Updated: Oct 4, 2020
For many people, the moral outrage they feel at the Church stems from what they perceive as a history of limiting who can participate in ordinances, included priesthood and temple ordinances. Then, suddenly, there is a shift in position and that marginalized cohort can now fully participate. There is a corresponding outrage either that 1) the response simply corresponded with political pressure 2) that it lagged the civil social effort underway 3) that the explanation of “why” are pushed aside as if the prior assumptions simply vanished into thin air. The king issue for most of them, however, is that God simply isn’t racist or sexist or an -ist of any kind and the LDS Church, who claims to be God’s mouthpiece. . . is.
The prime example that is used to illuminate this issue is the ban on blacks of African lineage holding the Priesthood in the early days of Deseret. In one respect, this is an easy problem to resolve for there is no evidence Brigham Young was ever a prophet in the sense that he got the voice of the Lord. None of his doctrinal innovations ever made it to the twentieth century intact, be it polygamy, his theories on Adam and God, blood atonement, and even the temple ordinances (as they were changed by 1900). Thus, when Brigham Young banned blacks from the Priesthood after Joseph Smith did not (as he ordained or least sanctioned the ordinations of two black men, Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis, it’s easy to take the approach that Brigham Young was in error just like all of his other innovations. It gets harder as time moves on because the black ban remained for so long. When Spencer Kimball got around to praying to the Lord about it, it can be said the Lord showed the Brethren the way out of Brigham Young’s error. In this way, one can see how revelation works within a context of faith and revelation overcoming past errors. However, it also means that the Brethren before Kimball, were the key stumbling blocks to overcoming this error.
What can be frustrating however, is that overtly calling out Brigham Young as wrong isn’t an option in orthodox LDS Mormonism as it undermines the doctrine of infallibility and “unstray-ability.” If Brigham could be so wrong yesterday, well then Russell Nelson could be so wrong about issues plaguing women and homosexuals today. Thus, the LDS interpretation is that he was only sort-of wrong, or interpreted something as to his best understanding, or as some have argued, that God limited priesthood based upon the racism of the Saints. While these are still viable explanations, an expanded option of being totally wrong and getting this issue so wrong as to lead some people astray, should still be an acceptable idea within the framework of faith. Accountability is necessary for healing and repentance as does understanding the genesis of ideas to help see misunderstanding. One of those ideas that needs church repentance on behalf of some earlier church leaders is racism, however "pragmatic" it turned out to be at the time.
Let’s outline the ideas that could have formulated the racism of the time, particularly within Mormonism.
There are scriptural examples of “racism” in the Book of Mormon although it is inconsistent. On one hand, Nephi in the Book of Mormon says:
“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
On the other hand, the CES Letter quotes this scripture from the same book, chapter 5:21:
“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
Of course, the inference is the Mormon God is racist as is the Book of Mormon.
It was explained earlier how the Book of Mormon translates “through a glass darkly,” that even the book admits there were errors of men. In this instance, one could fault Mormon for narrating the story in such a way as to view skin color as a curse in his eyes, while maybe that’s not how God sees it. Perhaps God sees the doctrinal implications more clearly, a God who doesn’t deny anyone, who is no respecter of persons. The curse as mentioned, was one seen of men.
Indeed, when one reads the Lectures on Faith, one gets that same sense, that God is approachable by all men and women, otherwise God is not to be trusted. Joseph Smith seems to have inherited the doctrine of 2 Nephi 26 more than the observational statement of Mormon in 2 Nephi 5. There is no indication in his writings that he saw black skin as a perpetual curse, although he did reason that it was the result of Cain’s sin, which was not an uncommon belief among white American Christians in 1830. However, in his behavior and actions, he never seems to treat black people any different than white people, including church ordinances.
The Book of Mormon, in context, also overwhelms Mormon’s observational statement in that ultimately, those who have the darker skin, even cursed, become more righteous than those with the whiter skins, who are ultimately wiped out in a genocidal war, and the darker skinned descendants are also promised the best inheritance in God’s Zion. With all that eschatological context, it’s hard to see the Book of Mormon as racist or advocating racism, at least against dark-skinned people. It certainly seems to elevate those with darker skin in the end. That shouldn’t be missed in these sorts of musings on Mormon racism. The Lamanites have a special seat in the development of Zion, and the best white American gentiles who repent get to do is to help them. At least for people of other races, the currency of white supremacy in early Mormonism doesn’t hold water very well at least from a scriptural standpoint. In fact, with a deeper dive of the text, it seems to vindicate brown supremacy!
But as far as the African race, that’s another question, as we can see in the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses, which piggyback on Genesis to extrapolate more on a dark skin curse. And because these were revealed by Joseph Smith, and aren’t results of “the Bible being translated correctly” over thousands of years, it seems to implicate Mormonism in the cultural nineteenth century interpretation of afro-racism? Certainly, the LDS Church likes to hang Brigham Young’s interpretation of these passages in the Pearl of Great Price as the impetus for his racism, which thereby implicates Joseph Smith. However, there are two things that are wrong with this simplistic explanation. 1) A closer reading of the Book of Abraham doesn’t command this exact interpretation and 2) Something happened in Utah between Brigham Young and a black man that may have pushed him to limit black ordinations more than any doctrinal exposition.
The Pearl of Great Price – A Closer Look at Race
The Pearl of Great Price as we know it, was not canonized until 1880 and includes several passages not known in the first publication in 1851 or the serial prints in 1842. The Moses text was supposedly taken from an 1830 revelation given to Joseph and the Abraham revelation comes to us through the auspices of the mummy purchases in 1835 and that was first published in the Times and Seasons in 1842. Thus, we can’t be completely sure of the authenticity of the final text.
There is a sense that these passages become more important (certainly to the LDS Mormons) as time passed, but they weren’t picked up or canonized by other Mormon sects due to some issues of reliability as well as perceived doctrinal drifts in these texts versus the doctrine of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Abraham, as well, seems to provide abstract reasoning for the temple endowment, a product of the Anointed Quorum’s secret teachings.
With that in mind, taking the text at face value, let’s examine the passages in question. The first indication of a “black curse” comes to us first from Moses 7. In verse 5 we get:
“For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.”
In verse 22 it is described as Cain’s curse.
“And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.”
A cursory glance at these passages seem to indicate that having black skin is bad, i.e. not approved, somehow inferior. However, these passages are not unlike the passages in the Book of Mormon where a “cursed” people of a dark skin somehow ultimately become the favored people of God. We can take no more liberties with these passages than we can with the Book of Mormon. Both examples are possibly an indication of a people who intermarried with the indigenous population and so the traits (such as skin color) would thereby follow. That’s a little “out there” for some because it would presuppose Adam’s people were colonists and not exactly the FIRST people on terra firma. How they became black, we cannot draw inferences that somehow this is how God prefers his children to organize themselves . . . into segregated systems. Perhaps there is a sort of sadness from a God who through his discipline to agency, allows his children to set up inferior racial systems. Despite the racial separation, only Noah’s family were saved after the Enochian ascension of Zion, which curiously, included black people. So much for separating the races into good and evil. I guess they were both worthy to be saved. Thus, was “cursing” people with black skin accepted by God, or a cautionary assertion of a perception relayed by the non-cursed that made it into the narrative that contributed to the contention of the day?
For the case of a priesthood ban, we must turn to Abraham. From the first chapter beginning in verse 25 we have the following passages:
“Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal. Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood. Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry.”
From here we can extrapolate what Brigham Young perceived when he laid down the scriptural basis of a black priesthood ban in 1852 as well as the earlier doctrine of anti-miscegenation or interracial marriage, particularly with Africans. Said he:
“Now then in the kingdom of God on the earth, a man who has the African blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of priesthood; Why? because they are the true eternal principals the Lord Almighty has ordained, and who can help it, men cannot. the angels cannot, and all the powers of earth and hell cannot take it off, but thus saith the Eternal I am, what I am, I take it off at my pleasure, and not one particle of power can that posterity of Cain have, until the time comes the says he will have it taken away. That time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more. In the kingdom of God on the earth the Africans cannot hold one particle of power in Government. The subjects, the rightful servants of the residue of the children of Adam, and the residue of the children through the benign influence of the Spirit of the Lord have the privilege of seeing to the posterity of Cain; inasmuch as it is the Lords will they should receive the spirit of God by Baptism; and that is the end of their privilege; and there is not power on earth to give them any more power.”
It’s a struggle to extrapolate the totality in his belief based on those scriptural passages. The Book of Abraham does not interpret a priesthood ban into perpetuity, and while it implies difficulties when one intermarries, it provides us with no commandment from God to NOT intermarry, nor for whites NOT to marry Africans. It’s simply a history of what WAS the situation prior to Abraham’s day. In the Mormon binary, as well as in all religious fundamentalism, there is a need to extrapolate scripture so literally as to embody policy and practice across all eons of time, when perhaps the bias of epochal narration gets in the way.
If one were to read this more closely, one could see that Abraham’s dispensation enumerates an end to the practice of banning priesthood based upon skin color, at least in the beginning. Abraham and his father, Terah, are possibly descendants of Ham. Though not explicitly mentioned, the fact that Abraham’s father “was led away by their idolatry” indicates that he was descended at least partly through the lines of Pharaoh and Egyptus. That would make Abraham a descendant of Ham, of Cain, and not subject to the rights of priesthood. In other words, Abraham may have been black or at the very least, have black genetics. That means that the great father of the Biblical triumvirate, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the great patriarchs of Israel, could be possibly be descended through Ham. True, Israelites liken their genealogy through Shem, but was it seen the same way we see people adopted into Houses of Israel in our day? Or did they simply pick the more favorable line? And what did Abraham do? He repented and sought the Lord. Apparently, the “rights of the Priesthood,” in an ancient patriarchal sense, do not pertain to those who truly seek they Lord. Anyone can obtain Priesthood. When aligned with D&C 84 and Alma 13, this doctrine makes sense. The rights of Priesthood in any system, be they non-Canaanites pre-flood, non-Levites during the time of Israel, non-Catholics during the early Christian centuries, or non-Mormons who don’t hold keys, are merely an invitation to partake of the real thing. They may hold certain rights within a system to perform ordinances, but the power of the real thing is dependent upon one’s connection with heaven, through righteousness. Abraham was the first convert who fell outside of the traditional patriarchal line where rights were inherited. Yet he inherited Priesthood.
This maybe a strained interpretation. However, that means the opposite is also true . . . that there isn’t enough room in interpretation to force Brigham’s hand on the matter. It’s more likely the scriptural passages were excuses, not instructive.
Having a practical personality, Brigham most likely used another reason to deny blacks the priesthood. That reason has a name and it is Warren “William McCary.”
Warren “William” McCary
William McCary was a late Nauvoo-period convert, a man who looked (and acted) more like a Native American than an African American. In fact, he would play up his appearance as a Native American to make money and fool people. He found that among Mormons, his identity as a Native American got him into greater favor than his identity as a black man. After he was baptized and given the Melchizedek priesthood by Orson Hyde while in Winter Quarters, he began to exercise his own version of charismatic prophesy and transfiguration. Apparently, he was a handsome man and attracted women through his charisma . . . white Mormon women. He had recently married Lucy Stanton, the daughter of a prominent Mormon figure, with the blessing of Brigham Young. Brigham, who we understand at some point, recognized the true racial heritage of McCary, was indifferent to him being sealed to Stanton and given the priesthood. So at least during this period, the priesthood ban was future yet. However, what got McCary into trouble was his prophetic showboating and casting himself as some sort of mystic. He was excommunicated. However, this did not stop McCary, who promptly began taking more wives of his own, some who abandoned their husbands to go after McCary after they reached Utah.
The reaction to McCary’s apostasy and wooing of white women was caustic. It played on the old stereotypes of black men who would seduce white women and lure them away to the sexual pit of Satan. It illuminated the still somewhat secret bugaboo of polygamy. It hit upon the same sorts of themes seen earlier with Hiram Page and with an early black mystic named “Black Pete,” who received revelations in 1831 after the Morley farm incident, was repudiated, and silently backed away from the Church. The reaction from the community almost seemed to push Young into position, not the other way around. It’s at this point, blacks are unofficially disallowed from priesthood ordination and temple rites. The official statements came later.
There is little evidence to convict Young personally of outright racism. His was of the more convenient type, weaponizing race to quell the dispiritedness of the sheep he was elected to shepherd. The challenge is that while he may have seen it that way, and he was okay with shooting from the hip with a sort of certainty he would often later reverse, his followers did not see it this way. What Brigham did was set up a doctrinal "stare decisis" on black ordination that his successors were hesitant to chop away due to the creeping doctrine of infallibility. And because it wasn’t a serious issue of contention at the time and there were very little black or "colored," converts, this issue disappeared until the 1950’s.
1950’s through 1970’s and black issues in the LDS Church David O. McKay was the first president of the LDS Church to seriously consider ending the black ban on priesthood. Had he successfully been able to do so, he would have been a hero ahead of his time and the issue may not have the same sting it does today. However, because there were disagreements in the Quorum of the Twelve from the likes of Harold B. Lee, Joseph Fielding Smith, among others who believed the ban reversal would be in place until the millennium (owing to the fact they were fundamental doctrinaires and possibly had personal racist tendencies), the Quorum could never reach a consensus to do something about it. McKay also seemed to be unable to get a revelation from the Lord on the subject, but this was usually part of the larger construct of the need for quorum unanimity than anything else. The wind would have been in his face. Toward the end of his presidency, during the period when he was sick and during the transition of his death to the presidency of Joseph Fielding Smith, there was another push to end the ban. But unwillingness once again by Mark E. Peterson, Harold B. Lee, and Bruce R. McConkie kept the ban alive for another decade.
Finally,pressure began to mount in the late 1970’s and threats of removing the Church’s tax-exempt status and the banning of BYU from the NCAA, a stronger impetus arose to get the will of the Lord. Also, because of the growing church, issues of lineage began to plague the Church since there were black Brazilians getting the priesthood in South America but not black Africans from Africa or America. But black Brazilians traced their roots to Africa. This was confusing and arbitrary. In 1978, though the leadership of Spencer W. Kimball, and the curious absence of Mark E. Petersen, consensus was reached and a revelation was procured ending the ban on African blacks holding the priesthood. There is a famous quote from Bruce R. McConkie, who once promoted that the ban would hold almost forever, that “new light and knowledge” had replaced “limited understanding.” Of course, with limited understanding, it probably would have been better to err on the side of equality and not limitations.
Since the 1980’s there has arisen a feeling that the Church should apologize for this “doctrine," that was seen as a serious mistake. But that has mostly fallen on deaf ears. Again, in order to preserve infallibility and the difficulty of the Church having to admit they were wrong, they create difficult narratives to follow, like the idea that a black ban was okay between 1852-1978 but not okay before and after that time frame, that the masses would have quelled against the leadership and it would have destroyed the Church, or that people weren’t ready to treat black Africans or African Americans equally, and that would have destroyed the purposes of God for the Church.
Considering this messy narrative, it becomes an easy shelf to break. There are better ways to understand this issue. Here are the possible ways to look at this historically and doctrinally.
Secular position - The Bible is a myth, as well as the Book of Abraham, ergo the Church was following a myth and perpetuating it. Frankly, they were racists. The allowance of black men to hold the priesthood in 1978 was simply a craven response to political pressure.
Fundamental position - There was a ban. It’s still true. Brigham Young was correct, and the Church has fallen into total apostasy by allowing black in the temple and holding priesthood. (This is the belief of many fundamentalist sects).
Orthodox position - Brigham Young interpreted something that was right for his time but it was not right decades later and God revealed that it was time to open Priesthood to black men, but that all along the prophets were following the will of God and not straying from what He wanted.
Or . . . and this is the narrative that breaks the Mormon binary.
Flexible position - The Bible has errors in it and the language and stories don’t always follow and translate. God may have allowed racial segregation in the past either because the people were too wicked to intermingle, but it’s not His design to do so. He simply allows for agency of groups to define themselves, to lead them to Zion or into condemnation. His hands may be tied because He's only relatively omnipotent due to His insistence on honoring the agency of man. Whatever ban occurred in the far past, if it indeed did occur, it was finished by the time of Abraham, biblically. Brigham Young misinterpreted passages in scripture to justify a cultural clamor to clamp down on black men in the Church who were seen as “stealing women.” Afterwards, no one would dare say he was wrong, or they believed he was right, or they were truly racist . . . and that kept later leaders from challenging and changing that beliefs when it could have been changed a century earlier. Ultimately, after hearts and minds softened, they were able to get the true mind and will of the Lord . . . that God is no respecter of persons.
 Journal of Discourses, vol 8 p.69, June 3, 1860  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam%E2%80%93God_doctrine  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_atonement  http://www.ldsendowment.org/timeline.html  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elijah_Abel  http://www.blacklds.org/priesthood#dates  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/2?lang=eng  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_Revelation_on_Priesthood - The impetus for the 1978 Revelation was likely brought on by pressure from outside groups, include boycotting BYU in the NCAA tournaments, that motivated the urgency of the revelation.  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/26?lang=eng  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/5?lang=eng  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/lectures-on-faith?lang=eng  Manuscript History 19 June 1831  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_and_mark_of_Cain  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/morm/5?lang=eng  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1976/04/the-lamanites-must-rise-in-majesty-and-power?lang=eng  http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,878674,00.html  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_of_Great_Price_(Latter_Day_Saints)  https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-abraham-and-facsimiles-1-march-16-may-1842/1  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp/moses/7?lang=eng  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp/abr/1?lang=eng  Brigham Young Addresses, Ms d 1234, Box 48, folder 3, dated Feb. 5, 1852, located in the LDS Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_McCary  Voree Herald, October 1846  https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2018/06/06/mormon-land-brigham-young-fearing-interracial-marriage-started-the-priesthoodtemple-ban-on-blacks-but-theres-more-to-the-story-says-utah-historian/  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Kerr_(priest)  https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N01_157.pdf  Bushman, Claudia (2006). Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-98933-X. OCLC 61178156.  Glen W. Davidson, "Mormon Missionaries and the Race Question," The Christian Century, September 29, 1965, pp. 1183–86.  https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/spencer-w-kimball-and-revelation-priesthood  https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie/alike-unto-god/  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng