Black in Mormonism: 1852 and The Beginnings of the Priesthood-Temple Ban in the Church (Part 1)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

To listen to the complete episode by Church History Matters, click here.

Joseph Smith and Blacks in Mormonism

The historical record shows that Joseph Smith did not implement or endorse any practices or policies which specifically prevented church members with black African ancestry from fully participating in priesthood offices or temple worship. But in 1847, only three years after Joseph’s death, attitudes and teachings of some church leaders began to shift away from full inclusion of blacks to partial exclusion until, only five years later, in 1852, President Brigham Young first publicly articulated a priesthood restriction on blacks in the church. Today we are going to probe what exists in the historical record to learn what happened between 1847 and 1852 to precipitate this divergence in attitudes and teachings about Blacks in Mormonism away from Joseph Smith’s more inclusive teachings and practices. We’ll then look at the context and content of Brigham Young’s first public articulation of the priesthood restriction and attempt to answer one very important question. Was Brigham Young inspired by God to institute the priesthood ban, or is this an example of an uninspired error? I’m Scott Woodward, and my co-host is Casey Griffiths, and today we dive into our third episode in this series dealing with race and priesthood. Now, let’s get into it.

We’ve been talking a lot about 19th-century views on race in America. It was messy, but in our last episode particularly, we explored two important questions: the first one was, “What was Joseph Smith’s position regarding Black Africans?” And what we found from the historical record was basically this: Joseph believed that blacks were equal with whites in the eyes of God and that they had souls, that they were capable of salvation, which was somewhat contrary to some of the beliefs of the day, and that given equal privileges and opportunities, Joseph believed that blacks could rise just as high as whites. However, he never endorsed interracial marriage between blacks and whites, but he felt that they could and should be equal with whites but that there should be strict laws that should be implemented to keep blacks and whites from intermarrying, and that’s pretty par for the course for America at that time. There were some that disagreed with that and thought there should be full integration, but that, again, was a very radical position in the 19th century.

Joseph’s public views on Blacks in Mormonism and slavery were not static. We noted that in 1836, Joseph defended the slaveholding rights of southern church members, right? This was against the accusations of radical abolitionism and calls from northern church members to disfellowship southern slaveholding members, and Joseph was trying to navigate that tension, and so that’s when he made that statement, 1836. But then, eight years later, in his 1844 presidential campaign, we see Joseph advocating for the full emancipation of all slaves in this country and for granting them civil rights. So that’s where his position was when he died.

And then our second question that was related to this was, “What policies, if any, did the church have regarding blacks during Joseph Smith’s tenure as church president? We’re going to find as the history moves on, this is actually going to become a very important question, and so we wanted to be really clear up front. Our conclusion, after reviewing all the relevant historical evidence, was that there was no church policy excluding or limiting black participation in any way, whether that was priesthood participation or temple worship. We cannot find any sort of racial, exclusive church policies. Nothing.

Church policy during Joseph Smith’s tenure could be summarized as basically just full inclusion and full participation in the church for blacks. And we’ve done a lot of work to explain what the atmosphere was.

And all this created the environment Joseph Smith lived in, but it’s actually uplifting to see by the standards of the day the church was really progressive under Joseph Smith when it came to race. They were inclusive, and that’s something that you can feel good about in this whole discussion, was that in Joseph Smith’s time, there wasn’t a policy, as far as we can see.

And among our evidences for concluding that was, we found at least two ordinations of black men to the priesthood. We’ve got Elijah Ables in 1836. We’ve got Q. Walker Lewis in 1842. We also read an 1840 First Presidency letter explicitly expressing that people of “every color would be invited to come and worship God together in the Nauvoo Temple once it was built. So, yeah, there’s no contemporary evidence of any restrictions whatsoever. And yeah, you almost hold your breath studying this history, right? You’re like, “I hope—I hope this comes out OK.” And it actually does come out quite well in Joseph Smith’s day. 

In fact, you mentioned that we were perceived as quite progressive. That got us in a lot of trouble in Missouri, right? That was one of the chief reasons that got us kicked out of Missouri, because of Mormon views on black people.

Missouri was a slave state at the time, and it led to problems, which did create some institutional memory for the church. And church leaders are going to be more guarded, moving forward, with how they publicly expressed their stances on blacks. So that’s the review of what we talked about last time. 

When you look at the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, with that kind of overlay, a lot of stuff starts to click and make sense. Even Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign in 1844 just swims in this river of race relations and structural, ingrained racism that existed at the time, and it’s difficult for us in the 21st century—I mean, we still have issues, big issues, that we’re dealing with, but it’s hard for us to appreciate just how ingrained this was in everyday life back then, and how the saints are navigating those waters on their own. And sometimes they make great decisions, and sometimes they make not-so-great decisions, and we’re dealing with the fallout of that, but we have to start at a place where we at least make an attempt to see what their world was like – and not judge them necessarily by our standards. This is a complicated issue that affects just about everybody in the United States during this time. And boy, if you go outside the United States, it’s an issue all around the world that mankind in general has grappled with over time. And sometimes we’re proud of the decisions they make, looking from our vantage point, and sometimes we’re not, and that’s OK. 

But we’re just trying to understand what happened at that time, Mormons views on black people, and why they may have made the decisions that they made, and we’re trying to do better and draw closer to Christ. That’s the whole aim of this discussion.

And that leads into today’s topic. Our burning question of today’s episode is, “OK, so what happens next?” 

We know that there was, eventually, a racially exclusive policy in the church, which was overturned by a 1978 revelation to President Kimball. So if Joseph Smith never instituted any sort of racial priesthood or temple ban, how did that ban get put into place?

And one disclaimer before we get into the discussion, we use the word “policy” today maybe differently than they would’ve in the 19th century. Mass media and the internet has made it so that when the church changes a policy, they do so very directly and very carefully. They issue a major letter that basically puts it out there, and then they put it in a handbook where you can look up the exact language. I want to emphasize it wasn’t that way in the 19th century. It wasn’t nearly as cut and dry. 

The first equivalent to what we would call a church handbook doesn’t really appear until 1877. And even then, it’s more of a letter than a handbook. A lot of things that happened in the church happened intuitively weren’t filtered through the larger group of general authorities that were used to making decisions today, and came about less cleanly than they would’ve today. And so my question, after reviewing a lot of the data from the 19th century, was, “Was there a policy to begin with?”

It’s difficult to make that case. But there was this prevailing belief of, “Oh, didn’t President Young teach this, so we should do this?” that they don’t really actually sit down and codify until the early 20th century. And so the first 50 years of the so-called policy for Blacks in Mormonism are nebulous, and it’s clear that it’s not evenly applied, and we’ll see a couple examples of that today as we go through.

In fact, if someone was to ask, “If Joseph Smith didn’t start it, then how did it begin?” And a lot of us who’ve studied this material would like to highlight 1852. The quick answer is that the groundwork for a priesthood temple restriction was laid in 1852 during the presidency of Brigham Young. We’re going to go over the details of that in a minute, but it’s also important to know that it wasn’t actually implemented suddenly or all at once.

It’s going to take over half a century before it solidifies into something resembling church policy that restricts priesthood and temple participation for black Africans. And so I want you to talk a little bit about after the turn of the century, just for a sec. We’re going to come back to 1852 in just a minute, but shortly after the turn of the century in the aftermath of the Reed Smoot hearings, church leaders began to feel that it was wise to begin creating clear policies regarding various challenging issues. So policymaking wasn’t really much of a priority prior to the Reed Smoot trials.

Joseph F. Smith really felt like his role was to codify what the church teaches and believes. And I think a big motivating factor was this guy named Reed Smoot, who’s an apostle to the church, gets elected to the U. S. Senate, and it causes—to say it was a media circus is really understating it. There’s currently no bigger collection in the National Archives than the papers surrounding the Reed Smoot hearings which took place over several years and was effectively a harsh examination of the church.

So the church was put on the national stage, and everything was brought forward, and it feels like in the aftermath of that Joseph F. Smith felt, “Hey, we need to actually clarify and put out clear statements of policy.” So it’s not just Mormons and Blacks and the priesthood. They publish a statement on the origin of man, the Church’s position on evolution and a few other things. They recruit James E. Talmage to write Jesus the Christ, to clarify, “Hey, this is what Latter-day Saints believe about Jesus Christ.” They recruit Elder Talmage, and a friend of mine, Brian Ricks, has done some great work on this, to write a statement on the Father and the Son. We didn’t have a clear position on where the scriptures were referring to God and where they were referring to Jesus Christ.

And part of this, too, was that President Smith sat down and tried to clarify, “What’s the policy when it comes to race?”

It’s unfortunate that the policy was set in place at a time when segregation in the United States was at its peak. We’re post-reconstruction, post-civil war, so to say that there’s a policy before Joseph F. Smith is really a little bit more specific than maybe we should be. The way we think of church policy today, which is very cut and dried, “Hey, what does it say in the handbook,” is not how the church operated in the 19th century.

And like we said, we want to make everything clear and say, “Hey, in 1852, this happened. That’s when the policy was announced.” But it wasn’t a policy in the sense we’d call it a policy today. And it does take over a half century for different developments to happen. And if it was a policy, then there’s no consistent application of it because there’s tons of exceptions to it throughout the 19th century, and it doesn’t seem like until the 20th century they say, “OK, this is what we’re going to do.” Then it stays in place until President Kimball’s revelation.

So when we talk about 1852, we’re going to talk about the beginning of the groundwork being laid for what eventually becomes a restrictive policy toward black Africans in the church. So let me try to lay out a simple thought framework for a minute that can help us process what we’re about to discuss. 

I want to say it like this. When you study church history carefully, what you’ll find is that the history of Mormon views on black people is a mixture of the human and the divine together. You’re going to find both, right? And they’re not always equal parts human and divine, either. Like, in the first decade of the establishment of the church, for example, there was a particularly generous outpouring of the divine, with new scripture and angelically restored keys and revelations and power and gifts of the spirit in abundance, right?

These are all well-documented and quite foundational to the project of the Restoration, and sometimes we want to expect this to continue in an unbroken outpouring, but that’s not the reality. What you find instead are what I call “human lulls,” these periods where church leaders are essentially just left to figure out how to lead with the keys conferred on them. And both they and the saints are sort of left to learn how to live out the truths that have already been revealed. And sometimes they do a great job at this, and other times they don’t. And the Lord seems to be totally OK with that kind of wrestle and learning.

And we see these kinds of human lulls in scripture as well. Like, sometimes decades and even centuries go by in scripture without much by way of any obvious divine intervention. So I’m convinced that the Lord is often OK to just let church leaders and members figure things out and make mistakes along the way as they do so. I mean, he even allows errors that have real-life costs attached to them, like letting Joseph Smith lose the book of Lehi and letting the Kirtland Bank fail. And behind it all, we see a Lord who’s very patient and merciful with his prophets and his people, since, among other reasons, he knows there is no human error that can thwart his divine purposes, right? He will ultimately guide things to ensure that they eventually work out all right in the end. 

So this is just the general framework to keep in mind as we study church history and Mormon views on black people, and this history we’re dealing with here, especially. Expect to find a mixture of both the human and the divine with, in this case, perhaps more parts human than divine as church leaders and members wade through and are influenced by the muck and mess that is the racial swamp of the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S.

And let me just say one more thing, too. Nobody is surprised in the church when we say we believe that our leaders can make mistakes, right? But this history we’re about to discuss will put that belief to the test. Like, do we really believe the Lord in D&C 1, when he says that he calls weak and simple and error-prone and sinful servants to do his work? We shall see. Because I can promise there will be times when we will not be impressed with some of the decisions that they make or the stances that they take on this issue. And we might find ourselves frustrated with how long it takes the Lord to intervene, to correct errors that are going to come from that human element in our leaders, over a century in this case. But just remember that the Lord’s default approach is to let such things play out and ultimately come to resolution over time with valuable lessons for us to hopefully learn from it all.

And I would emphasize—in addition to church history being messy, I’m going to add, all history is messy. When we were going through these materials, we were studying the Old Testament and Come, Follow Me. And, boy, the Old Testament’s messy. You take an example like Rebekah and Isaac, where I’ve got to look at that and say, “We don’t have the whole record here, because you don’t choose a priesthood heir based on the fact that you like venison.” And then if your wife tricks you into accidentally ordaining the other person, that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would stick, but in that case, Isaac was in error, and Rebekah was clear headed enough to make the correction.

When you look at scripture really closely, Isaac and Rebekah, Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Paul can’t agree on things, and get into fights with each other, according to the record. And so we’ve got to basically also say, “Let’s have charity for these people.”

If we really teach that there is no such thing as prophetic infallibility, an event like the one we’re talking about today puts that to the test. Do we actually believe that? And are we willing to grapple with what it means? And God gently guides us along the path to where we go. Sometimes it doesn’t happen in the timeframe we want it to, but their humanity is there to show us the greatness of God in contrast between the two. And sometimes God has to work with imperfect people who grow up in bad environments, or are sometimes raised with bad values, and gently lead them to where they need to be. So when it comes to Black Mormons and the priesthood, the analogy I would say here is the Israelites, who took 40 years to get to the point to where they were ready to go into the promised land, the members of the church grew up in such a racially divided society, that it took even longer for them to gradually emerge from the structures that they were raised within.

Remember the day that President Nelson was called to be prophet? And he had the news conference, and someone was asking him questions. I can’t remember about what, but I remember his answer. It was something about church history and errors in the past, something like that. And he said, super meekly and humbly and gently and sweetly, he said, “Give your leaders a little leeway to make mistakes, as you hope that your leaders will give you a little leeway to profit by your errors.” That was great. Just a nice, sweet, like, “Hey, let’s be merciful and kind to these people, and let’s learn from their errors. Let’s learn from their errors.”

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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