Book Review: Setting the Record Straight: Blacks and Mormon Priesthood

Millennial Press has a new series of short books on controversial topics. The volume on the priesthood ban was written by Marcus H. Martins, a Brazilian who joined the church in 1972 and would later be the first post-1978 full-time missionary of African descent. He speaks with a faithful voice; he’s the chair of the Department of Religious Education at BYU-Hawaii. Book Cover

The best parts of the book are his personal experiences with living the gospel as a man of African descent both before and after 1978. He related that he is often asked why his family joined a church that didn’t allow them to take part in the priesthood. His heartbreaking but perfect response, based on John 6:67-69: “We had nowhere else to go.”

But most of the book is, as the back cover puts it, “deeply doctrinal” and not personal. This causes a problem as all one can say with surety about the priesthood ban is this:

(1) We don’t know the reason for the ban.
(2) Everything you’ve ever heard justifying the ban was Mormon folklore and should be ignored; see statements from Elder McConkie and, more recently, Elder Oaks to support this idea.

So Martins says those things. But that isn’t enough to make a book, not even one that’s a slim 83 pages. What Martins adds often feels like filler and in some cases detracts from his overall message. For example, at one point he makes the argument that the ban wasn’t an eternal law, but a custom. He uses a system of classifying laws in order to make this point. Unfortunately, this leads him into unnecessary and bizarre conjecture (“We may assume that electromagnetism and perhaps even the weak and strong nuclear forces might also be controlled by the Holy Ghost.”)

He spends some time logically (and scripturally) debunking the more common folk doctrine. And his arguments are pretty good, but they miss the main point: the purveyors of the folklore he is disputing were people sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. So logical arguments are all well and good, but the real issue is the authority with which the person spoke when making the statement. But Martins doesn’t address how problematic it is when he is saying (in effect, because he doesn’t name names): “This argument, made by Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie, is incorrect because it is not scriptural.” This, of course, leads to a larger question (that Martins doesn’t address): If previous church leaders were guilty of promulgating folklore to explain practice, then could current leaders be doing the same? How does this knowledge of the past affect how we view the present? These may be some of the most troubling questions related to the priesthood ban for twenty-first century Mormons and so it is disappointing not to see them addressed here.

While I’m no expert on the history of the priesthood ban, there were a few statements Martins made that caught me short. In one case, he referred to “the Prophet Joseph Smith’s opposition to the ordination of Blacks.” But my understanding is that there is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the ban and that many scholars locate it in the time of Brigham Young, especially since Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Abel, a black man. Martins also seems unaware of the material in the recent biography of President McKay, which contains statements that contradict his assertions that “the Lord appears to have been mostly silent about the issue until June 1, 1978” and that “the leaders of the past had already discussed the matter, and that because they had no ideas of their own to add, they didn’t see any need for further discussion.” (This latter statement is also contradicted by the efforts of J. Reuben Clark as described in Quinn’s biography of Clark.) It is also unfortunate that Martins uses Acts 10:15 to sum up the section where he argues that the Lord only revealed the end of the ban when Church leaders showed interest in it, since the scripture from Acts shows the Lord ending a similar ban (i.e., on eating with Gentiles) that was most certainly not requested by the prophet at the time.

Despite these flaws, I am pleased that Millennial Press has issued this series of books and pleased with Martins’ presentation of the issue in general.

89 comments for “Book Review: Setting the Record Straight: Blacks and Mormon Priesthood

  1. I think Jamie Trwth has reviewed this book and another one, expressing similar sentiments as you have about the non-personal aspect of the book on his blog. Maybe he will be so kind as link it. I can’t currently find it. Thanks for the review Julie.

  2. And how, pray tell, does this book jibe or conflict with Lester E. Bush, Jr.’s classic article, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” “Dialogue” 8 (Spring 1973): 11-68? I don’t quite see how this subject can be discussed without some reference to Bush’s work, which is widely believed to have been not unimportant to the events that unfolded in subsequent years. For those not familiar with Bush’s extraordinarily influential essay, I urge you to read it as well as his fascinating later article explaining why and how he came to write it (with Saigon and environs literally coming unglued around him as he worked for what I presume was the CIA) as well as his interactions from Vietnam, Washington, and SLC with Elder Packer. See Bush, “Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview’ (1973): Context and reflections, 1998” “Journal of Mormon History” 25 (Spring 1999): 229-71.

  3. “This argument, made by Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie, is incorrect because it is not scriptural.”

    Of course, JFS would have agreed with him in method, though not in its application to this teaching of his.

    “It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said; if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed [in scripture], we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:203–4.

  4. Does it include the story about how he was engaged to a returned missionary, they had happened to put off the wedding from May 1978 until August 1978, and had already mailed the invitations when the priesthood thing was announced? And so it was a HUGE sacrifice for him to go on a fulltime mission instead (although something that had been predicted in his patriarchal blessing).

    And yes, she did wait for him.

  5. None of the Brazilians/Portuguese I know, (and I knew many having both received a bachelor’s degree in Portuguese and begun a master’s program in Portuguese at BYU) even those who are fluent in English, have had much interest in Mormon history. Consider that most native English speaking Mormons are not interested in church history. Then consider that the pool of Portuguese speakers who are also fluent in English is so much smaller, and it is not difficult to see why there would be so few. I think it’s highly likely that Brother Martins hasn’t even read the books that Julie refers to. I would be willing to bet that the manuscripts for the book were even written in Portuguese and translated into English, and that most of Brother Martins’ reference material came from Portuguese translations of the original talks/writings.

  6. Carl, if I understand you correctly, you’re speculating that a university professor in the U.S. hasn’t read the basic sources on his topic because of the limited English fluency that you think is typical of people of his nationality. Is that what you’re trying to say? Because if so, it’s in shockingly bad taste.

  7. Well, Jonathan, maybe.

    Julie has already established that there are some major gaps in the underlying research, hasn’t she?

    She doesn’t speculate about reasons for the apparent gaps. And it may be in poor taste to suggest, as Carl does, that Martins missed these sources due to language barriers.

    But really, does it reflect any better on the author to say that he knew English perfectly well, and just didn’t bother to find out about Elijah Abel? (I haven’t yet read the book, but Julie’s description here is not encouraging.)

  8. Okay, Julie, I just poked around on Google a bit, because I was curious.

    Does the author really not discuss Elijah Abel, David O. McKay discussions, and so on, at all in the book?

    Because he covers exactly those topics (and more) in a lengthy published lecture on Blacks and the Priesthood. Take a look at .

    So it’s clear that he knows the background. That raises questions about an (apparently conscious) decision not to include that material in the book.

  9. And his arguments are pretty good, but they miss the main point: the purveyors of the folklore he is disputing were people sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. So logical arguments are all well and good, but the real issue is the authority with which the person spoke when making the statement.

    How is this the main point and the real issue for a religion that holds continuing revelation to be a central tenet?

  10. If previous church leaders were guilty of promulgating folklore to explain practice, then could current leaders be doing the same?

    Of course they are. When has this ever not been the case?

    If it were otherwise, what need for prophets?

  11. I agree that the most relevant aspect of the ban for current members is the implications it has for how we regard current Church teachings and policies. More than a few times I have seen members citing the ban and its reversal as a reason not to trust that the current policy restricting the priesthood to men is according to God’s will. And I guess they’re right–if one believes that prophets were so wrong for so long, it’s natural, though not inevitable, for that to undermine one’s trust in current prophets.

  12. How does this knowledge of the past affect how we view the present?

    If Joseph Smith had feared where his doubts might lead him, would there have been a Restoration?

    In any case, this seems highly controversial:

    (1) We don’t know the reason for the ban.

    Really? I rather suspect the opposite.

  13. I think this discussion is very illuminating. However, I think two points must be made. One to assume the prohets were wrong because poicy is later changed is simplistic. Thurl Bailey in a fireside in Woods Cross several years ago talks about his conversion and that the priesthood ban had been of great concern to him. He stated that no one had satisfactorily answered his question of why until he was playing ball in Italy and the mission president answered: they were not ready, the blacks were not ready and the whites were not ready. much of what prophets do is foresight, they look into the future to prepare us for times to come and as we as a people evolve so do policies.
    Second i think an alternative veiw to Moses not being permitted to enter the Promised Land because of his transgression is that because the Israelite nation rejected the higher law the Melchezedek Priesthood (symbolized by Moses) was taken out of their midst. It was the people’s rejection of God’s plan to bring them to Him that caused Moses to not be allowed to go with them into the Promised Land.

  14. Marcus Martins has spoken in several talks which are replayed on BYU-TV. His English is very, very fluent. I don’t recall whether or not he had an accent, so it must not have stuck out too much if he did have one.

    I would be surprised if he didn’t write book in English, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did his own translation into Portuguese.

    Check out his website here.

  15. Thanks for the review, Julie.

    Given how controversial this is, I suppose the “we don’t know the reason for the ban” is the best tack to take for the Church. But speaking only for myself, I don’t like it and I don’t believe it. I think I know exactly the reason for the ban–it was a culturally conditioned mistake. In my view there was nothing revelatory about it.

    You are right that the problem with my view is that it results in the question of where else might culture play an important part in what we otherwise accept as revealed doctrine. Most people want to assume that culture plays no role, but I think it plays a big role. I similarly think not giving the priesthood to women is culturally conditioned and not some sort of eternally revealed doctrine.

    I see a lot of humanity in the workings of the Church.

  16. And, of course, by those lights there’s no particular reason that someone can’t think that blacks really are inferior but because the Church is tainted by culture it no longer recognizes the fact.

  17. Julie is correct that Bruce R. McConkie’s admission that prophets and apostles sometimes speak from a limited understanding acknowledges that they sometimes may be expressing their opinions when think they are articulating divinely-inspired doctrines. That being the case, can I choose to obey and disobey what General Authorities say depending on when I think they are inspired and when they aren’t?

    I used to struggle with that question but came to the conclusion that I am at least as fallible as the General Authorities when it comes to discerning God’s will (probably much more so). Accordingly, I do not have sufficient clarity and certainty in my own views to conclusively determine that I am right, and that they are wrong, when my views differ from theirs. So I defer to their judgment in doctrinal matters, with the knowledge that any doctrinal errors can be corrected over time through continual revelation.

    I realize some critics may mock this type of deference to Church authorities, but in my personal view, obeying commands that are difficult to understand, or that seem to conflict with other established Gospel principles, is one of the unavoidable Abrahamic tests of faith that confronts any true believer in God.

  18. But Kevin, doesn’t “we don’t know why” include the possibility that we just plain screwed up? “We don’t know why the ban existed, but it’s possible that Church leaders in the 19th Century were (along with leaders of pretty much all other denominations) pre-conditioned by cultural norms to accept such silly notions as a lineage curse, and extended cultural assumptions into church policy.” Or “We don’t know why there was a ban, but we know 19th America was almost defined by its prejudices, and it’s apparent that LDS leaders didn’t escape it.”

    I personally think it’s remarkable that Joseph Smith’s views on race evolved as radically as they did towards egalitarianism. And I think it’s tragic that for whatever reasons (and there is a “we don’t know why” here), Brigham Young did not pursue the course Joseph Smith had been on in 1844. Deeply sad that within a decade of Joseph’s demanding that the nation “break off the shackles from the poor black man” Brigham Young was governing a state which chose to tolerate slavery.

    I feel guilty that I haven’t read Marcus’s book. It has been on my “go get this and read it” for awhile now. I think Marcus is wonderful. And he certainly knows the sources.
    As for Thurl Bailey’s conversion–I don’t believe he was converted because of what the mission president said. The beginning of his conversion was simply the radiance of the MP’s (Hal Clegg) countenance.

  19. I happen to think that Carl Youngblood’s speculation on Bro. Martins’ fund of knowledge on the topic is off base. As his former senior companion I will formally reprimand him.

    But he is right that most members in Brazil are unaware of the ban and do not have access to materials to learn more about it. Long time members in Brazil consistently refer to the time before OD2 as the “era of racism” and it is obvious that they are glad that it is in the past.

  20. Margaret, you and I have discussed this in the past and while we mostly agree on these matters, I would comment on a couple of things.

    “silly notions as a lineage curse”, from a general standpoint, lineage-based curses are eminently Scriptural. I trust I dont need to trot out the standard proof texts. In this particular application, these various proof texts have little or no direct application, but the general idea is not “silly” even if the particular case is. In addition to this would be such passages as Alma 3:6-8, which clearly suggest the Lord uses race as a means of social engineering. We can look back today and scoff at the ignorance of our forebears, but there is clear doctrinal support, at least in general, for the idea of such a thing, even if there is no specific support for this particular application in question. And, they had thousands of years of history and social mores to deal with. Change is hard, inertia is overwhelming.

    Additionally, as far as Joseph’s views on race, they certainly were egalitarian and radical for his day. However, a lot of the discussion and current assumptions hinge on the case of Elijah Abel, the verdict of which is still out as far as I am concerned owing to problematic evidence. If one does a Google image search on “Elijah Abel” one will turn up two images for Elijah, one a charcoal and one an old sepia-toned daguerreotype. As you are aware, Margaret, I have had no small difficulty establishing the credibility or original sources of them. The charcoal version is much more “black” looking than the daguerreotype. Looking at that daguerreotype, I could easily see how people might assume Elijah was white. Elijah’s priesthood apparently did not come into contention until around the time he married, suggesting that it was his marriage to an obviously black woman (when observed superficially) is perhaps what sparked the debate. Naturally, the ambiguous statement HC 5:217-218, where Smith might have been referring to Elijah, muddies the water.

    My point being there are problems with the “we just plain screwed up” and “BY did not pursue the course JS had been on” argument as well. The entire discussion is problematic no matter what. It is like walking through a mine field: no safe paths at all. It would be convenient to pin it all on Brigham and say he was being reactionary to the William McCary situation and just following the norms of the time, but its just not a clear cut case.

  21. A couple of weeks ago in GD I tried to cut short a discussion of “the purpose of the ban.” I confess, I raised my hand and said that “we don’t know” is the best answer. Maybe in that particular class it was. In truth I agree with the long time members in Brazil–it was the “era of racism.” Leaders of our church simply aren’t immune to all of the prejudices of their day.

    I think Tom in #15 and Kevin in #19 have it right. The history of the Priesthood ban raises important questions about discerning between revealed doctrine and cultural conditioning.

    I think it clear that opening priesthood blessings to all worthy males was from God. That it took so long, or that it was ever withheld, was probably the work of man.

  22. #24 no. I am an assistant District Attorney in California.
    #22 I agree, my nephew was a missionary in the Milan Mission and it was the Mission President’s countenance that help with the conversion. It was his answer that sufficed as to the is of the priesthood ban and Thurl Bailey felt satisfied with the answer.

  23. Pesach Chummitz–
    As always, you make some excellent points. It is not clear-cut. And you’re right about the scriptural proof texts. However, without going into detail here (I have a stack of poems I need to grade), the notion of blacks being cursed as the lineage of Cain and subsequently Canaan was twisted into a justification for slavery long before the restoration. And of course, there is a gap between the 2nd Article of Faith and the idea that a black person would be punished for the sins of some supposed ancestor. Hence, the Orson Hyde/Orson Pratt answer that blacks were assigned to a “cursed” lineage because of their less-than-stellar performance in the pre-existence. (Logically, if they performed badly, they’d be put into situations where they’d have the best chance at catching up, not into positions where most would die in infancy and hence become celestialized without the mortal experience.)

    I disagree that the verdict is out on Elijah Abel. Of course I’m familiar with both depictions, but I’ve also seen various photos of Jane Manning James and I note that her skin tone is not always the same. It depends on where the photo is taken. Certainly Elijah Abel was considered to be of African descent during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, because he was asked to preach only to “his own kind” in Cincinnati. (And we have no photos of Mary Ann Abel.) That’ s on record, as are the census reports which describe him either as Black or as Mulatto. And the case of Walker Lewis is really incontrovertible, since his priesthood was acknowledged by Brigham Young who referred to him as “one of our best elders, an African, in Lowell.” (See Connell O’Conovan’s excellent paper on Lewis.) That was in 1847, before the priesthood restriction was a policy.

    Of course, this would be the perfect place to advertise the documentary I’m working on, but I’ll restrrain myself. Suffice it to say, we do cover the past events, but most of what the doc does is let people tell their own stories. If that’s what’s missing in Marcus’s work–that personal touch–it’s really a shame, because he has such a great story. I am deeply moved by the stories we get to hear in _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_. (Oh, was that an advertisement?) The history is there because it needs to be. But it matters more to me that someone can be called the “N” word in the temple and then say, “People are mean and people are ignorant, but because the Spirit testified to me of the truthfulness of this work, I can never leave. I could not look my Savior in his eye and say, ‘I couldn’t do it because people were mean. They said mean things.'”

    The Martins family is so amazing. Elder Helvecio Martins endured racism when he was called to be a bishop. One member said he would never attend while a Black man was presiding—and he never did. Elder Martins responded to that with exemplary grace. These are the footsteps I want to follow.

    Whether Elijah Abel was full-blooded black or bi-racial (some have claimed he was an octoroon) is not nearly as important to me as the fact that he was eventually denied the privilege to receive his endowment because of his African lineage, and that he nonetheless died “in full faith” (to quote his obituary)–two weeks after returning from his third mission for the Church. It has been amazing to interview men who, like Elijah Abel, were not treated the same as the white members of the Church, and yet held on. As Paul Gill says, “The good Lord just stomped on me and says, ‘Paul, everything’s cool.'”

  24. Margaret, as I suggested, I think the “we don’t know” line is a fairly brilliant piece of Church diplomacy, and I am not suggesting that the Church or its members stop using it. You are right that that tag line is inclusive of the possibility that “uh, we really screwed up on that one.”

    But it is also meant to be inclusive of the possibilty that not allowing blacks the priesthood was the direct revelatory will of God to his prophet not to allow blacks to be ordained to the priesthood. And I think that is a very dubious claim, and frankly I simply don’t believe it. But lots of contemporary Mormons do, so it is certainly politic to punt and say “we don’t know.”

    But, as I said above, *we* may not know, but (at least I think) *I* do know. Nostra culpa.

  25. Thanks for sharing that, Margaret.

    That’s what amazes me, as well. There is a Black man in our ward who was a minister when he met the missionaries – after one of those “prayed for more light and knowledge in the morning and the missionaries knocked on my door that same evening” experiences. (along with at least 4 other similar experiences throughout his time as an investigator) He has faced no discrimination from within our ward and stake of which I am aware, but he was pressured *mightily* within the Black community he left. He was called an Uncle Tom, was assured he had stepped onto the road to Hell, was ignored on his baptism day by all but one long-time friend, and still faces similar battles – nearly two years later. His response is always the same, essentially: “I just praise the Lord for his glorious grace in bringing me into unimaginable light and goodness.” I tear up every time I think about his testimony – and the joy that radiates from him as he speaks of the Church and the Gospel. He knows about the ban, but he doesn’t care because of what he has felt in his soul – that this is where God wants him to be and the heavens have opened up to him in a way that he thought was impossible prior to his receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

    When he prays, you open your eyes at the end expecting to see angels surrounding him. He just glows. I wish more of our members, regardless of color, knew and loved the Lord in the same way that Bro. R does. We can express it in different ways, but his steadfastness in the face of such constant pressure blows me away.

  26. #29 But it matters more to me that someone can be called the “N” word in the temple and then say, “People are mean and people are ignorant, but because the Spirit testified to me of the truthfulness of this work, I can never leave. I could not look my Savior in his eye and say, ‘I couldn’t do it because people were mean. They said mean things.’”

    I am dumbfounded that someone would use the “N” word, period, and completely distressed that it would be used in the temple. But, I am more amazed at the Christlike attitude in response to that.

    I don’t know if that would have been my reply.

  27. #29,31 & 32. During my mission in the southern States Mission 1968-70 a black minister was baptized. The branch president refused to allow him access to Sunday School the new morning. The mission president flew over that afternoon and re-organized the branch. The former branch president and several others members stopped attending. A decade later after the revelation on the priesthood a young man from my ward went to the same area. When he returned the first thing I asked him was whether this man a stayed active in the church. I found out that he had and was then serving as a high counselor.

  28. FWIW, when I served in a Stake Mission Presidency in the early 90’s in the Deep South, I had one of the strongest impressions of my life – still to this day. It simply was that the Church in that area would grow only in proportion to the willingness of the membership AND the citizens in general to reject the incorrect traditions of their fathers and fully embrace racial equality. That impression was focused both on the White members of the Church and the Black members of the community. I felt strongly that individual Black members would continue to trickle into our congregations regardless, but that the work among the Black *and* White communities would absolutely explode if the people in both communities would embrace everyone as real and equal brothers and sisters regardless of race. To my knowledge, almost 15 years later, that still has not occurred.

  29. Margaret, I had the pleasure of meeting Elder Martins and his family when I was in the MTC. What a gracious and wonderful man! I recall eating dinner with him and his wife one evening, listening to an abbreviated story of their conversion. I still get goosebumps when I think about that evening.

  30. Steve–where was your mission? Do you mind sharing the name of the man you referred to?
    One of our filmmakers, who is not an active Mormon, noted throughout the interviews that there seemed to be NO wishy washy Black Latter-day Saints.

  31. “I agree that the most relevant aspect of the ban for current members is the implications it has for how we regard current Church teachings and policies. More than a few times I have seen members citing the ban and its reversal as a reason not to trust that the current policy restricting the priesthood to men is according to God’s will. And I guess they’re right–if one believes that prophets were so wrong for so long, it’s natural, though not inevitable, for that to undermine one’s trust in current prophets.”

    This is so true. So many of the problematic historical issues in the church are problems for people not because of the problem itself, but because of the issues it brings up about being a member now, today. Sorry, threadjack, just thought this was very astute.

  32. #36 I served in the old Southern States Mission headquartered in Atlanta. The incident occurred in Florence, Alabama. It was nearly 40 years ago but I believe his name was Bro. Elliott.

  33. Alabama–what a great place for Black Mormon history. Len Hope (a godly man) was from Magnolia, Alabama. (Elder Marion D. Hanks tells his story, and I have repeated it to my children often. I have a tape of Len Hope describing his conversion. Elder Hanks recorded it in 1945.) Tony Parker is a current stake president in Atlanta. Ted Whiters (included in our documentary) is simply an amazing Latter-day Saint. There are others. I’ve been to predominantly black branches in the Atlanta area. What a spirit!

  34. Thanks, Kaimi. The trailer is amazing; I can’t wait to see the documentary in its entirety.

    Margaret, there is another Black member of our ward who has told my wife and me that there is no way she would have remained in the Church if she hadn’t had such an overpowering conversion experience. She now is the Young Women’s President – as a single mother, raising her daughter as the only Black Young Woman in the ward. I can’t tell you how much I admire her.

  35. #39 Alabama was truly a great place for black mormon history. I am typing this one handed while holding my one month old 1/4 black grandson. The first nonmember I met on my mission was Frank Riggs in Montgomery. When he was baptized there were two branches in Montgomery. Within 5 years of his baptism he was called as stake president and while stake president he organized a black ward in Montgomery. He later served as a regional representative.

  36. I served in Andalusia, our district leader was in enterprise and district conferences were in Dothan. I went there a couple of times.

  37. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Nitsav, that is a great quote. I would wager that if you took the source off and presented it to a wide cross-section of Saints, the majority would tell you that it isn’t true. (Or, at least, they act as if they believe that it isn’t true.) But that’s a topic for another day.

    To Bill and others–Martins simply doesn’t engage the history of LDS thought on the priesthood ban–he engages the folklore to debunk it, of course, but he doesn’t engage the scholarly history. He says more than once that the ban is in the past and we should move on. So I think that is why he doesn’t discuss, for example, the conflicting sources on who ordained Abel, or conflicting statements on Blacks from Joseph Smith, etc.

    Kaimi, my post implied that I thought there were gaps in the research. Another possibility is that–for whatever reasons–he has chosen not to engage the intellectual tradition on this topic. I think that limits the audience which find value in the book, but he may have had reasons for focusing as he did.

    No, Kaimi, he doesn’t discuss the McKay discussions. They do run counter to his position that the Brethren didn’t engage the issue until Kimball’s time.

    As Chino points out with his string of comments, there are issues here that should be addressed for the benefit of those who are concerned about them.

    Adam, what’s the point of a comment like #20?

  38. By the way, I’d really like to hear from someone who knows more than I do why I see many sources say that Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Abel but many others say that Z. Coltrin did. Is anyone familiar with the primary source(s?) involved and willing to parse everything for me?

  39. Julie, I’m trying very hard not to be cynical about this, but I’m not having much success. You welcome the book and are pleased with the presentation in general. It’s by a respected LDS scholar of African American descent, it debunks some folklore, ignores the early rhetoric and takes 83 pages to say “We don’t know. Let’s move on.” It seems clear from the comments that Martins is familiar with a great deal more of the history of the ban than he writes in the book. He also contradicts information from other reliable sources within the book. It sounds very much like the book is a superficial gloss on a complex topic that omits much, and yet it’s from a series named “Setting the Record Straight.” (That, in particular, is what I’m having trouble not being cynical about.) What is there to like about this book? Does its existence make people feel like everything is OK and has been competently addressed? Is it a panacea for the confused and not-very-bright?

  40. Ann, I’m trying to keep in mind, when I comment as I have, that the church isn’t the bloggernacle. To a blogger, the books is extremely unsatisfying because it doesn’t take into account information that we are already familiar with and doesn’t enter into scholarly debates that we already know about.

    But I’m guessing that, with 83 pages on the ban, the bloggernacle wasn’t the target audience. The audience was the seminary teacher whose student says, “My grandpa said that blacks weren’t as valiant in the premortal life–is that true?” Or the African American convert of one year who is now, as she hears all this junk, wondering what the heck she has gotten herself into and whether she has to believe the folklore just because a prophet said it. The book is the best alternative (that I know of) for people with no interest in wading through Bush’s dozens of pages, 500 plus pages of McKay biography, another 500 of Kimball, etc., etc.

    Just because the book isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t good, at least for its intended audience. Which is not us.

  41. Julie–here’s a run-down:
    1832: Elijah Abel is baptized by Ezekial Roberts
    1836: Abel is ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood by Joseph Smith (at least according to the journal of Eunice Kinney), and later to the office of a Seventy by Zebedee Coltrin. If the ordination by the Prophet is in dispute, it is unquestioned that he knew about it. Father Smith gave Abel a Patriarchal Blessing which includes the words, “Thou hast been ordained an elder.”
    Around this time, Abel was washed and anointed in the Kirtland Temple. Though Zebedee Coltrin claimed he performed this ordinance, the records indicated otherwise.
    Skip forward to 1879: Brigham Young has died, and Elijah Abel is petitioning yet again for what Pres. Young has hertofore denied him: his endowment. But John Taylor is now president of the church. The question is not “What did BY say?” but “What to JOSEPH say?” Nobody seems to know, but two men (Abraham Smoot and Zebedee Coltrin) claim they have some information. Pres. Taylor, Smoot, Coltrin and Taylor’s secretary, John Nuttal, meet. Smoot says he was told to not ordain slaves to the priesthood back in the 1830s.. (This, however, seems to have political implications. All missionaries were counseled to not baptize slaves without the master’s consent.) Coltrin gets more specific, and says that way back in the 1840s, he had been arguing with a Brother Green on the subject of whether or not Blacks could hold the priesthood. Green had said yes, Coltrin had said no. According to Coltrin, they went to the Mansion House to have Joseph Smith resolve the dispute, and Joseph sided with Coltrin, saying, “The spirit sayeth the black man hath no right to the priesthood.” This is the ONLY recorded claim that Joseph had said this. Furthermore, says Coltrin, Abel was stripped of his priesthood and put out of the quorum as soon as his race was discovered. Responding to this, not only is Abel’s Patriarchal Blessing read, but Joseph F. Smith produces two certificates (one issued in 1841 and the other in SLC) verifying that Elijah Abel was recognized as a priesthood holder–even after the Mormon migration.
    Later, the year of Jane James’s death (1908), Joseph F. Smith reverses his position and no longer defends Abel’s status. (Abel had died in 1884.)
    The best site for a timetable is
    And that’s it in a nutshell. The primary source for the 1979 meeting is the very well-kept journal of John Nuttall.

  42. I think Adam’s comment (#20) was an ironic slam on the anything-we-don’t-like-about-the-church-can-be-blamed-on-cultural-influences answer to difficult questions. We might as well assume that the church’s present stand on the issue is merely a matter of caving to the culture — or perhaps that God waited until we weakened in the knees enough to cave to concurrent culture before granting a revelation on the subject.

    IMO, the “folklore argument” has never answered the question as to whether or not the policy was inspired. No doubt there was (and continues to be, unfortunately) a lot of silly conjecture as to why, but rather than assume that the likes of David O. McKay were uninspired on the issue for not getting the ball rolling sooner, I’d rather keep the door open to the idea that there might exist reasons (as to why) which are known only to God.

  43. Julie,

    Like you, I don’t really like the substantive conclusion suggested by Adam’s #20. But I don’t think it’s an inappropriate point to make (and I don’t think that Adam is endorsing the conclusion himself).

    We may assume that prior church leaders were tied up in their own cultural biases, unable to see the harms of racism, and that the policy therefore was upheld when it should not have been.

    On the other hand, is there any compelling reason to think that it is not present-day leaders and members who are making decisions based on cultural assumptions about race? If we can say, “they were just products of their culture, the ban isn’t necessarily of God” — then isn’t it equally possible that we’re just products of our own culture, and that the rescission of the ban is also not necessarily of God. In other words, is there any more reason to treat the ban doctrine as folklore, than to treat the rescission as folklore?

    Of course, I don’t like that conclusion. It goes against my own substantive position. I think that there any any number of scriptural ideals that support my own favored conclusion.

    But scriptural ideals have been used to support the opposite idea. Stewart’s _Mormonism and the Negro_ assembles quite a few scriptures in defense of the ban. And it was widely circulated by church leaders including Apostles. Is there any compelling, non-ends-based reason to think that I’ve got the scriptures right, and Stewart has them wrong?

  44. The ban itself was not instituted by citing direct revelation; the lifting of the ban was. Given that singular difference, and what I know of the culture when the ban was instituted, I put more theological weight on the revelatory lifting and more cultural weight on the ban.

    Not to threadjack this excellent discussion, but this is substantively different than a discussion of polygamy – where *both* the practice *and* the subsequent ban were based on a direct statement of revelation. I tend to accept that particular practice as having been inspired in its inception and in its cessation, although I’m not sure it actually was practiced as intended the entire time it was practiced. I only use that as a counter-example of revelatory justification – NOT to begin a debate about polygamy. Please do not take it there.

  45. Ray,

    That may be so, but then we are left to assume that those prophets/apostles prior to Spencer Kimball who also had concerns about the ban must not have prayed fervently enough to get it lifted. And while that may also be true (conceeding only to the possibility, mind you), I’m a little uncomfortable making such an implicit assumption. It is just as possible–and, in fact, evidence seems to suggest–that David O. McKay, who was greatly concerned about the ban, had to bear burdensome answer of “no.”

  46. Jack, I only addressed the initial ban and the lifting of that ban. I said absolutely nothing about the decisions in between – particularly Pres. McKay’s. As I have said many times, I am a dedicated parser; there is no implicit assumption in what I actually said. The jump you made between what I actually said and what you claim I implied is worthy of a stunt man, frankly. It just ain’t there. Others have made the assumption; I did not imply it.

  47. “Implicit assumptions” always bother me, since assumptions are individual in nature, especially when embedded in “implications”. The ground is sandy enough with just assumptions; it gets downright quicksandy when you added implications.

    fwiw, I don’t think anyone in this thread has made the last two “assumptions” mentioned, and I don’t think anyone has implied them, either.

  48. Steve,

    Margaret asked my question for me – was Bro. Elliott a Methodist minister? If so, I’m pretty sure he’s the same Bro. Elliott who was the best Gospel Doctrine teacher I’ve ever had, in the Decatur (AL) ward (in 1988-89). (Maybe he moved?) Turned out he had a great voice, too – the last time I directed the choir (before moving to Oak Ridge, TN) I got him to sing the solo for “As I Have Loved You.” What a neat guy! Everyone in the ward loved him.

  49. Ray,

    I’m not saying you said “such and such.” I’m drawing a conclusion based upon your logic (however poor my reading of your comment may have been).

    It just seems to me (though maybe it wasn’t your intention) that when you compare the ban’s beginning with its end with regard to revelatory weight, while leaving out the large second act in the middle, that you fail to take into account the idea that there may have been other revelatory constraints that the average lay member is/was not aware of. I agree that the ban’s lifting should carry more “theological weight” for us today, but I would not base that on the assumption (and that’s what it is) that its inception, and more particularly its continuance, were primarily a product of cultural influences. We don’t know that.

  50. I shouldn’t be blogging–too much else on my plate. But Chino Blanco raises an interesting issue. I was only twenty-three when the ban was lifted, but the issue had weighed heavy on me from the time I was fourteen. I can’t even explain why, because I was in all-white Utah. It was nonetheless a burden–a huge burden. But it did not occur to me to pray for the ban to be lifted or even to understand why it was there. I read Lester Bush’s article at age 17, as well as the responses by Gene England and Hugh Nibley. I heard about the Genesis Group, but it was my mother who told me about it, and reported that it consisted of a bunch of liberals trying to give Negroes the priesthood. I was even in a General Conference session when sustaining votes were taken and one person loudly voiced his objection to the prophet.

    I was young, had no sense of any authority of my own, but it is interesting that this matter seemed not to belong to me except as a burden I shared with my fellow Mormons.

    Now that my dearest friends include people who bore a much harder burden than I did (not discomfort but denial), I find their prayers interesting. Paul Gill reported praying to understand “Is this thing all right? Is it all right for me not to have the priesthood? Do these white people think black is evil?” His answer, as I’ve already reported (and you can hear it in the trailer), was “Paul, everything’s cool.” Darius’s answer to a different prayer–and I don’t know its full substance–was, “This is the restored gospel and you are to join.” When he tells the story, he always says, “There was no mention of the priesthood restriction, whether it was of God or of man, just ‘This is the restored gospel and you are to join.'” Another woman reported never feeling any concern that her son would not have the priesthood. “I just knew it would happen,” she said. “I just knew.” A slight shrug of her shoulders. Others have reported feeling that God would simply take care of it.

    That’s all for now.

  51. Margaret, thank you so much for the run-down in #50.

    Kaimi, I suspected what Adam was up to, but wanted to give him a chance to explain himself lest anyone around here be tempted to reach unwarranted conclusions. You ask, ‘Is there any compelling, non-ends-based reason to think that I’ve got the scriptures right, and Stewart has them wrong?’ I haven’t read Stewart, but I assume he’s making the usual arguments. In that case, yes, there are compelling reasons to believe that he is misinterpreting. If you want to (in this post or another) pony up specifics of his, I’ll respond to them.

  52. I think it’s fair to consider how “we don’t know” ends up being used … as #30 astutely observed, this formulation would seem to be “inclusive of the possibilty that not allowing blacks the priesthood was the direct revelatory will of God” …

    If, with a shrug of the shoulders, “we don’t know” moves us away from nostra culpa toward sua culpa, then, well, I don’t think it’s particularly useful.

  53. Jack, all I’m saying is that you aren’t drawing that conclusion based on *my* logic; you are drawing it based on what others have said about the issue. I know we don’t speak in a vacuum, but I will not take responsibility for what others have said or assumed or implied – only what I, myself, say or assume or imply.

    I went back and re-read what I wrote in #55. Go back and read what I said again. There is absolutely no mention of the prayers that occurred between the initiation and the lifting of the ban. Nada. It is just as easy to read my actual words and assume an implication that the lifting of the ban was a process reached throughout a period of struggle as it is that I denigrated the prayers of Pres. McKay or anyone else prior to the ban. BOTH are gargantuan stretches that require the *reader* to make assumptions about implications that just aren’t there in the words themselves.

    I am more than willing to admit and apologize for mistakes I make. I’ve done it here and on BCC more than once. However, I won’t apologize for what I didn’t say – and I won’t let someone accuse me of assuming or implying something that simply isn’t there.

    I really don’t want to continue this. I will concede your point, since I agree with it. I just never said anything about it.

  54. Chino Blanco,

    For my own part “we don’t know” includes both the possibility that it may have been the will of God plus(!) the idea that racial prejudice was at the heart of the matter.

  55. I agree, Chino. I usually say, “I don’t know, but I believe . . .” whenever I am asked about it.

    BTW, if anyone commenting here has not watched the trailer for Margaret’s documentary that Kaimi included in #40, I recommend you do so. It is amazing to hear how the people most deeply affected by it respond(ed) to the question.

  56. #69: I don’t disagree. What you’ve described is the undeniable political usefulness of the formulation. However, where I part ways with #30 is that I suspect it’s no longer politically necessary to employ this formulation, and it should be retired.

  57. #70: There’s way too much agreement going on around here for my tastes, so I’m gonna sign off … anyway, you seem to be implying that I’d be better off checking out that trailer than rambling on here (grin), so off I go to do just that …

    Although, before I scoot, I’m just gonna copy and paste this from above …

    #23: Long time members in Brazil consistently refer to the time before OD2 as the “era of racism” and it is obvious that they are glad that it is in the past.

    Works for me. But, then again, so does tariff-free Brazilian ethanol … oh well, you gotta figure there’s always gonna be the random gringo arguing for the superiority of his home-grown North American formula …

  58. Ray,

    Just so you know, I love your comments, generally. Your name is one of those I click on when I’m trying to decide where to go to find some good reading on the blogs.

    I was merely challenging the unspoken ramifications (as I see them) of the notion that the ban is rooted more in cultural influences than it is in revelation, that’s all.

    Sorry, I can be kind of a bulldog at times.

  59. I agree, Jack. I agree, Chino. I agree, Julie. I agree, Margaret. I agree so merrily, ’cause “We are a Happy Family”.

  60. Thanks for the review, Julie, and the discussion, everyone else.

    I was also deeply troubled by the ban and all of the answers I got from leaders, etc. were not at all satisfying.

    I grew up in rural Virginia and Maryland, so I had many African-American good friends. (One youth played football at Harvard.)

  61. #62 yes he was a methodist minister and when he first joined the church the only job he could get was as a night watchman. I was the district leader in Decatur when his wife was baptized in Florence. She was baptized several months after him.
    #51 I do not recal the Phipps clan

  62. For what’s worth: I don’t like the terms “Priesthood Ban” and Lifting the Ban”. It sounds like this all took place in two days, not more than 100 years. I am glad for these kinds of books….to help fill in those missing days.

  63. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that this volume doesn’t address the questions that really need to be addressed, and which Julie has identified:

    “If previous church leaders were guilty of promulgating folklore to explain practice, then could current leaders be doing the same? How does this knowledge of the past affect how we view the present?”

    This is THE issue that our history of denying Blacks the priesthood raises. It should be placed at center stage of any serious discussion of this topic.

    Kevin, I agree that the Church’s “I don’t know” response is vastly preferable to a lot of things church leaders could say (and once said) about the causes of the priesthood ban. But I can’t get quite as excited at this “brilliant” church response as you do, since it essentially enables people to remain ignorant as to what past leaders have said (or should I say, claimed to “know”) about the topic. And with that ignorance comes a lost opportunity to discuss Julie’s question. Unfortunate.

    Aaron B

  64. Ray has a wonderful point–what would happen among Blacks, if Blacks had joined the Church and received the priesthood?

    Does culture play a part? Sure. Did it play a part? Maybe. But surely, revelation plays a part, too?

    The scriptures contain a lot about it–it’s certainly not without a foundation. To blow that off with “However, …the notion of blacks being cursed as the lineage of Cain and subsequently Canaan was twisted into a justification for slavery long before the restoration” seems to me as nothing more than sidestepping the whole scriptural argument.

    About: “And of course, there is a gap between the 2nd Article of Faith and the idea that a black person would be punished for the sins of some supposed ancestor”. Yet, we are under the curses of Adam and our other progenitors in many ways. Some changed, as the curse of Adam towards soil changed. Was that “screwed-up” curse changed due to cultural conditioning? I hardly think so.

    For those who complain that BY’s views of race were the problem, comments such as “one of our best elders, an African, in Lowell.” (See Connell O’Conovan’s excellent paper on Lewis.), education, etc. seem to make that point of view quite weak.

    I haven’t found that many comments by others that all the apostles and prophets spoke wrong to be correct. Some had a few ideas, and they preached them as such. When the 1978 revelation came, did it contradict any revelation that any had had before? I can only think of the Abel one. However, was this about Abel brother of Cain, or Elijah Abel? After his son and grandson had the priesthood, which fulfilled the prophecy, the priesthood ban was lifted. Am I off on the possibility here?

  65. Just to clarify my comments, I did not claim Bro. Martins’ English was bad. Even if his English was good, my claim was primarily that he probably hadn’t read much of the historical source material that would have been necessary to adequately cover the subject. This was entirely speculation based on a hasty generalization made after interacting with many Brazilians at all levels of church service. I had no idea that Bro. Martins was a professor in the US. I fully acknowledge my ignorance of his background.

  66. I obviously did not read the post well enough, because his position at BYU-HI is stated clearly. Sorry for the lapse. There is, however, one thing that can be stated in defense of this theory. There are some people who seem qualified to speak on a subject not because of their awareness of history, but because they were close participants in the matter in question, whether or not they were fully aware of its context in history. Bro. Martins clearly qualifies to provide a unique perspective on this issue, but it is entirely possible that he would still not be a subject matter expert.

  67. #83: “There are some people who seem qualified to speak on a subject not because of their awareness of history, but because they were close participants in the matter in question.” I believe we call this a ‘Testimony’. It ties in well with our other post on objective Vs subjective.

  68. I just posted a more expanded version of this on Nate’s temple thread, so forgive me for including this part here, but it deals more directly with this thread than the other one:

    I taught the HP Group lesson today – “Life’s Lessons Learned” (Elder Wirthlin – General Conference). The bulk of the lesson was spent going around the room sharing a lesson each of us has learned in our own journeys in the Church. The African-American minister who was baptized in early 2006 said the following, almost verbatim: “I have learned that, no matter about race, people is people. We all are brothers and sisters in Christ no matter our race. I never understood that fully until I joined the Church.”

    It’s easy to focus on the racial division of the past, but his perspective touched me deeply.

  69. #80–Ted Whiters is originally from Yazoo, Mississippi, but currently lives in Georgia. I don’t know what stake he’s in. However, if you watch the documentary trailer (even just the first minute of it), he’s there, so you can tell if he’s the person you’re thinking of. His interview was spectacular

  70. By the way, Jonathan (#9), in response to your comment about “the limited English fluency that you think is typical of people of his nationality,” I’m certain you’ll have no trouble corroborating my assertion that English fluency is rare in Brazil. I’m sure there are many reliable statistics out there, but if you want a more ad hoc view from the ground, here is a blog post from a Brazilian colleague of mine on the weak state of most Brazilians’ English skills: (Translated by Google).

  71. Margaret,

    The Brother Whiters I am thinking of was a High Counselor when we lived in the Columbus GA Stake a few years back – I think he had formerly been a Baptist minister. I loved it when he came to speak on High Council Sunday. Wonderful man.

    Thank you for your work.

  72. Just having read a history of the Southern States Mission during the time that missionary Joseph Standing was killed by a mob, I would suggest that the lack of integration in the church served two purposes. I hesitate to offer them since I once heard a similar type of explanation of polygamy from a history professor and I didn’t buy it.

    1. The church was subject to a lot of persecution in its early history. You can see in the history and in university collections the KKK threats that were delivered to mission president John Morgan. On at least one occasion former Civil War soldier John Morgan had received death threats, so he preached to an open air audience behind a table stacked with rifles. He changed his topic to “Freedom of Speech” when the KKK members rode up on their horses all decked out in robes. Whether it was due to the influence of the rifles or the topic, the mob dispersed. Imagine in the post- Civil War South if the church had been integrated. The missionaries simply would not have been able to preach the gospel to anyone.

    Is this a trade-off we would make in the United States today? No. But the church and the nation did not have the benefit of the civil rights movement at that point. They had just entered the post-slavery period which is difficult in any circumstance (see Bales’ “Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves”).

    Being able to preach the gospel in the South at that time, although very difficult, resulted in the conversions of many Saints who established Manassa, Colorado, and also settled in other places in the West. As a matter of pure trivia, the boxer Jack Dempsey’s parents were among these converts. A self-confessed “Jack Mormon,” Dempsey was known as the “Manassa Mauler,” after the southern Colorado Mormon settlement his parents helped establish.

    2. By the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been raked through the mud due to the non-integration of priesthood authority, it is dubious that any American church would publicly admit to any sort of racial discrimination. That’s quite a service in the process of racial integration to take that kind of heat for the purpose of integrating religious worship. To restate my point seriously, I’m sure churches are no more integrated than their communities are, but at least religious segregation has been widely recognized by the media in our country as being unacceptable.

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