With the LDS Church releasing commentary on Race and the Priesthood, it has become fashionable to believe someday a full apology will be given that a ban was ever instituted. Most Mormons say we don’t know why or when the ban was first instituted, questioning if it was from God or man. The prophets, the arguments go, were wrong. The problem with these lines of thinking is that the record indicates the why and when does exist, even if existential questions remain.
Since the start of Mormonism, written records have been an important part of the religion. A few revelations, such as D&C 47, instruct individuals to write and collect records as a testimony. Researchers have noted the amount of history and biography available for research. Very few religious organizations have as much of a paper trail to read. Although not everything was written down to substantiate, it doesn’t matter if a person agrees with the attribution of the divine hand of God. There is a lot to sift through and examine for each facet of development.
The Priesthood ban for blacks is not without its own records. Probably the best study of the issue is from Chapter 4 of Neither white nor Black, an article written by Lester E. Bush, Jr. Despite the introduction that claims he refutes the orthodox explanations of the origin of the ban, his findings actually substantiate that a well recognized ban did exist. It it true that some of the more “folk doctrine and history” are seriously questioned. The clear line of authority for its beginnings remain intact, even with some inexplicable twists and turns.
For a complete understanding of where and when the ban developed, it must be acknowledged that it didn’t come from Joseph Smith. That seems to be the major roadblock to accepting it as a genuine authorized policy. Although still having the prejudices of the time, he was progressive in treating blacks as worthy of equal treatment. That isn’t to say he was an abolitionist in the strict sense of the word. For him masters still had claim to slaves even if ideally all men should be free. This was consistent with the New Testament “hands off” approach to the currently reviled institution. In the Church during his life blacks had no Priesthood ban or any restrictions. For those who insist that the ban was wrong and without authority, this would be the end of the argument. Yet, the Church he founded believes in a continual line of prophets and revelation. His words and teachings might be the first and most scrutinized, but not the last.
Restrictions on who can hold the Priesthood are found in the Bible, as often referenced. For millennia the only authorized Priesthood holders were the sons of Aaron (Ex. 28:1–4), with members of the tribe of Levi (Num. 3:5–10) assigned to assist in the work. The authority given them became known as the Aaronic and Levitical Priesthood. Paul in the New Testament explains that Jesus Christ was given a higher Priesthood (Heb. 7:11–14), known as Melchizedek after a great Old Testament figure. Lineage promises and responsibilities are still important in LDS doctrine with Patriarchal blessings assigning who belongs to what tribe of Israel. Although of mostly a personal nature, it is assumed that the blessing given by Jacob to each of his children (Gen. 49) continues to apply.
It is therefore probable that Priesthood restrictions could exist for a tribe not included in the lineage of Israel. During the life of Jesus, he commanded his Apostles not to preach to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5–6) and reluctantly helping any who requested assistance because of their faith. After his resurrection he gave the missionary commission (Matt. 28:19) to preach all people. Regardless, there remained confusion on the issue (Acts 11:1–3) of letting the Gentiles join the Church. Peter, the head of the Church, didn’t use moral or scriptural evidence to persuade them the missionary commission was in force. He explained a revelation he received (Acts 11:5–11) that told him God made the spiritually unclean Gentiles now clean.
Brigham Young was, like Peter, the head of the Church from near the death of Joseph Smith until 1877 when he died. His position as Prophet gave him the authority to teach doctrine and receive revelations for the church membership. By the time the Saints reached Utah there was already a known restriction on blacks receiving the Priesthood. Because of the few blacks who did have the Priesthood, there were questions similar to modern times if it was policy or doctrine. William I. Appleby wrote to Brigham Young asking, “if this is the order of God or tolerated, to ordain negroes to the Priesthood and allow amalgamation. If it is, I desire to know it as I have yet got to learn it” (Journal History, 2 June 1847). The first known response by Brigham Young to the question comes in an 1849 response to Apostle Lorenzo Snow where he states the curse of Cain prohibited blacks from receiving the Priesthood until a later date.
A letter response and subsequent teachings are not enough to establish a divine providence on the issue. However, during 1852 there was a discussion of Utah Territory law in relation to slavery. Brigham Young testified as the Territory Governor what he thought about blacks and slavery. What he said blurred the line between prophet and secular authority. There was no question in the address that he thought both the earthly and spiritual condition of the blacks came from God because of the Curse of Cain. First explaining that all people have been slaves since Adam and Eve, he then says, “If there never was a prophet, or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know that they cannot bear rule in the priesthood, for the curse on them was to remain upon them, until the residue of the posterity of Michal and his wife receive the blessings . . .” He goes on to emphasis, “a man who has has the African blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of priesthood; Why? because they are the true eternal principals the Lord Almighty has ordained, and who can help it, men cannot.” (see Wikisource for citation).
The record is strong enough for Lester E. Bush, Jr.to write:
While it will be seen that the Church eventually abandoned a number of Young’s contentions, and though one hesitates to attribute theological significance to a legislative address, were this account to be unequivocally authenticated it would present a substantial challenge to the faithful Mormon who does not accept an inspired origin for Church priesthood policy. That such statements exist and have not appeared in previous discussions of this problem, either within the Church or without, is an unfortunate commentary on the superficiality with which this subject traditionally has been approached.
Though it is now popular among Mormons to argue that the basis for the priesthood denial to Negroes is unknown, no uncertainty was evident in the discourses of Brigham Young. From the initial remark in 1849 throughout his presidency, every known discussion of this subject by Young (or any other leading Mormon) invoked the connection with Cain as the justification for denying the priesthood to blacks.
The January 1852 journal entry of Wilford Woodruff recording Brigham Young’s words to the legislature is more explicit, “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood, and if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.” These words from either source come very close to “thus saith the Lord” language that many associate with revelations. At no time, as Lester E. Bush explains, does Brigham Young attribute the source of the ban coming from Joseph Smith. He takes full responsibility as prophet and person. Later testimony to the contrary are probably confusing Joseph Smith’s agreement that blacks are of the lineage of Cain through Ham with the ban itself.
Perhaps it’s still possible to believe that Brigham Young was wrong in his declaration that the ban was a revelation from God, but the record remains. It is a far different position to take than saying no written or historical trail exists. Denying the providential origin because Brigham Young made the statements as governor doesn’t help alleviate the evidence. Ancient history and Scriptures do not always separate the ecclesiastic from the secular authority; a recent strict notion. He acted as a prophet, spoke as a prophet, and was a prophet even while holding the governorship. He stated as much in the delivered speech.
For generations after few questioned the divine origins of the ban, with prophets upholding it as fact. Not until the mid 20th Century did widespread doubts again occupy the concerns of Church members and leaders. What happened was lost to time with both critics and apologists saying “we don’t know why” as an argument for retaining or dropping the Priesthood ban. President David O McKay, more than any other Prophet before him, came the closest to changing or getting rid of the ban. There are many hints in letters and personal discussions that he thought it was a practice rather than a doctrine, with a letter sent to Dr. Sterling M. McMurrin used as proof. Despite that, his own thoughts on the subject were personal rather than authoritative. Ironic considering that is the main contention with the origin.
That isn’t to say President McKay thought it could be changed without formal revelation. He did act on the side of mercy when individual cases were brought before him where lineage wasn’t considered clear, but he said only God could change the policy. His prayers about lifting the ban were unsuccessful and often he said, “I haven’t had an answer.” (Marion D. Hanks, interview by Gregory A. Prince, 27 May 1994). It is reported that after going to the Lord numerous times, President McKay said he was told by revelation, “not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.” (from “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” by Gregory Prince, pg. 104). Years later President Spencer W. Kimball received that sought after revelation in 1978 lifting the ban and allowing the Priesthood to any worthy males.
Why the Lord kept the Priesthood from blacks during part of the Restoration might remain a mystery. What can be known is that Brigham Young in the 1840s and 50s taught that it was a divine decision based on the lineage of Cain. Prophets after him might have tried to explain in more detail the reasons, but without actual divine approval. Those who wish to put the folk doctrine that came from it on the same level as the Priesthood ban itself are on unstable ground. A flat apology that rejects the whole might hide, but it cannot eliminate, the history.