Blacks in Mormonism: Tough Questions & Responses with Paul Reeve (Part 2)

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

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 Here’s our next most frequently asked question regarding blacks in Mormonism, and this is—shout out to Ken and Lori and Bob and Matt and Vincent and Joseph and Jennifer and Chris, all asking a variety of this question. And let’s let Ken be the voice for this. Ken says, “How do we reconcile the error of multiple prophets, starting with Brigham Young, in denying the blessings of the priesthood and temple covenants to black members of the church, with the statement made by President Wilford Woodruff when he said, ‘The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this church to lead you astray’”? How do you reconcile those two ideas? Because we’re talking about Brigham Young all the way up to and through President Kimball until 1978. How do you reconcile that?

I think those are really good questions to ask, and this is really heavy history, and it brings up the question of prophetic fallibility, and I think it prompts us to stare it squarely in the face. And I think and I hope that that’s good in terms of causing us to exercise our faith, right? To think through these things in a deep way and come to terms with them. 

Deseret Book actually asked me to grapple with that. So there’s a chapter in the book that deals with Woodruff’s statement. My sense as a historian is that we as Latter-day Saints sometimes take that outside of its context and give it truncated meaning that doesn’t match the context in which Woodruff is expressing it.

As I understand it—and there are, I think, three quotes that are included with Official Declaration 1 in Latter-day Saint scriptures, quotes from Woodruff’s speeches that he is giving as he goes around Utah Territory defending the manifesto, because he’s facing the accusation that he’s a fallen prophet and he’s simply bowed to political pressure, the manifesto is not, in fact, a revelation. And I think it’s important to have in context that the Supreme Court in May of 1890 has issued a ruling. You know, the church has argued that the Edmunds-Tucker Act is unconstitutional, and the Edmunds-Tucker Act is a piece of anti-polygamy legislation that is really kind of grinding the church to dust very slowly. It’s confiscating church property valued at above $50,000, but had for the time excluded properties used strictly for religious purposes. Well, in this May 1890 Supreme Court decision, the Supreme Court actually upholds Edmunds-Tucker and even opens the door for the possibility of the confiscation of properties used for religious purposes if they are being used for things the government considers illegal—that means marrying people into polygamous marriages. And all of a sudden Latter-day Saint temples are on the chopping block.

That’s the context for the Woodruff revelation in September of 1890. He’s actually been subpoenaed by the government to testify. They have to prove that temples are being used for illegal purposes, and they’re going to subpoena Woodruff in an effort to try to make that determination. And he goes to California, comes back, and issues the manifesto. And as he defends the manifesto, he’s saying, “God gave me a revelation.” He’s defending it as revelation. He’s basically articulating the trade-off as, “We’ll abandon polygamy and preserve temple worship,” something much more central to Latter-day Saint theology. And the reason why that little, short history, I think, is important, in context, what he’s saying is, “God won’t give me a revelation that will lead the church astray.” I think a profoundly defensible position, and we don’t ever have Brigham Young claiming a revelation for the Mormon priesthood ban. And, you know, it develops across the course of the 19th century in fits and starts, accumulating precedent with each new generation of leaders, some of them falsely remembering back that it began with Joseph Smith and that it was always in place. So you have a very different trajectory taking place there. 

As a historian, I can sort of watch that unfold across the course of the 19th century in fits and starts, and I think firmly in place by the beginning of the 20th century, without any claim to revelation. I only see one revelation in the Latter-day Saint canon on that question, and it comes in June of 1978, and it restores us back to where we started.

Sometimes when we apply that statement by Woodruff outside of that context and simply use it as a blanket statement, it sounds as if then God revokes a prophet’s agency when he makes him a prophet. And as I understand it, the fundamental foundation of the Latter-day Saint plan is agency. And it includes prophets, right? Like, God doesn’t revoke a prophet’s agency when he makes him a prophet. I just have no evidence that that’s the case. And in fact, the Old Testament is filled with all kinds of examples of prophets exercising their agency in, I think, sometimes poor ways, and I think those stories are included in the Old Testament in an effort to get us to learn from their mistakes. Like, they’re not being held up as the good example, but actually, “Hey, here’s what happens when you exercise your agency poorly.”

David and Bathsheba is a good example. But the Old Testament is filled with those. And let me add two quotes to that, I think just to bolster what you’re saying here—basically to help us to see, like, what Wilford Woodruff could not have been saying. So here’s Brigham Young himself, and I think we shared this a few episodes ago, but he said, “Can a prophet or an apostle be mistaken?” Good question. Then he says, “Do not ask me any such question, for 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.” He doesn’t “designedly” do it, right? He says, “I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs.” I think that’s great. That’s—clearly President Young was acting out of his own honest convictions in 1852. I think that’s true.

 And then you have President Joseph F. Smith saying this: he said, “If the president of the church should become unfaithful, God would remove him out of his place.” That’s a similar language to what Wilford Woodruff says. “He will not suffer the head of the church to transgress his laws and apostatize. The moment he should take a course that would in time lead to it, God would take him away. Why? Because to suffer a wicked man to occupy that position would be to allow, as it were, the fountain to become corrupted, which is something he will never permit.” According to Joseph F. Smith here, he’s saying that the promise that the church president won’t lead us astray is not a promise of prophetic infallibility but an assurance that God won’t allow the head of this church to become corrupted and deliberately deceive us. And again, Brigham Young and John Taylor and everyone afterwards, nobody was being deliberately deceptive or malicious in my reading of the historical record.

I think they fully believed the positions that they adopted, and it became so well entrenched, right, that you can account for the 1949 statement and the 1969 statement in defense of the LDS priesthood ban because they fully believed by that point especially that, you know, they were in place from the beginning. They coincided with the founding of the faith or always been in place. God put them in place. They traced back through the midst of time to the eternities. So they are defending what they understood, absolutely.

Next question. This question comes from Alex in Idaho Falls. Alex says, “Although the evidence presented seems to overwhelmingly indicate that the priesthood and temple ban was a mistake, I have not seen the church or the apostles use the word ‘mistake’ in explanations or conversations about the ban.” And then he says, “‘Mistake’ may be inferred from the most recent devotional to BYU faculty by Elder Cook, but he himself did not use that specific language.” And I think the quote he’s talking about is this one from 2020, where he said that “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 Alex is right; he didn’t use the word “mistake” there.

 So Alex’s question is, and I sense this from especially religious educators who are a little bit sensitive about this, “Would it be getting ahead of the church leadership for gospel teachers to explain the ban using the “mistake” language?

So I can’t, obviously, speak for church leaders. I think when you get new information, right, then you have to reevaluate your own assumptions, and I think President Uchtdorf has invited us to do that. He wants us to look beyond the iron gate of what we think we know and be willing to consider new sources, new evidence. A great talk Elder Maxwell gave, he calls intellectual curiosity a sign of meekness, a willingness to accept new evidence and new information. And, you know, this has been a journey for me, and so when new evidence comes to light, then I think we have to, you know, challenge our own existing cultural understandings. And I think that the Latter-day Saint leadership is going through that process.

I think they educated themselves around this issue, and then that led to the 2013 Race and the Priesthood essay, right, where they are disavowing previous teachings on this topic. And if you understand Latter-day Saint history, you understand that doesn’t happen very often. And then I think they are continuing to learn. I would say that we do have President Kimball in 1963, who at least is expressing somewhat of an open attitude about this and does point to the racial restrictions as a possible error. Possible error. His language. So is it possible that they get to the point where they’re openly saying “mistake”? I don’t know. I have no problem saying it, and I say that in the Deseret Book manuscript.

So once again, Deseret Book asked me to be open and honest in how I make sense of this for myself, and I do not see that the racial restrictions are of divine origins. That’s certainly where the evidence lands with me, but I think it takes time for the new information, the new scholarship, to kind of percolate, to sort of get into the hands of people who are making these kind of decisions, and I have no assumption that the leadership is reading anything that I write. So I’m not suggesting that in any sort of way, but you know, once again, it just takes time, sort of a slow process. The leadership also learning about new evidence, new information, and coming to their own conclusions.And for what it’s worth, Alex, I’ll just add that I think church leaders have already given the green light for you to teach this honestly and frankly. I mean, the “disavowal” language of the Gospel Topics essay about blacks in the priesthood gets you quite a ways down that road, and then Elder McConkie’s August 1978 comment where he asked us to forget everything that he said or Brigham Young said about the ban, and then admits that they spoke with limited understanding and without proper knowledge. Add to that Elder Cook’s statement that you cited and the fact that church-owned Deseret Book sought Paul out for his honest scholarship and printing his conclusions that you just heard. Add all of these elements together, and I don’t think you need to feel that you’re somehow getting ahead of church leaders on this. I think we’re on really safe ground to just teach this openly and honestly, and then just be careful and thoughtful about how you apply it.

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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