by extension, black families and extended families, from priesthood and temple blessings.
The essay then goes on to state that, “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church” (paragraph five). Similar to what I was told by my mother growing up, there is no accepted explanation for the priesthood ban that was advanced at any point prior to 1978. This includes the oft-repeated quote from Brigham Young that the Negro had not yet had his time to receive the fullness of the blessings of the gospel in his 1852 "Speech given in Joint Session of the Utah Legislature," included in Fred Collier's The Teachings of the Prophet Brigham Young. To many, this statement is the basis of the priesthood and temple restriction. This statement by Brigham Young is also contradicted by the earlier practice of ordination of black men to the priesthood and the participation of Elijah Abel in the temple in Kirtland and Nauvoo. Furthermore, paragraph 17 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 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.”
These statements lead me to believe that when President Uchtdorf said that leaders of the Church made mistakes, or that things that were said or done were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine, for me he was referring to those statements that would be made between 1852 and 1978 in support of denying these blessings. It makes no difference to list such things here, for Bruce R. McConkie said following the 1978 restoration of the priesthood and temple blessings to members of African descent, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. . . . . We have now added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter anymore.”
Statements attempting to explain the priesthood ban are irrelevant to my point, as they have been proven to conflict with both scripture and modern revelation on the subject. However, they are relevant to our understanding of the context of the environment which gave rise to the priesthood and temple restriction. For anyone curious to learn the history of Mormon racialization and the genesis of the priesthood and temple restriction, I would recommend reading University of Utah historian W. Paul Reeve’s excellent book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.
Despite the fact that the Church has made these wonderful resources available for us in our journey of faith, they remain woefully underutilized. In my discussions with both current and former members of congregations to which I have belonged, far more members subscribe to the speculations and the teachings that were disavowed than the Church’s official position as made clear with the “Race and the Priesthood" essay. There are even contradictory essays displayed on history pages discussing the growth of the Church in South Africa. This continues to allow the proliferation of speculation and deviations from the doctrine. Most members haven’t even heard of the essay, including most missionaries, who need this vital tool when having discussions with investigators of color who are aware of our history as a faith. This is a travesty and needs to change. We cannot wander about in the darkness when there is so much light available to us.
There is not, nor has there ever been any doctrinal basis for excluding people from the blessings of the temple and the priesthood based upon their ancestry. The early history of the Church, the scriptures, and the words of modern-day prophets teach us that all are alike unto God. He will deny no one who comes unto him. None of us are perfect, and it is up to all of us to work together to build God’s kingdom here.
We should recognize that there is pain in the past and work to heal it by acknowledging it and moving past it, together. I acknowledge that this will be much easier said than done, but we need to be able to realize when others are hurting and to join with them and bear their burdens. This is a burden that African American Saints have been trying to bear alone for far too long. We need our brothers and sisters to understand that this is something that all of us must overcome at some point in our journey of faith.
A dismissal is not bearing our burdens. Telling us that it’s not important isn’t bearing our burdens. It’s not important for people who it wouldn’t have affected, but it’s important to the people who were affected and their descendants. I urge every member to take advantage of the resources we have and to work to spread the word regarding the wonderful knowledge that the Church has made available for us to dispel the darkness of ignorance with the light of knowledge.