Blacks in Mormonism: Was the Racial Ban Church Policy or Doctrine? Setting the Stage for a Revelation from 1908-1978 (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

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In 1907, the First Presidency codified the church’s official policy about Blacks in Mormonism, both in the priesthood and the temple, declaring 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.” By contrast, in 2020, church president Russell M. Nelson reminded all church members that “Your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and his commandments and not the color of your skin.” The major catalyst shifting the church away from that discriminatory 1907 policy and toward the marvelous inclusivity encapsulated in President Nelson’s words was the Lord’s revelation to church leaders in 1978. But this revelation didn’t come all of a sudden nor out of the blue. In fact, it was decades in coming and grew out of the convergence of real-world circumstances in which church leaders found themselves and the church, which they led. In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we take a look at some of the relevant historical developments in the church during the 70-year period from 1908 to 1978, from the decades-long season of racial hardening and exclusion to a softening and relaxing of certain church policies under President David O. McKay in the 1950s and ‘60s to disharmony and divergence of views among the apostles in the 1960s, and finally to the unexpected call of Spencer W. Kimball as church president in 1973. So today we set the important stage for next week’s climactic episode, all about the details of the 1978 revelation itself. I’m Scott Woodward, and my co-host is Casey Griffiths, and today we dive into our fifth episode in this series dealing with race and priesthood. Now, let’s get into it.

So in our last episode, we acknowledged that although the 1852 year was the first public articulation by Brigham Young of a priesthood ban on blacks, yet there was no official church policy established on the matter at the time. In fact, there really wasn’t anything official in terms of church policy on the books until 55 years later, in 1907, as far as we can tell. So we traced what happened during that 55-year time period that led to the establishment of this policy. And so the long and short of the matter is basically that the priesthood and temple ban gradually became entrenched in the church because of two major factors: number one, dueling false doctrines, and number two, false memories.

The two dueling false doctrines that were intended to explain why blacks didn’t have rights to the priesthood were—the first one was from Brigham Young, his teaching that blacks were the descendants of Cain, the murderer of Abel, and who were therefore barred from the priesthood as a curse until such a time as all of Abel’s posterity would be allowed to receive it. The second false doctrine was Orson Pratt’s teaching that blacks were barred from the priesthood as a punishment for some unspecified evil actions in pre-mortality. Brigham Young argued against Orson Pratt’s teaching while Orson Pratt argued against Brigham Young’s teaching. Both of these theories were flatly disavowed as false doctrines in the church’s official Race and the Priesthood Gospel Topics essay.

So that’s the dueling false doctrines. Then, as for the false memories, there were two crucial ones, both involving Elijah Able. The first occurs in 1879 during an investigation instigated by President John Taylor about whether or not Elijah Able, a prime example of Blacks and the Priesthood and black man ordained to the priesthood in Joseph Smith’s day, should be granted his request to receive his endowment and be sealed to his recently deceased wife.

President Taylor personally interviewed two old men in Provo, Utah, who claimed to have intimate knowledge of the prophet Joseph’s views on blacks. That was Abraham O. Smoot and Zebedee Coltrin. Zebedee told President Taylor that Joseph Smith had dropped Elijah from the Seventies Quorum after he learned about his lineage, and he said that he heard Joseph say that blacks have no right to hold the priesthood. Now, that memory was contradicted by Elder Joseph F. Smith’s personal investigation into the legitimacy of Elijah Able’s ordination. He saw, firsthand, ordination certificates of Elijah’s, which were still valid, his patriarchal blessing, which had said he had been ordained an elder, and Joseph F. Smith had personally talked to Elijah, and Elijah had told him about his experience with Joseph Smith and how Joseph had told him that he was entitled to the priesthood, right?

So Elder Smith makes these facts known in the meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve about the matter, openly challenging Zebedee’s memory. But unfortunately, Zebedee’s false memory was favored by some church leaders, such as George Q. Cannon, who will bring it up later, which provides the foundation for the generations-long erroneous tradition that the priesthood ban originated with Joseph Smith.

President Taylor concludes from the evidence presented at that meeting that perhaps Elijah Able’s ordination was legitimate in one sense, but that it was also “not altogether correct” in another sense because it had innocently occurred before the word of the Lord was fully understood. So now, fast forward 25 years to 1904, when tragically Joseph F. Smith himself, now the church president, inexplicably has his own memory slip, in which he contradicts his 1879 conclusions, saying now that Elijah Able’s ordination was a mistake that was never corrected. Then, three years later, in 1907, President Smith and his counselors decided, here’s where we get the official policy, “that no one known to have in his veins Negro blood,” I’m quoting now, “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 represents the solidification of an actual restrictive policy, right? There it is. The die is now cast, and the entrenchment is essentially complete.

Then one year later, one more piece to this, one more memory slip. In 1908 in a meeting with church leaders, President Smith’s memory now slides even further to fully harmonize with Zebedee Coltrin’s false memory regarding the Mormon priesthood ban, when he said that Elijah Able, “His ordination was declared null and void by the prophet Joseph himself.” That was President Smith in 1908.

So two really just unfortunate memory slips: Zebedee Coltrin talking about what he remembered Joseph saying, which is contradicted by the evidence, and then Joseph F. Smith himself decades later, after having examined the evidence, now misremembering and siding basically with Zebedee Coltrin’s memory. At this point in time, these misrememberings, this essentially creates a new memory for the church going forward from the very highest office in the church, in which the racial restrictions had always been in place from the days of Joseph Smith, and legitimate black priesthood men, like Elijah Able and Q. Walker Lewis had basically never really existed, right? They were now essentially lost from the collective memory of the church. So that’s the tragedy of the false doctrines and the false memories.

Now, that narrative is not questioned for several decades, and it gets reinforced in each generation as successive leaders are unwilling to violate the precedent of their predecessor. Why would they? Like, nobody questioned that it was legitimate history.

So to sum it all up in a nutshell, dueling false doctrine plus false memories, plus successive generations of church leaders unwilling to violate the precedent of their predecessors. This is what entrenches the priesthood and temple ban on blacks in the church. You know, and sometimes the question is asked, “If the priesthood-temple ban wasn’t inspired by God, then why didn’t one of Brigham Young’s next eight successors correct this mistake earlier?

And what we’ve just summarized is basically the answer to that question in a nutshell.

And I’ll add one more factor to the well-done analysis here, and that is the predominant culture that the church exists within particularly in the United States. It really wasn’t until after World War II that people start questioning the racial hierarchy that’s been set up and sort of reinforced over time in place. And a couple of key things, like the ideologies that they fought against in World War II, which were racially based; the integration of the armed forces, which happens just after World War II, which causes a lot of mingling among these groups that have been deliberately set up to be separate from each other also starts to affect the church, so we can’t pretend like this is happening in a vacuum. Church leaders start to seriously question and examine the problem of Blacks in Mormonism in the midst of civil rights ramping up in the United States as well, and that affects them. The other factor that we sometimes need to take into account, too, is the globalization of the church that happens in the 1950s, where we start to have influence of the church extend to places like Africa, and people there inquiring for missionaries for proselyting materials and for a full-on membership in the church.

I mean, I’ve been to the Church Museum of History and Art and seen a statue of the Angel Moroni that a congregation in Ghana built on their own without being members of the church because they loved the Book of Mormon and the teachings, and all these things are going to come together to lead us to where we want to be. We’re also playing against some incredibly powerful historical forces.

Tradition. What they saw as doctrine. What seems obvious to us right now might not have seemed as obvious to them in the context they existed in, and what we’re going to deal with today is the lead up to the 1978 revelation, which is really the first time the entire First Presidency and Twelve make this a matter of personal revelation. They seek a revelation from God.

Isn’t it interesting that in all of this, first of all, like you’re saying, like it’s not even really a question of whether or not this is accurate or appropriate, given the broader culture of the day. So they can’t really be faulted for not inquiring of the Lord, seeking some sort of revelation on the matter. Like, you only inquire about what you have questions about, and nobody was really questioning this as a legitimate way of seeing things and as the way that God had ordered the universe, right? Ordered the world with these kind of built-in caste systems among humanity, which, like you said, is not really questioned until after World War II, very strongly in the U. S. and then in the church.

It’s remarkable that the very first time that the First Presidency and the Twelve collectively inquire about this issue, like, together, unitedly, is 1978. And when they did so a revelation was collectively received by them, and the ban was overturned. Like, the very first time they inquired collectively, unitedly, the ban was overturned. It’s very interesting. 

And you’ve put an interesting quote into our outline here today that I want to share from Bruce R. McConkie. In a talk that was given just a couple of months after the revelation on the LDS priesthood ban, he said, “You will recall that The Book of Mormon teaches that if the apostles in Jerusalem had asked the Lord, he would’ve told them about the Nephites, but they didn’t ask. They didn’t manifest that faith, and they didn’t get an answer.” And then he goes on to say, “One underlying reason for what happened to us is that the brethren asked in faith. They petitioned and desired and wanted an answer, President Kimball in particular.” That’s a remarkable admission from someone we see as kind of a hardened defender of the priesthood policy who actually became one of the most ardent supporters of the new revelation after it was given. I’m talking about Elder McConkie here. 

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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