See also The Untold Story of Black Mormons
There has been some recent talk about the Church’s former policy of not ordaining black men to the priesthood. I am republishing this post from my other blog (Response to Damon Linker).
An article written by Jason Riley in the Wall Street Journal brought up some good points (“The Mormons still haven’t settled their race problem“). The only issue I had with the article was the comment, “Ultimately, the ban was a manifestation of a central belief that blacks are unfit to be full members of the church on Earth, or to exist alongside whites in heaven.”
There was never a doctrine of separate heavens for blacks and whites. Mormons did, and some still do, see blackness as the mark of a divine curse. But there was never a teaching that blacks could not eventually receive all the blessings that whites may receive. I know that doesn’t change the past or make it less offensive, nor should it. But because Mormonism’s past is checkered with practices and doctrines that many consider racist or strange, assessments of our beliefs easily tend toward exaggeration and/or distortion–sometimes a lot, and sometimes a little
I have noticed that younger Mormons struggle with the priesthood issue much more than older Mormons do. (By older Mormons I mean Mormons that grew up in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.) I suppose the reason for it is this. Older Mormons grew up in an America that often accepted racist attitudes without realizing how awful they were. I remember my mother telling me that when she was a child she knew the rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” as going like this, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, Catch a nigger by the toe…”–It was only after an embarrassing situation that she realized how awful it was. Anyway, older Mormons know what that world was like. So when black men were admitted to the priesthood white Mormons experienced it as a change for the better. Younger Mormons, on the other hand, are left with the question of how that practice could ever have been, and struggle more with the issues of the past.
Blacks and the Priesthood
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints barred black men from priesthood ordination until 1978. This posting explores the question as to why that was.
It was once a very common belief among Mormons that black people were descended from Cain, that Cain and his descendants were cursed for that act of Cain killing Abel, and the mark of that curse was a black skin, and that the seed of Cain survived the flood through Ham, one of the sons of Noah. And this, it was thought, was why black men were not ordained to the priesthood. Joseph Fielding Smith (who later became 10th president of the church) wrote in Answers to Gospel Questions,
‘Was Cain cursed with a black skin?’ Technically the black skin was not the curse, but the mark of the curse. The scriptures do not say that Cain was made black, but we read that his descendants were. We may well suppose that Cain was also black and that this was the mark the Lord placed upon him. (p. 175)
There are Mormons who still believe this, though they wouldn’t say so. During my two years of LDS missionary work I met several Elders who totally believed it.
The next question is this: How can denying priesthood to an entire people because of something Cain did be justified? The typical answer would go something like this. Mormons believe in a pre-mortal life, that is, that we existed before we were born. During this pre-mortal life there was a struggle between good and evil. Lucifer waged war against God and tried to persuade God’s children (you and me) to wage war also. During this struggle Lucifer persuaded one third of the hosts of heaven to follow him, but lost. (Rev. 12:4, 7-9) He and his followers were cast out of heaven and became the Devil and his angels. It was thought that people born into the black race were fence sitters in the war in heaven; they didn’t support Lucifer but neither did they support Christ. Thus they were born into the black race and denied the blessing of the priesthood. (This belief is less common than the curse of Cain belief.) In the book The Way to Perfection Joseph Fielding Smith wrote,
We naturally conclude that others among the two-thirds did not show the loyalty to their Redeemer that they should [have]…[they were] permitted to come to the earth-life with some restrictions placed upon them. That the Negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits, few will doubt. (p. 43)
I’m not going to attempt to answer the question of how God could permit this teaching. And most people are not interested in justifications. So, as best I can, I shall explain why and let people’s judgment fall where it will.
The way we were, and are
The subject revolves around race issues and attitudes within the church. I suppose the kindest way to put it is this. That’s the way a lot of America was–and in some ways still is–and the Mormons are the same.
I remember one incident when I was about eight or nine years old. I was in Sunday school class and our teacher said there was no scriptural evidence that black people were descended from Cain. I very vocally disagreed with him–I remember how ticked off he was about it. As a young boy I frequently read books on Mormon theology and the curse of Cain theory was the only explanation given as to why black men were barred from priesthood ordination. At such a young age I believed it. When I reached my teenage years I felt the basic idea was correct but that there was something incomplete with this explanation. When I was on my mission I was sure it was not complete and had some doubts about its basic correctness. It was only after my mission, and a lot more study, that I concluded the history of racism was a principal factor. Why did it take me so long to come to this conclusion? I grew up in all white neighborhoods and had very little contact with black people; almost everyone I knew was really nice and so it never came to mind. I have no recollection of my parents ever making bigoted comments. And apart from occasionally overhearing a racist joke I never encountered or was made aware of severe racism until my LDS mission (1991-1993)–the South Africa Cape Town Mission.
When I first arrived there were no non-white elders or sisters serving in the mission which included the Cape Province, Namibia, Ciskei, and Transkei. Near the end of my mission there were several Indian and black elders and sisters serving. I can recall the mission president’s wife giving a talk at an LDS conference in Cape Town. I don’t recall her exact words but she mentioned to the audience that her black maid had said something to her to the effect of “that’s why God made white people better.” She said how much this upset her because it wasn’t true–her comments were directed toward whites. I also knew several non-whites who wouldn’t come back to church because of comments from white members. And I heard this joke more than once, “How do you find paradise? Tie a black to your car and drive around until someone says, ‘what’s that?’”–there’s more to the joke but there’s nothing funny about it. I could give more examples but I think I’ve made my point. When I got home from my mission I noticed things I hadn’t noticed before: things people said, the look on their face, the edge of a remark. Racism had become more real to me.
Most younger Mormons tend not to subscribe to the curse of Cain theory or the pre-mortal explanation, but are also unwilling to consider the history of racism as a factor. In the book No More Strangers one Theodore A. Di Padova explains his struggle with this issue:
While in Utah I encountered one of the unofficial theories explaining the situation of the Negro with regard to the priesthood. The implications of this theory upset me greatly, but when I came down to making a decision on it, I realized that there would be many things which I would not comprehend. Recognizing the finite nature of my own mind, I was willing to suspend judgment on some issues.
This is the most common approach taken with this issue: leave the mysteries alone.
The origin of the curse of Cain theory (which is also related to the curse of Ham) is not LDS. Its origins are much older. From what I have been able to gather it began to propagate in the United States as an attempt to justify slavery and the slave trade. Here are some examples of the curse of Cain idea. A slave by the name of Phillis Wheatley wrote (1770) in a poem: “Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain, may be refined, and join th’ angelic train” (here). In London (1704) one popular writer wrote: “Some have believed that Cain’s Mark was black, and therefore this Successors Colour might be alter’d from what Adam’s was, and so by new Marriages and Intermixtures, the World might be diversely coloured” (White Over Black, p. 242). The Oxford Companion to the Bible under “Ham/Canaan, Cursing of” reads, “This passage[, Gen. 9:20-27,] has recently been used to support another kind racism. Because some of Ham’s descendants, notably *Cush, are black (see Gen. 10.6-14), the ‘curse on Ham’ has been interpreted as black (Negroid) skin color and features in order to legitimate slavery and oppression of people of African origin.” Over the second half of the 19th century and through most of the 20th century this teaching was prevalent among Mormons. But in Mormon theology it was not strongly linked to slavery. (Brigham Young had some personal objections to slavery but did not object to it as an institution; he believed that the black race should be servants, see below; and also stated in 1859 that if Utah were admitted to the Union it would be a free state; here)
The seed of Ham, which is the seed of Cain descending through Ham, will, according to the curse put upon him, serve his brethren, and be a “servant of servants” to his fellow-creatures, until God removes the curse; and no power can hinder it. These are my views upon slavery…The conduct of the whites towards the slaves will, in many cases, send both slave and master to hell…The blacks should be used like servants, and not like brutes, but they must serve. It is their privilege to live so as to enjoy many of the blessings which attend obedience to the first principles of the Gospel, though they are not entitled to the Priesthood. (Brigham Young [2nd President of the church], 1855, JD 2:184)
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote (1966) in his book Mormon Doctrine:
Cain, Ham, and the whole negro race have been cursed with a black skin, the mark of Cain, so they can be identified as a caste apart, a people with whom the other descendants of Adam should not intermarry… It is only by a knowledge of pre-existence that it can be known why some persons are born in one race or caste and some in another. (“Caste System”, Mormon Doctrine)
And the Church Historian (and General Authority) B. H. Roberts said (1895):
But you can turn your eyes to a race inhabiting Africa–the negro race. While it is true they are blessed with the privileges of the Gospel, you find them curtailed in the rights of the Holy Priesthood–they cannot receive it…Then how do you reconcile this fact, I have pointed out, with the justice of God? I reconcile it by the knowledge which comes to us through the doctrine of the pre-existence of man’s spirit, and I believe that conditions in this life are influenced and fixed by the degree of faithfulness, by the degree of development in the pre-existent state. Otherwise the diversified conditions in which men find themselves placed cannot be reconciled with the justice of God. (Collected Discourses, vol. 4)
[The remaining information in this section is taken from chapter four of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince and Robert Wright.]
Not all presidents of the church had such strong views on these two doctrines. President David O Mckay laid the foundation for change in the priesthood policy.
Prior to McKay’s tenure as President priesthood ordination was denied to all people who were considered Negro in appearance. He narrowed the policy to a restriction on those of black African descent, thus opening priesthood ordination to Fijians, Australian aborigines, and Egyptians. He also eliminated a policy in South Africa that restricted the priesthood to only those who could prove they had no African ancestry (p. 80-81). The policy was changed so that ordination is withheld only in cases where black ancestry was certain. He also made it possible for black children adopted by white couples to be sealed to their new parents, and that the children could enter the temple for the ceremony.
Though President McKay was not especially friendly toward the civil rights movement there is some evidence that under the influence of Apostle Hugh B. Brown (who was strongly sympathetic towards civil rights) he theorized about altering the church’s policy on priesthood ordination. President McKay also had a special committee look into the history and scriptural basis for the priesthood ban. Leonard Arrington, who would later served as church historian, wrote “[the committee] concluded that there was no sound scriptural basis for the policy but that the church membership was not prepared for its reversal” (p. 80). President McKay also mentioned to others that he viewed the ordination issue as practice and not doctrine. A belief that was not universal among church leadership.
Upon President McKay’s death Time printed a eulogy which stated
…McKay had expanded his Church’s horizons and involvement far beyond the abilities of any successor to contract them. If he had not completely destroyed Mormon exclusivism, he has certainly tempered it with his own remarkable vision of a much wider, friendlier world (“Prophet, Seer and Innovator,” Time, February 2, 1970, p. 50).
In 1978 President Kimball received a revelation that changed the policy. It reads,
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time…all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren…[God] has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood…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 2:7-8)
This statement says a lot. It recognizes that the ban was subject to change and that there was an expectation that it would change. But the fact that it took a revelation to do so indicates that it was seen as the will of God for the time it was in place and/or it would take a revelation to convince the leadership that the policy should be altered.
I am not aware that there was ever a revelation directing the church to ban black men from the priesthood. In fact, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood during church founder Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the most notable being Elijah Abel. The practice of barring black men from priesthood ordination formed later and was primarily an outgrowth of 19th century thinking. The issue of change was influenced by factors such as how passages of scripture were interpreted, civil rights, and common attitudes of the time.
I will share with you my conviction that God gives people commandments as they are prepared, willing, and able to obey them.
Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black, American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: 1931.
Journal of Discourses. 26 vols. London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886.
Metziger, Bruce M., Coogan, Michael D., The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York. Oxford University Press, 1993.
McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. 2d ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966.
Prince, Gregory A. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Salt lake City: The University of Utah Press. 2005.
Hartman, Rector, Hartman, Connie. No More Strangers. 4 vols. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971-1990.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. Answers to Gospel Questions. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957-1966.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. The Way to Perfection. 13th ed. Deseret Book Company, 1966.
Stuy, Brian H., ed. Collected Discourses. Burbank, California, and Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992.