On the Priesthood and Temple Ban

With the recent hullabaloo about Brad Wilcox’s firesides, I have had a few things on my mind, perhaps most intensely around the priesthood and temple ban against individuals of black African ancestry.  The short version is this: After studying the evidence, I believe that the ban was not instituted and sustained by God’s will.  Now, I’m not trying to pick on Brother Wilcox by bringing this up (he did apologize, etc.), but because of the discussion about his fireside, the topic has been on my mind, and I feel like I need to share my perspective.

It should be noted up-front that current Church statements leave the issue of whether the ban was of God or human-made open to interpretation.  For example, the heading to Official Declaration 2 acknowledges that “Church records offer no clear insights in the origin of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice.”  The Gospel Topics Essay on the subject acknowledges that American racial culture of the mid-19th century may have influenced Brigham Young in establishing the ban.  It also echoes the language of the section header for Official Declaration 2, leaving it open to interpretation whether the ban was inspired and held in place by God’s will or simply held in place by the personal beliefs of Church leaders in the words and actions of their predecessors.  Thus, there is room in the Church for accepting the ban as the result of very human racism.

The main reasons I believe that to be the case are that:

1) Blacks were openly ordained to the priesthood prior to 1852

2) The reasons given for the ban by the people who instituted it are flawed and rooted in the prejudices and beliefs of 19th century America

3) The ban was inconsistently enforced

4) The theology of the Church tends more towards inclusion than exclusion, and

5) Genetic evidence indicates that we all have African ancestry


Reason 1: Black Individuals Were Ordained Prior to 1852

First, President Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration, did not seem to have any problems with ordaining individuals of black African descent to the priesthood or allowing them to receive temple ordinances. During his lifetime, at least two (and most likely a few more) Black men were ordained to the priesthood.  Q. Walker Lewis was even praised by President Brigham Young as being “one of the best Elders” in the Church.[1]  Significantly, Elijah Abel was ordained as a seventy and received the washing and anointing ordinances associated with the Kirtland Temple in the 1830s.[2]  He was very well acquainted with Joseph Smith and Elijah’s priesthood was reaffirmed throughout Joseph Smith’s lifetime (and afterwards).  Abel also participated in proxy baptisms for the dead in the early 1840s, shortly after the doctrine was announced.[3]  This is clear evidence that Joseph Smith endorsed the practice of ordaining Black men to the priesthood.

Even though individuals who were known to have black African ancestry did not receive the full set of temple ordinances that are practiced in the Church today during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, President Smith did not seem to be opposed to the idea.  Having moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1842, Elijah Abel was simply not in Nauvoo during the time that Joseph Smith began offering endowments and marriage sealing ordinances.  According to one account, the Smith family offered to have Jane Manning, a black woman, adopted or sealed to Joseph and Emma as a daughter, though she turned down the offer at the time.[4]  In addition, the First Presidency released a statement in 1840 that predicted that “people from every land and from every nation” would flock to Nauvoo and “worship the Lord of Hosts in his holy temple, and offer up their orisons in his sanctuary,” including “the degraded Hottentot” (an offensive term for the native Khoikhoi peoples of southwest Africa) and “persons … of every color.”[5]  This statement would indicate that black individuals were expected to participate in temple worship by Joseph Smith and his councilors.  It was not until 1847 (three years after Joseph Smith’s death) that Church leaders openly discussed the idea that black were not eligible for the priesthood and not until 1852 that Brigham Young publicly announced the ban as being binding.[6]  Before that time, Black saints were ordained and it was anticipated that they would worship in the temple.


Reason 2: The Stated Reasons for the Ban

Second, the reasons given by Church leaders for the priesthood ban were largely flawed and are rejected as being valid by the Church today. Brigham Young’s first recorded statement in support of the ban came in 1849, in which he said:

The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the lives [sic] of Abel, to prevent him and his posterity getting ascendency over Cain and his generations, and to get the lead himself, his own offering was not being accepted of God, while Abel’s was. But the Lord cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the priesthood, that Abel and his progeny might yet come forward, and have their dominion, place, and blessings in their proper relationship with Cain and his race in the world to come.[7]

Brigham Young seems to have believed that the ability to have descendants and to pass the priesthood on to those descendants was paramount.  He believed Cain was attempting to prevent Abel from being able to do, ensuring that Cain and his line would have greater power and authority.  In this scheme, however, Cain’s efforts backfired, and he and his descendants were barred from the priesthood until all of Abel’s descendants received the priesthood (as Brigham Young saw it).

President Young was consistent in expressing this belief throughout his lifetime in association with the ban. For example, when he publicly announced the ban during a legislative session of the Utah Territory, he cited the story of Cain and Abel, stating that God “put a mark upon him and it is seen in the [face] of every Negro on the Earth,” adding that: “it is the decree of God that the mark shall remain upon the seed of Cane [Cain] & the Curse untill all the seed of Abel should be re[deem]ed.” Specifically, he declared that: “Cane will not receive the priesthood or salvation untill all the seed of Abel are Redeemed. Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him Cannot hold the priesthood & if no other Prophet ever before spake it Before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.”[8]

Many other statements could be cited, but Brigham Young was clear that he was placing the priesthood ban in place expressly because he believed that blacks were descended from Cain and were cursed by connection.[9] He also seems to have believed that blacks were cursed to slavery for the same reason and that they intellectually inferior to whites, incapable of government, and that having interracial children with individuals of black African descent was a sin.[10] These beliefs may have also played a role in confirming his conviction that Blacks should not hold the priesthood, since that would open the door to them serving in the government of the kingdom of God (priesthood) and interracial temple marriages.

Future church leaders followed suit in justifying the priesthood ban, accepting Brigham Young’s statements either through a common culture or a belief that his words represented the will of God.  John Taylor denied Elijah Abel the right to receive his temple ordinances after repeated investigations into the subject.  Wilford Woodruff denied Jane Manning the right to be sealed to any man as her husband or to Joseph Smith as her adoptive father.

Complicating the issue further, during the late 19th century, the priesthood ban began (inaccurately) to be attributed to Joseph Smith. Most notably, Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham O. Smoot made significant statements claiming that this was the case,[11] and then President George Q. Cannon made similar forceful claims.  Coltrin also began to claim that Joseph Smith had dropped Elijah Abel from the priesthood, despite clear evidence to the contrary that Elder Joseph F. Smith used to dismiss Coltrin’s claims when they were initially made.[12]  It is significant that the first four presidents of the Church after Joseph Smith all avoided attributing the ban to Joseph Smith.  Despite the dubious nature of the claims that Joseph Smith had founded the priesthood ban, those were incorporated into Latter-day Saint discourse as justifications for the ban. By 1908, President Joseph F. Smith would state that: “He did not know that we could do anything more in such cases than refer to the rulings of Presidents Young, Taylor, Woodruff and other Presidencies on this question,” and attributed the ban to Joseph Smith.[13]

During the 20th century, the ban had become solidly entrenched by precedent, incorrect group memory, and belief in prophetic authority.  When David O. McKay questioned President Heber J. Grant about the ban in 1921, President Grant stated that: “David, I am as sympathetic as you are, but until the Lord gives us a revelation regarding that matter, we shall have to maintain the policy of the Church.”[14]  Throughout much of the early 20th century, most Church members were only dimly aware of the policy, and those that were assumed that it was put in place during the early days of the Church under Joseph Smith’s leadership as a restoration of an Old Testament-era policy and had never been questioned by Church leaders.[15]  Doctrinal rationales followed along the contours laid out by Brigham Young and his contemporaries, sometimes directly incorporating arguments made by people from the American south in favor of the slave trade. For example, in an official statement issued in 1949, it was stated that the ban was placed by “direct commandment of the Lord,” citing a statement from Brigham Young about the curse of Cain and another idea that had taken root during the late 19th century—that blacks were also being punished for being less faithful in the premortal existence.  The statement concluded by stating that based on these beliefs, “there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood” by blacks.[16]

Most of the statements discussed previously were based on a belief that was adopted from earlier Judeo-Christian thought in which Africans were descendants of the Biblical villain Cain through Noah’s son Ham.[17]  This was often connected with the idea that Cain’s mark was blackness of skin and that Ham’s indiscretions towards Noah resulted in a curse of servitude for some of his descendants (a justification often used for enslaving Africans).[18]  This belief was at least partially based on the table of nations in Genesis 10:1-32, in which Ham’s descendants are listed as settling northeastern Africa and Palestine. No statement in the Bible, however, reliably connects Cain to Ham’s wife or descendants.

Whatever the case, in our day, the Church rejects rationales put forward in the past as reasons for the priesthood ban.  The official Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood specifically states that: “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions.  None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”[19] It goes on to state that:

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.[20]

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland also stated that “the folklore must never be perpetuated” and that “however well intentioned the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.”[21]  Thus, explanations concerning descent from Cain or unfaithfulness in the premortal existence used to justify the priesthood and temple ban are no longer accepted by the Church.  This is the case even though the belief in a connection to Cain and a curse placed upon him and individuals of black African descent was the reason given for the ban by the person who, as best we can tell, instituted the ban (Brigham Young).  If Brigham Young sincerely believed that the ban was already in place because of the curse of Cain and felt that he was only articulating an already-existing arrangement, then the ban was likely the result of a mistake of a man, since his reasons are not accepted by the Church today as being legitimate.


Reason 3:  Inconsistent Enforcement of the Ban

The third issue is that the ban was not consistently applied.  Brigham Young indicated that: “Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] in him Cannot hold the priesthood.”[22] This was reiterated in 1907, when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve ruled that: “No one known to have in his veins negro blood, (it matters not how remote a degree) can either have the priesthood in any degree or the blessings of the temple of God; no matter how otherwise worthy he may be.”[23]  Yet, by the time either of these had been articulated, at least both Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis had held the priesthood, and Elijah Abel’s priesthood was confirmed several times throughout his lifetime.[24] At least two of Abel’s descendants seem to have been allowed to hold the priesthood during the period the ban was in place, which defied the “one-drop” rule.[25]

Further, President David O. McKay shifted the burden from proving that one’s lineage was free of black African descent to allowing anyone who did not seem to have African ancestry to be ordained.  He stated that he would rather “make a mistake in one case and if it be found out afterwards suspend his activity in the Priesthood than deprive 10 worthy men of the Priesthood.”[26]  It is likely that many individuals who had that theoretical “one drop” were allowed to be ordained under this policy.  Modern DNA evidence also seems to indicate that there were individuals who were ordained or received temple ordinances prior to 1978 had significant amounts of African ancestry that were not apparent at the time.[27]  For example, Sarah Ann Mode Hofheintz passed as white in the Church and received her full endowment and sealing ordinances in 1845 and 1855, respectively, even though her father was black.[28]  A similar event happened for descendants of Nelson Holder Ritchie, who was denied access to the temple in 1909 because of African ancestry, but whose children were allowed to receive the priesthood and temple ordinances prior to 1978.[29]

The issue here is that allowing violations of the ban to stand and exercise priesthood authority undermines the legitimacy of the ban as a whole. If anyone with black African ancestry was able to use the priesthood and his acts were accepted as legitimate in the Church prior to 1978, then that is selective enforcement of a ban, which seems to signal that it was enforced at convenience at the insistence of human beings rather than insistently being enforced as the will of God in all situations.


Reason Four: Theology of God’s Love

A fourth issue is that the doctrines and theology of the Church generally go against a divine injunction against one race being denied full exaltation. In the Book of Mormon, God is characterized as one who “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).  God is also described in the scriptures as “no respecter of persons” (or “shows no partiality”), with Peter teaching that: “In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34-35.)  The Lectures on Faith (an early attempt at summarizing Latter Day Saint thought) argued forcefully that “men could not exercise faith in [God]” if Peter’s teachings cited above were not true, “because if [God] were a respecter of persons, they could not tell what their privileges were, nor how far they were authorized to exercise faith in him, or whether they were authorized to do it at all, but all must be in confusion.”[30] Thus, an essential characteristic of God’s nature in Latter-day Saint thought is impartiality towards all of humankind.

The doctrines of a universal Atonement and individual responsibility for seeking salvation or damnation also goes against denying blacks temple rituals and priesthood authority.  The Articles of Faith teach that “men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression,” and that “through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith 1:2-3).  If mankind was not punished for Adam’s transgression, why should they be punished for Cain’s or Ham’s transgressions either?  If obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel is necessary to be saved through the Atonement of Christ, then what defect in the Atonement would cause God to deny a large portion of humanity the right to fully practice those laws and ordinances?  Latter-day Saint soteriology leans towards inclusiveness rather than exclusion, and the fact that the exclusion aligned with common cultural beliefs in American society tends to signal that the exclusion was cultural rather than divine in its origin.


Reason 5: Genetic Evidence

For those who accept current scientific thought, the ban against black Africans is further undermined. Currently, it is believed that humanity began in Africa and migrated out from there. This being the case, Africans were likely not all descendants of Ham or Cain, but Ham and Cain (if they were historical individuals at all) were descendants of Africans.  By extension, all of us have African ancestry.  Furthermore, the curse placed upon Ham’s descendants seems to be more political in nature in the Bible, aimed at justifying Hebrew conquest and enslavement of Canaanite peoples rather than all African peoples.[31]  This indicates that the ban was mistaken in its parameters, since we all technically were under its purview.



A few events in church history, however, complicate the issue. Both President David O. McKay and President Harold B. Lee both sincerely prayed to know if God wanted the ban to be lifted in the decades prior to 1978.[32]  Some have brushed off David O. McKay’s seeking for a revelation as a simple failure to discern the divine will on the matter (and, frankly, Harold B. Lee was biased against an answer of lifting the ban).  Others dismiss the accounts as late, second-hand recollections on an emotionally-charged subject, and therefore not reliable as historical sources.  These reports of church leaders seeking to lift the ban complicate the picture of God’s involvement in the ban, though, and I’m not settled on an answer as to what they mean.


Concluding Thoughts

Accepting the ban as a result of the human element of the Church is a bitter pill to swallow because of how it affects my relationship with the Church hierarchy.  If God invites all to come unto him, why would He fail to have his prophets push His people to be ahead of the curve, so to speak, on acceptance and love of all people for well over 100 years?  If the ban was in place due to racism within the Church, why didn’t God intervene and forcefully tell His mouthpieces to condemn instead of condone racism?  It is humbling to accept the idea that racism has been intertwined in the Church’s history and policies but it also raises some painful questions about God’s involvement in the Church.

Despite my misgivings, I feel a bit like what Elder Orson Pratt wrote when he was dealing with some serious difficulties in his relationship with President Joseph Smith.  As he wrote: “I have not … renounced the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but believe that its doctrine, … is pure and according to the scriptures of eternal truth. … In fine, there is something in it which seems to whisper that ‘God is there.’”[33]  While I have my concerns, I still feel connected to God through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have no intention of renouncing the Church.

And there are some important lessons that can be taken from the history of the ban for those, like me, who accept it as human error.  As W. Paul Reeve wrote:

It is much more profitable, in my estimation, to learn from our collective history, rather than defend or deny it. What lessons can it teach? Latter-day Saints experienced racialization at the hands of outsiders; and Latter-day Saints engaged in racism on the inside. What better people to lead out on issues of racial inequality and social justice? Rather than be hobbled by our past racism, what if we owned it and used our shared history to stand in places of empathy? What if we were willing to work against racial injustice because we experienced a soft form of it? What if we were willing to speak up and stand up against systemic racism because we engaged in it ourselves and have come to understand its consequences? What if we were willing, like Jesus, to claim “all flesh” as our own?[34]

Accepting the priesthood and temple ban on individuals of black African ancestry between 1852 and 1978 in the Church can be a launching point for important introspection and actions to, as President Russell M. Nelson stated, “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice [and] … promote respect for all of God’s children.”[35]

With all of this in mind, I feel like President Spencer W. Kimball perhaps best embodies balance between humility about the past but working towards a better future on this topic.  Prior to becoming president of the Church, he wrote that: “I believe in the living prophets as much or almost more than the dead ones. They are here to clarify and reaffirm.  I have served with and under three of them.  The doctrine or policy [of withholding the priesthood and temple ordinances] has not varied in my memory.  I know it could.  I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”[36]  Thus, whether one believes the ban was the result of an error or not, President Kimball held that we should trust the living prophets and keep moving forward with faith in the Lord.



[1] Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, Mar. 26, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, spelling and punctuation modernized.

[2] Minutes of the Seventies Journal, kept by Hazen Aldrich, 20 Dec. 1836, LDS Church Archives.

[3]  See “Elijah Abel bapt for John F. Lancaster a friend,” as contained in Nauvoo Temple Records Book A100, LDS Church Archives. Also see two other entries in this same record: “Delila Abel bapt in the instance of Elisha [sic] Abel. Rel son. Bapt 1840, Book A page l”and “Delila Abel Bapt. in the instance of Elijah Abel 1841, Rel. Dau. Book A page 5.”

[4] https://history.lds.org/article/jane-manning-james-life-sketch?lang=eng

[5] “Report of the Presidency” at General Conference, 3-5 Oct. 1840, in Times & Seasons, 1:188, or History of the Church, 4:213. Though “washing and anointing” was performed in Kirtland, the ordinances presently denied Negroes were not announced until 1841 (sealing) and 1842 (endowments), and were not performed in the Nauvoo Temple until 1846 and 1845, respectively.

[6] See Lester E. Bush, Jr., “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: A Historical Overview,” in Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds. Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984), http://signaturebookslibrary.org/neither-white-nor-black-03.

[7] Manuscript History of the Church, 13 Feb. 1849, LDS Church Archives.

[8] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p.97

[9] See, for example, Journal of Discourses 2:142-43 (3 Dec. 1854), 2:184 (18 Feb. 1855), 7:290-91 (9 Oct. 1859), 11:272 (19 Aug. 1866); May 4, 1855, New York Herald, p. 8; Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, (New York, H. H. Bancroft and Co., 1860), pp. 211-12; Matthias Cowley, Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City, The Deseret News Press, 1909), p. 351.

[10] See, for example, his discourse to the legislature on 16 January 1852 in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 4:97. See also Journal of Discourses, 7:290-91 (9 Oct. 1859), 10:190; Millennial Star, editorial, 27 (28 Oct. 1865): 682-83; Millennial Star, 15 (July 2, 1853): 422.

[11] John Nuttall Journal 1 (1876-84): 290-93, Typescript, BYU library. The interview took place 31 May 1879.

[12] Minutes of the Council of Twelve, 4 June 1879 in the Bennion papers.

[13] Minutes of the Council of the Twelve, Council minutes, 26 Aug. 1908, Bennion (or George A. Smith) papers.

[14] Cited in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (SLC: University of Utah Press, 2005), 74.

[15] See for example, First Presidency (George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay) to Lowry Nelson, July 17, 1947, cited in Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 74-75.

[16] Cited in Bush and Mauss, Neither Black nor White, 221, http://signaturebookslibrary.org/neither-white-nor-black-appendix/.

[17] David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 178–182, 360n20; Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[18] Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). See Genesis 9:18-27 for the story of the curse of servitude.

[19] “Race and the Priesthood,” LDS.org, accessed 27 May 2018. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

[20] “Race and the Priesthood,” LDS.org, accessed 27 May 2018. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

[21] http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html

[22] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p.97

[23] “Extract from George F. Richards’ Record of Decisions by the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles,” in the GAS papers.

[24] See Newell G. Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” in Bush and Mauss, Neither Black nor White, http://signaturebookslibrary.org/neither-white-nor-black-04/.

[25] This according to the findings of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormons and Negroes (Salt Lake City, Utah, Modern Microfilm Co., 1970), pp. 12, 16, which contains documentary evidence indicating that Enoch Abel, a son of Elijah Abel, was ordained an elder on 10 Nov. 1900. and that a grandson, Elijah Abel, was ordained a priest on 5 Jul. 1934 and an elder on 29 Sept. 1935. The Tanners also suggested that Elijah Abel’s other surviving son, also named Elijah, may have been ordained to the priesthood.

[26] See Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 77-78.

[27] See for example, “Q&A With Paul Reeve on Race in the Church,” By Common Consent, 8 April 2015, accessed 27 May 2018, https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/04/08/qa-with-paul-reeve-on-race-in-the-church/.

[28] Hofheintz, Sarah Ann Mode, Century of Black Mormons, https://exhibits.lib.utah.edu/s/century-of-black-mormons/page/hofheintz-sarah-ann-mode#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-115%2C-7%2C3262%2C2413

[29] Ritchie, Nelson Holder, Century of Black Mormons, https://exhibits.lib.utah.edu/s/century-of-black-mormons/page/ritchie-nelson-holder#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-127%2C-1%2C435%2C322

[30] “Lectures on Faith,” lecture 3, paragraph 23, in editions of the Doctrine and Covenants published prior to 1921.

[31] See The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), footnote on p. 24.

[32] See Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 103-105 and Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 180.

[33] Orson Pratt, “For the Wasp,” The Wasp Vol. I, No. 20 (September 3, 1842).

[34] W. Paul Reeve, “Making Sense of the Church’s History on Race,” Faith Matters, June 30, 2020, https://faithmatters.org/making-sense-of-the-churchs-history-on-race/#.Xv9bOxy4DyI.twitter

[35] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng

[36] Edward L. Kimball (ed.) The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (SLC: Bookcraft, 1982), 449.

34 comments for “On the Priesthood and Temple Ban

  1. I think it’s possible to a construct a theory that has a little of both, i.e., racist explanations and inspiration.

    We have to take into account the nature of the world in those days–especially around the time of the Civil War. We were a racist culture back in those days — by today’s standards, that is — even though our predecessors may not have viewed themselves as racist. It was a different world. And though there may have been individuals calling for inclusion–it would have been impossible for the saints to build a *community* wherein full integration with our black brothers and sisters was the order of the day. Sad–but true, IMO. It simply would not have survived.

    And so, I can picture a scenario wherein because of a racist culture we simply were not prepared for full racial integration. It wouldn’t be until after WWII that the shackles began to fall to the degree that the rising generation could seriously challenge our racist assumptions–and open the way for the Civil Rights Movement. Only after one hundred years(!) of segregation (following the Civil War) would we finally be ready to open the door to integration.

    That said–when I look over the arch of history–the timing of the revelation in 1978 seems inspired (to me). Not only was the church not prepared for full integration–the *world* was not prepared for it. That’s why I believe there had to be a change on a grand scale in order for the ban to be lifted–much like the need for the Constitution to be in place before the church could be formally established. And we barely survived our beginnings.

    So–at any rate, I think it’s a little of both.

  2. I remember the thrill of June 8, 1978, not only that I felt but that all whom I spoke to seemed to feel. The now popular narrative that the Church had been wrong all along was not something I heard from faithful sources until much, much later. In 1973 in the pages of Dialogue, Hugh Nibley had testified that “it is really God and not man who has ordered this thing”, and Eugene England had said that he was “convinced that ecclesiastically the Church is doing what the Lord has directed”. It was only when those present in that temple room on June 1, 1978, had largely died off that the current narrative gained any momentum.

    Hearing and reading the plain words of the First Presidency letter itself hadn’t put that narrative into our minds. The “long-promised day has come”? Was that a meaningless rhetorical flourish? A mere tautology?

    It is a little rich having the scholars dismiss as “late, second-hand recollections on an emotionally-charged subject” the statements Greg Prince collected about what David O. McKay had said. Those statements were collected 20 to 30 years ago, when the subject was not anywhere near as emotionally-charged as it is now. Their rejection comes across to me as special pleading.

  3. There is truth to what you say, Jack (particularly about it being unlikely to have achieved full racial integration before WWII no matter what), but I will note that the RLDS Church approved ordination of black men in 1865 and they survived just fine. Plural marriage, more than anything, was what led to serious efforts to destroy the Church, but I find it interesting that it is rare to see orthodox members arguing that we should not have practiced the Principle because of the reaction of American society against like is often said in defense of the ban.

  4. I hope the narrative you’ve written here inspires one of our leaders to reprint and deliver its message to every CES employee in the Restored Church.

    Between Chad Nielsen’s “On the Priesthood and Temple Ban,” and Blair Hodges’ instagram “Jazz Fans Against Racism Monologue,” Latter-Day Saints have a better narrative to move forward. These witnesses are long-awaited. Gratitude and appreciation.

  5. Nathan, I was born 12 years after the 1978 announcement, so, unfortunately, I do not share the memory with you. I am left to rely on historical sources to understand what happened. And I will say that historic sources related to the priesthood and temple ban have become more readily available since the 1970s, which may be a stronger correlation to discussions like the one above rather than deaths in the Quorum of the Twelve.

    As to your point about the long promised day statement, I’m honestly unsure what the promises that they were referring to were (though that may just be ignorance on my part), so it’s hard for me to know how to evaluate the statement. I know that at least some Church leaders hoped that the day would come, but as far as promises or statements about lifting the ban, I’m mostly familiar with what Brigham Young said, which was that everyone who wasn’t a descendant of Cain would have to recieve the priesthood first and only then would Blacks be allowed to be ordained. That wasn’t fulfilled by 1978, which is why Bruce R. McConkie have his famous talk where he said to disregard previous statements about ordaining from before the new revelation came. In any case, promises and hopes for the ban to be lifted is a different discussion than whether the ban was inspired at its inception.

  6. I think we have to accept that men called of God to lead the Church have prejudices common to their particular era. Sometimes, it takes a long time for these leaders to figure out what God wants to be done. This process can actually be made harder by their (sincere) belief that God speaks to them through their minds and feelings—which are subject to error.I think that the more humble a man is (and SWK was by all accounts a humble man), the easier it is for him to perceive God‘s will and be open to change. SWK is reported to have said that he had to deal with the issue of the Priesthood ban, because his anticipated successor, ETB, certainly would not.

    Correctly perceiving God‘s will, in my opinion, depends in great part on having a non-dogmatic personality open to the idea that one might have been wrong.

  7. Thanks for the response, Chad. I could certainly be wrong–and I confess that I really don’t know why the ban was put in place. Even so, I can’t escape the reality of our history (as Americans) and the obvious limitations placed upon integration because of our racist past.

    Re: The RLDS 1865 Revelation: I’m not sure how meaningful that revelation is vis-a-vis this discussion as it really didn’t have much affect on the cultural attitudes of the RLDS members. My sense is that such a revelation given to the Latter-day Saints might’ve had a much more profound impact–for a couple of reasons: 1) The Saints were a more numerous people and a more well established society–and therefore poised to receive a larger number of blacks into their community. 2) The Saints (IMO) would have been more responsive to — and therefore more challenged by — the task of integrating blacks as full members and citizens of their community because of the blessings and responsibilities and (most importantly) covenants of the priesthood which they would have had in common. So I think those two facts place the early saints in a different position than the RLDS folks.

    That said, my sense is that the saints would’ve done their darnedest to integrate the blacks had they been commanded to do so–though it may have been even more difficult for them than practicing polygamy. And there’s no question that there would have been a healthy degree of apostasy had they been given the task. Even so, notwithstanding the fact that they would have had some success in building an integrated society–I’m of the opinion that such a spectacle would have been the last straw for the world around them. Some folks were ready to destroy us from off the face of the earth for our practice of polygamy alone. IMO–they would not have hesitated to come upon us had we been both practicing polygamy *and* trying to establish a fully integrated society. Especially the antebellum South–they would’ve gone bonkers over it.

    At any rate, it seems to me that if it had been possible to build such a community that somewhere (in the territory) someone would have succeeded in bringing it about. But didn’t happen anywhere in the U.S. until after WWII–and I think that’s rather telling.

  8. The God I follow/believe in, is never racist, sexist or homophobic, they love all of their children. They do not condone let alone support or initiate discrimination. They do not adjust their position to suit racists, sexists or homophobes. JS appears to have been much less willing to discriminate against others than BY, both women and africans.

    Discrimination is always immoral. Churches damage their credibility when they persist with discrimination, claiming they are following God or scripture is just an excuse to cover/ justify their immorality.

    Equality is the ideal, and anything less is an opportunity for abuse. The connection of right wing politics with religion has greatly damaged religion too.

    The church has changed position on racism, but partly because it continues to discriminate, most of its members including the CES are not convinced.

  9. To Jack–Like I said before, I agree that actual integration would have been more difficult beyond just openness to ordaining Black saints. And, I could certainly be wrong too in my take on all this. I’ve not spent time in Brigham Young’s mind or God’s mind, so I can’t tell you what exactly went through those minds on this subject beyond what we have recorded of what Brigham Young said.

  10. Nathan, I feel pretty-much the way you do about the ban. I was 16 when it was lifted–what a glorious day.

    I believe the phrase, “the long promised day,” was a purposeful pronouncement of prophetic fulfillment. I remember having a sense–a belief that seemed common to all members of the church in those days–that the blacks would indeed receive all the blessings of the priesthood at some point in the future. We just didn’t know when–after the Millennium? During the Millennium? Or even before the Millennium? That was the big question mark. So there was definitely a sense of promise attached to the ban in those days.

    That said, I think some folks stretch Bruce R. McConkie’s words beyond their intended meaning. He wasn’t suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater–in that the ban was something that should never have existed. He was only saying that we need to jettison all of the goofy theories that folks came up with to justify the ban.

    Chad, how in the world can you be 28 years younger than me–and yet so much smarter than I am?

  11. “The God I follow/believe in, is never racist, sexist or homophobic, they love all of their children.”

    “Equality is the ideal, and anything less is an opportunity for abuse.”

    I agree. But the problem is that we–their children–don’t live up to that ideal. If we had to live up to it before the Lord established his Kingdom among us it’d never happen–for the simple reason that we can’t get there without it.

  12. I would say that even taking McConkie’s words there to say that he meant that we need to jettison all of the goofy theories that folks came up with to justify the ban is stretching them too far. He repeated a few of those theories in the very same talk and republished versions of that talk as the gospel truth and allowed other theories (the premortal existence ones) to continue to be published in Mormon Doctrine under the entry for “Negroes”. As far as I can see, he only referred to rejecting anticipated time frames like the ones Brigham Young had given that I mentioned in an earlier comment.

  13. You’re probably right, Chad. Though I think an argument could be made that those theories no longer work because of the problem of timing–particularly the theory about the seed of Able and whatnot. And even the whole thing about fence sitters in the premortal world gets a little problematic when race is the defining factor. So even though he may have intended his statement to be interpreted more narrowly–it kinda gives us a sense of permission to let go of the theories that were rendered logically incoherent by the 1978 revelation. I mean, if you can let go of one false notion you can let go of another–right?

    All that said–yeah, I think you’re right. Elder McConkie was talking about the timing more than anything else.

  14. I personally feel that God was always willing to lift the ban. However, His desire to do so had to be embedded into the hands of men to receive and enact His will. This is why it did not take place until 1978. Even then two of the twelve were not present for the revelation. Those two were conveniently not present for the unanimous decision that needed to be made. Both of whom had expressed racist views.

  15. Can someone please explain to me why a person would prefer to believe that God treated some humans as lesser beings than believing that humans did so. Even prophetic ones.

  16. Thank you for your thoughts Stephen. Personally, I don’t believe the ban was inspired but I tend to believe that God allowed it to happen and corrected it when we were ready to be corrected. While the theories and ideas behind the ban are false and don’t reflect eternal truth, I think God allowed the church to go with it in part because for almost the entire time the ban was in affect, its impact was almost non-existent. For decades, it was a ban almost more in theory than in practice. Yes there were a handful of Saints here and there who were impacted and I know many of their stories. I don’t want to dismiss that but there are always a handful of saints here and there who are impacted by policies, decisions, mistakes of leaders, and the fact that we are all fallen human beings. God does not intervene to stop every one of these errors immediately. That’s part of the atonement.

    But when the work and progress of the church would be held back by the ban, when the reach of the church started to become global, that is when the ban was lifted.

  17. Thank you Chad. This is beautiful.

    And what Stephen Hardy said.

    The image of a God coddling my grandparents and great-grandparents because they wouldn’t be able to handle an extension of priesthood blessings to people of color is mind blowing. My ancestors were not perfect, and some even said unkind things about people of color in my presence during their life. Notwithstanding all of that, I truly believe they would have accepted a revelation extending the priesthood. And if not, who cares? They were adults, and could choose to act accordingly. It seems unfair to pile even more trials upon a marginalized community in order to keep my ancestors from having to work through their own prejudices. YMMV.

  18. Parker: I generally kind of agree… but:

    We made it less impactful by turning away from teaching anyone who may have had “just one drop” of the blood of Cain. (I was a missionary pre-1978. I know what I’m talking about.). Just take a quick tour of GAs today and tell me we aren’t still being in some way unfair to people of black African descent.

    God correcting it only when we were ready to have it corrected does not go down well. It’s no different from simply saying that we clung to this idea until it became too painful to continue to carry it around.

  19. Stephen,
    Perhaps it makes more sense to couch this in terms of God not letting the prophet lead the church astray. If God will not allow the prophet to lead the church astray, what counts as astray? The prophet would not be removed for just any minor error that all human beings will commit. Leading astray, to me at least, means something significant. I think God worked on the prophets to change this practice once it would’ve gotten into “astray” territory… something that happened once the church could start turning away large groups or whole nations away for having “just one drop”.

    But ultimately, I’m just guessing. The real answer is “I don’t know”.

  20. Chadwick,

    I could certainly be wrong about all of this–but the problem (as I see it) wasn’t only about the preparation (or lack thereof) of the saints. It had to do with the culture of the larger world–and the impossibility of integration in those days. It just wasn’t doable–IMO.

    Stephen Hardy,

    The priesthood ban is a real challenge for us moderns. It’s difficult to understand how a loving God could exclude certain of his children from receiving a fulness of priesthood blessings. So it’s only natural to assume that we (the church) must be the culprits. And my answer to that is, yes, we were the culprits–that is the entire country including the saints. However, because the church was “scheduled” to come out of the wilderness in 1830–there would inevitably be a gap between its beginnings and the world being prepared enough to fully integrate our black brothers and sisters.

    And so, it’s within that framework that I can imagine a little of both happening–as I stated above, i.e., the ban being a product of a racist culture *and* inspiration.

    That said, we have to be careful not to go too far in our assumptions of what God will or will not do. If we assume that God loves all of his children equally–and I think that’s a correct assumption–we might be tempted to believe that he’s rather capricious because of his seeming favoritism toward the House of Israel in earlier times. Why would he only allow a tiny fraction of his children to receive the gospel while there were millions of others spread throughout the world who hadn’t so much has heard his name?

    This is where I believe Brad Wilcox was right–even though they way he stated it may have been a bit awkward–and that is we need to trust the Lord’s timing even when it seems rather counterintuitive.

  21. Thorough analysis!
    On a side note, Brad Wilcox [sort of] apologized for his racism but not his misogynistic statements. I’m not exactly surprised to see that his comments about women were ignored here since it’s almost entirely men posting on Times and Seasons.

  22. Well, that’s actually the other thing on my mind from his remarks, so I will probably be doing a post on that soon. This post was very long as it was without having to address another major topic.

  23. Thank you for your thoughts! I agree the ban was not of God and I really hate it when it is attributed to His will. Posting this is another drop in the bucket of antiracism that needs to be filled in order to mitigate the sad legacy of the ban.

  24. E, maybe I’m stretching your comment beyond the limits of it meaning–but I don’t think one has to remove God from the equation in order to be antiracist.

  25. I consider the ban an “error that crept in”, and that the 1978 revelation was a “course correction” to bring the Church back into compliance with the Lord’s command in the Book of Mormon that “the Lord “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, … and all are alike unto God.”

    I have borrowed that terminology from President Nelson.

    President Nelson recently acknowledged that use of the term “Mormon” or “LDS” in naming the Church was an “error that crept in” that required a “course correction” to bring the Church back into compliance with the Lord’s command on the name of the Church. President Nelson also observed that use of the other names was a “victory for Satan.”

    President Nelson did not explicitly mention the sources of the Church-name “error that crept in”, but most of us can remember the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, and “Meet the Mormons”, which was blessed and directed at the highest levels of the Church.

    Thus, there is precedent for a Church leader to acknowledge that “errors have crept in” in important Church practices. Even where those “errors” can be traced to earlier Church leaders, and even where those errors might lead to temporary victories for Satan (President Nelson’s language, not mine).

  26. For those who think God did not bother to correct the church until 1978, because it would have been too difficult for members to do what was right. For 20 years before 1978, the church was being pressured to change, because only the conservatives still were racist.

    Do you believe the Lord is waiting to tell the church leaders to stop being homophobic and sexist until it becomes republican policy. The majority of the first world has already realised it is immoral to discriminate in this manner. The church should be leading on morals, but is way behind.

    I believe the churchs discrimination, both past (racism), and present homophobia and sexism, are purely the prejudice of conservative men and nothing to do with God. It undermines claims of revelation that our prophets are so out of touch with God and morality.

    I don’t believe God can be immoral which is why I cannot believe they would be accepting of racism, homophobia, or sexism, or inequality, and yet the church is doing nothing to reduce any of these moral problems.

    In fact they are grooming members to be bigots for trump.

    My family joined the church in Aus in 1958. The missionaries did not tell us the church was racist.

  27. Jack, I can’t speak for E, but based on my perspective, involving God in the equation in the first place feels like using Him as an excuse or scapegoat for our racism to avoid accepting responsibility for our past. Now, to your point, there are things that can be done to be antiracist while holding the perspective you’ve articulated, but just to explain where E might be coming from.

  28. The priesthood ban was human error, plain and simple. That error should be acknowledged so we can all move on.

  29. I learned about the ban as a teenager. I am Mexican and when my dad told me I just could not believe it, it seemed so wrong to me at that time, and as I grew up that awful feeling is just worse. Denying the blessings of the Gospel to someone based only on his or her appearance is so against the doctrine of Christ, but denying those blessings to an entire race y 100 more times wrong. I believe BY was a prophet but I also believe he was a racist among other vicious behaviors, and I am pretty sure that most of the top leaders know it to. We as a church owe our black brothers and sisters a sincere apology for those false teachings that remain part of the mormon culture (not doctrine)

  30. Whoa good and faithful people! Let’s not be guilty of throwing Bro. Brigham (et al.) out with the proverbial bath water on this! Our historical understanding (or lack of) and our presentist bias grossly clouds a true perspective of this issue. Believing, as I-and I think most of you-do that Brigham Young was God’s chosen prophet on earth for that time, let’s cut him some slack.
    The word “racist” is rife with meaning, especially in our day. It’s also being used by some as an indelible brand, much like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter which she was forced to wear for her indiscretions.
    Was Brigham a racist (dictionary definition here)? Probably, so were three quarters of the population in 1852. In fact aren’t most of us, at least at some point in our lives (have we ever considered ourselves as morally, physically, or intellectually superior to another?). So let’s all take a deep collective breath (I think the instruction above the box I’m writing this in says: “Charitable Comments Welcome”…) and seek for some light and truth from higher sources on this topic.
    Chad notes in his opening: “that current Church statements leave the issue of whether the ban was of God or human-made open to interpretation.” He then uses by way of example the preamble to Declaration #2: “that ‘Church records offer no clear insights in the origin of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice.’” I understand by this that we-in fact-have “no clear insights” as to how, or why, the practice was initiated officially in 1852. If we can assume for just a moment that Brigham Young was in reality God’s prophet, seer, and revelator, there was quite possibly a compelling reason-like the non-Levite priesthood exclusion-that perhaps we may not be currently privy to (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” comes to mind)? Does it take away from the eternal reality that God still loves ALL His children “eternally” or that He has a plan (and purpose) for ALL His children ETERNALLY?
    I’m hedging my bets on God and prophets for this one, and looking forward to the day a 150 years from now on the Celestial Blogosphere page when we might all say: “oh yeaaah, that’s how it worked!”
    Just sayin…

  31. Late to this discussion, but I was on a Zoom call for priesthood leadership in the Northwest area last summer about issues in Church history, and the question came up about the revelation starting with a ban (ie, that this was somehow God’s will). Keith Erekson of the Church History department was on the call, and addressed it. If there was a revelation that instituted the ban, Erekson said, there should be some record of it. First, he said, we would look at minutes of the First Presidency and Q12 meetings. Nothing has been found there relating to a revelatory initiation of the ban. Next, you would look at the journals and personal correspondence of the individuals in those meetings, and again, there is no indication of any recollection or discussion of a revelation. Finally, with the thousands upon thousands of documents collected and curated for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, you would expect to find something there if Joseph Smith had received a revelation, but again, nothing has been found. True, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, but all the signs point to the ban having a human origin. I think we do ourselves a disfavor in light of the scriptural and doctrinal evidence against a ban of divine origin.

    Finally, regarding a ban as something that was in place because the whites weren’t ready for it, let me ask this question: Who suffered the most if that was the case? People of African descent suffered for more than 120 years because we white people couldn’t handle the truth? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

  32. kevinf,

    Re: your final paragraph: the question I’d ask is, was an integrated community possible among the saints in those days? Because that’s where an even playing field vis-a-vis the priesthood among blacks and whites would’ve led, IMO. And so, even though that doesn’t necessarily lend credence to the idea that the ban must’ve been inspired in its implementation–it does (IMO) open the door to the idea that the world–not just the church–simply wasn’t ready to fully integrate our black brothers and sisters into society.

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