Black in Mormonism: How the Priesthood-Temple Ban Became Fully Entrenched Policy 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

The last names Able and Ables in the context of Elijah Able or Ables, a historical figure in church history, are used interchangeably in this episode.

Once people come to terms with the uncomfortable idea that Brigham Young committed an error in endorsing the LDS priesthood ban on church members with black African ancestry, a puzzling question naturally follows: if the ban was an error, then why didn’t it get corrected earlier than 1978? There were nine church presidents between Brigham Young and Spencer W. Kimball, and 101 years between President Young’s death in 1877 and President Kimball’s revelation in 1978. So why did it take so long to correct this mistake and again offer full privileges to black Africans in the church, as they had enjoyed in Joseph Smith’s day? In today’s episode of Church History Matters we attempt to offer at least the beginning of an answer to this question by tracing the key moments and decisions in the leadership councils of the church when, instead of correcting this error, they came to conclusions that led to an unfortunate hardening in place of the priesthood ban. In this episode, the years 1879, 1904, 1907, and 1908 will, sadly, be added alongside the year 1852 as we piece together both the timeline and the reasoning behind this ban. I’m Scott Woodward, and my co-host is Casey Griffiths, and today we dive into our fourth episode in this series dealing with race and priesthood. 

So today we’re going to continue our series dedicated to exploring the important church history topic of black Africans and their participation in priesthood and temple privileges in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

So, why are we talking about this difficult issue again? Why not just avoid it? 

We’ve been given a commission by the president of the church to root out racism.
And though in my dealings with members of the church, I haven’t experienced a ton of racism, we also recognize that it’s existed in the past and sunlight is the best disinfectant. We want to fully explore it so that we can understand it, and we want to do that thing that history is meant to do: keep us from making mistakes that have already been made. And so we recognize that this isn’t the funnest topic to discuss, but we feel like it’s a very necessary discussion—to help people understand the history, the context, and most importantly, how this changed and how revelation continues in the church today.

President Nelson’s asked Latter-day Saints to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” he said, right? And we believe that discussing this history can actually play a part in helping us to do that, and so that’s why we’re here. So let’s do this today.

Let me recap from our last, episode three. If you didn’t have a chance to catch that one, let me hit on the salient points. We dove into the question of the origins of the priesthood-temple ban on black Africans. We know there eventually was a racially exclusive policy in the church that was overturned by the 1978 revelation to President Kimball. And since we know that Joseph Smith didn’t institute any sort of priesthood or temple ban on Black Mormons, we wanted to pinpoint exactly how that ban got put in place. And I guess the short of it is that the beginnings of what would later develop into an exclusionary policy, they trace back to 1852 with Brigham Young.

The context was the Utah territorial legislative meetings, where Brigham Young as the governor and several apostles and church leaders as the legislative body were debating the passing of a bill that would essentially legalize a form of African slavery in the recently created Utah territory. In those meetings, Brigham Young argued that Utah should become a slave territory. And his two-step argument for slavery was essentially this: he said, number one, God cursed Cain, saying that his descendants would not receive the priesthood until the last of Abel’s descendants received it. And then number two, he said, “consequently, I am firm in the belief that cane seed ought to dwell in servitude.” So that’s it. That’s his whole argument. And you know, we didn’t really talk about this last time, but it’s striking to me that a priesthood ban on Cain’s supposed descendants is already a foregone conclusion in Brigham Young’s mind here. Isn’t that interesting?

And notice he doesn’t argue that Cain’s seed should be banned from the priesthood, he simply argues that since they are banned from the priesthood, slavery is also something that he believes in. Aside from the oddness of the argument itself, what it tells us is that somewhere between this public moment of 1852 and five years earlier in 1847, Brigham Young’s mind had been changed on this issue somehow.

We talked about last time that in 1847, he’s on record praising Q. Walker Lewis, an ordained black man, as one of the best elders in the church, and saying that “we don’t care about the color.” So then here we are, fast forward 1852, five years later, and Brigham Young clearly cares about the color, and he’s on record in those legislative meetings firmly stating that “a man who has the African blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of priesthood.”

So we tried to explore what happened, right? What influenced this 180 mental shift in Brigham Young? We don’t know for sure. The historical record is scant. But there were two scandals of 1847 that we discussed that likely contributed to this. The first was this black member, William McCary, who started his own schism of Mormonism by polygamously marrying white women outside of Winter Quarters and trying to draw members of the church toward him. That infuriated church leaders. And the second was when it was learned that a black member in Massachusetts named Enoch Lewis, son of Q. Walker Lewis, actually, he had married a white woman and that they had had a baby together. And so those two episodes particularly rattled some church leaders at that time, and Brigham Young specifically is on record about the Enoch Lewis episode, stating his discontent at what had happened there. So it seems like underneath it all, with our scant historical records notwithstanding, what we can see is that fear of race mixing is at the heart of Brigham Young’s concerns about black equality and likely accounts for what was underneath the reversal of his position on this issue. I say that because he brings up concerns about race mixing explicitly in those 1852 legislative meetings again. So that does appear to be at the heart of the concern here.

And, I mean, the real heart of the concern for a modern Latter-day Saint is the question of infallibility. It’s well known that in some iterations of Christianity, especially Catholicism, infallibility is the expectation for church leaders. We want to stress and emphasize that’s never been the expectation for Latter-day Saints. From section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants onward, there’s always been this expectation that prophets are human, that they can make mistakes. I mention Section 3 because that is where the Lord deals with Joseph Smith losing the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which is a huge mistake. And sometimes mistakes are caused by situations like Joseph Smith where he made a bad decision, and sometimes mistakes are caused by environmental factors. Like you mentioned that Brigham Young doesn’t even—he just states that black people are descendants of Cain and suffer from the Curse of Cain like it’s a fact. It seems like that was so baked into the Christianity of his time that nobody really questioned that assumption, and they kind of built their worldview out from that. We know, looking at the scriptures, that’s not the case. At least it’s not explicitly stated within the scriptures. It’s a big assumption to say that.

And so when we deal with this question, we’ve got to be comfortable with the idea that prophets can make mistakes, and sometimes they’re affected by the environment that they grew up in. And this is something that the current leaders of the church acknowledge. For instance, Dieter F․ Uchtdorf, member of the Quorum of the Twelve, member of the First Presidency, said, “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when leaders in this church have simply made mistakes. … God is perfect, … but he works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”
And so we’ve got to extend a little bit of charity here and say, “They made a mistake. They’re products of their time,” but we also don’t have to defend the mistakes that they made. We can just say “It was a mistake,” and we can move on.

And by the way, Brigham Young himself taught this principle of fallibility. He said, “Can a prophet or an apostle be mistaken? I will acknowledge that all the time, but I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breadth from the truth, and I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs.” And so Brigham Young seems to make an important distinguishment between willfully misleading people and mistakenly misleading people. And the environment that he grew up in makes it frankly not surprising that he would hold some of these beliefs and that he would try to guide the church according to these beliefs, which are incorrect, but I don’t think this was done with malice or ill intent.

And we shared that great quote from Elder Quentin L․ Cook, actually, to back that point up where, speaking directly about Brigham Young and his stance on blacks in Mormonism, he said, “Brigham Young said things about race that fall short of our standards today. Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time.” And sometimes we say that. Sometimes we say that, “You know, we’ve got to realize that prophets and apostles are products of their times.” And I think what we mean by that is that they are prone to the mistakes of the majority way of thinking in their day. And that’s true.

And I thought we did a particularly great job last time of describing what those times were like in 19th century America. You know, what were the dominant ways of thinking about race? What were the prevailing thoughts on interracial marriage? What was the dominant thinking on segregation and how people were deciding and debating in the U․ S․ of how to go about that? If any of our listeners missed last episode, I think it would be well worth your time to go back and listen to the masterful contextualization of the attitudes and beliefs of many in the U․S․ at that time, including in the church, on these issues in the 19th century. 

And what this context really helps us do is understand the forces that are working against them and how God kind of slowly and subtly moves us into a better perspective. I like it in the Book of Mormon when Moroni says, “Condemn me not for my imperfections.” And it’s an interesting thing to go back and even read the scriptures with this lens of race and bias and context, when it comes to it. But he also goes on to say, “Learn to be more wise than we have been.”

And so part of our exploration here is “How can we do better?” And how can we identify maybe the same things that might affect us in our time and find a way to avoid them, but have charity for all people involved in the process here?

Yeah. And I love that about Moroni, that he says, “Thank God that he has let you see our imperfections so that you may learn to be more wise than we have been.” And I agree, especially in the context of black Mormons. I think that’s the productive way forward in all of this, in my estimation. There’s no condemnation, but there is trying to learn to be more wise, hopefully, than those generations who’ve gone before us. I think that’s great.

So to sum it up, we would say that through the debates in 1852, Brigham Young won the debates. Utah becomes a slave territory, even though he was opposed by fellow apostle Orson Pratt. We went into all the details of that last time.

But the short of it is Utah becomes a slave territory for the next 10 years until in 1862, the U. S. Congress passes a law freeing slaves in all U. S. territories. So slavery only lasts 10 years in Utah, but the discriminatory theology articulated in those 1852 debates eventually becomes very entrenched in the church and leads to what we call the priesthood and temple ban, a policy that is targeting specifically black Africans from participation in priesthood and temple.

And so what we want to talk about today, I guess our burning question of the day is that if 1852 was the first public articulation of a ban, how and when and why did this become fully entrenched policy in the church? We talked about last time how 1852 was not when the policy was made. That was when the first theological idea was expressed publicly about the connection between Cain and black Africans and how there would be no black participation in priesthood. But it wasn’t, like, a policy, because the church wasn’t doing policies. I mean, it’s a real question as to whether or not it’s correct to call it a policy in the 19th century.

Because it doesn’t seem like it was universally applied. It was more of a belief floating around that sometimes acted as a guide in certain actions, but the history from this time period shows that it was really unevenly applied. People of mixed race, people that had African ancestry were allowed to be ordained to the priesthood. Some weren’t. There were a number of different situations in which it happened, and it doesn’t seem like it was consistent really until the 20th century— when they sit down and they start to codify what the church teaches and believes in some of these more esoteric areas.

Yeah. 1907 is when we’re going to get our first statement of policy that I can find, and so let’s kind of build up between 1852 and 1907. So I guess from the 10,000-foot view here, we could say in summary that what we see from the historical record is a gradual entrenchment of an LDS priesthood ban supported by false doctrine and then false memories. The ban is then going to gain historical weight with each succeeding generation of church leaders who are unwilling to violate the precedent set by their predecessors. I think in a nutshell, that encapsulates what happens.

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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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