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Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood/Understanding pre-1978 statements
Understanding pre-1978 statements by members and leaders of the Church regarding the priesthood ban
Summary: Past General Authorities made statements regarding the priesthood ban that are considered quite racist by today's standards. The Church has "disavowed" the theories advanced in the past by these leaders, and while specific leaders' statements have not been officially individually renounced, there is no obligation for current members to accept such sentiments as the "word of the Lord" for our time: They most certainly do not reflect the Church's current position and teachings.
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- Gordon B. Hinckley: "I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ"
- Bruce R. McConkie: "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"
- Question: How have modern Church leaders reacted to the speculations of the past regarding the reason for the priesthood ban?
- Question: How is it possible for a Church leader or prophet to have been influenced by racism, yet be consistent with the Lord not allowing prophets to lead the Church astray?
- Question: What did Church leaders after Brigham Young think of the priesthood ban?
Gordon B. Hinckley: "I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ"
Gordon B. Hinckley,
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. —(Click here to continue) 
Bruce R. McConkie: "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"
Bruce R. McConkie:
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.
While Elder McConkie likely was limiting his remarks to mistakes made by past leaders in regards to the timing of the lifting of the ban, application of his insights can arguably be extended to a forgetting of all harmful "folk doctrines" about which post-1978 correlated church materials are either silent or have effectively corrected.
Question: How have modern Church leaders reacted to the speculations of the past regarding the reason for the priesthood ban?
Modern Church leaders have advised us to avoid speculating without knowledge
Elder Dallin H. Oaks pointed out that some leaders and members had ill-advisedly sought to provide justifications for the ban:
...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.
Interviewed for a PBS special on the Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said:
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.
Past leaders are not alive to apologize for statements that unwittingly contributed to difficulties for the faithful and stumbling blocks for those who might have otherwise have been more attracted to the overall goodness of Christ's gospel. Presumably they would join with another voice from the dust to plead for us to have charity towards them (Ether 12:35-36) despite their imperfections. Rather than condemning, we ought to "give thanks unto God...that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been" (Mormon 9:31).
Tolerance and equality are commanded
In 1972, Harold B. Lee cautioned:
We are having come into the Church now many people of various nationalities. We in the Church must remember that we have a history of persecution, discrimination against our civil rights, and our constitutional privileges being withheld from us. These who are members of the Church, regardless of their color, their national origin, are members of the church and kingdom of God. Some of them have told us that they are being shunned. There are snide remarks. We are withdrawing ourselves from them in some cases.
Now we must extend the hand of fellowship to men everywhere, and to all who are truly converted and who wish to join the Church and partake of the many rewarding opportunities to be found therein. We ask the Church members to strive to emulate the example of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, who gave us the new commandment that we should love one another. I wish we could remember that.
Question: How is it possible for a Church leader or prophet to have been influenced by racism, yet be consistent with the Lord not allowing prophets to lead the Church astray?
The goal of the Church is to bring people unto Christ
This is a difficult question. At face value, the idea that the Lord will not allow prophets to lead us astray seems to be in direct conflict with the Church acknowledging that early Church leaders and prophets were influenced by certain racist tendencies of their times. For example, how could the Priesthood restriction been allowed and yet be consistent with the prophets "not leading the Church astray?".
The first thing we must do is step back and see what the Church and prophets are all about.
What is the goal of the church?
According to Spencer W. Kimball, and reaffirmed by the other prophets it is as follows:
First, to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; Secondly, to perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation; Thirdly, to redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth. (See Ensign, May 1981, p. 5.) All three are part of one work—to assist our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, in their grand and glorious mission “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) I renew that declaration today. 
The purpose of the Gospel is to bring people to Jesus Christ. The Church is the organization that Jesus set up on the Earth to bring people back to Jesus and back to God so we can be joint heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:17.)
The prophets will not lead the Church astray from the mission of leading people to Christ: This does not exempt prophets from saying or doing things at times that may be incorrect
Will the prophets knowingly lead us astray from this mission? No. They won't. They will keep us on that path and we should follow them.
Is it at least possible that they will say and do things that aren’t the best? Or that they may make unwanted speculation about things that they shouldn't? Certainly. Just as one example, Joseph Fielding Smith stated that it was doubtful that men would even go to the moon. He stated in the first edition of Answers to Gospel Questions:
Naturally the wonders in the heavens that man has created will be numbered among the signs which have been predicted—the airplanes, the guided missiles, and man-made planets that revolve around the earth. Keep it in mind, however, that such man-made planets belong to this earth, and it is doubtful that man will ever be permitted to make any instrument or ship to travel through space and visit the moon or any distant planet.
He later accepted a flag from the Apollo astronauts. When asked about this by a reporter, he stated, "Well, I was wrong, wasn't I?"
The Lord uses imperfect people to run his Church
The Lord uses imperfect people to run his Church. He has promised he will make it all right in the end.
Karl G. Maeser taught:
On one occasion he was going with a group of young missionaries across the alps. They were crossing a high mountain pass on foot. There were long sticks stuck into the snow of the glacier to mark the path so that travelers could find their way safely across the glacier and down the mountain on the other side.
When they reached the summit, Brother Maeser wanted to teach the young elders a lesson. He stopped at the pinnacle of the mountain and pointed to those sticks that they had followed. And he said, “Brethren, behold the priesthood of God. They are just common old sticks, but it’s the position that counts. Follow them and you will surely be safe. Stray from them and you will surely be lost.” And so it is in the Church. We are called to leadership positions and given the power of the priesthood. And we are just common old sticks, but the position we are given counts. It is separate and apart from us, but while we hold it, we hold it. 
If we go in with the expectation that the prophets will never do or say anything wrong, we will be disappointed
If we go in with the expectation that the prophets will never do or say anything wrong, we will be disappointed.
Just a few examples from history (There are also reprimands in the D&C: D&C 105:2). They started doing Baptism for the dead in the river in Nauvoo - until God stopped them. They started doing sealings of adoption- until God stopped them. Why didn't God stop the race issue? He did...but He just did it later in his time frame for His purpose.
So again, If we go in with the expectation that the prophets will never do or say anything that might be wrong, we will be disappointed. Prophets are learning and are being taught just as we are learning and being taught. Bruce R. McConkie stated that quite clearly. 
But, if we go in with the expectation that the prophets will keep us on the Gospel path, complete with the ordinances we need to return to our Heavenly Father, then we will know what it means that the prophets will never lead us astray.
In John 6, Jesus taught hard things:
66 ¶From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
There is a possibility that we may get things wrong, because we are NOT Jesus Christ: He allows us to learn as we go along
Jesus has taught the words of eternal life. This is his Church. We will get things wrong, because we are NOT Jesus Christ. He allows us to learn as we go along. The prophets will not lead us astray from that goal of eternal life.
We should also fall back onto the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon in 1830. Nobody could have done that. There were things that Joseph Smith and scholars of the day did not know that are contained in the book. They would have written the opposite based on the science of the day.
If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. It also means we have a prophet today. Will they lead us astray? Is that statement even true that they won't? The prophets will not lead us astray from the Gospel path. Can they be incorrect on other issues-even involving the Church? Yes, they can. When they claim revelation and follow proper procedures to make something binding, then we bow to that. Brigham Young presented no formal revelation for implementing the priesthood restriction and there is no scripture that can justify the ban's existence. When the prophets haven't received revelation and are perhaps just trying to do good of their own free will as has been divinely mandated (D&C 58:27-28), then it is possible that they may get something wrong. We all have our free agency (2 Nephi 2: 16, 27; 10:23;) and the doctrine of infallibility is in direct contradiction to free agency.
Issues relating to the priesthood and temple restrictions are complicated ones, and we still have yet to learn more about them. As far as can be discerned, we haven't received any revelation as to why they happened. But, we should be open to the ideas that God allowed it to happen without revelation. Perhaps the restrictions were inspired and, like some of the fallen structures of the Old Testament, were inspired but also less than ideal (with the redemption of those fallen structures coming in New Testament times) and the Lord had a wiser purpose in mind in putting up with the restriction for the time it remained in place. Or perhaps they were simply a mistake like the Children of Israel and their appointment of a king when the Lord instructed them not to appoint one (1 Samuel 8: 5-22). Keep in mind that Israel had a king for 400 years while the restrictions lasted around 130. So the Lord can sometimes allow things to happen--even for a long time-- just so that we learn from mistakes. Perhaps, following a paradigm that Eugene England crafted and popularized, we can view the restrictions as something the Lord allowed so that we can learn today how to love those that have been most affected by it. As England put it:
Besides being the repository of true principles and authority, the Church is the instrument provided by a loving God to help us become like him. It gives us schooling and experiences with each other that can bind us in an honest but loving community, which is the essential nurturing place for salvation. If we cannot accept the Church and the challenges it offers with the openness and courage and humility they require, then I believe our historical studies and our theological enterprises are mainly a waste of time and possibly destructive. We cannot understand the meaning of the history of Mormonism or judge the truth of Christ’s restored gospel unless we appreciate—and act on— the truth of the Church.
Thus the Church can give us all the necessary doctrines to learn the fullest meaning of love, but then it can also provide us all the evils, annoyances, discomforts, etc. of life so that we can have the opportunities necessary to put love into practice. Perhaps the existence of the restrictions can allow members not of African descent to learn how to relate to, empathize with, and heal the hearts of members of African descent from the pain they have experienced or do now experience because of the restrictions. Perhaps it can allow members of African descent the opportunity to learn forgiveness for a grave hurt that they have experienced at the hands of Church leaders and/or members.
All this said, we simply don't know why the restrictions happened and any speculation is as good as the next. Only time and revelation will allow us to understand why these things happened. Regardless, we can see that the Church can still be God's authorized vehicle for revelation and have the priesthood (thus still being true) and have the possibility of error.
Question: What did Church leaders after Brigham Young think of the priesthood ban?
John Taylor conducted an investigation and concluded the policy had started under Joseph Smith, rather than Brigham Young
In 1879, John Taylor conducted an investigation and concluded the policy had started under Joseph Smith, rather than Brigham Young, despite receiving mixed information. As part of this investigation Zebedee Coltrin recalled that Joseph Smith said in 1834 that "the Spirit of the Lord saith the Negro had no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood." However, this claim is suspect given Coltrin's errors on the circumstances of Elijah Abel's ordination, participation in Kirtland temple ordinances, and retention in the Seventies quorum all under the supervision of Joseph Smith.
President George Q. Cannon in 1895 asserted that some of Young's teachings about miscegenation and the seed of Cain had first been taught by Joseph Smith.
B.H. Roberts was the first to argue, based on the Book of Abraham, that the curse of Cain had continued to modern blacks through the lineage of Ham
Nearly forty years after the ban started, B.H. Roberts was the first to argue, based on the Book of Abraham, that the curse of Cain had continued to modern blacks through the lineage of Ham.
Joseph Fielding Smith opined that blacks may have been less valiant in the pre-mortal conflict between God and Satan
In 1907 Joseph Fielding Smith rejected less valiance in the pre-mortal existence as an explanation for the restrictions entirely. In 1924, he wrote as if he were more open to it, though he still kept it in the realm of speculation. By 1931, he embraced the explanation wholeheartedly--opining that blacks may have been less valiant in the pre-mortal conflict between God and Satan (however, he rejected that they may have been neutral in the war in heaven).
The First Presidency under George Albert Smith seems to have believed that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord"
The First Presidency under George Albert Smith seems to have believed that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord." There is a statement from them in 1949 that "was never released as a circular, officially read to congregations, or included in James R. Clark's comprehensive six-volume Messages of the First Presidency series. It was likely drafted as a letter sent in response to public inquiries."
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.
David O. McKay believed that the ban was "not doctrine but...policy"
- David O. McKay believed that the ban was "not doctrine but...policy," as reported by Sterling McMurrin, his son Llewelyn McKay, and Elder Paul H. Dunn. President McKay told Elder Marion D. Hanks that "he had pleaded and pleaded with the Lord, but had not had the answer he sought." Sometime between 1968 and his death in 1970 he confided his prayerful attempts to church architect, Richard Jackson, "I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, 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."
- The "Missouri policy theory" attributing the ban to Joseph Smith arising from condition in Missouri was first popularized in 1970 by author Stephen Taggert, and President Hugh B. Brown reportedly embraced it. Other authors found this theory wanting.
Harold B. Lee was inclined to reconfirm the ban
- Harold B. Lee was inclined to reconfirm the ban, though Church Historian Leonard Arrington
- ...asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord's will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during'three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,...but the only answer he received was "not yet." Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee's son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.
Following Joseph Fielding Smith's death, President Lee did say, "For those who don't believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks...It's only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we're just waiting for that time."
President Kimball said that the day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but should the day come it will be a matter of revelation
President Kimball began his administration by holding a press conference. When asked about the ban, he said:
[I have given it] "a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord."
He had previously written to his son:
"...I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough...I know the Lord could change His policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error (?) which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that He will do, I am sure."
In 1976, he mentioned
"his concern for giving the priesthood to all men, and said that he had been praying about it for fifteen years without an answer...but I am going to keep praying about it."
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006)
- 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.
- 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.
- Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 384.
- Spencer W. Kimball, "Remember the Mission of the Church" (April 1982)
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions
- Boyd K. Packer, "It Is the Position That Counts" (June 1977)
- Bruce R. McConkie, "All Are Alike Unto God". (18 Aug 1978)
- Neither White nor Black, 77–78.
- Neither White nor Black, 60–61, 77–78.
- Neither White nor Black, 79–81.
- B.H. Roberts, "To the Youth of Israel," The Contributor 6 (May 1885): 296–97.
- Stevenson, "For the Cause of Righteousness", 308-9;Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 65.
- Russell W. Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013 (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 310.
- The period of Latter-day Saint history in which this statement was penned reflected the time in which the racial theories had become most crystallized in Latter-day Saint consciousness. Two previous official communications to Dr. Lowry Nelson (in which it was stated that "From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church...that the Negros are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel." and that interracial marriage was "most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now." and that it was "contrary to Church doctrine") demonstrate this. See Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness, 302–12 for an excellent commentary on the major documents of this period including the Lowry Nelson Letters, this 1949 First Presidency draft, and the evolution of Mormon thought from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s that shaped attitudes surrounding the priesthood and temple restrictions.
- Sterling M. McMurrin and and L. Jackson Newell, Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin On Philosophy, Education, and Religion (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996), 199–201; cited in Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 20, page 5, footnote 17. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20, page 5, footnote 17.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20, page 5–, footnote 17.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20 working draft, 13.
- Edward L. Kimball, "Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood," BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 21-22; Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 104; Russell W. Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism 1830-2013 (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 120; W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 259: "In contrast, McKay, as president, believed divine intervention necessary regardless of the restriction's origins, something he reportedly sought but did not receive."
- Steven Taggert, Mormonism's Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1970).
- Edwin B. Firmage, "Hugh B. Brown in His Final Years," Sunstone 11:6 no. (Issue #67) (November 1987), 7–8. off-site
- Newell G. Bringhurst, "The 'Missouri Thesis' Revisited: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People," in Newel K. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, eds., Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 13. ISBN 978-0252073564. ISBN 0252073568.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, 204–205.
- Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published November 16, 1972.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 1; citing Charles J. Seldin, "Priesthood of LDS Opened to Blacks," Salt Lake City Tribune (10 June 1978), 1A.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 4; citing letter of 15 June 1963 to Edward Kimball.
- Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 7; citing F. Burton Howard to author, June 15, 1995; F. Burton Howard, interview by author, July 30, 2002.