Latter-day Saints, Blacks, and the Issue of Race
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes incorrectly called the "Mormon Church") has been accused of racism for past policies that limited access to its priesthood ranks. This page explores the complex history of race issues in the Church, where the blessings of membership have been open to people of all races from the beginning, in spite of a confusing past restriction on the priesthood that was fortunately removed in 1978. This is one of several pages in a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and has not been officially endorsed by the Church. While I strive to be accurate, my writings reflect my personal understanding and are subject to human error and bias.
Latter-day Saints ("Mormons") are often unfairly and improperly accused of being racists. Racist attitudes in various forms have permeated human civilization throughout the ages, and white Latter-day Saints in the past often shared the same assumptions and attitudes that were dominant among white Americans. Yes, sadly, there have been attitudes and even policies in the past that can be properly called racist. However, the modern Church is outspoken against racism, and the official doctrines of the Church have long taught that all people of all races are sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father and can be heirs of salvation. However, until 1978, there was a restriction on the priesthood that excluded many blacks, and this policy, often assumed to have been motivated by nothing but racism, raises many questions and issues, some of which I explore on this page. Yes, racist views have existed in the Church and among some of its members, especially in past days when it permeated American society, but for decades we have been moving past that and are more fully embracing the core doctrines of the Church in LDS scriptures: namely, that we are all precious children of a loving Heavenly Father, and salvation is open to all, regardless of race.
In December of 2013, the LDS Church provided an important new statement on the history of the former restrictions on the priesthood that kept many blacks from holding the priesthood in the LDS Church until 1978. That statement is entitled "Race and the Priesthood." (This is also mentioned on my Mormanity blog.)
In this statement, the institution of the former policy excluding those of African descent from the priesthood is attributed to Brigham Young, and the role of this policy in the Church until 1978 is reviewed, along with other important details such as the fact that Latter-day Saints never segregated our congregations while many others did, and that official LDS doctrine has always held that salvation was open to all, black and white, male and female.In reviewing the issue of race in the Church today, the following is said at the close of the statement:
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 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.
Since that day in 1978, the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans, African Americans and others of African descent has continued to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual's race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.
The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is "no respecter of persons" and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous--regardless of race--is favored of Him. The teachings of the Church in relation to God's children are epitomized by a verse in the second book of Nephi: "[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."
This is a welcome addition to our understanding of the history and influence of racial issues in the Church, and I remain grateful for the 1978 revelation that brought us forward in these matters.
Marvin Perkins, Director of African American Relations for the Southern California Public Affairs Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shared his views in a talk given in Los Angeles on September 8, 2002. His talk, "Blacks and the Priesthood," is available online at FAIRLDS.org. I found his words to be powerful and moving, and definitely worth studying.
Though few in number, blacks have been attracted to the Church since its organization. Early converts (such as Elijah Abel) joined during the 1830s; others (such as Jane Manning James) joined after the Saints moved to Illinois. Among those who came to Utah as pioneers were Green Flake, who drove Brigham Young's wagon into the Salt Lake Valley, and Samuel Chambers, who joined in Virginia as a slave and went west after being freed. Throughout the twentieth century, small numbers of blacks continued to join the Church, such as the Sargent family of Carolina County, Virginia, who joined in 1906; Len and Mary Hope, who joined in Alabama during the 1920s; Ruffin Bridgeforth, a railroad worker in Utah, converted in 1953; and Helvecio Martins, a black Brazilian businessman, baptized in 1972 (he became a general authority in 1990). These members remained committed to their testimonies and Church activities even though during this period prior to 1978 black members could not hold the priesthood or participate in temple ordinances.
The reasons for these restrictions have not been revealed. Church leaders and members have explained them in different ways over time. Although several blacks were ordained to the priesthood in the 1830s, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith authorized new ordinations in the 1840s, and between 1847 and 1852 Church leaders maintained that blacks should be denied the priesthood because of their lineage. According to the book of Abraham (now part of the Pearl of Great Price), the descendants of Cain were to be denied the priesthood of God (Abr. 1:23-26) [Webmaster's note: Abraham 1 does NOT say this; I believe this is an erroneous but popular "folklore" interpretation of Abraham 1, as I explain below] . Some Latter-day Saints theorized that blacks would be restricted throughout mortality. As early as 1852, however, Brigham Young said that the "time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more" (Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives, Feb. 5, 1852), and increasingly in the 1960s, Presidents of the Church taught that denial of entry to the priesthood was a current commandment of God, but would not prevent blacks from eventually possessing all eternal blessings.
Missionaries avoided proselytizing blacks, and General Authorities decided not to send missionaries to Africa, much of the Caribbean, or other regions inhabited by large populations of blacks. Before World War II, only German-speaking missionaries were sent to Brazil, where they sought out German immigrants. When government war regulations curtailed proselytizing among Germans, missionary work was expanded to include Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Determining genealogically who was to be granted and who denied the priesthood became increasingly a sensitive and complex issue.
During the civil rights era in the United States, denial of the priesthood to blacks drew increasing criticism, culminating in athletic boycotts of Brigham Young University, threatened lawsuits, and public condemnation of the Church in the late 1960s. When questioned about the Church and blacks, Church officials stated that removal of the priesthood restriction would require revelation from God--not policy changes by men.
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS. On June 9, 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation that all worthy males could hold the priesthood (see Doctrine and Covenants: Declaration 2). Following the 1978 priesthood revelation, proselytizing was expanded worldwide to include people of African descent.
Today members of multiple races work side by side in building up the kingdom of God. African-American and blacks in many other countries enjoy prominent positions of Church leadership (there are many black missionaries, bishops, stake presidents, and a there was a black General Authority from 1990 to 1995). I think nearly all members are pleased and relieved that the era of restrictions on the priesthood has been ended by revelation. However, the limitations on the priesthood were a source of great pain for black members of the Church, and the burden of that unexplained past policy continues to weigh upon many black members and black investigators of the Church. Perhaps the biggest problem was the insensitive Mormon folklore that sprung up when some influential members and some leaders offered their own errant opinions as they tried to rationalize the policy in terms of doctrine. If blacks couldn't have the priesthood, some reasoned, maybe it was because they were unworthy before being born, or because they were descendants of Cain, the first murderer. Neither of these folklore explanations ever became part of official LDS doctrine--the policy of limitations on the priesthood itself appears to have been a matter of policy and not doctrine, and no official explanation was ever offered. But these unjustified and even racist "explanations" offered by many well-meaning whites caused much harm in the past, and continue to cause harm today because some members still think that they were Church doctrine. We must abandon the relics of past racism and remember that we are all alike before God.
A helpful resource on the history of blacks and the LDS Church is the Black Mormon History Timeline at MormonVoices.com. Here is a portion of the timeline, which in turn is an adaption from a timeline at http://www.blacklds.org/history:
1830 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized.
1832 Elijah Abel, an African American, is baptized and given the priesthood in the church. He went on to serve three missions for the church.
1833 Jackson County Missouri locals issue a manifesto suggestion they drive Mormons from the state. One of the given reasons is Mormons are "inviting free Negroes and mulattoes from other states to become Mormons, and remove and settle among us." The Mormons are expelled from Missouri.
1840 People of every color invited to worship at the Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Ill. "Persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color; who shall with us worship the Lord of Hosts in his holy temple, and offer up their orisons in his sanctuary."
1842 Church prophet Joseph Smith writes that slaves should be "brought into a free county and set...free--educate them and give them equal rights."
1842 Joseph Smith writes on the subject of American slavery, "...it makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people."
1844 Joseph Ball, an African American, served as president of the Boston LDS Branch.
1844 Walker Lewis, African American abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist from Lowell, MA, is ordained a Mormon Elder.
1847 The Mormons are expelled from Illinois and settle in Utah
1849 Brigham Young states, "The Lord had cursed Cain's seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood." No explanation is given. The "Curse of Cain" was associated with black skin and was used by several American denominations to justify racial segregation and slavery.
1852 Slavery made legal in Utah. In a speech to the Utah Territorial Legislature Brigham Young reaffirms that blacks cannot hold the priesthood. It is unknown when or why such a policy was put in place.
1857 Federal troops sent to occupy Utah to quell the non-existent Mormon rebellion.
1861- 1865 American Civil War. Because of the known difficulties with the Federal government, the Mormons are invited to join with the Southern States but refuse.
1867 Territory constitution is amended to give suffrage to persons of color. It was ratified by an almost unanimous vote.
1869 The explanation that black suffering and priesthood exclusion comes from blacks being neutral in an angelic war in heaven is denied by Mormon prophet Brigham Young. Nevertheless, this folk doctrine continues to be taught by many members.
1879 Status of African Americans debated in Church councils.
1880 African American Elijah Able denied entrance to Mormon Temple even though he is holder of the Mormon priesthood.
1885 Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts speculates on origin of priesthood ban by citing several scriptures. This speculative explanation is quickly adopted by many Mormons.
1912 Mormon prophet Joseph F. Smith again denies blacks were neutral in pre-mortal war in heaven and issues letter on that topic. Nevertheless, this folk doctrine continues to be taught by many members.
1935 African American Elijah Abel, grandson of the first Elijah Abel ordained in 1832, is ordained an Elder in Mormon Church....
1949 Official statement from Church that African Americans may be members, but "are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time."
1954 White members allowed perform proxy temple work for ancestors of black members who are still not allowed to enter temples.
1955 Under the direction of Mormon prophet David O. McKay Melanesian blacks are given priesthood.
1958 Black Fijians are given priesthood.
1958 Mormon church leader Joseph Fielding Smith clarifies Church's position on equality stating, "No church or other organization is more insistent than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the Negroes should receive all the rights and privileges that can possibly be given to any other in the true sense of equality as declared in the Declaration of Independence."
1963 Mormon Church leader Hugh B. Brown states "We would like it to be known that there is in this Church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed."
1967 Sociologist Armand Mauss surveys Mormon attitudes about race. Study shows that Mormons were no more likely to give "anti-Negro responses than were the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, or Baptists." The survey also shows that the Orthodox Mormons were "consistently less likely to express anti Negro attitudes" than the doubters of key Church doctrines.
1969 Athletes from the University of Wyoming refuse to play Mormon College BYU. Stanford University refuses to schedule events with BYU. Church puts out statement, "We believe the Negro, as well as those of other races, should have his full Constitutional privileges as a member of society, and we hope that members of the Church everywhere will do their part as citizens to see that these rights are held inviolate."
1969 The Church states, "We have no racially-segregated congregations."
1978 June, 8--It is announced that the priesthood should be given to everyone regardless of race or linage. The ban is lifted.
1978 Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie states "Forget everything I have said, or what ... Brigham Young ... or whomsoever has said ... that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world."
2006 Mormon Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley states, "I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ." http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2006/04/the-need-for-greater-kindness?lang=eng
2012 Mormon Church issues official statement about race. "For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago." http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article
"The Book of Mormon states, "black and white, bond and free, male and female; ... all are alike unto God" (2 Nephi 26:33). This is the Church's official teaching."
"The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church." http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/race-church
To understand more about the history of the past racial limitations on the priesthood and the anguish that it caused for black members and investigators, please read the Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages). Black and Mormon offers viewpoints from variety of intelligent minds. This opened my eyes to several serious issues, and changed some of my thinking on this topic. It will cause some pain and rethinking old assumptions for some members of the Church, but is likely to help all of us better understand one another and better understand some of the pains that blacks have felt and continue to feel in a Church dominated by whites, and a Church with a past racial policy that continues to cause pain in spite of having been revoked for a quarter century. I look forward to further progress in the Church and through our society to overcome racial misunderstanding and racism of any kind.
Another good resource on this topic is "Race in Mormon History" by Jonathan Decker at LDSMag.com. This is a review of the history of LDS policies and some of the errors--yes, human errors--we've made along the way in our thinking and speculations on matters of race. But it also reminds us of how much we have to be grateful for in the 1978 revelation and in the progress the Church has made.
We still don't know why that past policy was in place. Some speculated that it is due to Biblical-style curses on certain lineages, but I think it is reasonable to reject such folklore, especially when its origins are explored (for example, some of the folklore explanations about blacks being the descendants of Cain can be traced to unreliable or biased witnesses such as a Mormon slaveholder, Abraham Smoot--see Black and Mormon, pp. 17-18, 38-39). One fairly reasonable theory is that in a hierarchical church in the U.S. before the end of slavery, it would be chaos to have slaves be made priesthood leaders over their masters. To deal with the realities of life in a nation that had slavery, excluding the priesthood from slaves could make sense as a realistic non-doctrinal but possibly inspired policy. In the 1840s, a restriction on slaves would be nearly synonymous with a restriction on blacks, and whatever policy Joseph Smith might have taught (without documentation) may have been instituted as a restriction on blacks per se. Given the absent of documentation about such policies from Joseph, the formal policy that caused so much difficulty may be attributed to Brigham Young.
The outstanding new Web site, BlackLDS.org, provides valuable resources for those wishing to know more about black members of the Church. It includes testimonies of prominent black members, historical information, and other resources.
In this view--and it is still speculation, not official doctrine--the reason blacks were excluded from the priesthood had nothing to do with them or any kind of doctrine pertaining to lineage, but with the unworthiness of a white society that practiced slavery. I can see why it may have been wise to keep it in place even after slavery was banned--again, not due to unworthiness among blacks, but due to the realities of life in a white society still struggling with the legacy of racism and slavery. In other words, it may be possible that the reason the Lord waited so long to reverse the restriction on blacks (or the reason the Church waited so long to ask the Lord for new guidance on the matter) was because that much time was needed before white society was really prepared to accept blacks as priesthood holders and thus leaders in their Church. This doesn't ease the pain for the black members who felt they were second-class members for all that time and faced many undesirable side-effects from the policy. If there is any merit to this theory--and I personally suspect there is--then we whites in the Church have an even greater responsibility than previously imagined to go the extra mile to oppose racism, repudiate past racist attitudes, and truly live up to the teachings of living and past prophets who taught that salvation is offered to all, and are all alike before God.
(Someone sent me their story of how an LDS family was quite cold, acting like racists. She had heard that Latter-day Saints think blacks are "from the devil" and thought LDS people were lying to her about their views when asked to explain that policy.)
Thank you for sharing your painful experience - an experience which also pains me. Your note implies (to me) that the racist Mormons you knew quit acting like racists after the 1978 change concerning blacks and the priesthood. Is that correct? That doesn't jive with my experience: racists seems to always be racists, and Mormons who were racists before 1978 undoubtedly kept on being idiots right on into the nineties.
By way of clarification, if any (racist) Mormons said that blacks "were from the Devil", they were completely out of sync with LDS theology. The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and LDS doctrine in general have always taught that people of all races are part of the same heavenly family, sons and daughters of God, and that salvation is available to all regardless of race. As to the right to officiate in the priesthood (which is not necessary for salvation), for reasons still unknown and never explained, Joseph Smith appears to have directed that descendants of a certain blood line were not yet permitted to hold the priesthood and Brigham Young continued that policy (see Roland K. Esplin, "Brigham Young and Priesthood Denial to the Blacks: An Alternate View," BYU Studies, Vol. 19, pp. 394-402, Spring 1979). In fulfillment of the prophecy that the day would come when they would have the right to the officiate (e.g., Brigham Young, 1852, as cited above), a pronouncement by revelation in 1978 ended the temporary period of exclusion. It had been a policy which perplexed many, including me.
There was never any official doctrine that those of Negro descent had been denied the priesthood for anything that they had done, though some LDS people - even some prominent ones - unjustly jumped to that conclusion. Some speculated--without scriptural basis--that blacks may have been "less diligent" in the premortal existence as spirits. We don't know the reasons for the former temporary restrictions on the priesthood, but we do know racists have no theological leg to stand on. Likewise, I still can't explain to my full satisfaction why women don't hold the priesthood, especially when we are told that righteous men and women who go to the Celestial kingdom can be "priests and priestesses" to our God. But my wife and I strongly disagree with the assumption that the gender limitations on the priesthood make women inferior to men, limit their blessings in the Gospel, or imply that they were less faithful in premortal realms.
Interestingly, the exclusion policy applied to ancestry, not to skin color. There were completely white-skinned Americans who had been serving in the priesthood who later found out that they were of partial African descent. These white Americans then had to step down from their priesthood offices. Likewise, natives of the Fiji Islands, who have a deep black skin, are apparently not of African descent and were able to hold the priesthood prior to 1978. And Asians, native Americans, Indians, and many other peoples of color have always had access to the priesthood. It was in 1955 under the direction of LDS prophet David O. McKay that Melanesian blacks were given the priesthood, and then in 1958 Black Fijians were given the priesthood. See the Black Mormon History Timeline at MormonVoices.com.
People of African ancestry have been members of the Church since the 1830s. Some joined the Church while slaves and then went west to Utah after they were freed. Black membership has grown significantly in recent years, though it is hard to track because Church membership records do not identify race (they never have, as I understand). Apart from the priesthood restriction, blacks have always enjoyed the blessings of the gospel and Church participation without segregation or demarcation between white and blacks. While some Protestant churches in the U.S. (and a few other parts of the world) routinely separated blacks and whites during worship services prior to the reforms of the Civil Rights Era, such segregation has never been practiced in the LDS Church.
Again, black people were never taught by the Church to be from Satan--though racists and KKK-types may spread that kind of lie.
The former limitations on the priesthood is something that I and most Latter-day Saints have been uncomfortable with. We didn't have a "logical" reason for it. When we hear stories of racist Mormons, we are pained and ashamed. Those who truly live the Gospel cannot engage in racism - now or prior to 1978.
I don't know the details of your experience, but I wouldn't necessarily assume that people have been lying to you. If someone asked me on the spot why the Church used to teach that blacks are from the devil, I would be confused and taken back, because that is not what the Church taught. In fact, one of the reasons why Mormons were driven out of Missouri in 1838 was because of concern about LDS anti-slavery leanings. Some (not all) Mormons were opposed to slavery. While Mormons generally did not support radical abolitionists, Joseph Smith spoke about the need for the government to free the slaves and in 1844 suggested that federal funds be used to buy all slaves from their owners and set them free, an action which he said might solve the problem without the need for civil war (a war which he predicted in the 1830s, by the way, even naming the place where it would start, South Carolina). Joseph Smith's recommendation for solving the problem of slavery was published in "Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States," Millennial Star, Vol. XXII, Feb. 1844, p. 743, and is further quoted later on this page.
Anyway, thanks for your comments. I hope you don't run into any more racist Mormons - but we have our share of problems, as you well know.
While I do not know why those of black African descent were excluded from the priesthood prior to 1978, it's helpful to realize that in the Bible, the right to officiate in the priesthood was sharply limited for many centuries. At the time of Moses on, we find that the priesthood was limited to members of one small tribe in the House of Israel, the tribe of Levi, and that only descendants of Aaron could be priests, and only the firstborn male descendants of Aaron's line could be the High Priest.
The Book of Ezra in the Old Testament offers an interesting example of limitations to the Priesthood. It shows that even sons of priests were denied the priesthood apparently because they could not prove they were of the proper ancestry. The passage is from Ezra 2, verses 59-62:
59 And these were they which went up from Telmelah, Telharsa, Cherub, Addan, and Immer: but they could not shew their father's house, and their seed, whether they were of Israel:
60 The children of Delaiah, the children of Tobiah, the children of Nekoda, six hundred fifty and two.
61 And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, the children of Barzillai; which took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called after their name:
62 These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood.
When Christ founded his Church in New Testament times, we initially find that non-Israelites ("Gentiles") were excluded from the priesthood (since the Gospel was not yet taken to them), but after a revelation to Peter (Acts 10), the Gentiles were welcomed into the Church and, presumably, the priesthood. This does nothing to explain or justify past LDS policies, except to show that limitations are nothing new and that revelation is the way God manages such matters, according to His will and timing (see Amos 3:7). As far as exclusions to the priesthood go, we should note that one seemingly "arbitrary" restriction is in place and always has been: women do not officiate in the priesthood. Some feel that this is chauvinistic and unfair, but that policy, unpopular as it may be in some circles, is not for us to alter on our own because it has been given by revelation. This limitation, however, in no way denies women any of the blessings of eternal life or the blessings that can be obtained through the priesthood. Indeed, the Gospel promise is that husband and wife will be heirs together of eternal life (1 Peter 3:7). A difference in roles does not indicate preferential status or unjust treatment. (For more on this topic, see the official LDS Proclamation on the Family.)
As I said before, the race issue is problematic. However, books like The God Makers almost always leave out some very important information. For example, the LDS canon makes it very clear that salvation is extended to all races, who are alike before God (2 Nephi 26:33). Indeed, one reason for the mob persecution of the Saints in Missouri was that Mormons were not squarely in the pro-slavery camp. Of course, it was a complex and politically charged issue, and it should be no surprise that there was a range of attitudes expressed from Mormons and their leaders on the issue. But certainly Joseph's views on orderly emancipation need to be considered, views that you will never encounter from anti-Mormon books, as far as I can tell. I quote from History of the Church, Vol.3, Introduction, Pg.26:
Finally, it was given by the inspiration of God to the Prophet [Joseph Smith] first to utter the most statesman-like word upon this vexed question of slavery, and had the nation and people of the United States but given heed to his recommendations it would have settled the question in harmony with the convictions of the people of the North, and without injustice to the South. Here follows his statesman-like word, published throughout the United States in 1844--eleven years before Ralph Waldo Emerson made substantially the same recommendation, and for which the philosopher received no end of praise:--
"Petition, also, ye goodly inhabitants of the slave states, your legislators to abolish slavery by the year 1850, or now, and save the abolitionist from reproach and ruin, and infamy and shame. Pray Congress to pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of the public lands, and from the deduction of pay from the members of Congress. Break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire him to labor like other human beings; for an hour of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity of bondage."
That doesn't sound like the racist Joseph Smith portrayed by enemies of the Church.
After the Civil War, Josiah Quincy commented on the wise recommendation made by Emerson and also by Joseph Smith (Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past, "Joseph Smith at Nauvoo," p. 398, as cited by B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 2, Ch. 51, p.192):
We who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar [referring to Emerson] was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property, in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader [referring to Joseph Smith] who had committed himself in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844? If the atmosphere of men's opinions was stirred by such a proposition when war clouds were discernible in the sky, was it not a statesman-like word eleven years earlier when the heavens looked tranquil and beneficent?"
On the other hand, Church leaders said it was wrong to incite slaves to violence or even to try to cause them to be unsatisfied with their situation (see Doctrine and Covenants 134:12), and some leaders criticized some of the excesses of Abolitionists. And slave holders in the Church were not required to free their slaves, so the issue was not clearcut. I would say it's risky to apply modern sensitivities and expectations to the racial and political attitudes of that era.
I must note that some leaders of the Church have tried to offer reasons why the blacks might not have received the Priesthood. Their personal speculations are not Gospel doctrine, though such speculations were often taught in various classes when Latter-day Saints discussed the former policy on the priesthood. Official LDS doctrine is what the scriptures contain and teachings or statements provided with the unanimous approval of the First Presidency. There are some quotes attributed to Brigham Young that bother me. Some I think he didn't really say (e.g., some of those reported in newspapers) and some that he probably did, but any personal opinions without the stamp of Church approval are just opinions. Even the leading apostle, Peter, had some personal opinions that the Lord needed to clear up over time. Not everything a prophet says needs to be divinely inspired - only when he is speaking under the direction of the Lord. Prophets can have opinions and preferences and tastes and even biases that may be weaknesses, but when they speak as Prophets to the Church, those become irrelevant. None of us are perfect - including Peter, Paul, Moses, and Joseph Smith. But the authenticity and divinity of the Book of Mormon convinces me that the latter was a true prophet, not a fraud.
As to the former policy of not ordaining those of Negro descent to the priesthood, none of us really knows why. It's a question on my hot list, but it's not a reason to reject what I do know to be true. (By the way, the black natives of Fiji, apparently not being of African descent, could be and were ordained to the priesthood, and some whites who later found they had Negro descent had to give up their usage of the priesthood. It was descent, not skin color that was the issue in implementing this practice--a practice that was inevitably laden with puzzles and contradictions, and gratefully has been lifted.)While leaders had taught that blacks "were not yet to receive the priesthood" (Letter of the First Presidency, as published in the Improvement Era, February 1970), it was known that one day the full blessings of the Gospel related to the Priesthood would be available to them. The temporary exclusion ended unexpectedly--and happily--in 1978, sooner than many had imagined. Here is the revelation as written by Pres. Spencer W. Kimball which removed the former limitation on the priesthood:
June 8, 1978
To all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world:
As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God's eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
Spencer W. Kimball
N. Eldon Tanner
Marion G. Romney
The First Presidency
When the 1978 revelation came, it ended the confusion that had been in some people's mind about blacks in the Church. Revelation replaced speculation. It is now pointless to dig up errant speculations of past Latter-day Saints as if we somehow still accept such thinking. Bruce R. McConkie, in a speech to Church seminary and institute teachers just after the 1978 revelation, clearly explains how this revelation must be given priority over past speculation:
There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things. . . . All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness, and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter any more. It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year . It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles.
(Bruce R. McConkie, "All Are Alike unto God," an address to a Book of Mormon Symposium for Seminary and Institute teachers, Brigham Young University, 18 August 1978, as quoted in Jessie L. Embry, Black Saints in a White Church (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 34, as cited online by Juliann Reynolds in an article at http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_101/Index/Chapter_16.)
For more detailed information on the history of the former ban on the priesthood and Brigham Young's views on the matter, please see the excellent article by Roland K. Esplin, "Brigham Young and Priesthood Denial to the Blacks: An Alternate View," BYU Studies, Vol. 19, pp. 394-402, Spring 1979. The article is based on a Ph.D. dissertation by Dr. Esplin.
Racist attitudes and assumptions have long permeated the cultures of the world, and these attitudes can easily stay with a person once they are in the Church. But racist attitudes are incompatible with the teachings of Christ. For example, six years before the 1978 revelation that extended the right to hold the Priesthood to all worthy males, President Spencer W. Kimball reiterated the teachings of the Church and of the Gospel:
"Intolerance by Church members is despicable. A special problem exists with respect to blacks because they may not now  receive the priesthood. Some members of the Church would justify their own un-Christian discrimination against blacks because of that rule with respect to the priesthood, but while this restriction has been imposed by the Lord, it is not for us to add burdens upon the shoulders of our black brethren. They who have received Christ in faith through authoritative baptism are heirs to the celestial kingdom along with men of all other races. And those who remain faithful to the end may expect that God may finally grant them all blessings they have merited through their righteousness. Such matters are in the Lord's hands. It is for us to extend our love to all."
(From a 1972 address reprinted in The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Deseret Book, 1982.)
The Latter-day Saints I knew in 1978 were thrilled when the priesthood right was opened to all worthy males. When I lived in Atlanta, where there are quite a few African-American Latter-day Saints, I heard many white members express their joy at finally being able to serve in the priesthood with their African-American brethren and to attend the temple with them. There may be some members with strongly racist views, but I believe that they represent a tiny minority of the LDS people. Of course, bigoted attitudes can be subtle, pervasive, and hard to detect, making it impossible to certify that anyone is 100% free of prejudiced ideas. It's so easy to make assumptions about others based on their culture, their height, their skin color, their nationality, etc. I cannot claim that any Latter-day Saint is perfectly just and reasonable in all attitudes and assumptions, but I sense that most sincerely accept and respect those of different races. Problems common to humanity, including racism, may occur among the members, but the Church vigorously teaches that we are all brothers and sisters, children of one God.
This common allegation is based on a misunderstanding of the whole issue of race in the Book of Mormon. First, here is a short answer to a related question, answered by Paul McNabb, from FAIRLDS.org's page, "Letter From a Youth Pastor: Four LDS Responses to Frequently Asked Questions":
"Did I misread the BoM that God made people dark skinned because they were evil and sinned against Him?"
Yes, you misread it, or at least misinterpreted it, but some LDS do as well. Most Book of Mormon scholars believe that the phrase about darkness was metaphorical and have shown examples of this usage in ancient near-East writings, including the Bible. In any case, the references are not used to apply to blacks or other ethnic groups, nor is it meant to imply that skin color is a measure of righteousness or acceptability before God.
Some of the clearest thinking about what the Book of Mormon actually says about the Lamanites and their alleged skin color is found in Brant Gardner's essay, "If Lamanites were black, why didn't anyone notice?" on the FAIR Blog, May 21st, 2012. Here is an excerpt:
I have elsewhere argued that this skin of blackness was a metaphor for a spiritual state rather than a change in pigmentation. While there are arguments to be made for or against that proposition, the decision as to whether a "skin of blackness" is a description of a physical or spiritual change should be decided upon something stronger than personal preference for one reading or the other. The text is the final arbiter of such questions. What might the text tell us to help us decide?
What would be ideal is to find a place in the text where some Nephite said something like "Oh, I see by your black skin that you are a Lamanite." That doesn't happen. What we do get are some situations in which a difference in pigmentation should make a difference in an event. We do have a couple of those, but what we find is that what should make a difference, doesn't.
One that I have noted before is found in Alma 55:4-8:
4 And now it came to pass that when Moroni had said these words, he caused that a search should be made among his men, that perhaps he might find a man who was a descendant of Laman among them.
5 And it came to pass that they found one, whose name was Laman; and he was one of the servants of the king who was murdered by Amalickiah.
6 Now Moroni caused that Laman and a small number of his men should go forth unto the guards who were over the Nephites.
7 Now the Nephites were guarded in the city of Gid; therefore Moroni appointed Laman and caused that a small number of men should go with him.
8 And when it was evening Laman went to the guards who were over the Nephites, and behold, they saw him coming and they hailed him; but he saith unto them: Fear not; behold, I am a Lamanite. Behold, we have escaped from the Nephites, and they sleep; and behold we have taken of their wine and brought with us.
Moroni's plan requires a Lamanite. He finds one. What could a Lamanite do that a non-Lamanite could not? For most readers, conditioned by years of assumptions, the expectation is that he is darker skinned, while Nephites were "white." However, this reason is unlikely, given the actual working-out of the plan (v. 8):
First, Laman is not alone. Moroni has selected other men to go with him. Moroni had searched for a Lamanite and found one. His companions were, therefore, not Lamanites. However, they approach with the one "true" Lamanite. If skin color identified the one Lamanite, then his companions would obviously be recognized on sight as Nephites. Furthermore, the Lamanite armies are being led by a Nephite dissenter, and many of those in the city of Nephi who had ejected the people of Ammon were also Nephite dissenters. According to the record, Laman does all of the talking, and the guards immediately accept his announcement that he is a Lamanite. Thus, there is a language difference between the two groups. Clearly, this difference is not great, because Nephite dissenters easily assimilate into the Lamanite ranks. However, there must be some differences, either in dialect or accent, so that the target Lamanites identified Laman's voice as soon as they heard it as truly "Lamanite." As long as his companions remained silent, this ruse would be sufficient. That reading fits the evidence, and the evidence does not allow for a pigmentation difference that is sufficient that it would be noticed.
There are several further issues to consider, so I recommend reading the rest of Brant's article. I agree with the position he's taking, though not all LDS folks will.
For further details on this issue, I'll quote from Hugh Nibley's discussion decades ago in Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Ch.8, pp. 215-218:
But if we are to take the Book of Mormon to task for its ethnological teachings, it might be well at first to learn what those teachings are. They turn out on investigation to be surprisingly complicated. There is no mention in the Book of Mormon of red skins versus white; indeed, there is no mention of red skin at all. What we find is a more or less steady process over long periods of time of mixing and separating of many closely related but not identical ethnic groups. The Book of Mormon is careful to specify that the terms Lamanite and Nephite are used in a loose and general sense to designate not racial but political (e.g., Mormon 1:9), military (Alma 43:4), religious (4 Nephi 1:38), and cultural (Alma 53:10, 15; 3:10-11) divisions and groupings of people. The Lamanite and Nephite division was tribal rather than racial, each of the main groups representing an amalgamation of tribes that retained their identity (Alma 43:13; 4 Nephi 1:36-37). Our text frequently goes out of its way to specify that such and such a group is only called Nephite or Lamanite (2 Nephi 5:14; Jacob 1:2; Mosiah 25:12; Alma 3:10; 30:59; Helaman 3:16; 3 Nephi 3:24; 10:18; 4 Nephi 1:36-38, 43; Mormon 1:9). For the situation was often very mobile, with large numbers of Nephites going over to the Lamanites (Words of Mormon 1:16; 4 Nephi 1:20; Mormon 6:15; Alma 47:35-36), or Lamanites to the Nephites (Alma 27:27; Mosiah 25:12; Alma 55:4), or members of the mixed Mulekite people, such as their Zoramite offshoot, going over either to the Lamanites (Alma 43:4) or to the Nephites (Alma 35:9--not really to the Nephites, but to the Ammonites who were Lamanites who had earlier become Nephites!); or at times the Lamanites and Nephites would freely intermingle (Helaman 6:7-8), while at other times the Nephite society would be heavily infiltrated by Lamanites and by robbers of dubious background (Mormon 2:8). Such robbers were fond of kidnapping Nephite women and children (Helaman 11:33).
The dark skin is mentioned as the mark of a general way of life; it is a Gypsy or Bedouin type of darkness, "black" and "white" being used in their Oriental sense (as in Egyptian), black and loathsome being contrasted to white and delightsome (2 Nephi 5:21-22). We are told that when "their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes" they shall become ... "a pure and delightsome people" (2 Nephi 30:6 [the word "pure" was initially printed as "white" but was corrected by Joseph Smith in the 1840 Book of Mormon to be "pure," though later printings missed the correction until 1981]), and at the same time the Jews "shall also become a delightsome people" (2 Nephi 30:7). Darkness and filthiness go together as part of a way of life (Jacob 3:5,9); we never hear of the Lamanites becoming whiter, no matter how righteous they were, except when they adopted the Nephite way of life (3 Nephi 2:14-15), while the Lamanites could, by becoming more savage in their ways than their brother Lamanites, actually become darker, "a dark, filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been . . . among the Lamanites" (Mormon 5:15). The dark skin is but one of the marks that God places upon the Lamanites, and these marks go together; people who joined the Lamanites were marked like them (Alma 3:10); they were naked and their skins were dark (Alma 3:5-6); when "they set the mark upon themselves; . . . the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God," when he said, "I will set a mark on them. . . . I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren. . . . I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee [Nephi] and thy seed" (Alma 3:13-18). "Even so," says Alma, "doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation" (Alma 3:19). By their own deliberate act they both marked their foreheads and turned their bodies dark. Though ever alert to miraculous manifestations, the authors of the Book of Mormon never refer to the transformation of Lamanites into "white and delightsome" Nephites or Nephites into "dark and loathsome" Lamanites as in any way miraculous or marvelous. When they became savage "because of their cursing" (2 Nephi 5:24), their skins became dark and they also became "loathsome" to the Nephites (2 Nephi 5:21-22). But there is nothing loathsome about dark skin, which most people consider very attractive: the darkness, like the loathsomeness, was part of the general picture (Jacob 3:9); Mormon prays "that they may once again be a delightsome people" (Words of Mormon 1:8; Mormon 5:17), but then the Jews are also to become "a delightsome people" (2 Nephi 30:7)--are they black?
At the time of the Lord's visit, there were "neither . . . Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites," (4 Nephi 1:17; see also 3 Nephi 2:14) so that when the old titles of Lamanite and Nephite were later revived by parties deliberately seeking to stir up old hatreds, they designated religious affiliation rather than race (4 Nephi 1:38-39). From this it would seem that at that time it was impossible to distinguish a person of Nephite blood from one of Lamanite blood by appearance. Moreover, there were no pure-blooded Lamanites or Nephites after the early period, for Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and Sam were all promised that their seed would survive mingled with that of their elder brethren (2 Nephi 3:2, 23; 9:53; 10:10, 19-20; 29:13; 3 Nephi 26:8; Mormon 7:1). Since the Nephites were always aware of that mingling, which they could nearly always perceive in the steady flow of Nephite dissenters to one side and Lamanite converts to the other, it is understandable why they do not think of the terms Nephite and Lamanite as indicating race. The Mulekites, who outnumbered the Nephites better than two to one (Mosiah 25:2-4), were a mixed Near Eastern rabble who had brought no written records with them and had never observed the Law of Moses and did not speak Nephite (Omni 1:18); yet after Mosiah became their king, they "were numbered with the Nephites, and this because the kingdom had been conferred upon none but those who were descendants of Nephi" (Mosiah 25:13). From time to time large numbers of people disappear beyond the Book of Mormon frontiers to vanish in the wilderness or on the sea, taking their traditions and even written records with them (Helaman 3:3-13). What shall we call these people--Nephites or Lamanites?
A related question comes from The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (C.A.R.M.), which provides a popular list of allegedly "Difficult Questions for Mormons to Answer." They ask:
"If the Book of Mormon is true, why do Indians fail to turn white when they become Mormons? (2 Nephi 30:6, prior to the 1981 revision)."
"White" need not refer to skin color, as is clear from the following passages from the biblical book of Daniel: "And some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end: because it is yet for a time appointed (Daniel 11:35). "Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand (Daniel 12:10). In both of these passages, the meaning of the word "white" is most obviously pure; to "make white" is to purify. When Joseph Smith first translated the Book of Mormon, he gave the literal rendering of "white" for the passage in 2 Nephi 30:6. For the 1840 edition, it was changed to "pure," which better reflected the meaning of the word used by Nephi [Jeff's comment: this may be just an assumption--I think we don't know why the change was made]. Subsequent editions, however, relied on the 1837 Book of Mormon, which still read "white." This oversight was not rectified until the 1981 edition.
Finally, I should note that if we condemn the Book of Mormon for alleged racism due to possibly figurative passages suggesting that white is better than dark, then we must also condemn the Bible for similar failings. Daniel 12:10, quoted above, speaks of the righteous being "made white," and Lamentations 4:6-8 equates whiteness with goodness (prior to a moral fall) and a black appearance with sin:
6. For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her.
7. Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire:
8. Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.
This passage is undoubtedly figurative, but those looking for fault may choose to be offended. Similarly, Jeremiah apparently uses the word "black" to refer to an emotional state, not necessarily skin color (as some presume), when he says "For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me" (Jeremiah 8:21). These figurative usages for white and black need to be considered in interpreting Book of Mormon passages as well.
D.C. Pyle notes that the Amorite people, according to Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, I:84, were "depicted ... with fair skins, light (also black) hair, and blue eyes" on Egyptian monuments. Yet, the Sumerians said they were "dark" savages (William F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, p. 166, as cited by D.C. Pyle). This reminds us to be careful about interpreting references to lightness and darkness of peoples in ancient texts.
On the other hand, it is possible or even likely that the Laman and Lemuel's group intermarried with darker-skinned natives in the Americas and through simple genetics became a people that could be characterized as darker-skinned than the Nephites for some period of time (both groups may have eventually experienced a lot of blending of genes due to intermarriage). Intermarriage with pagans was strictly contrary to Old Testament law and would be viewed as bringing a curse upon the Lamanites. The extent and nature of such a curse would be open to debate (spiritual only or genetic), but appears to have played a significant role in the attitudes of the Nephites toward the Lamanites. I expect that the Nephites also intermarried with locals, perhaps after conversion so they were no-longer pagan, so the issue is surely complicated.
(The following answer is drawn in part from text written by an unnamed acquaintance and used with permission.)
The Book of Abraham mentions that one of Noah's sons, Ham, married Egyptus, and that their descendants were cursed with respect to the Priesthood. By making a lot of assumptions, one could use this passage to justify the former restrictions on the Priesthood in the Restored Church - and it was used many times in the past as justification. However, it is unlikely that this passage was the reason for the policy in the first place.
President Brigham Young explained in 1852 that the policy on the Priesthood did not originate with him: "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 [the curse of priesthood restriction] off, but thus saith the Eternal I am, what I am, I take it off at my pleasure." He then affirmed, "That the time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more" (Brigham Young, Speech given in Joint Session of the Utah Legislature, February 5, 1952, in Fred Collier, The Teachings of President Brigham Young. Salt Lake City, Collier's Publishing, 1987, 43). From this we can make several points:
1. The policy (not doctrine) of denying priesthood blessings to blacks was believed to be based upon revelation from God, though how and when is unclear.
2. Since the Lord had directed this policy denying priesthood to some, only He could discontinue that practice ("I take it off at my pleasure").
3. This statement foresees a future time when those denied priesthood would fully enjoy those privileges ("they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more").
From my perspective, revelation may have been the basis for this past policy - details remain unclear - but revelation clearly was the basis for its long-anticipated removal. Many LDS people tried to justify it in the past, and many came to wrong conclusions. Now, in the light of new revelation, we can understand the situation much better. The situation is much the same as the Jewish converts faced when a new revelation suddenly made the Gentiles on equal footing (Acts. 10).
(The following answer is drawn largely from text written by an unnamed acquaintance and used with permission.)
There is no scriptural foundation for that theory. While scriptures in both the Bible and the Pearl of Great Price document that God has sometimes, for reasons unspecified, withheld priesthood and other Gospel blessings from some of his mortal children, the scriptures say nothing about how skin color may or may not relate to pre-existence. There is no scriptural passage in any of the standard works that states that Priesthood denial was ever based upon pre-existence or that the spirits of blacks were neutral in the war in heaven or that blacks or anybody else were less faithful than other spirits. It is just a theory. It is not scriptural. And I'm happy to reject it.
In chapter 21 of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, the author's quote statements by John L. Stewart and John L. Lund. These men, however, were never Church leaders. Of those Church leaders cited on this subject, none was President of the Church when they stated these things. Out of the eight general authorities cited, only one of them even became President of the Church, Joseph Fielding Smith. However, the source cited by the Tanners was published in the 1930s when Elder Smith was a young apostle. Earlier opinions and writings of Church leaders and their previously published writings do not automatically become official Church doctrine when they later become President of the Church. As Joseph Fielding Smith himself stated,
"My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear.... You cannot accept the books written by authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. Every man who writes is responsible not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something that is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member is duty bound to reject it. If he writes what is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted" (Joseph Fielding Smith, in Doctrines of Salvation 3:203-4).
Claims that black skin is a sign of unworthiness do not have scriptural support. No acting President of the Church has ever claimed revelation for such ideas, whatever his personal opinions may have been. No such revelation has ever been claimed by them or presented to the Church membership for their sustaining vote. Consequently, the statements of several general authorities and other writers or members of the Church are a matter of personal interpretation and speculation and not official doctrine. Given the conflict of such ideas with canonized scripture, we are, as Joseph Fielding Smith himself stated, "duty-bound to reject them."
Again, I make a distinction between an inspired policy and secondary interpretations and uninspired justifications for that policy.
There is no official LDS doctrine that explains why the Church had the policy - not doctrine - of temporarily limiting the priesthood by race. In their attempts to explain the policy, many LDS people, even leaders, sought to craft explanations to rationalize the practice. Some hypothesized that blacks might have been less valiant in some way in the premortal existence - an idea that is now repudiated, being utterly unjustified and non-doctrinal. More frequently, LDS people saw Abraham 1 as providing an explanation for the exclusion. But this is based on what appears to be an erroneous interpretation of Abraham 1 and the LDS scriptures. Abraham 1 states that Pharaoh, a descendant of Ham, was of the lineage that did not have the "right to priesthood." It was assumed that Ham married a descendant of Cain - though the text does NOT say this - and that this (so the argument goes) is why Pharaoh could not have the priesthood. But wait a second: it doesn't say that he could not have the priesthood, but that he could not have the "right to priesthood," which actually refers to the right to preside as THE presiding officer, the patriarch. That right went to Shem, not Ham. Naturally, Ham's descendants could not have that right, but they still could have the priesthood - nothing indicates they could not.
Alma Allred devastates those old myths in his chapter, "The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings" in the outstanding new book, Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages). I love this book, and really enjoyed Alma Allred's writing. Here is an excerpt from pages 45-47:
Little doubt remains that intermarriage between Canaanites and Israelites destroyed any chance for a pure, non-Canaanite race among the chosen seed [see pages 40-45 for details]. One third of the house of Judah is Canaanite with an unknown portion among the other tribes. What then can we make of the curse pronounced by Noah and of Abraham's comments that Pharaoh's lineage could not have the "right of priesthood"? (Abr. 1:27). It may be that Mormons have simply misinterpreted those passages of scripture.
In the Book of Abraham, Abraham explains that he sought the blessings of the fathers and the right to be ordained to administer those blessings. He says that he became an heir holding the right belonging to the fathers. According to LDS theology, the right to administer the ordinances is held by the presiding priesthood authority on the earth. In the days of Abraham, that right was held by the presiding patriarch. It started with Adam and came in due course to Abraham. Abraham 1:3-4 stipulates that the appointment came by lineage. The right to preside was the birthright which went to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and finally to Ephraim.
According to these LDS scriptures, even though the priesthood did not remain exclusively with Ephraim, the right to preside did. Moses presided over Israel even though he was of the tribe of Levi. Joseph Smith, however, claimed to be a "lawful heir" because he was of the house of Ephraim (D&C 86:8-11). Since this authority was passed from father to only one son, when Noah gave it to Shem, Ham could not be the heir. Ham and Japheth, together with their descendants, did not have the right to administer the priesthood because it was given to Shem. Esau lost the right to Jacob. Reuben lost the right to Joseph. Manasseh lost that right when Jacob conferred it upon Ephraim. Each man who lost the birthright did not lose the right to be ordained to the priesthood; rather, he lost the right to preside as the presiding high priest in a patriarchal order. The scripture does not say that Pharaoh could not hold the priesthood; it says that he could not have the "right of priesthood" (Abr. 1:27). This right had been given to Shem, who in turn gave it to his successor in the patriarchal office.
Years after the right of priesthood had been passed to Abraham, the Pharaohs were feigning a claim to it from Noah. They did not merely claim priesthood; they claimed the right to preside over the priesthood. Pharaoh, the son of Egyptus, established a patriarchal government in Egypt; but he was of that lineage by which he could not have the "right of priesthood" or "the right of the firstborn," which belonged to Shem and his posterity. In response to the Pharaoh's claims, Abraham states: "But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands" (Abr. 1:31; italics Allred's). In other words, Abraham retained the right to preside over the priesthood.
The words right, priesthood, and lineage all prominently figure in Abraham's history; and Joseph Smith used the same words to describe the appointment of his father, Joseph Smith Sr., as church patriarch:Blessed of the Lord is my father, for he [Joseph Smith Sr.] shall stand in the midst of his posterity and shall be comforted by their blessings when he is old and bowed down with years, and shall be called a prince over them, and shall be numbered among those who hold the right of Patriarchal Priesthood, even the keys of that ministry. (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 23; italics added by Allred)
Joseph Smith used the same words to later appoint his elder brother Hyrum as church patriarch after their father's death:
And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant William be appointed, ordained, and anointed, as counselor unto my servant Joseph, in the room of my servant Hyrum, that my servant Hyrum may take the office of Priesthood and Patriarch, which was appointed unto him by his father, by blessing and also by right; (D&C 124:91; italics Allred's)
This order of priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made. (D&C 107:40; italics mine)
Still, we should consider the curse pronounced upon Canaan. It parallels Jacob's blessing pronounced by Isaac and, conversely, Esau's curse. A side-by-side comparison of the two illustrates that Esau received the same curse as Canaan [Allred uses a table comparing Gen. 9:25-26 to Gen. 27:29].
Noah's curse upon Canaan directly parallels Isaac's promise concerning Esau. They both promised lordship to one son and servitude to the other. The ability to hold the priesthood was not the issue; it was the ability to preside in a patriarchal order that allowed only one lineage.
The revelation of 1978 announced by President Spencer W. Kimball giving all worthy men the privilege of holding the priesthood is consistent with the principles of LDS theology and essential to a consistent interpretation of its scripture. As recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith claimed that at some future day, high priests will be ordained out of "every nation, kindred, tongue and people" (D&C 77:13). It is impossible to have high priests from every nation while excluding Africans. Joseph Smith stated that, if the work progressed, we would see people of every color, including the African "Hottentots," worship in the house of the Lord [History of the Church, 4:216]. . . .
Temple worship in LDS theology requires priesthood ordination for men. Consequently, Joseph Smith's idea that "Hottentots" would soon worship in the temple is a de facto promise of priesthood ordination. Brigham Young got on the same bandwagon when he claimed in 1860 that the restriction would be lifted within one generation: "Children are now born who will live until every son of Adam will have the privilege of receiving the principles of eternal life." [Brigham Young, July 8, 1860, Journal of Discourses, 8:116] There can be no doubt that this meant priesthood ordination to every male descendant of Adam, regardless of race.
Brother Allred concludes his article with a word of counsel to white members. Instead of trying to figure out what blacks did to be banned from the priesthood, perhaps white members should have been looking at themselves "to see if we were the primary hindrance." (p. 48)
In asking if the Book of Abraham has been misinterpreted, Allred raises a question which has been raised before by many others, but provides a particularly insightful analysis. A related question was raised by an unnamed inquirer whose question about blacks and the Priesthood was discussed at some length by Joseph Fielding Smith in his Answers to Gospel Questions (5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966], 2:173-177), a compilation of answers to questions that had been published in Church magazines over the years. One part of the question suggested that Abraham 1:27 had been misinterpreted, and that the Priesthood restriction for Pharaoh was not due to skin color, but because he "could not have that 'right of priesthood' that is, the right of the patriarchal order, because he was not of the proper lineage. The right of that order was conferred upon Shem, the rightful heir." Elder (at the time) Joseph Fielding Smith responded by dismissing the suggestion that primogeniture was the issue by citing obvious exceptions:
Your attention is called to the fact that if this priesthood was the right of the first-born only, then the right would have been vested in Japheth, not Shem, after the flood, for Japheth was older than Shem. It could not be, then, on the ground of primogeniture that the descendants of Ham were denied the patriarchal priesthood. If this order was to be followed down to Moses, then Moses should not have been called to lead Israel, for he was of the tribe of Levi. Then again, we should remember that Moses got his priesthood from Jethro, who was not a descendant of Israel, but of Abraham through a younger branch of his family.
It appears that Elder Smith confuses the priesthood per se with the right to preside in the priesthood - that's the patriarchal part of the patriarchal order, which clearly was tied to lineage. Elder Smith seems to miss the fact that these apparent exceptions were actually consistent with the patriarchal system, for the birthright could be lost through unworthiness, or bestowed on others for other reasons as the Lord directed. Jacob received the birthright of Esau. Ephraim, rather than the older Menassa, was ordained to preside. We do not know the reasons for Shem having been chosen to continue the patriarchal order, but it is clear that he did, and it was through Shem and his direct descendants that Abraham received the patriarchal right. The authority of Moses over Israel apparently was not based on the patriarchal lineage. Moses was ordained by Jethro whose priesthood traces back to Esaias who received it from God in a route that did not depend directly on ordination by the patriarchs (see Doctrine and Covenants 84:6-13). Again, Moses was an exception called by God.
The God of the Bible, who is our God and our Heavenly Father, operates out of infinite love for mankind. His ways truly are just and fair, for salvation is available to all who will accept it, regardless of race or gender. In fact, Latter-day Saints know that God is much fairer than most of our other Christian friends know, for He has even provided a way for those who never had a chance to hear of Jesus Christ to learn of the Gospel and be able to accept a vicarious baptism done for those who have already died.
Though perfectly fair, His ways are often misunderstood by humans who see only a tiny part of the big picture. To us, some of His ways seem unfair. But this is nothing unique to Mormonism, but has been a part of Biblical history for thousands of years. For example, the priesthood was initially restricted to those who were members of the tribe of Levi. There were 11 other tribes among the Israelites - was it unfair that only one tribe could have the priesthood? And what about the 99.99% of the world then that weren't Hebrew?
Deuteronomy 23 gives further information about restrictions on membership in the Lord's congregation. Bastard's were excluded, as well as their descendants, even to their tenth generation (Deut. 23:2). And those who had the misfortune of having ancestors from the nearby Ammonites or Moabites up to 10 generations ago were excluded (Deut. 23:3-4). What's fair about that? But then, in the Book of Ruth, we read that the Lord made an exception for Ruth, a Moabite, who was accepted into the congregation and got to be one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ. This was wonderful for Ruth, but was it fair to the other Moabites who were excluded for many generations?
Human sensibilities about fairness may be offended by some of the Lord's dealings, but the scriptures affirm - as does the personal experience of millions - that we can trust Him as the true exemplar of love and kindness. The details of who gets what responsibility or privilege right now are irrelevant compared to the big issue: who gets eternal life? And only the fullness of the Gospel, as revealed to modern LDS prophets, offers insight into just how remarkably fair and just the Lord is in this matter.
For some related information, see my Mormanity post (and the comments), "Rejecting Mormon Folklore about the Former Restrictions on the Priesthood.
Some have wondered why the Church wasn't more aggressive in opposing slavery and agitating for abolition from 1830 on, just as some wonder why the Church today doesn't promote anti-abortion demonstrations or other forms of civil protest and activism. The Lord is clearly opposed to both slavery and abortion, but that does not necessarily mean that He commands His Church to be used to actively oppose existing laws or to violate laws for a good cause. The approach of the Church seems to be somewhat analogous to the approach of the original Church to the issue of slavery under the Roman Empire. Here's a relevant discussion from Sidney B. Sperry, Paul's Life and Letters, 1955, p.254:
The Epistle to Philemon is one of Paul's most interesting and beautiful letters. During the Apostle's imprisonment in Rome, a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus ("useful," "profitable") somehow got in touch with Paul there and was converted by him to the Church. (Philem. 10-11) It so happened that Onesimus had belonged to Philemon, a well-to-do resident of Colossae and friend of Paul's. Philemon was a member of the Church and owed his conversion to Paul. (Philem. 19) It is probable that Philemon had been converted during the Apostle's long residence in Ephesus, and it may have been while visiting in that metropolis that Onesimus, his slave, had first met Paul. At any rate, Onesimus ran away from his master, perhaps after stealing from him. (Philem. 18) He eventually found his way to Rome, where there was a large population and where there was a good chance that he would never be identified. Just what the situation was that caused him to seek out Paul no one knows, but the Apostle was not averse to winning a slave to the service of the Master. He thought so much of Onesimus that he would gladly have retained him for Church service in Rome (Philem. 10, 13), but facing him was the grim fact that the new convert was a slave. He was the property of his friend Philemon, and under the customs of the time death was commonly meted out to a runaway slave. It is a well-known fact that slavery was one of the worst curses in ancient times. One scholar has estimated that there were at least 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire. In those days a slave was completely at the mercy of his owner; for trivial offenses he could be cruelly whipped, crucified, or even thrown to wild beasts. Christianity was, of course, against slavery, but Paul as well as the other Apostles had to make the best of an evil situation. Had they opposed it openly, the Church would have been destroyed in short order. Under the circumstances Paul was content to advise both slaves and masters to be kind and considerate to each other. (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1) The Apostle did not deal with the problem of slavery in his Epistle to Philemon, but realizing that the first duty of Onesimus was to his master, he sent him back to Colossae with a note - the Epistle is hardly more than that - urging with tact and delicate humor that Philemon take him back not merely as a slave, but as "a brother beloved." (Philem. 16) Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus "as myself," (Philem. 17) and requests that if his former slave has wronged him or owes him anything, to charge it to his (Paul's) account. (Philem. 18) And in verse 21 the Apostle even hints at the emancipation of Onesimus.
Thus it seems that the early Christian Church was cautious on the issue of slavery, being opposed to that immoral principle but not openly agitating against it nor encouraging slaves to break the law. The Restored Church took a similarly cautious approach in the 1800s, with Joseph Smith offering what would have been a peaceful and civil solution to the problem of slavery. Likewise, the Church today strenuously opposes abortion, but encourages its members to obey the law and be civil in seeking for solutions to that inhumane crime. Members are encouraged to be active in promoting good and opposing evil and can join in protests, but should respect the law and should not fall into the trap of using hate and anger to oppose evil (see 3 Nephi 11:29).
I would suggest that people of many races have joined and continue to join the Church today for the same reasons that people of many races chose to follow Jesus Christ and his disciples in original Christianity: it is the best way to receive the full blessings that our Heavenly Father wishes to offer all His children. Listen to the words of the prophet Nephi in 2 Nephi 26:33:
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.
You can learn a few interesting things about black Mormons and their reasons for joining the Church in the Website, BlackLDS.org. It includes several testimonies of black members and information on history and the misguided attacks of critics. I also recommend Renee Olson's spunky, eye-opening and entertaining essay, "Dispelling the Black Myth." She's a former Southern Baptism and former anti-Mormon who now has a lot to say about the Church and the charges of racism that we often face.
Here is one example of the conversion story of an African-America, written by C. Brent Cluff in The Church News, Jan. 3, 2004, p. 16 (available online):
Missionary Moments: "Something was missing"
In 1969, Earl Elliott, an African American minister of another faith, told his wife when she went to bed one night that he was going to stay up and read the Book of Mormon long enough to disprove it. He had recently been presented a copy by missionaries. As he began to read he was amazed at the wonderful doctrine he found. He could hardly believe that such a book had been on earth since 1830 and he had not heard of it. It held information he had been searching for since he was old enough to read the Bible and compare it with the doctrine taught in other churches. He had come to realize something was missing.
"It was as if there was an angel on each shoulder" was the way he described his reading of the Book of Mormon. When he finally went to bed early the next morning, his wife asked if he had disproved the Book of Mormon. He said, "I could no more say that the Book of Mormon was not true than to say the Bible was not true."
He heard all the missionary discussions. In spite of all objections from his family and congregation Earl and his family joined the Church because once he knew the Book of Mormon was true, he knew baptism was the only honest thing he could do. His faith in the Book of Mormon sustained him through all his many trials, including not being able to hold the priesthood at the time of his baptism.
When his son turned 10 in 1976, he began to worry. What would happen when he would turn 12 and could not be ordained to the priesthood, like all of his friends at Church? Brother Elliott made it a matter of prayer and received a strong personal revelation not to worry about it, that everything would be OK. He even told his wife and wrote it in his journal.
Then, in June 1978, the revelation on the priesthood was announced by the Church. His son's birthday was July 3, 1978.
That son, Earl V. Elliott II, who was given the priesthood in 1978, is now my daughter's bishop in the Birmingham (Alabama) 3rd Ward. Brother Elliott's sacrifices in joining the Church against all opposition has made a tremendous impact for good in that part of God's vineyard.
I rejoice in the kindness of the Lord in making the blessings of the Gospel available to all His children throughout the ages (this even includes those who dies without hearing it, thanks to the amazing ministering that goes on in the spirit world, coupled with temple work for the dead). I also rejoice that in recent years, He has made the priesthood available to all worthy males. I am uplifted by the strength of faith of those who, like Earl Elliott, recognized the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel and joined the Church even when it might have seemed a "stupid" thing to do because of the former restriction on the priesthood. Such faith and sacrifice speaks to the power of testimony that truly does come through the Holy Ghost.
BlackLDS.org - a new Web site from FAIRLDS.org dedicated to Black Members of the Church.
LDS Scholars Testify -a tremendous collection of the testimonies and viewpoints of notable LDS scholars and thinkers, including, for example, Jonathan Adjimani of the University of Ghana, Banyan Acquaye Dadson of Ghana, and Marcus Martins of Brazil. There are some deep and fascinating accounts in this rich website.
"Race in Mormon History" by Jonathan Decker at LDSMag.com. Excellent review of where we've been and how we've overcome some of the problems and errors of the past.
The Charge of "Racism" in the Book of Mormon - an excellent article by John A. Tvedtnes (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. 183-198).
"Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood" by Edward L. Kimball in BYU Studies, vol. 47, no. 2. Overview: Edward L. Kimball discusses the former Mormon policy of restricting Church members of African descent from receiving the priesthood. He examines the traditional and proposed scriptural basis for the policy, its origin and implementation, and the chain of events that led his father, President Spencer W. Kimball, to seek revelation regarding changing the policy. Black Africans' interest in joining the Church, the Civil Rights movement, Church members' changing perceptions regarding the priesthood policy, and spiritual manifestations all contributed to President Kimball’s landmark decision. The article describes how President Kimball went about obtaining the revelation allowing all worthy male Church members to receive the priesthood, how the revelation was spiritually confirmed to other leaders, and members' reactions when the change was announced.
The LDS Church and the Race Issue: A Study in Misplaced Apologetics by Armand L. Mauss. A frank review of the weakness of past attempts to explain the former restrictions on the priesthood, and a discussion of the influence of past assumptions and attitudes shared by nearly all white Americans.
Dispelling the Black Myth - an outspoken black Mormon woman and former anti-Mormon tells it like it is.
Blacks and the Priesthood - perspectives of Marvin Perkins, an African-American member of the Church.
Abraham Lincoln, the Mormons, and the Civil War: An LDS Perspective on "Honest Abe" by Mike Griffith. Challenges many modern assumptions about President Lincoln and the issue of slavery.
"'White' or 'Pure': Five Vignettes" - an article by Douglas Campbell in Dialogue about the history of the verse 2 Nephi 30:6 in various editions of the Book of Mormon. Excellent review of the history. Campbell also explains why the use of black and white to describe Lamanites and Nephites in the Book of Mormon is metaphorical, not a reflection of physical skin color. Recommended reading!
Rejecting Mormon Folklore about the Former Restrictions on the Priesthood - a post on my Mormanity blog.