Note: This post was written a few years ago, prior to the Church publishing this essay on Race and Priesthood. I'm still keeping it up here, because I think there's some good things here. But suffice it to say, the landscape has changed somewhat..
He inviteth 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. (Book of Mormon, 2 Ne. 26:33)
Prior to 1978 blacks were not ordained to the priesthood in the LDS church. In June of that year, a revelation was received through much pondering, prayer and fasting, that removed the restrictions then in place, and it became allowable to ordain all worthy male members of the church, regardless of race, to the priesthood. My own perspective comes from serving as a missionary in Florida and southern Georgia. This is an issue I thought about often, and have wondered about the attitudes of church members and our history. I've asked myself why the Lord would restrict Black men from holding the priesthood at all. It has troubled me, and I have studied the matter. Many people not of our faith assume that LDS church leaders were prejudiced, and finally caved into social pressure to change the policy.
Of course, critics and sceptics will quickly point to racism as an easy explanation. But, speaking as one who has faith in LDS leaders and in the Gospel, I've not immediately jumped to this reaction. These may be difficult questions for members of the church to address. On the surface it seems troubling. But if we really have the true gospel, then truth will bear us out and we have no reason to run from what appear to be troublesome aspects of our history.
There are other ways to look at the events and other elements to consider. It's typical in our current political and social climate to throw labels of racism and prejudice around loosely. These labels make easy headlines and quick digestable sound bites. If we take a little more time and consider more carefully the history, social context, and scriptural background of events and decisions we can see the hand of the Lord at work in many ways.
I am aware there are anti-mormon websites dedicated to digging up every possible statement ever made by LDS church leaders that might be considered racist. These statements by and large are shown without any explanation or background, and without examining the context and history behind them. Interestingly, they do not show any of the other statements made by church leaders who were opposed to slavery, or were sympathetic to the plight of Blacks in America.
We could just as easily compile racist statements made by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and numerous other founding fathers of our great nation. Or we might also very easily find seemingly racist statements made by good Christian ministers of other faiths in the early 1800s. Just because a man seeks to follow the Lord, and reads the bible, this does not divorce him from his time and place. Each of us are tainted in some degree with the attitudes and perceptions in our society. Unless God gives revelation on the matter, what direction do we have to change our minds on a given subject? We use our own conscience and powers of reasoning as a guide, but once revelation is received the question is answered.
Blacks have always been allowed membership in the church. They have been baptized, confirmed and given the gift of the Holy Ghost, but until a revelation was given to President Spencer W. Kimball and the 12 Apostles in 1978, the full blessings of the priesthood and the temple had been withheld from them.
Was the LDS Church Racist?
Ironically, just as today there are people accusing the LDS church of being racist or prejudiced, in the early days of the church they were accused of being too friendly to blacks. The early church was accused more than once by the people of Missouri and other places where they tried to settle, of being abolitionists. They were accused of trying to convert Blacks, and of encouraging them to come to Missouri. The First Presidency released a statement in 1833 to try to stem that rumor, and to stress that the church held no position on the issue of slavery. They wished to be viewed as law-abiding citizens of Missouri, a slave state.
Slaves are real estate in this and other states, and wisdom would dictate great care among the branches of the Church of Christ on this subject. So long as we have no special rule in the church, as to people of color, let prudence guide...
History of the Church Vol. 1, p. 378
In 1836 the prophet Joseph Smith wrote an article which appeared in The Messenger and the Advocate in which he explained his views on the Abolitionist movement. He was at that time of the opinion that the issue of slavery ought to be decided on by the slave states. He explained that he felt the northern states ought to leave the issue of slavery alone, and that it was the south that ought to settle it themselves. In this article, he makes it clear that he is giving his own opinion on the matter, and makes no mention of any revelation from God on the matter. It seems to have been a divisive issue in the church, as of course it was in the country at large. Joseph makes reference in the article to church brethren in the north being at odds with their southern brethren -- even being ready to disfellowship them.
In 1843 we have the following statement given in conversation with Elder's Hyde and Richards:
Elder Hyde inquired after the situation of the Negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated Negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the power of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability....
History of the Church Vol. 5, pg 217
In 1844 however Joseph seems to have embraced the abolitionist movement fully when he wrote the following:
Petition also, ye goodly inhabitants of the slave states, your legislators to abolish slavery by the year 1850, or now, and save the abolitionist from reproach and ruin, and infamy and shame. Pray Congress to pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from the members of Congress. Break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire him to labor like the other human beings; for an hour of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity of bondage.
History of the Church Vol. 3, Introduction pg XXVI.
Another incident that demonstrates how Joseph Smith felt towards those who were downtrodden or suffering, regardless of race, was related by Elder Joseph Wirthlin in April 2006 General Conference. He tells the story of Jane, an African American convert who traveled to Nauvoo in company with 7 others. They had traveled in secret so they would not be taken by those who thought they were slaves. The prophet welcomed them, found them places to stay, and took in Jane as a member of his own family. She lived with the Smith family, as a free woman, until she later traveled to Utah with the saints. She later said she felt Joseph Smith was "the finest man [she] ever knew on earth". (Worthlin, 2006)
Did Mormon Leaders cave in to social pressure?
The Lord has never revealed why it took so long to give the full blessings of the priesthood to blacks, or what His purposes may have been... but as one ponders the question, some reasons do suggest themselves. It appears obvious to me that to ordain slaves, or even free blacks, to the priesthood in 1830 would have been pretty disastrous for the young struggling church in America. It was difficult enough for the early church members and pioneers as they suffered the mobs and persecutions for their "Mormon" beliefs, without having to fight the battle of slavery and racism in 1830!
I also feel that the Lord needed to prepare this country for the day when the Church could ordain black men and women to leadership positions. He needed to change the racist opinions and attitudes of the majority of Americans. I personally feel He was the inspiration behind the civil rights movement. I don't see it as a case where the church caved to political or social pressure - but rather I see it as a case where the Lord worked through many to raise the country out of its ignorance and prejudice so that it would be possible to go ahead and give those blessings to all men - and so the church wouldn't have to fight that battle.
The church since the turn of the century has been steadily building a strong public image, a necessary step in our efforts to spread the Lord's gospel. We will never be able to change everyone's ideas about Mormonism, missionaries still today have to struggle to help people look beyond our historical practice of polygamy. Given the struggle to overcome prejudice and racism in America, imagine the challenges missionaries would have faced even up until a few decades ago if the church ordained black elders and bishops. There were few branches in Florida and Georgia during my mission in 1991 where the white members wouldn't come to church if the black members started coming.
In any case, as Dale LeBaron (1993) has pointed out, by 1978 social protests and pressure exerted on the church to change this policy had subsided to a great degree. This is why the revelation took everyone with such surprise. When I think about who the members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency were on this occasion: Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, Howard W. Hunter, Bruce R. McConkie among others... To imagine these individuals caving in to social pressure of any kind is difficult for me to do. These giants never allowed social trends or pressure to sway their position on a host of other hotly debated issues where opposition to the church's stance was strong.
Elder McConkie's account of the event is most instructive and inspiring. In his book Doctrines of the Restoration (1989) there is a chapter devoted to this revelation on the priesthood. He relates that for many months the issue weighed heavily on the mind of President Kimball, and that it was a "subject that the group of us had discussed at length on numerous occasions in the preceding weeks and months." (p. 160). In the upper room of the temple that day, President Kimball brought up the subject again, stating that if it were the will of the Lord to continue withholding the priesthood to those of black heritage, he "was prepared to defend that decision to the death" (p. 160). He asked to have each of the Brethren express their feelings and views on the matter, which they each did "freely, fluently and at considerable length" (p. 160). President Kimball then offered the prayer during which the revelation was received.
It was during that prayer that the revelation came. The spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon us all... From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet... And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.
...All doubt and uncertainty fled. He [President Kimball] knew the answer and we knew the answer. And we are all living witnesses of the truthfulness of the word so graciously sent from heaven.
(McConkie p. 161)
President Hinckley looking back during a fireside marking the 10 year anniversary of the June date, shared these feelings of the meeting where the revelation was received.
He was present when, in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple, President Spencer W. Kimball led the General Authorities who were assembled in prayer. “I do not recall the exact words he spoke,” President Hinckley said. “But I do recall my own feelings and the nature of the expressions of my brethren. There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. For me it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his brethren.
“The Spirit of God was there. And by the power of the Holy Ghost there came to the prophet an assurance that the thing for which he prayed was right, that the time had come, and that now the wondrous blessings of the priesthood should be extended to worthy men everywhere, regardless of lineage.
“Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing,” he continued. “No voice audible to our physical ears was heard. But the voice of the Spirit whispered with certainty into our minds and our very souls.
“No one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that,” he said. “Nor has the Church been quite the same.”
“News of the Church,” Ensign, Aug. 1988, 75
Later in the same chapter of his book, Elder McConkie goes on to explain that the spreading of the gospel message has followed this sort of pattern in the past. It's not unprecedented that the Lord would deny gospel blessings to certain groups of people. The gospel is preached on a "priority basis" (p. 162).
Not only is the gospel to go, on a priority basis and harmonious to a divine timetable, to one nation after another, but the whole history of God's dealings with men on earth indicate that such has been the case in the past; it has been restricted and limited where many people are concerned. For instance, in the day between Moses and Christ, the gospel went to the house of Israel almost exclusively. By the time of Jesus, the legal administrators and prophetic associates that he had were so fully indoctrinated with the concept of having the gospel go only to the house of Israel that they were totally unable to envision the true significance of his proclamation that after the Resurrection they should then go to all the nations of the world. They did not go to all the gentile nations initially. In his own ministration, Jesus preached only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and had so commanded the Apostles (Matt 10:6).
(McConkie p. 163)
I have only pulled a few gems on this subject from Elder McConkie's book, it is well worth reading in full. When we really look at this singular event contemplating the centuries preceding it, and its immense importance to humanity, it truly stands as a great witness to God's power to bring about His divine will. There are prophets on the earth. The heavens are open, and God is leading His church through the priesthood. Because of this, now these same priesthood privileges can be obtained by all who live worthy to receive them.
Controversial Statements made by Church Leaders
The removal of the barriers to priesthood and temple blessings is the crux of the matter. Some people have expressed great concerns over comments that have been made by various church leaders since Joseph Smith, about the origins of the Black race. I don't know the answers to doctrinal or historical questions about how the African black race (or any other people of color) originated. Brigham Young and others have made some controversial statements, and whether they were correct or not I don't know. But I know of no official statement of doctrine issued by the first presidency on that subject. Church leaders, even prophets, can and do have opinions and sometimes speculate. Prophets do not always speak the words of the Lord. Leaders make statements all the time, and sometimes they disagree with one another. J. Reuben Clark, a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church in 1954 gives us this statement:
Even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where subsequent Presidents of the Church and the people themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not moved upon by the Holy Ghost. (Clark, 1954)
Official church doctrine, given by revelation from God, is found in the standard works of the church and other officially issued statements from the 1st Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Anything else can only be considered speculation or opinion. I might also add that of course even scriptures found in the standard works can be misinterpreted.
From a doctrinal or philosophical point of view, it doesn't really matter what church leaders said in the past. As Elder McConkie pointed out, they were speaking without the benefit of revelation. Did the black race come from here, or from there? They obviously originated from somewhere antecedent to Adam and Eve. Was there a curse? What exactly was the nature of the curse? It simply doesn't matter.
Once God opened the heavens and revealed that all men and women are candidates for exaltation, regardless of race or nationality, what more needs to be said? For those who come from a perspective of faith, God has now opened all the blessings of priesthood, the temple, and potential exaltation to everyone. If race or nationality do not matter to the Lord, what should they matter to us?
Clark, Reuben J. (1954) When are the Writings or Sermons of General Authorities Entitled to the Claim of Scripture? Church News, 31 July 1954, 2f.
LeBaron, Dale (1993). The Revelation on the Priesthood: An African and Church Perspective. 1993 CES Doctrine and Covenants / Church History Symposium. Brigham Young University.
See also: The Inspiring Story of the Gospel Going to Black Africa. by Dale LeBaron, Ricks College Devotional, April 3, 2001.
McConkie, Mark L (Ed.), (1989). Doctrines of the Restoration, Sermons & Writings of Bruce R. McConkie. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.
Worthlin, Joseph B., (2006). The Abundant Life. April 2006 General Conference, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Downloaded June, 2006 fromwww.lds.org.
I recently read the best account and analysis of the issues with dealing with this topic in the BYU Studies academic journal, Vol 47 No.2. There is a wonderfully detailed and researched article written by Edward Kimball, son of President Spencer W. Kimball, who was the prophet and president of the church when the revelation on priesthood was recieved. If you really want to dig into the details of this issue & understand all the history, ideas, and doctrines surrounding it, you should pick up this journal.