Black in Mormonism: How the Priesthood-Temple Ban Became Fully Entrenched Policy in the Church (Part 5)

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

Let’s circle back to 1904. This is the year Joseph F. Smith, who is now church president, has a crucial memory slip regarding Elijah Able and blacks in Mormonism. In a letter referencing Elijah’s priesthood ordination, Joseph F. Smith explained that it was simply a mistake that, “was never corrected,” and that “the rule of the church is that negroes cannot receive the priesthood.” Oy. 

What’s so troubling about this is that, remember, Joseph F. Smith is the one that performed the investigation on Elijah Able himself back in 1879, and he’s the one that defended the legitimacy of his priesthood ordination to President Taylor. He’s also the one nine years earlier, in 1895, who had reminded Wilford Woodruff and his council that Elijah was ordained in Kirtland under Joseph Smith’s direction. But now, here in 1904, he’s not remembering the conclusions of his own firsthand investigation.

Instead, it seems he’s remembering or defaulting to John Taylor’s tentative conclusion at that 1879 council, where he said Elijah’s ordination was likely a mistake Joseph Smith made when things were less well understood, and so it hadn’t been corrected. That’s what it sounds like, right? So that’s 1904.

Fast forward only three more years to 1907, and this is where the church, under President Smith, officially adopts a “one-drop policy”—which mirrored, in some ways, similar policies in the U. S. about segregation. Like, in Virginia, they have this one drop policy that if you have 99 white ancestors and one black ancestor, then you’re considered black and so you need to use the facilities of the blacks, not the whites.

So kind of mirroring that kind of a thought, the First Presidency decided that, “the descendants of Ham may receive baptism and confirmation, but 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.” That’s a policy. That’s the decision. And so notice here in 1907 LDS priesthood ban is not based solely on one’s personal worthiness but also an additional factor is whether or not they have the slightest degree of “negro blood” that could disqualify you. So by 1907, we’ve got a policy.

Yeah. And it’s a hallmark of Joseph F. Smith’s presidency that he spends a lot of time trying to codify, put things into certain terms. We talked a little bit earlier about this, but one of the contextual elements is the Reed Smoot hearings. Which—the Reed Smoot hearings—Reed Smoot is a Latter-day Saint senator that’s elected to the U. S. Senate, and then they refuse to seat him. And the trials for Reed Smoot go on for several years, touch on every aspect of the church, and very much the enemies of the church attempt to paint the church as un-American, as outside the mainstream, and as dangerous and radical. And as weird as it seems for us today, we could, in context, say that this desire to codify the race policy reflects their desire to move closer to mainstream America.
This is post-Civil War, but everybody that knows anything about American history is going to note that the Civil War ended slavery, but it did not solve racism.

In fact, in some ways, it intensified the problem to where you could argue that the feelings of segregation and racism are at their peak in the early 20th century when this policy is codified. And so it reflects the culture around them. You’ve noted that it actually borrows language from statutes passed in certain parts of America where they’re going to have this codified, systematic racial divide that exists, but that’s it. It’s not the church moving further from the mainstream. The mainstream was racism at this time, and it was the leaders of the church moving closer to that. But some of this stuff is really hard to implement.

One year later, so 1908, President Joseph F. Smith and other leaders again gather to discuss matters of race because they’d gotten a letter from a recently returned mission president in South Africa, Ralph Badger, which prompted the meeting and he—his question was, “What shall be done where people tainted with negro blood embraced the gospel?” His missionaries had recently baptized a Zulu chief, and that chief wanted to take the gospel to the rest of his group. And so Badger is wondering if the gospel should be preached to all the native tribes of South Africa. Like, “What should we do?” right? Of course, the priesthood question is all swirling in there. 

In response to that inquiry, Joseph F. Smith recites for the gathered council the stories of Elijah Able and Jane Manning James and specifically recounts their appeals for temple blessings. He uses Able’s story as precedent, but he remembers it very differently than when he had personally interviewed Able back in 1879, 30 years earlier, almost. What he said is that he remembered that Able’s ordination was declared null and void by the prophet Joseph himself. Ah, oof. This is a key moment. A very unfortunate moment. By this misremembering of President Joseph F. Smith, he essentially solidifies the racial restrictions. Of course, that was in place already in 1907, but this delegitimizes the memory of Elijah Able as a legit priesthood man. 

Paul Reeve, our favorite scholar on blacks and the priesthood and temple in the church. He said, “In that moment of historical forgetfulness, Joseph F. Smith created a new memory for the church moving forward. This new memory erased from collective Latter-day Saint history the black pioneers who complicated the racial story. In the new memory, priesthood and temples had always been white, and the racial restrictions had been in place from the beginning.” Ouch. So well-worded and so painful.

So going forward, this becomes the accepted story: that the prophet Joseph Smith was the precedent maker for the priesthood denial. This effectively removes black priesthood men from the collective memory of the church, and by 1912 George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency, he’s going to give a secondhand account—he seems to be quoting Zebedee Coltrin—about the prophet’s views on race and priesthood. Nobody can ever find a firsthand account of Joseph saying anything against this, but Zebedee Coltrin remembers, right?

So George Q. Cannon’s now starting to state confidently that Zebedee Coltrin’s memory is correct: that Joseph Smith was the instigator of the policy. Then, slightly over a decade later, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who’s the son of President Joseph F. Smith, he’s going to be able to write now, very definitively, “It is true that the negro race is barred from holding the priesthood.” And note this: “This has always been the case,” he said. “The prophet Joseph Smith taught this doctrine, and it was made known to him.” Of course, no footnote. Nothing that goes back to an original statement by Joseph. This isn’t Joseph Fielding Smith being dishonest. This is Joseph Fielding Smith accepting as the narrative that’s been passed down now for the last decade-plus that Joseph Smith was the precedent-maker here. 

So that narrative is not questioned for decades. It’s going to get reinforced in each successive generation because each generation of church leaders is going to be more and more unwilling to violate the precedent of their predecessors. This is just kind of the unwritten order of things—or now it’s become, in 1907, the written order of things. This is how it is. The memory is that Joseph Smith started it, and so that’s that.

And in a lot of ways it’s untenable, too. You mentioned the mission president from South Africa. I actually have read journals of a missionary in South Africa named Wiley Sessions. And Wiley Sessions is the guy who comes back to the States and eventually starts the Institutes of Religion. While he’s on his mission in South Africa, he writes some poignant things about experiences he’s had with people of African ancestry and his own questions about the nature of the priesthood policy, and Wiley Sessions is a man of faith. He trusts the leaders of the church, but he also recognizes maybe the untenability of this whole idea. In fact, I think there’s a threat of untenability that goes back to Brigham Young. Brigham Young, when he introduces this idea, says, “the time will come when they will have all the blessings of the priesthood, and more.” So it’s going to have to eventually be resolved. It gets to this point, and then the next generation is trying to defend the previous generation, trying to uphold what they’ve done, but also recognizing the issues with it, and that’s going to lead us to what we talk about in our next episode.

And I think what we’ve talked about today is helpful in answering another question that I sometimes get from very earnest people when we’re talking about this history. They’ll want to know: How is it possible that if Brigham Young’s introduction of this Mormon priesthood ban in 1852 was wrong, how did it not get corrected right away? How did the next president of the church not correct it, and then the next president of the church? We’re going to get what, nine presidents of the church between Brigham Young and President Spencer W. Kimball? How was this not corrected by one of them at some point if this was not somehow inspired of God?

I think what we’ve been talking about today helps to answer that. There was false doctrine and then false memories. And the false memories are the kicker here, because that now creates a false precedent that traces back to Joseph Smith. And so at least one of the major reasons that subsequent presidents of the church don’t question this is because they didn’t have a question about it. Like, it wasn’t something that they needed to bring to God. Precedent is the key here. I don’t know that we can overstate this point.

It’s just never happened that a generation of church leaders have questioned the precedent of their predecessors, especially not Joseph Smith, without some strong reason to do so. And given the racial climate in America for the first half of the 20th century, there really just wasn’t reason to question what had become universally understood as a restrictive stance toward blacks that originated with Joseph Smith.
That, in a nutshell, is essentially why this erroneous ban lasted so long.

There just wasn’t a strong reason to question it until the racial environment changes in America in the second half of the 20th century. Then we get some deep scholarly investigation into the origins of this ban, and we get apostles who start asking more urgent questions, and we get a church president who begins to fiercely focus his faith on this issue, and who ultimately, in unity with his fellow apostles, approaches the Lord in 1978 and receives a revelation from heaven that overturns this ban. Now, we’re getting a little ahead of the story here, but the basic point we want to end today’s discussion with, to wrap this all up, is that it’s going to take a revelation from heaven to cut through the tangle of false doctrines and false memories introduced by the human element of God’s servants, as we’ve talked about today. 

The good news is that this revelation comes in 1978, but we have a few more things to talk about before we get there. So hang in there. We know this is challenging history, but the resolution is coming. We’re going to resolve the plot, and it’s a great resolution that’s very uplifting.

Stay tuned. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. In our next episode, we continue this series by looking at what developments occurred relative to the LDS priesthood ban during the 70-year period from 1908 to 1978, including the challenges the ban presented to missionary work throughout the world, such as where to send missionaries and whether or not they should actively proselyte blacks at all. We’ll look at President David O. McKay’s innovations to move the work forward among blacks, despite the ban, as well as highlight the differing viewpoints and teachings of various apostles in the 1960s, which underscored a lack of unity among the brethren on this issue at that time. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter-day Saint scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us.

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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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