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Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood/Origin of the priesthood ban
The origin of the Mormon priesthood ban
Summary: The origin of the priesthood ban is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Its origins are not clear, and this affected both how members and leaders have seen the ban, and the steps necessary to rescind it. The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Gospel Topics: "During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood"
- Question: What is the Mormon "priesthood ban" that was lifted in 1978?
- Question: What do we know about the origin of the priesthood ban on Church members of African descent?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith confer the priesthood on several black men?
- Question: Why did Brigham Young initiate the priesthood ban?
Gospel Topics: "During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood"
"Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013):
During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
Question: What is the Mormon "priesthood ban" that was lifted in 1978?
Members of the Church who were considered to be of African descent were restricted from holding the LDS Church's lay priesthood prior to 1978
Members of the Church who were considered to be of African descent were restricted from holding the LDS Church's lay priesthood prior to 1978. The reason for the ban is not known. There is no contemporary, first-person account of the ban's implementation. There is no known written revelation instituting the ban. In 1949, the First Presidency, led by President George Albert Smith, indicated that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord."
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.
—First Presidency statement, August 17, 1949
The First Presidency went on to state that "the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate." Because of this, understanding the reason for the implementation of the priesthood ban is difficult.
Several 19th and 20th century Church leaders (most notably Brigham Young, Bruce R. McConkie and Mark E. Petersen) expressed strong opinions on what they believed was the purpose of the priesthood ban. Some believed that Church leaders implemented the ban in order to respond to threats and dangers facing the Church by restricting activities among black Americans in the pre-Civil War era, and that these policies and procedures persisted. Upon the lifting of the priesthood ban in 1978, Elder McConkie stated,
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.
It is important to understand the history behind the priesthood ban to evaluate whether these criticisms have any merit and to contextualize the quotes with which LDS members are often confronted.
This is complex and sensitive issue, and definitive answers as to why God allowed the ban to happen await further revelation. There are some things we do not know, and we rely on faith that God will one day give us the answers to the questions of our mortal existence. The sub-articles listed below explore various aspects of the priesthood ban in detail.
Past church leaders should be viewed as products of their times, no more racist than most of their American and Christian peers
Past church leaders should be viewed as products of their times, no more racist than most of their American and Christian peers (and often surprisingly enlightened, given the surrounding culture). A proper understanding of the process of revelation creates a more realistic expectations of the Latter-day Saint prophet, instead of assumptions of infallibility foisted on the Saints by their critics.
Previous statements and scriptural interpretations that are no longer in harmony with current revelation should be discarded. We learn "line upon line, precept upon precept," and when modern revelation has shed new light, old assumptions made in the dark can be done away with.
Question: What do we know about the origin of the priesthood ban on Church members of African descent?
The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban
The origin of the priesthood ban is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Its origins are not clear, and this affected both how members and leaders have seen the ban, and the steps necessary to rescind it. The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban, although a number of Church leaders offered theories as to the reason for its existence. The Church currently provides the following background information regarding the initiation of the ban in its Gospel Topics essay "Race and the Priesthood":
In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church. 
Given that none of these theories regarding the reason for the ban is accepted today, Church members have generally taken one of three perspectives:
- Some members assume that the ban was based on revelation to Joseph Smith, and was continued by his successors until President Kimball. However, Joseph Smith did ordain several men of African descent to the priesthood.
- Some believe that the ban did not originate with Joseph Smith, but was implemented by Brigham Young. The evidence supports the idea that Brigham Young implemented it, but there is no record of an actual revelation having been received regarding it.
- Some believe that the ban began as a series of administrative policy decisions, rather than a revealed doctrine, and drew partly upon ideas regarding race common in mid-19th century America. The passage of time gave greater authority to this policy than intended.
The difficulty in deciding between these options arises because:
- there is no contemporary account of a revelation underlying the ban; but
- many early members nevertheless believed that there had been such a revelation; and
- priesthood ordination of African blacks was a rare event, which became even more rare with time.
The history behind the practice in the modern Church of withholding the priesthood based on race is described well by Lester Bush in a 1984 book. A good timeline can be found at FairMormon's BlackLDS site: FairMormon link.
Many leaders have indicated that the Church does not know why the ban was in place
- Gordon B. Hinckley in an interview:
- Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?
- A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don't think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There's a reason for them.
- Q: What was the reason for that?
- A: I don't know what the reason was. But I know that we've rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.
- Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
- If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, 'Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,' you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It's not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we're on our own. Some people put reasons to [the ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that.... The lesson I've drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.
- ...I'm referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking.
- ...Let's [not] make the mistake that's been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that's where safety lies.
- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
- One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. ... I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. ...
- It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. ... At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.
- Elder Alexander B. Morrison:
- We do not know.
Is racial prejudice acceptable?
- President Hinckley in priesthood session of General Conference:
- Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.
- Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. 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. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
- Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.
- Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.
- Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.
Question: Did Joseph Smith confer the priesthood on several black men?
Missouri was a slave state, and the locals persecuted the Missouri saints and destroyed their press in part because of W. W. Phelps's editorials supporting abolition
As Mormons settled into Missouri, some of their viewpoints about slavery (D&C 101:79,87:4) did not mesh well with those of the older settlers. The 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion left many southerners nervous as church leaders later recognized: "All who are acquainted with the situation of slave States, know that the life of every white is in constant danger, and to insinuate any thing which could possibly be interpreted by a slave, that it was not just to hold human beings in bondage, would be jeopardizing the life of every white inhabitant in the country." Unfortunately, this recognition came after mobs persecuted the Missouri saints and destroyed their press in part because of W. W. Phelps's editorials supporting abolition.
Early missionaries were instructed to not teach or baptize slaves without their master's consent, but Joseph Smith conferred the priesthood on several free black men
Under these precarious conditions, early missionaries were instructed to not teach or baptize slaves without their master's consent (see D&C 134:12). Late, perhaps unreliable, recollections suggest that Joseph Smith received inspiration that blacks should not be ordained while contemplating the situation in the South. These accounts must be weighed against records of free blacks receiving the priesthood such as Black Pete (1831 OH), Elijah Abel (1835 OH), Joseph T. Ball (1837 MA), Isaac van Meter (<1837 ME), and Walker and Enoch Lewis (Fall 1843-Nov. 1844 MA). Since Ohio had a law discouraging Blacks from migrating there, this put a damper on early proselyting efforts which were largely based on the principle of the gathering. Parley Pratt wrote in 1839 that the Church had less than a dozen Black members.
Those who hold that the ban had a revelatory basis see the early ordinations as events which occurred prior to the revelation or without knowledge of it, while those who see the ban as more of a social/cultural phenomenon point to these ordinations as an example of the "pragmatic grounds" upon which decisions about black ordination were made.
Outsiders do not seem to have regarded members of the Church in the 1830s as sharing typical American ideas about race
Outsiders do not seem to have regarded members of the Church in the 1830s as sharing typical American ideas about race. In 1835, a skeptical account of their doctrines and beliefs noted:
As the promulgators of this extraordinary legend maintain the natural equality of mankind, without excepting the native Indians or the African race, there is little reason to be surprised at the cruel persecution by which they have suffered, and still less at the continued accession of converts among those who sympathize with the wrongs of others or seek an asylum for their own.
The preachers and believers of the following doctrines were not likely to remain, unmolested, in the State of Missouri.
“The Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder; that they should not lie; that they should not steal, &c. 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.” Again: “Behold! the Lamanites, your brethren, whom ye hate, because of their filthiness and the cursings which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father, &c. Wherefore the Lord God will not destroy them; but will be merciful to them; and one day they shall become  a blessed people.” “O my brethren, I fear, that, unless ye shall repent of your sins, that their skins shall be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God*. Wherefore a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins,” &c. “The king saith unto him, yea! if the Lord saith unto us, go! we will go down unto our brethren, and we will be their slaves, until we repair unto them the many murders and sins, which we have committed against them. But Ammon saith unto him, it is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should any slaves among them. Therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren.”
Question: Why did Brigham Young initiate the priesthood ban?
Starting Potentially with William McCary
Why Brigham Young started the priesthood ban is difficult to answer with exactitude; but it can be plausibly reconstructed. The following is the best scholars have.
William McCary was a runaway slave, a brilliant musician, very persuasive, very charismatic, knew how to pull in an audience, and he was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and ordained an elder at Council Bluffs, Iowa in February 1846.
McCary went to Winter Quarters, Nebraska in the spring of 1847 and he promptly married a Caucasian girl by the name of Lucy Stanton who was the daughter of a former stake president. This was a great example of playing with fire. William McCary, by being so willing to walk around with his white spouse, was asking for criticism at the very least. In several instances it was not at all uncommon for an African-American man to lose his life over such an indiscretion. McCary also began claiming powers of prophecy and transfiguration. He claimed to have the power to appear as various biblical and Book of Mormon figures.
McCary made a comment upon arriving in the Winter Quarters community and marrying Lucy. He says, of the Latter-day Saints, “Some say 'there go the old n—– [N-word] and his white wife'” with clear disdain. People remembered Joseph Smith and they remembered that he had authorized the ordination of Elijah Ables. Further, they knew that Joseph Smith had a deep and abiding affection for Elijah Ables. This was the type of friendship that endured for generations. They talked about it even long after Elijah’s death – how good of a friend Elijah was to Joseph Smith and vice versa. The Latter-day Saints remembered this and they said, “Well, Joseph Smith was OK. He’s passed on now; but we are really, really uneasy with this situation.”
McCary approached Brigham Young with complaints that racial discrimination was a motive behind other Mormon leaders questioning his strange teachings. President Young satisfied McCary that ideally race should not be the issue. Praising Kwaku Walker Lewis as an example, Young suggested "Its nothing to do with the blood for [from] one blood has God made all flesh" and later added "we don't care about the color."  Mid-April, Brigham Young leaves Winter Quarters for the Great Basin leaving William McCary and his white wife to their own devices. McCary immediately began to marry a series of other white women, practicing his own form of interracial polygamy. He succeeded in pushing the discomfort of Latter-day Saints over the edge. He was excommunicated and expelled from Winter Quarters– as one man recalled – “to Missouri on a fast trot." His wife Lucy followed close behind. Shortly after his expulsion, Orson Hyde preached a sermon against McCary and his claims.
It is Parley P. Pratt who gives us at this time in April 1847 the very first evidence of the existence of a priesthood restriction. He gives it to us when Brigham Young is hundreds of miles away in the Great Basin. Latter-day Saints are pressuring Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde saying, “How dare you? What business do you have allowing a character like William McCary into our community? He is clearly a sexual predator. He is exactly what we would expect an African-American to be like. Here you are entertaining them. How dare you?” Parley P. Pratt says “Well, of course that’s going to happen: he has the blood of Ham in him and those who are descended from the blood of Ham cannot hold the priesthood.” Notice what he said there: “The blood of Ham.” He didn’t say “the curse of Cain.” This is point upon which Parley P. Pratt and Brigham Young differed quite significantly. Brigham Young was insistent in later years that it was the curse of Cain. Parley P. Pratt believed it was the curse of Ham. Which is it? Already we are seeing that the foundations of the priesthood restriction are, as Sterling McMurrin said, “shot through with ambiguity.”
Brigham Young returned to Winter’s Quarters in December of 1847. At this time he had said, “[this is the place],” in Utah. He’s had the great experience of starting up the Mormon experiment in the West and he is coming to see how matters are in Winter Quarters. One of the first things he hears about is the William McCary incident. When Brigham Young was telling William McCary that he supported McCary’s involvement in the community (in fact he even supported McCary holding the priesthood – which he did – he had been ordained by Orson Hyde himself), he still had a line that he didn't believe McCary should cross. He believed that as much as it was acceptable for McCary to be a member of the community and even as acceptable as it was for him to have a white wife, he didn’t believe that there should ever be interracial offspring. It’s one thing if two people want to get married but once you start having children, then that is something that has an impact on the human family and ultimately eternity, not to mention the priesthood.
Also awaiting Brigham was William Appleby, the president over eastern branches of the Church. He had encountered Kwaku Lewis and his wife and suspected that William Smith (Joseph Smith's brother) had acted improperly by ordaining a black elder. He was also alarmed that Enoch Lewis (Kwaku's son) had married a white wife and had a child. Brigham responded to this news in a manner that is, by modern sensitivities, quite disturbing. He was adamantly against interracial marriages having children (see Brigham Young on race mixing for more context).
From here, December 1847, to February 1849, Church leaders and other Saints are moving to Utah. At this time, the documentary record goes cold. We have no one that is mentioning the priesthood ban and how it might be evolving. Nonetheless, it is strongly believed that during that time, the ban became more comprehensive to include not just McCary, but all blacks believed to have inherited the Curse of Cain through Ham.
The priesthood ban became more comprehensive to include not only slaves and free blacks in the South, but all persons deemed to have inherited the curse of Cain through Ham
The priesthood ban, following the McCary incident, the Lewis discovery, and the passage of Slavery in Utah, then became more comprehensive to include not only slaves and free blacks in the South, but all persons deemed to have inherited the curse of Cain through Ham. The motivation for the latter part, as the Gospel Topics Essay on Race and the Priesthood was brought about by "[s]outherners who had converted to the Church and migrated to Utah with their slaves [who] raised the question of slavery’s legal status in the territory. In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination."
Brigham Young never presented a specific revelation on priesthood or temple restrictions he imposed
However, Brigham Young did not present a specific revelation on priesthood or temple restrictions he imposed. Governor Young declared in those 1852 addresses that "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 I know it is true and others know it."  Like the Missouri period, the Saints were externally pressured to adopt racial policies as a political compromise. At the time, this was deemed to be the best pathway to statehood.
Those who believe the ban had a revelatory basis point to these pivotal events as examples of a prophet learning "line upon line," with revelation being implemented more rigorously. Those who see the influence of cultural factors and institutional practice behind the ban consider this evidence that the ban was based on Brigham's cultural and scriptural assumptions, and point out that such beliefs were common among most Christians in Antebellum America.
- "Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013)
- Bruce R. McConkie, "New Revelation on Priesthood," Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 126-137.
- "Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics, LDS.org.
- Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1984). ISBN 0941214222. off-site
- Anonymous, "On the Record: 'We Stand For Something' President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia]," Sunstone 21:4 no. (Issue #112) (December 1998), 71. off-site
- Dallin H. Oaks cited in "Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban," Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life's Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.
- Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.
- Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 24, page 4; citing Alexander Morrison, Salt Lake City local news station KTVX, channel 4, 8 June 1998.. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61.
- Neither White nor Black, 56; citing Editor, "Outrage in Jackson County, Missouri," Evening and Morning Star 2 (January 1834), 122. off-siteGospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Neither White nor Black, 55.
- Neither White nor Black, 61,77.
- Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), ??.
- Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, ??
- E.S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834, 3 Vols., (London: John Murray, 1835), 3:57-58 (emphasis added). off-site
- The following approach draws mostly on the language in the presentation given in Russell Stevenson "Shouldering the Cross: How to Condemn Racism and Still Call Brigham Young a Prophet," FairMormon Conference 2014.
- The following March, Brigham acknowledged the validity of the ordination of Kwaku Walker Lewis that likely occurred during Joseph's tenure, "we [have] one of the best Elders an African in Lowell [,MA] -- a barber." Church Historian's Office. General Church Minutes, 1839–1877, March 26, 1847, in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2 vols., DVD (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2002), 1:18.
- General Church Minutes, March 26, 1847.
- General Church Minutes, April 25, 1847.
- Neither White nor Black, 70–72.
- For a history of such ideas in American Christian thought generally, see H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But...: Racism in Southern Religion, 1780–1910 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1972), 131. ISBN 082230273X.