When I was in the LDS Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Utah preparing for my two year, I struggled with answering specific questions about Church history and past practices. One question in particular revolved around blacks and the priesthood ban. For most of the LDS Church’s life, black Africans were not allowed to hold priesthood or participate in temple endowments/marriage. The ban was lifted by President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. One of my MTC teachers attempted to skirt around the issue until I point blank asked him what answer he would give as to the reason for the ban. He simply said, “I don’t know why.”
While about halfway through my mission, I wrote home, asking my former bishop (who is African-American with a booming James Earl Jonish voice) what his personal response was to those who ask him about the ban. His email was inspiring: no justification, no criticism. Just a moving testimony encouraging his “brothers and sisters” to put their faith in God and move forward. The past is the past.
However, the priesthood ban still bothered me and continued to for years. I devoted time to studying the issue, my introduction being an interview with Darius Gray and Margaret Young at Mormon Stories Podcast based on a BYU presentation given by Gray. The website Blacklds.org was also helpful, including its mini-bios, timeline and article recommendations. I eventually read Lester Bush’s groundbreaking Dialogue article “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” (which was influential on President Kimball) and Signature Books’ Neither White Nor Black. Then, Edward Kimball (son and biographer of President Kimball) published his BYU Studies article “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” which has become required reading on the subject (I emailed it to a few friends and family).
But it still bothered me. It bothered me even more that the Church did not provide any worthwhile resources regarding the ban. This became especially acute one day when my manager came to me and asked, “Walker, you’re Mormon, right?” Living in Texas, this always sets off an alarm inside my head. I had never told him I was Mormon, so he had obviously heard it elsewhere. “Yes…,” I replied. Then, the sledgehammer: “Do Mormons have a problem with black people?” It’s important to note that my manager is African-American. He explained that we had gotten along so well and that he was surprised to hear some of the things said about Mormons and blacks and to learn that I was a Mormon. He couldn’t square the supposed racist ideology of Mormonism with his personal interactions with me. I took a deep breath, started going through the files in my mind, and answered, “The short answer: No. While individual Mormons may have racist attitudes–like any denomination–Mormonism is not racist. However, what you’ve likely heard is related to the priesthood ban.” I explained what priesthood was in the Mormon Church and translated it in terms for a non-member layperson. I explained that blacks were always welcomed in the Church through baptism. I noted W.W. Phelps’ editorial “Free People of Color” and the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri based in part on their perceived anti-slavery stance. I talked about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and his anti-slavery platform as well as his views on blacks (e.g. “Blacks have souls“). I discussed Elijah Abel‘s ordination to the priesthood, his mission, and appointment to Church leadership. I mentioned that other blacks had also been ordained. I talked about the racism of the day, the biblical citations used to justify slavery (i.e. “Curse of Ham“), and how this Protestant folklore infected Mormonism early on. I talked about how historical evidence places the ban’s beginning at Brigham Young’s feet. I discussed how Church leaders over the years unfortunately felt the need to justify the practice via multiple “scriptural” theories. I mentioned that lifting the priesthood ban was considered even earlier than 1978 by Church leaders (e.g. David O. McKay), leading to the softening of other policies. All this eventually bore fruit in 1978, when the ban was officially lifted.
It was a good 15-20 minute discussion. I ended with my personal view: “The priesthood ban was a mistake, the result of racist folklore, which was allowed to continue for an excruciatingly long time. Thankfully, that policy no longer exists today.” My manager enjoyed the conversation and seemed to understand the complexities surrounding the issue. I provided him with a few resources, but apologized that I was unable to direct him to any official Church publication addressing the matter in depth.
That has changed.
The Church recently published an article on its official website titled “Race and the Priesthood.” It quite bluntly states,
Despite…modern reality, for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.
It goes on:
From the beginnings of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity could be baptized and received as members. Toward the end of his life, Church founder Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery. There has never been a Churchwide policy of segregated congregations.
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 evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. 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.
The article continues to layout the Church’s policy in the midst of “an American racial culture,” eventually leading up to the policy softening under David O. McKay and the ban’s lifting in 1978 under President Kimball. Given the fact that I’ve heard old racial theories mentioned in Gospel Doctrine class in recent years, the following is especially important:
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.
It ends beautifully with a quote from 2 Nephi 26:33: “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
I am ecstatic that I can now provide an official resource to those with questions. I am thrilled that the Church has officially disavowed the many hurtful, atrocious theories put forth by past leaders and members. I am hopeful that this information and view will eventually seep into Mormon culture and curriculum (sooner than later).
Some may just shrug their shoulders. To me, this is kind of a big deal.
18 thoughts on “Race and the LDS Priesthood Ban: A Brief Personal History”
Very nice, Walker.
Yep, nicely said.
For all the words spent here, the central question seems unanswered: Was God wrong about black people 1852-1978 or was the Church’s interpretation of God’s opinion wrong 1852-1978?
Just saying “the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past” doesn’t answer that question.
The Church’s statement doesn’t explicitly say (I provide my own opinion in the piece). But I think it leans toward the explanation that the ban had racist origins and therefore a mistake.
I never realized how much SWK looks like Yoda!
I’d actually really like an explanation. The church document quoted says it unequivocally condemns racism, past and present, and disavows the belief that black skin is a mark of the curse of sin. It then quotes from 2 Nephi, the 26th chapter. But 2 Nephi 5 states explicitly that the Lamanites were cursed with black skin as a mark of their sinfulness. Is this document unequivocally condemning and disavowing the same book that it later quotes from? Is 2 Nephi still considered a divinely inspired book by the LDS?
Honestly, I don’t know a lot about Mormonism, so there may be some explanation that I just don’t know of, or I might be misunderstanding the authority of scripture and the living prophets in LDS belief. From what I do understand, Mormonism is pretty post-modernistic, so it’s possible you believe someone can speak with authority from God and still be wrong. I’m not trying to do a “gotcha”, but this just seems like a fundamental contradiction to me.
Great question. It might depend on your view of the Book of Mormon. Some may just see it as reflecting typical 19th-century racism. However, I accept it as a translation of an ancient volume. Therefore, the most fruitful interpretation would come from placing the book in its proper context. Brant Gardner has written the most extensive scholarly commentary (6 volumes) on the Book of Mormon and is currently working on another book right now. The following is an excerpt from his commentary on 2 Nephi 5. I hope it is helpful: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/what-does-the-book-of-mormon-mean-by-skin-of-blackness
It might also be worth pointing out that “race” as we understand it is a fairly modern construction. The first inklings of a modern racist worldview was toward the Jews in the 13th and 14th centuries, when they became identified with witchcraft and the devil rather than “false” beliefs. See George Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002).
A brief historical summary by Fredrickson can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-01.htm
Thanks. It was an interesting read, if not somewhat lengthy.
I didn’t really catch the response. The Book of Mormon says that God cursed the Lamanites by turning their skin black (as opposed to the Nephites, with white skin). Granted, it doesn’t say he turned the Lamanites in to Africans, or turn them in to people of African descent, or even to people with literally black skin. And I’m fine with the statements that it doesn’t mean their skin is literally the color black, but just darker than that of the Nephites; that does make sense.
I guess I didn’t understand if the author was saying that the Lamanites did or did not actually have darker skin tones? In one paragraph he says that race is a social construct that wasn’t around at the time; I don’t really see how that’s relevant. In anther he says that the Israelis and Greek an other peoples of the time tended to view outsiders as savages; so the Nephites probably viewed the Lamanites as savages. In another he says that people with lighter complexions tended to view people with darker complexions as barbaric, which seems to suggest the Lamanites actually had dark skin; then he says that the dark skin references may just be a kind of backwards-metaphor for the barbary.
Did God curse the Lamanites to have dark skin because of their sins? If he did, then how can the modern LDS church denounce and disavow that? Did the author of the book of 2 Nephi write down that God had cursed a group of people with dark skin because of their sins? If he did, then how can his book be quoted in the same document denouncing such statements? I couldn’t really tell which position the author took.
Also, I think the historical-grammatical approach to interpreting any document is good. We should always try to read words in the way that the author himself would have intended them. I’m glad to hear an LDS thinker enunciate that. That’s how I try to read the Bible, anyway. (I think I had a point of contention on this with Nathaniel, once.)
Thanks again for the response.
“I guess I didn’t understand if the author was saying that the Lamanites did or did not actually have darker skin tones?”
He says the “skin of blackness” is not a physical description.
“In one paragraph he says that race is a social construct that wasn’t around at the time; I don’t really see how that’s relevant.”
It is incredibly relevant. Modern racism is largely “scientific” in nature. It also views other races as *intrinsically* different. The “skin of blackness” in the Book of Mormon is a religio-political division.
“In anther he says that the Israelis and Greek an other peoples of the time tended to view outsiders as savages; so the Nephites probably viewed the Lamanites as savages. In another he says that people with lighter complexions tended to view people with darker complexions as barbaric, which seems to suggest the Lamanites actually had dark skin; then he says that the dark skin references may just be a kind of backwards-metaphor for the barbary.”
While skin color may be prejudiced against in some ways anciently, it does not have the modern overtones. For example, a common laborer will be darker than the aristocracy (due to outside labor and exposure to the sun). But that is simply a description that tends to go with a certain class. They are not hated *because* their skin is darker. The prejudices were cultural, religious, political, social. Not racial.
“Did God curse the Lamanites to have dark skin because of their sins?”
I’m afraid I still don’t see why race is important to the discussion. Is the only way for God to have given the Lamanites dark skin to turn them in to some other race that possessed dark skin?
What is your personal take on what it means when 2 Nephi 5:21, for instance, says:
And he had caused the acursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
How did the “skin of blackness” mark the religio-political division? I think you are taking the stance that it is not a physical description, so what is it, and how did it accomplish the goal of of keeping the Lamanites from enticing the Nephites?
Do you know of any contemporary writings in the region and time when 2 Nephi was written that use this phrase from the original reformed Egyptian that has been translated here as “skin of blackness”, so that we can set it in a proper historical context?
“Is the only way for God to have given the Lamanites dark skin to turn them in to some other race that possessed dark skin?”
He didn’t. That’s the point. He didn’t give them literal dark skin at all.
“What is your personal take on what it means when 2 Nephi 5:21…”
My take follows Brant’s explanation. The commentary was specifically on that verse.
“How did the “skin of blackness” mark the religio-political division?”
The “skin of blackness” wasn’t the “mark.” Brant explains that there is little reason to assume the mark is skin pigmentation and instead compares it to similar marks found in the Old Testament, such as that of Cain or the ones mentioned in Ezekiel (i.e. marks on the forehead).
“I think you are taking the stance that it is not a physical description…”
That is correct.
“…so what is it…”
A metaphorical description used to distinguish the Lamanites as outsiders.
“…and how did it accomplish the goal of of keeping the Lamanites from enticing the Nephites?”
The “skin of blackness” is a way of depicting the Lamanites as profane compared to the “white (changed to “pure” by Joseph Smith in the 1840 edition) and delightsome” Nephites. This is one of many words and phrases continually used throughout the BoM to depict outsiders (e.g. filthy, loathsome, ferocious). The understanding of religio-political boundaries would have kept the Lamanites from being “enticing” to the Nephites.
“Do you know of any contemporary writings in the region and time when 2 Nephi was written that use this phrase from the original reformed Egyptian that has been translated here as “skin of blackness”, so that we can set it in a proper historical context?”
The term “reformed Egyptian” is mentioned in Mormon 9, which is about a thousand years after Nephi. It is the Nephite script over a millennium of development. But regarding similar uses of black and white (much like darkness and light), yes, you find it in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Arabic. Black in the ancient Near East was often associated with sorrow, mourning, death, and sin. White is for purity and holiness. Even the Quran (in Arabic) describes the faces of believers as “white” and those of disbelievers as “black” (3:106). Hugh Nibley provides an interesting Egyptian example,
“Everybody wrote autobiographies [in Nephi’s time], and there’s a great autobiographical literature in Egyptian. There are some famous autobiographies, and we will refer to some because they are so very close to the Book of Mormon. They take place in Palestine, even at this time. Well, I just picked up one from de Buck’s Reading Book (pp. 73–74). It’s called The Autobiography of Kai. He lived a short time before Nephi. He was an important man, and he gave his titles. He started out by saying, “I, Kai was the son of a man who was neḫet and scḥ [who was worthy and wise].” And Nephi started out saying, “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” Then Kai goes on to talk about himself here. Incidentally, I notice he referred to himself down here as ḥd-ḥr (white of countenance), nfr bi•t (excellent of character), pḫ3 h•t (clean of body and in moral habits). And he shunned everything that was snk•wt. The word is very interesting. It means “black of countenance,” and it also means “greed or anything that is evil.” Notice, in the Book of Mormon, that peculiar thing: “a white and delightsome people” and “a dark and loathsome people.” …He has a picture of a white face (white of countenance). And he was clean of body, and he eschewed snk•wt (what is greedy or what is dark of countenance)” (Teachings of the Book of Mormon 1:2, 1).
I don’t mean to be pushy or disagreeable or anything. I realize now that we’ve never actually met. I’m an old internet friend of Nathaniel’s, and we’ve argued a lot about various issues in the past, religion amongst them. So if I’m sounding belligerent about this, then I’m sorry for coming across wrong. Again, I don’t really understand Mormonism very well, so I may be making a lot of novice mistakes here, and I apologize for that, and appreciate your patience.
When it says “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them”, you’re saying that this means, more or less, that God said the Lamanites were “bad”, and that was the extent of the skin of blackness — it’s just a label? It doesn’t refer to physical marks, it refers to a label. Or is the “skin of blackness” the bad behavior itself? And when it says “he had caused the acursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity”, this cursing for their iniquity is identical to their iniquity? Or the cursing is the label? Are the people “cursed” in the sense of God shaking his fist and saying “curse your Lamanites!”, or are they “cursed” in the sense of God causing misfortune to come upon them? If the latter, do you not then connect this “cursing” (from the “for” and “wherefore” connectives) to be the “skin of blackness” (whatever that is), and if “skin of blackness” is a label, then how does it qualify as an actual misfortune, as opposed to, again, God shaking his fist and saying “curse you Lamanites”?
I keep asking this because I don’t think your explanation makes sense with the text itself, whereas my interpretation seems to come right out of the text — God wanted to curse them; he wanted to curse them for their sins; therefore he cursed them that their skin would be black, making them less attractive to the Nephites. At least, if I wrote the same sentence in 19th century English, that’s what it would mean, so if Joseph Smith correctly rendered this sentence in to English, then that’s the best way I can think of to understand its meaning.
I’m sorry if I made the confusion between reformed Egyptian and the language Nephi spoke. It may have been a rookie mistake. I don’t doubt the construction is found in the ancient Near East (and thank you for pointing out an example), but I was asking if you find it anywhere in the Americas, in the time and region when Nephi would have originally written this, preferably in the same language as Nephi used? Or was Nephi written in the Near East, maybe before the immigration to America? I’m really not familiar with the exact textual claims made for the Book of Mormon and, sadly, haven’t had as much time to study Mormonism as I have other religions (I keep meaning to, though). If 2 Nephi is an ancient American text, then placing it in a proper historical context would be placing it in an American context, wouldn’t it? Or is there some other reason why Nephi should be interpreted in a context across an ocean without established trade routes, as opposed to in the same geographical region of its writing? (I really don’t know if there is.) Do we know which Hebrew/Egyptian terms (or whatever language) were originally used in 2 Nephi, so that we can do a proper word study of them? If they were close enough to Egyptian culture and language for Egyptian writings to be relevant, then can we back-construct what the original writings might have said in Egyptian, so as to do a proper grammatical study of what these words meant in the language at that time?
Thanks again for your patience. Sorry for badgering.
I don’t mind answering questions, but much of what you are asking makes me think that you didn’t read Brant’s excerpt carefully. He points out that the “curse” is related to Lehi’s prophecy in 2 Nephi 1:7 regarding the land being cursed. Brant covers what you are asking in the section “Racism in the Book of Mormon” and “Book of Mormon Language about Skin Color.” You seem to be separating this one verse from the rest of the book and saying that the explanation doesn’t make sense. I would agree that, based on 2 Ne. 5:21 alone, the explanation makes no sense. But Brant looks at the language used throughout the BoM regarding the Lamanites (which was a political affiliation, considering that different groups of people take on the name throughout the book). I haven’t heard you address the comparison to stock words and phrases used to distinguish the Lamanites. You don’t even seem aware of them. I would suggest rereading Brant’s article and make specific points regarding what he wrote. Otherwise, I feel like I would just be copying and pasting.
Regarding Nephi’s language and region, though he was writing in the Americas, he was still connected to the culture of ancient Near East. He was still very much a pre-exilic Jew taught in “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Ne. 1:2). Looking in the Old World is the best comparison (he was a young man when his family left Jerusalem). So, I find the Semitic and Egyptian comparisons fruitful. I think Nibley’s note on the “black of countenance” is an excellent way of understanding “skin of blackness.”
Then again, I might be assuming too much regarding your familiarity with the Book of Mormon. First and foremost, do you know who Nephi is? When he is reported to have lived? And where? Do you know anything about his family and their story?
These are important details.
I know absolutely nothing about Nephi. I know that he is claimed to have lived in America, that he is claimed to have been somehow a Hebrew person, and that he leads the good Native Americans, and that he is claimed to have written books which eventually were stored by Mormon on golden tablets that Joseph Smith claimed to have translated using the urim and thummim. I thought that these golden tablets were written in “reformed Egyptian”, but perhaps I was wrong on that. Anything you’d like to share about him would be appreciated.
Sorry if you feel I didn’t read it closely. I did read all of it. It was really long, and he seemed to contradict himself at several points. Or not so much contradict, but make points that didn’t seem relevant unless his central thesis was wrong. A lot of the earlier paragraphs seemed focused on excusing the description of Lamanites as having dark skin, and then he says that they never had dark skin.
I also just didn’t buy his argument, as he seems to be arguing into the text and not from it (eisegesis vs. exegesis). To me, it’s clear as day what it says. And there may be some prejudice, here; since I already think the verse’s meaning is clear as day, a lot of what he said sounded like hemming and hawing and was hard to pay attention to.
You are right though, that I am just reading this one verse in isolation, without understanding the context of it. I would get mad at people reading the Bible that way. To be honest, I’d need to read all of 2 Nephi, and probably 1 Nephi. I’ll re-read this commentary, too.
Please feel free to help speed up my education on all things LDS-theology-related. I admit my near-total ignorance, and would actually greatly love to understand more and just haven’t had the chance. (It’s nearly impossible to find references on the internet, as most references to Mormonism online are from evangelical anti-cult sites)
I hope I’m not intruding on this conversation. (I’m new here…)
My take on those scriptures in the Book of Mormon follows John Sorenson’s model. I’ll summarize it here, briefly.
The basic idea is that the original Nephite/Lamanite group members assumed leadership over the (relatively weak) indigenous population on the coast of modern Guatemala when they arrived in Mesoamerica. Nephi later leaves for a location later named after him, which Sorenson finds reasonable evidence to locate near current Guatemala City. According to the Spanish records during the conquest of the region, the highland regions of Guatemala were inhabited by people with a markedly different skin tone than the ones on the coast. (The record indicates that they were almost as light as the Europeans).
Given that, I believe that the skin change is most likely the natural result of genetic processes. (But then, I take a Brigham Young approach to miracles – namely, that there is no such thing as “magical” intervention. It’s all science, it’s just science that we don’t understand yet) For Nephi, the difference in skin color served as a valuable cultural boundary marker, and he likely saw it as the result of the hand of God to mark a difference between the two groups who now had radically different religious values.
Whether his view could be called racism is debateable, but I’m open to the possibility. He wouldn’t be the only racist prophet. But it is interesting that just a few decades later, his brother Jacob holds the supposedly “inferior” Lamanites up as paragons of family values and virtue, and condemns the “superior” Nephites for their attempt to pick up polygamy.
As a whole, Nephite society does seem to be racist in a way, or at least elitist, and their records reveal that. But so was every society in the ancient world (Mesoamerica not excepted!). Not that that justifies racism, but it does put it in context. If God could work through racist Israelites, or through racist modern prophets, then He can work through racist Nephite ones.
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