Part 31: CES Letter Prophet Questions [Section E]
by Sarah Allen
Today and next week, I’ll be covering one of the very most controversial topics in our church’s history, the Priesthood ban on black members. I’ll say right up front that I don’t know exactly where this ban came from, but it’s a lot more complicated than just saying that “Brigham Young was racist.” However, racism—both casual and overt—was certainly a large element of the history we’re going to cover and some of the quotes I read this week made me physically sick to my stomach. I can’t even imagine thinking of other children of God like that, especially not over something as trivial as skin color. There will be some things I’ll have to quote that will be difficult to read, and I want to say clearly from the outset that I do not endorse the things being said or the language being used. Some people I love very much have African heritage, and the thought of some of these labels and attitudes being applied to them is absolutely horrifying to me. I apologize for any offense these quotes may cause. The intent is to explain the context and history, not to cause anyone pain or to defend the things that were said.
We need to remember right from the start of this, though, that these things were being said and done in a very different day than ours, and casual racism was much more common than it is in the world today. It doesn’t excuse it, but it helps explain it. We can’t view the past through today’s lens. This is called “presentism,” and it’s considered a logical fallacy. If we judge the people who lived back then by our standards today, it simply doesn’t work. Looking down on them doesn’t make us much better than the way they looked down on black people in their day. That can be a difficult thing to remember when reading some of these quotes. Believe me, I’m right there with you on that. But we have to at least try to keep in mind that some of these beliefs were held by virtually everyone in the entire Western World during the time period, and had been for centuries. Their entire culture was shaped by these beliefs. It’s easy for us to look back on it and say that we’d have been different had we lived during that time, but the truth is, we probably wouldn’t have been. It would’ve been all we’d have ever known. So, judge their words, absolutely, but try not to judge the people saying them, okay? We haven’t been in their shoes. Like Moroni says, Heavenly Father shows us the mistakes of the past so that we can learn from their example and be better than they were.
Having said that, Jeremy begins this section like so:
As you know, for close to 130 years blacks were not only banned from holding the priesthood but black individuals and black families were blocked from the saving ordinances of the Temple. Every single prophet from Brigham Young all the way to Harold B. Lee kept this ban in place.
Prophets, Seers, and Revelators of 2013 – in the Church’s December 2013 Race and the Priesthood essay – disavowed the “theories” of yesterday’s Prophets, Seers, and Revelators for their theological, institutional, and doctrinal racist teachings and “revelation.”
Yesterday’s racist doctrine and revelation is now today’s “disavowed theories.”
Despite Jeremy using that same one of his favorite repeated quotes for this bit here, he’s not done yet. He uses the line twice in this section. Remember, repetition reinforces things in your mind, so when they’re sarcastic comments about the Church and its prophets that are being repeated like that, it can eventually make you doubt your testimony.
Anyway, some of this is accurate for once, but the phrasing and repeated scare quotes Jeremy uses here makes some of this inaccurate, too. I think the best way to approach this is to run briefly through the history of race in the Church, and then we can start to talk about specifics. This is a massive topic, so I’m only going to discuss the origin of the ban this week. Next week, we’ll talk about the justifications for the ban and how they morphed over time, as well as how that ultimately culminated in the 1978 revelation.
As always, there are a lot of things we don’t know for certain. We believe the restriction began under Brigham Young, but there are some hints that it possibly began under Joseph Smith. We can’t prove it definitively one way or the other, but a lot of the more direct evidence for Joseph instituting the restriction is unreliable and the bulk of it does point to it beginning under Brigham’s tenure. I will go through all of that in more detail, but I want to start at the beginning.
First of all, there are some common racial beliefs from the 19th Century that we should cover so that later comments make more sense. Again, these are offensive attitudes, so consider this a trigger warning going forward.
We grow up learning that abolitionists were the good guys, the ones fighting to end slavery because everyone was equal and should be treated as such, but that isn’t entirely true. Even most abolitionists—at least, the white ones—were still pretty racist. The idea that slavery was wrong but that black people were best suited for being servants of the white people was a pretty common one in the North. A lot of free people of color were servants in the Northern states, and while they were paid for their services, they still weren’t treated very well. Many were abused and kept in deplorable conditions. Many abolitionists, just like other Northerners, would shun association with black people and segregation was a very real thing, even back then. Others would parade around their black friends to show off how enlightened they were, and then say horribly racist things when they weren’t around. A lot of free black people were treated as being naturally inferior to white people, regardless of intelligence, talent, capability, or social status. In fact, many considered black people to be inherently less intelligent than white people. Even in the famous Lincoln-Stephens debates, Abraham Lincoln argued that, while slavery was wrong, black people still shouldn’t be allowed to vote, hold office, serve on juries, or be allowed to marry white people. People of different races were considered to belong to different species. Medical doctors taught that biracial people were sterile, like mules or other animal crossbreeds.
There is another set of beliefs that were very, very common among white Protestants regarding the origins of the different races. The sons of Noah were considered the fathers of the different races: Shem had Asian descendants, Ham had black descendants, and Japheth had white descendants. This idea had been around since approximately 200 – 600 AD, and it took on two forms that were sometimes merged into one. Because black people were supposedly the children of Ham, Noah’s curse on Canaan transferred directly onto them. This was one of the most common scriptural defenses and explanations of slavery. Another way this could apply to them is that the curse of Cain was transferred down to the children of Ham because he had a black Canaanite wife. That’s why you sometimes see the curse of Ham and the curse of Cain being used interchangeably when it comes to things like justifying the Priesthood ban, because they were essentially two prongs of the same fork. To explain just how common these beliefs were, they were nearly universally accepted as being true among white people of European descent.
Even Joseph Smith referred to it several times, such as in 1831 in the Manuscript History of the Church, and later, in 1841. As recorded in the Documentary History of the Church, volume 4, pg. 445, he said:
I referred to the curse of Ham for laughing at Noah, while in his wine, but doing no harm. Noah was a righteous man, and yet he drank wine and became intoxicated; the Lord did not forsake him in consequence thereof, for he retained all the power of his priesthood, and when he was accused by Canaan, he cursed him by the priesthood which he held, and the Lord had respect to his word, and the priesthood which he held, notwithstanding he was drunk, and the curse remains upon the posterity of Canaan until the present day.
Other early members of the Church, including W.W. Phelps, Brigham Young, David Patten, and more, would repeat the same belief at different points. So, just bear in mind, these were very common beliefs during the mid-19th Century.
The following history is mostly taken from what is still arguably the seminal article on the history of racial attitudes in the Church despite its age, Lester Bush Jr.’s Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine. Even though it ends before the 1978 revelation, this paper was groundbreaking at the time at the time of its publication (1973) and is still one of the most comprehensive treatments on the subject that isn’t a full book. Other details were taken from W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color and the FAIR presentation he gave in 2015 when the book was released.
In the earliest days of the Church, there were two black converts, someone in Kirtland called “Black Pete” in 1830, and Elijah Abel in Maryland in 1831. Within months of Black Pete’s conversion, a newspaper from Philadelphia and New York was publishing an article announcing that the Mormons allowed black people in their congregations. It was not praising the Church for this. So, right off the bat, within a year of its organization, the Church was being attacked for its racial stance.
Missouri’s entrance into the Union as a slave state was a huge political mess that resulted in the Missouri Compromise, one of the effects of which was that, in order to preserve a balance between slave states and free states so that neither side had a congressional majority, they would alternate adding free and slave states. This would be important for the Utah territory later, but in the 1820s-30s, the main result was that racial tension in the country was heightened, particularly in and around the state of Missouri. Missouri’s state constitution basically barred free black people from coming to the state so they wouldn’t instigate a slave rebellion like Nat Turner’s. While that provision was overturned, the fear was still high that it could happen.
When the Saints began flocking to Jackson County, Missouri, in 1831, the same year of Turner’s Rebellion, their numbers (made up of mostly Northerners who disapproved of slavery) began to sway local politics, which worried the locals. When W.W. Phelps wrote an article in his paper, The Evening and Morning Star, inviting more of the Saints to the state, he included a few comments that were meant to warn free black Saints that the locals might not welcome them and to be prudent, but which were taken by the locals as him encouraging free blacks to move in. It didn’t help that he added a line rejoicing that much was being done to abolish slavery in the country and that those of African descent could soon be recolonized back to Africa (which was another common idea at the time). The belief that the Mormons were trying to start a slave rebellion was high, and it was one of the main causes of tension in the Jackson County persecutions.
After the tensions escalated sharply, Phelps backtracked and made comments about how he’d been misunderstood and intended to warn black people away from the Church, and that if they tried to join, they wouldn’t be allowed. But then, in that very article, he went and repeated the exact same line about abolishing slavery and recolonizing Africa. So, obviously, that retraction didn’t do any good, and things got worse. The press was destroyed and the Saints were expelled from Jackson County in 1833, and Caldwell County was created specifically for the Saints to settle away from everyone else.
In 1835, Oliver Cowdery wrote those articles, the one on marriage and the one on governments, to be voted on and added into the Doctrine and Covenants. The article on governments is what is now Section 134. We already went over the reasons why the marriage article was written, but one of the motivations of the governments article seems to be to ease these tensions in Missouri. Verse 12 states that they won’t preach the gospel to “bond-servants” or baptize them against the will of their masters, or to meddle or cause them in any way to be dissatisfied with their situation. Going forward, that was the policy: not preaching to slaves without the express permission of their masters.
In The Messenger and Advocate in 1836, Joseph, Oliver, and Warren Parrish all wrote lengthy articles about their views on slavery and black people in general. They all said that they were speaking as individuals, but some of the comments also show a belief that God instituted these things, which I believe is highly relevant for what would come fifteen years later.
After being exposed to nearly unanimous pro-slavery voices during his frequent trips to Missouri, Joseph’s beliefs were apparently that abolitionists were dishonest and that if slavery was evil, the good, religious people of the South would object to it. He believed that the North should stay out of the South’s business and they had as little right to demand the end of slavery as the South had to demand the spread of slavery into the North. He also appears to have believed the common thought of the day that black men were sexually aggressive and dangerous to white women. He then stated that the sons of Ham and Canaan were cursed with servitude by “decree of Jehovah” and the curse was not yet lifted. Those who fought against that showed an opposition to “the designs of the Lord.” He also repeated biblical justifications for slavery. He then finished it all off by saying that they shouldn’t preach the gospel to the slaves at all, even with permission, unless their masters were already converted.
Oliver focused on what might happen if the slaves were freed, that they’d be utterly unprepared to provide for themselves so that the prisons would be overrun “and the hangman wearied with executing the functions of his office!” He again repeated the comments about how that would endanger the chastity of women everywhere. He also believed it would lead to interracial marriage, which was abhorrent to most people of the time period (remember, black people were from a different species, so biracial children would be sterile and all that). Cowdery called it “devilish” and then went on to say, “And insensible to feeling must be the heart, and low indeed must be the mind, that would consent for a moment to see his fair daughter, his sister, or perhaps, his bosom companion, in the embrace of a negro!” Believe me, this is one of the tamer comments I’ve seen this week regarding the possibility of interracial marriage. That seemed to be one of the very biggest issues of the time period, whether that would be the result of freeing the slaves or not — and again, this will be relevant later, not just for the history of the ban but also regarding the treatment of the Saints themselves.
For his part, Parrish repeated the curse of Ham idea and said it would continue until the Lord removed it, and that He would announce its end to His prophets. Until then, all of the abolition societies that had ever existed couldn’t cause “one jot or tittle of the prophecy to fail.”
The interesting thing about these articles is that we’ll see Brigham Young and other Church leaders echo many of these same thoughts and phrases from all three of them decades later. These articles were influential.
There’s not much evolution in the Saints’ thoughts regarding the slavery issue until 1842 in Nauvoo. John C. Bennett and a Chicago physician named Charles Dyer had an exchange by letter championing the anti-slavery cause, which was reprinted in full in the Times and Seasons. Joseph Smith introduced these letters with an endorsement of their views and describing them as “brave and philanthropic hearts.” There’s no explanation for Joseph’s about face, other than perhaps being in a free state surrounded by anti-slavery advocates influenced his thinking the same way that being in a slave state had earlier. As I mentioned last week, when all you’re reading is from one slant, it influences your thoughts and opinions.
Joseph’s presidential platform called for the gradual emancipation of the slaves, going state by state, with the federal government essentially buying their freedom from their masters. However, he also held an antipathy for the abolitionists, who he believed were self-serving and whose views would lead to “ruin, infamy and shame.” Now, though, he believed that the good people of the South would help him eliminate slavery, and that the Constitution provided liberty for all “without reference to color or condition.” No more mentions of slavery being a biblical curse were made, and the only scripture he cited spoke about how God made men of every nation from one blood. He was also saddened by the fact that “two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” So, this was all a pretty big reversal from his views just a few years earlier. Part of this change was the belief that black people were only intellectually inferior to white people at the time because they’d been brought up in ignorance and hadn’t been taught how to read or write or been allowed to conduct their own affairs, and that if they were taught the way white people were taught, there wouldn’t be any difference between the races. However, he also stated firmly that there shouldn’t be any intermarrying and that black people should “keep to their own species.”
After Joseph’s death, the main focus of the Saints was self-preservation. They were facing complete annihilation for the second time and were being driven from their homes yet again. The next year, spring of 1845, the Times and Seasons reverted back to the same teachings from the Messenger and Advocate a decade earlier. Slavery had already led to big splits in the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, and the Saints were doing everything they could to prevent that happening to them.
In Winter Quarters in March 1847, Brigham referred to Q. Walker Lewis, a black man from Lowell, Massachusetts, as “one of our best Elders, an African.” He was speaking to another black man, William McCary, a convert with a white wife who complained about being badly treated by the other Saints. McCary was flamboyant and charming and was also claiming that he was a prophet and could magically transform into other figures from the Bible and Book of Mormon. Obviously, this didn’t go over very well, nor did the fact that he was married to a white woman. Remember earlier, when we were talking about how interracial marriages were viewed? Well, that was an issue for a lot of people there in Winter Quarters. Anyway, he went to complain about his treatment to Brigham, who said that it wasn’t about blood, because God made all flesh from one blood (just like Joseph said earlier) and also said that the Saints didn’t care about skin color, and praised Elder Lewis to make that point.
Brigham then left Winter Quarters not long after and began his trek to Utah, and McCary immediately began marrying other white women in ceremonies mocking temple sealings and teaching some really profane things to those wives, and causing trouble with his “prophecies,” etc. He was excommunicated and kicked out of Winter Quarters. In April 1847, Parley P. Pratt responded to the controversy over McCary, telling people that McCary had the curse of Ham and those who are descended from the blood of Ham couldn’t hold the Priesthood. He seemed already aware of a Priesthood restriction, even though McCary had been previously ordained by Orson Hyde and did in fact hold the Priesthood before his excommunication.
There was another instance in 1849 where Lorenzo Snow asked about the future of the African race as it pertained to the Church, and he already seemed to be aware of a Priesthood restriction, too. Brigham responded, giving an explanation that touched back on the curse of Cain/Ham. This meeting in 1849 is sometimes mentioned as the place where the ban was enacted, but it seemed as though he was giving the reason behind an already-existing policy. He didn’t outline the restriction in that meeting, but they both seemed to be discussing something that was already in force or was at least already known among the Twelve.
These instances are curious and might well hint toward it being an already existing policy by the time the Saints headed West, but there’s no confirmation of that. It could just be that the notes we have of these comments are unclear and there was no previous ban in place. At any rate, it does seem like a topic the Twelve discussed in their meetings from time to time.
When Brigham returned to Winter Quarters in December 1847, having set up the initial settlements in Utah, he heard all about what happened with McCary. One thing to point out is that Brigham didn’t care for interracial marriage, but he didn’t take public issue with it until children were involved. He believed the line about sterility in biracial offspring, and believed it eventually led to the death of your family and had an impact on all of the entire human family that stretched into the eternities. You were essentially dooming your family to death if you had biracial children, in his mind, because your family line would cease after only one generation. Because the blessings of Abraham are those of an innumerable progeny and familial line, and because of eternal progression being based around the family unit, this was spiritually dangerous. But as long as you didn’t have children, he kept his thoughts to himself about your interracial marriage…at least up until that point. Anyway, while he was there, listening to stories of McCary marrying a bunch of white women and doing some pretty shocking things with them, he also had a meeting with a man named William Appleby.
Appleby was the president of the eastern branches of the Church. He’d met Q. Walker Lewis in MA and took issue with the fact that there was an ordained black elder. He wrote a letter to Brigham at Winter Quarters asking if that was allowed, because he hadn’t heard it was, and wanted to know what should be done about the matter. Additionally, Lewis’s son Enoch was married to a white woman and they had a child, which upset Appleby greatly, something that was also included in his letter.
That letter reached Winter Quarters after Brigham had left that spring, so Brigham didn’t get it until he arrived there again that winter. Appleby had made his way West by that point too, and he, his letter, and Brigham all met up there at the same time. Brigham responded to all of this news with a private meeting with the members of the Twelve who were there, in which he said that “amalgamation,” as it was called prior to the Civil War, was such a big transgression (leading to the end of the family, as he believed) that it was worthy of capital punishment.
He made other similar, public statements while in Utah, though the most well-known speech discussing it seems to have been more about masters raping their slaves than about interracial marriage. There were interracial couples living in Utah at the time those comments were made and no arrests or legal actions were ever made against them, even if they faced discrimination, so these could be instances of his exaggerating for effect the way he was prone to do. Or he could have been completely serious. We honestly don’t know. Either way, regardless of the context and whether or not he was being hyperbolic, the belief behind the comments was the same: that it was wrong and should be condemned.
Once they arrived in Utah, things still weren’t settled. In order to become an official territory in 1850, they were neutral as to slavery: they had no laws establishing it or denying it. However, depending on the Missouri Compromise, they might have been required to be a slave state if they were granted statehood. It all depended on the timing of other states being approved. Making things even more complicated, some of the Saints had slaves when they joined the main body of the Church in Utah. The leaders weren’t sure what to do with them. The Native Americans also had a bustling slave trade going between the local tribes and dealers in Mexico, and they were conducting it right there in the middle of Utah Territory. It was a tangled mess they had to try to organize.
By 1852, it was becoming critical for the Territorial government to pass some laws regarding slavery in Utah. President Young, as the governor, gave a series of speeches in front of the legislature in January and February, alternating with Orson Pratt in sort of a debate where they’d each take a turn and voice their opinions. Pratt was vehemently anti-slavery, and he opposed the Priesthood restriction as well.
Some of the things Brigham argued included the idea that slavery could be used to improve the slaves’ lives if their masters allowed it, because they could be educated and given a purpose, which would let them progress as far the curse of Cain/Ham would allow. He also said that service was important to all societies, and that black people should not be treated like beasts of the field the way they were in the South. He further stated that he was not authorized to remove that curse, and that the curse allowed for slavery.
Some of this may have been because New Mexico was about to enter the Union as a free state, which would have meant that Utah would have to be a slave state if it was going to follow them. If they wanted statehood, which they did and which Brigham felt very strongly about, they couldn’t pass any anti-slavery laws.
The specific intent of the slavery laws in Utah (there were two, one for black people and one for Native Americans, passed within a month of each other) was to eventually lead to the complete elimination of slavery. Slavery in Utah was a step between the slavery of the South and indentured servitude.
There were some differences between the two laws, but basically, slaves had to come into the territory willingly and couldn’t be sold or forced to move out of the territory if they didn’t want to be. There were term limits on the contracts and education was required for all slaves. If masters slept with their slaves, even if it was consensual, or they neglected to feed, clothe, or shelter them, or if they abused the slaves, the contracts were null and void and the slaves were to be freed. There were also fines and potential prison sentences for the masters if they violated their contacts. There were legal recourses for the slaves and term limits imposed, which was very different from Southern slavery, and more akin to indentured servitude.
Obviously, some people abused these laws and looked for loopholes and other people were treated very badly, but the intent was to be better than those in the South and to eventually eliminate the practice from the territory.
It was at these legislative sessions where Brigham Young first publicly announced the Priesthood restriction. The day after the slavery bill was passed, the legislature asked him to share his views on slavery again, and that’s when he announced it. He used some of the same language as those 1836 articles by Joseph, Oliver, and Warren Parrish and a lot of the same reasonings given in them. You can read the shorthand transcript of it here.
There are some important points to make about this particular speech. First, this is the one where Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal that Brigham made the comment about “one drop of Negro blood” restricting someone from the Priesthood. This actually was not said by Brigham. Woodruff misremembered when he re-recorded it later from his notes taken in the moment. That comment would be repeated many times by people after Brigham’s death as justification for the policy, and he never even said it, not then or in any other speech we have a copy of.
Second, and more importantly, this speech was recorded in multiple places as containing this paragraph:
Men cannot [remove the curse], angels cannot … but thus saith the Eternal I Am What I Am, “I take it off at my pleasure,” and not one particle of power can that posterity of Cain have, until the time comes. … That time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more.
According to LaJean Carruth, that was the type of phrasing he always used when he spoke of it: that it would be changed someday, but that he couldn’t change it and it had to come from God:
Brigham Young repeatedly said that any man of African heritage cannot hold the priesthood. He said it would be changed, but he always said, “I cannot change it.” He never explained why. He did not give a source for it. We don’t know the source for it, but he repeatedly said … The word he always used is can. “I cannot change it.” Yet, he made it clear that the time would come when those of African descent would receive all the blessings.
He said repeatedly it was decreed by God and that he could not change it. Now, whether you think that was just him taking conventional beliefs of the day and making assumptions, or him mistaking his own beliefs for revelation, or whether it actually was something that God commanded him or Joseph to do that they didn’t fully understand, we don’t know. Remember, as we discussed a few weeks ago, Brigham believed every idea or piece of knowledge came by revelation. That belief unfortunately makes it rather difficult for us to know with any certainty what he meant when he said that God had declared this to be so.
Either way, though, whether it came from God or not, Brigham believed it did. He was very firm on that point, that it was something God had declared and that he could not change it. This wasn’t just something he invented and put in place because he hated black people. This was something he truly believed he was commanded to do. We’ll talk more next week about the repercussions of that belief, but that was why he was so insistent on it. That’s also why the Church has never apologized for the ban: because if it was a commandment from God that he was following, we have no right to apologize for it.
And Brigham was positive it was a commandment. Maybe he was wrong; maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know. Whenever I pray about it, the response I get is that there were reasons for it. I’m not given those reasons. I don’t know if it was instituted by God or not, or if so, why. I don’t know if Brigham mistook his own thoughts for revelation. Maybe that’s the reason for it. Someday, we’ll all know for certain. Until then, it’s less clear.
I do want to touch briefly on the possibility Joseph instituted it, though. Brigham never stated he did, though others later made that claim.
Shortly before those three 1836 articles came out, Elijah Abel was ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Over the next few years, he also received his washing and anointing in Kirtland and was called as a Seventy (this was not a General Authority position at the time). When I mentioned earlier that there were hints that the Priesthood restriction began with Joseph, most of them are recollections concerning Joseph and Abel decades later. Zebedee Coltrin claimed many years after this point that the ordination had been a mistake and that it was revoked before Joseph’s death, which was not true. He and Abraham Smoot also claimed that they were both in a meeting with Joseph where they asked what to do about slaves, and Joseph said to baptize them with the consent of their masters, but they were told specifically not to ordain them. Now, their recollections were inaccurate on other points, so these accounts are considered unreliable. Beyond that, Abraham Smoot (an apostle) owned black slaves in Utah, so he might have had a vested interest in forgetting the actual details of that conversation. Regardless, if that was the policy, it seemed to apply only to slaves in Southern States at the time.
The knowledge of that policy could have influenced the wider Priesthood restriction, however. Joseph did have a lot of private meetings with the Twelve in Nauvoo that were not recorded, and were for private instruction regarding temple ordinances, plural marriage, other deeper doctrine/instruction that wasn’t shared with the Saints at large, and administrative duties that largely made up the basis for most of Brigham’s decisions once leading the Church in Utah. He deferred to the things Joseph taught him on a regular basis and saw that as his primary role, to uphold the things Joseph laid out. A lot of that instruction Brigham received from Joseph seemed to have originated in those private meetings, and this could theoretically be one of them.
Ronald Esplin makes this argument in a paper titled Brigham Young and Priesthood Denial to the Blacks: An Alternate View:
Brigham Young was first a great disciple and student of Joseph Smith and only secondly a great leader in his own right. He saw himself as the master-builder—not the architect—of the Kingdom and of Zion. And while he taught the necessity of revelation to carry out the program, and claimed revelation himself, he felt it was Joseph Smith’s special calling to have given the patterns and to have taught all the necessary principles of priesthood and government. The responsibility of Brigham Young and the Twelve, then, was to erect, on the foundation of Joseph, the building Joseph had envisioned. This was stressed time and again by President Young and his associates. For example, in 1866 he explained that “on the things of God, on the building up of His Kingdom, or the doctrines Joseph taught, or on anything that pertains to the priesthood,” his memory of what he had learned at Joseph’s feet was of primary importance.
… Dean Jesse, research historian with the LDS Historical Department, has shown that of approximately 250 public sermons mentioned in diaries and minutes (and surely Joseph gave others), we have a fairly adequate account (notes, not verbatim reports) of only 54 of them, not to mention the numerous private sessions held with the Twelve and others, especially during 1843-1844. The latter were not recorded nor meant to be recorded. Rather, they were the proper forum for the teachings of the “mysteries of the kingdom,” those temple-related teachings that were not to be taught abroad and could not go to the broader membership of the Church until after completion of the Temple and the removal of the Church to the relative isolation of the West.
Brigham Young and the Twelve, then, had access to a much larger corpus of Joseph Smith’s teachings than we presently enjoy in written form. This becomes highly significant and relevant to the present question when Apostle Orson Hyde in 1845 characterized a discussion of the curse upon Blacks specifically as “among the mysteries of the kingdom” and said that he mentioned it at that time “not by constraint, or by commandment, but by permission.” In other words, he was party to teachings about the Blacks which had not been explained publicly—and which would not be until Brigham Young himself did so in January and February of 1852. This same private understanding, it would appear, prompted Parley P. Pratt’s cursory statement in 1847, Brigham Young’s explanation to Lorenzo Snow in 1849, and President Young’s detailed explanation in 1852.
Finally, if priesthood denial to the Blacks were taught in Nauvoo councils during 1843-1844, and consequently came to the Church (and in 1852 to the public) through Brigham Young and the Twelve, it would hardly be a new or unknown phenomenon. Many of the teachings and practices formalized during Brigham Young’s administration can be traced to private councils where Joseph Smith taught the Twelve in detail about the affairs of the Kingdom. In fact, it seems far more compelling to accept that possibility, one in harmony with what we know of Brigham Young, and of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, than to continue to believe—in the absence of documentation—that Brigham Young made a fundamental innovation of his own during those tumultuous years of succession, temple building, and exodus, especially in view of the fact that the private meetings where Joseph Smith taught the full pattern of temple ordinances (and related doctrines) would have provided the ideal forum and the motivation for discussing it. We know the early brethren were concerned about priesthood lineage and about who would have access to temple ordinances. Even if Joseph did not raise the question himself, it is not difficult to envision someone asking about the Blacks and Joseph providing the answer….
I’m not advocating this idea, for what it’s worth. I do think it came from a combination of things, but ultimately was instituted by Brigham Young. But there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot that’s messy and hard to work out today. Esplin is right that Brigham saw himself as following Joseph’s directions and continually upholding his teachings while following the commandments of God, and maybe he saw himself doing both of those things when he instituted the ban. And maybe Joseph did teach the Twelve something about it before he died. We can’t know what was taught in those councils. I think it’s more likely, though, that Joseph’s earlier thoughts in Missouri dovetailed perfectly with those feelings of Brigham’s, and that when Brigham came to believe somehow that black men were barred from the Priesthood by decree of God, others believed that Joseph had been the one to tell him that.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.