I grew up in southeastern Idaho, where I knew very few people of African descent. I remember one day in 1978 when I was 7 years old, I was at my grandparents’ cabin in Island Park, Idaho. During the evening news, they made an announcement that blacks could finally be ordained to the priesthood. They even showed young black boys passing the sacrament for the first time. I remember thinking “Why wouldn’t they be able to have the priesthood or pass the sacrament?” It didn’t make sense to me at the time. I wasn’t old enough to have heard explanations why blacks weren’t able to hold the priesthood until 1978. Even as I got older, I didn’t think about it much. I would say that’s because I’m Caucasian, so blacks not having the priesthood was never something I worried too much about. After my shelf collapsed, I started studying this topic, and I realized the priesthood ban was much worse than I ever suspected.
One thing that did always bother me before my disaffection was the racism in the LDS scriptures. The Book of Mormon teaches that Lamanites had dark skin because they didn’t follow God. God’s followers had white skin. Also, the dark skin of the Lamanites was to make them undesirable to those with white skin.
2 Nephi 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.
6. And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.
7. And their brethren sought to destroy them, therefore they were cursed; and the Lord God set a mark upon them, yea, upon Laman and Lemuel, and also the sons of Ishmael, and Ishmaelitish women.
8. And this was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren, that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction.
Hey, but it’s not all bad news if you were cursed with dark skin because of your parents not following God. If you get with the program, God will turn your skin white again!
3 Nephi 2:14-15:
14. And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;
15. And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;
So this “explains” why American Indians have dark skin (no, not really), but what about people of African descent? The Pearl of Great Price explains that as well:
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.
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.
So God cursed people with black skin, and they were “despised among all people.” I had known there were teachings in the scriptures that appeared racist, but I had never given it much thought. What I didn’t know were the incredibly racist statements LDS leaders had made over many years.
Racist Apostles and Prophets
“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”
—Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 10, page 110
“You may inquire of the intelligent of the world whether they can tell why the aborigines of this country are dark, loathsome, ignorant, and sunken into the depths of degradation…When the Lord has a people, he makes covenants with them and gives unto them promises: then, if they transgress his law, change his ordinances, and break the covenants he has made with them, he will put a mark upon them, as in the case of the Lamanites and other portions of the house of Israel; but by-and-by they will become a white and delightsome people.”
—Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 7, page 336
“And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God…”
—John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, Volume 22, page 304
“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.”
—Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, p. 61.
“The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos; five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.
“At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl—sixteen—sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents—on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.”
—Spencer W. Kimball, The Improvement Era, December 1960, p. 923
There are many more I could have included, but you can find more here.
Not Just a Priesthood Ban
Something that had never dawned on me until I started researching the topic is that this wasn’t just a priesthood ban for black men. This ban kept all black people out of the temple, and therefore denied them the opportunity for eternal life as per LDS doctrine.
Jane Elizabeth Manning was a black woman who converted to Mormonism in the 1800’s, had a son born in 1846 at Winter Quarters, and had six more children in Utah. She was a member of the Relief Society and donated to the St. George, Manti and Logan temple funds. She repeatedly asked the First Presidency to be endowed in the temple and to be sealed to her children. All requests were denied, but instead the First Presidency said she could be adopted into the family of Joseph Smith as a servant, which they did in the temple without allowing her to even be there for the ceremony.
Why Was the Ban Lifted in 1978?
I was always taught the church received revelation to lift the ban, but actually there was a lot of pressure on the church from outside forces. For example, colleges were boycotting athletic games against BYU, the federal government was threatening to remove the tax exempt status from the church, and it was difficult for missionaries to preach in other countries due to the racist ban. It appears the civil rights movement in the 1960’s didn’t soften the church leaders’ hearts, but once their money and BYU athletics were threatened, things changed and fortunately (and only coincidentally, right?) they received a revelation to fix things.
What Does the Church Say Today About the Ban?
So what does the church say today about the ban? From the LDS essay “Race and the Priesthood”:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
So the church disavows all the horribly racist teachings of many prophets and apostles from the 1840’s until 1978. It even sounds like they disavow the racist scriptures. Should members of the church cross out the racist verses from their scriptures? And what about an apology for all the blacks who couldn’t gain access to the temple to receive the ordinances of the temple? Unfortunately Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle of the LDS church said the church doesn’t give apologies. And here I thought only Jesus Christ himself was perfect.
If The Prophets Were Wrong Then, Can They Be Wrong Now?
I grew up believing the prophets weren’t capable of leading us down the wrong path. As it says in the Doctrine and Covenants in Official Declaration 1 by President Wilford Woodruff:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
But now that the church has disavowed the racist teachings of previous prophets, how do we know that today they’re not making another mistake? The church has been staunchly against same-sex marriage, and the leaders say any homosexual act, even between two people of the same sex who are legally and lawfully married, are breaking God’s commandments. Remember, Brigham Young said mixed-race couples should be killed on the spot for going against God’s commandments. How do we know today’s prophets aren’t just as wrong as Brigham Young was? It appears to me the leaders are on the wrong side of history for the third time: polygamy, racism, and now same-sex marriage. Only time will tell if later prophets will throw the current prophets under the bus, just like how the current prophets disavow the previous prophets.