Blacks in Mormonism: Was the Racial Ban Church Policy or Doctrine? Setting the Stage for a Revelation from 1908-1978 (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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The question is, “What happened in the 70 years from 1908 to 1978, and then what led to the apostles overturning the ban?” So let’s dive into this, and let’s take a look at what we know about those 70 years and how we start to lay the groundwork for the 1978 revelation that overturns the Mormon priesthood ban.

I would say that what happens next if I were to put a header in our notes, I would call this header “A Season of Hardening and Exclusion.” That’s how it’s going from 1908 for the next several decades, more policies of exclusion began to emerge, particularly as regards missionary work to blacks, right? What I’d call a semi-official soft exclusion of blacks in terms of missionary focus.

So, for example, in that same meeting where President Joseph F. Smith had that memory slip about Elijah Able in 1908, church leaders decided that missionaries “should not take the initiative in proselyting among the Negro people, but if Negroes or people tainted with Negro blood apply for baptism themselves, they might be admitted to church membership in the understanding that nothing further can be done for them.” That same year, there was an announcement in the Liahona magazine that “Our missionaries laboring in states where Negroes abound have been instructed not to deny information concerning the gospel or even baptism to members of that race who earnestly desire the same, but not to make any special effort to convert them.” So we’ll just kind of softly exclude blacks from even missionary efforts.

Even as late as 1920, President Heber J. Grant wrote to a mission president in California instructing him to tell a sister who was struggling with segregation in the church. He said, “We should bear in mind that our mission is not directly to the Negro race.” So in this time period, so over this next—what is that? About 12 years—we have these kind of semi-official policies that are instructing missionaries to not directly seek black converts. That, of course, violates the Lord’s injunction, repeated no less than five times—I counted—in the Doctrine and Covenants to take the gospel to “every creature” in “all the world.” No asterisks. No footnotes. It’s just everybody, everywhere.

But you can understand that this kind of behavior, this kind of posturing, would be a natural outgrowth of embracing those erroneous doctrines and those false historical memories. And so as a consequence the church increasingly is considered to be kind of a white church that meets all the criteria of respectability within the broader American culture at that time.

We should note that even in the midst of this policy, there were black members of the church. There’s a lovely website we’ve referred to before called The Century of Black Mormons, and during this time period, there are people—most of them, according to the website, are in the deep south of the United States—who are drawn towards the church and join the church and serve within the church in spite of the fact that they can’t serve at every position. So there’s no, and never was, any ban on people of African ancestry being members of the church.

But obviously, the priesthood policy for Blacks in Mormonism is off-putting and does kind of result in us being seen as this white church during this time.

But again, there are also cracks in this as well. Like, you mentioned Heber J. Grant. I’ve done a lot of work on an apostle named Joseph F. Merrill. And in his letters, which are available at BYU, he’s not particularly supportive of the priesthood policy, but he’s not particularly defensive about it, either. And it seems like the line he shared was one shared by a fair number of church leaders, which is, “This is the way it is. If God wants to change it, he can intervene and change it,” but it doesn’t seem like in his papers it was a question that came up with too much frequency. That might have to do with kind of the Western nature of the church during this time, where we’re predominantly a Western, North American church.

I think that’s right. And the fact that there are not very many blacks in the church—there are some, but—percentage-wise, there’s not enough maybe to agitate the question very profoundly among church members or church leaders. In fact, I’d say the next sort of movement in the history, as we continue on, the next sort of heading in my notes, is the beginning of pushback, questioning, investigation, and then a kind of a mix between a softening among some and a retrenchment among others. So I’d say that even as those teachings, those policies, those practices were hardening in place, some church leaders and members began to question their origins and even advocate for reform. There’s going to be an unevenness in views even among church leaders. Like you’re saying, like, Joseph F. Merrill would have a different view than say, Mark E. Petersen. Hugh B. Brown. Spencer W. Kimball. They’re going to begin to kind of question Hugh B. Brown especially, while others are going to sort of reinforce the restrictions like Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, Joseph Fielding Smith, Mark E. Petersen, Bruce R. McConkie. And this lack of consensus largely accounts for why there’s really no movement, right? No decisive change in this policy for several decades in the 20th century.

Maybe the first moment of, like, kind of questioning the Mormon priesthood ban that’s kind of historically significant is in 1947. Let’s maybe talk about this.

The First Presidency at this time assigned a fellow named Heber Meeks, who was president of the Southern States Mission to explore the possibility of opening up missionary work in Cuba. So Meeks reached out to his sociologist friend named Lowry Nelson, who was a professor at the University of Minnesota, and he asked him about the racial picture in Cuba and specifically what he thought the likelihood of being able to avoid conferring priesthood on men with African ancestry was. That was his question. “What do you think the likelihood is that we can avoid ordaining men with black ancestry there?” Nelson responded to both Meeks and to the First Presidency with clear dismay and disappointment at the policy. “Wait, what? This is a thing?” Right?

And as he pushes them on this, they respond with this important quote: they said, “From the days of the prophet Joseph, even until now, it has been the doctrine of the church, never questioned by any of the church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the gospel.” So a few important things in that quote, right? “From the days of the prophet Joseph,” and they call it a doctrine, and they say that it’s never been questioned.

So we can see a few problems in that quote, but that’s the understanding at the time, in 1947, of the leaders of the church, First Presidency.

In 1949, the First Presidency of George Albert Smith, they responded to inquiries into the policy. People would write letters and ask the First Presidency, “Can you please clarify the church’s position on blacks and priesthood ordination? And they would respond with this kind of ready response, which is this: “It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy, but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the church from the days of its organization to the effect that Negroes are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.” So you can see right there, again, how entrenched this idea is.

It’s a commandment from the Lord. It’s a doctrine, and it began in the days of Joseph. That’s just fully hardened in place and not really questioned until President David O. McKay becomes president of the church. So he becomes President in 1951, and then apparently it said that in 1954, President McKay appointed a special committee of the Twelve to study this issue, like, try to get to historical bedrock. And from the result of that special committee was the conclusion that the priesthood ban had no clear basis in scripture, but that church members were not prepared for change, was the report. Isn’t that interesting?

That’s interesting. And a genuine concern among them is how church members would respond to this regarding Mormon views on black people. I want to back up to the question that 1949 statement says it’s doctrine. And at this point in time, doctrine is a word that means “what is taught,” basically. But in our church doctrine sometimes is used as a synonym for truth, you know?

And it seems like one of the nuances that President McKay introduces in the discussion that we really need to give him credit for is asking, “Is this a doctrine, as in a truth, or is this a policy?” Policies within the church change all the time, based on the circumstances that we live in. All of us have been a witness to a number of policies changing. It’s something that happens on a regular basis, and it doesn’t really shake anybody’s faith, you know?

We changed the way we did the ordinances in the temple during Covid so that it would be a little bit safer. Didn’t affect any of the truths or doctrine taught in the temple, but the policy changed. And President McKay seemed to be really intent on gently pushing forward this idea of, “Hey, is this a doctrine, or is it a policy? Policy we can change. A doctrine we have to get revelation from God to alter.” And I think that was part of the intent behind this committee to study the scriptures is another characteristic of doctrine is it’s generally found in the canon, and outside of that reference in the Book of Abraham, there wasn’t a lot of support to say that this was a doctrine.

If it’s a policy, then we can work with it, and President McKay starts to take gentle movements. For instance, in 1954, he discontinues the practice in South Africa of requiring a person to trace their ancestry to prove that they have no black ancestors, the “not a drop” policy, which was never really feasible. If we’re being honest with ourselves here. And he also, in a place like Fiji—if you visit Fiji, the natives of Fiji have African features. You would assume that they’re descendants of African individuals, but that’s just what native Fijians look like, and there’s no link between them and Africa.

So the question came up is, “Could a native Fijian hold the priesthood?” President McKay says, “Yeah, they can. They’re not of African ancestry, and we’re not going to try to establish a connection there.” So he’s trying to gradually soften it, but it’s also a challenging time because, among the leadership of the church, there are some people that are defensive, that like you mentioned, harden a little bit when it comes to the LDS priesthood ban and policy and its origins and aren’t as willing to explore how that works. And we could name a couple of examples. In fact, why don’t we go through a couple of examples of that?

Yeah, one example would be in 1954—these are just well-documented examples—where in the aftermath of the watershed Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, right? This is huge. This overturns segregation as a legal thing, right? In the United States.

In the aftermath of that, Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve speaks at BYU and publicly pushes back against that Supreme Court decision, saying, “I think the Lord segregated the Negro, and who is man to change that segregation?” Yikes. He then reaffirms that the descendants of Cain were denied the priesthood, which was an act of segregation by God. God himself segregated the Negro. So that’s very public pushback from Elder Petersen, who was not alone in his instincts toward this conservative retrenchment in light of societal change. So that’s one example.

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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