We’re now moving into one of the most controversial topics in our church’s history, the Priesthood restriction for black members of African descent. Like plural marriage, this is a topic that comes with a lot of emotion behind it. People have very strong feelings about this part of our history, and for good reason. I’m no exception to that. I’ll be discussing quotes, attitudes, and beliefs that I personally find appalling.
But like I always say, history is messy. Expecting it to be easy is naïve.
There are two things that are absolutely imperative to understand when we’re talking about these things.
The first is that when these quotes were made and these theories were tossed around, society was verydifferent than it is today. Racial attitudes, customs, beliefs, and even widely accepted science are almost completely unrecognizable to our attitudes and beliefs today. You cannot view the past through today’s lens if you want to understand why people said what they said and thought what they thought. Judging the past by today’s standards is a logical fallacy known as “presentism.”
If you’re making a comparison to show how much things have changed, that’s one thing. It’s quite another, however, to look at the people of the past and think we’re smarter, more enlightened, better human beings than they were. Every time period and society throughout the history of the world has its flaws, including ours today.
The second thing we need to understand is that these attitudes, quotes, and beliefs do not define these people that we’ll be discussing. Heavenly Father uses imperfect people to achieve His goals, and He loves us and honors our devotion to Him regardless of those flaws. Some of these men were highly favored of God—not for holding these beliefs, but because those beliefs were one small aspect of who they were. Their other attributes made up for their flaws in God’s eyes. Some of them saw the Savior face to face. Some heard His voice speaking to them out of Heaven. Some saw other divine messengers. Some had incredible visions.
This doesn’t mean that God approved of their racism. It just means that God understands that we’re not perfect, and He accepts our offerings anyway.
[B]e kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.
Our prophets and apostles are not perfect. They’re flawed human beings just like we are, and sometimes, they make mistakes. But here’s why that’s a good thing: it means that we don’t have to be perfect to serve God and to be acceptable to Him, either.
This is a hard topic without a clear-cut answer. Some people will come to one conclusion, and others will come to an entirely different conclusion. We’re all going to have different perspectives and opinions on this kind of thing. That’s perfectly okay. In the absence of clear revelation or documented fact, it’s fine if we disagree on our ultimate conclusions.
The LFMW starts off this section with multiple quotes from past leaders, so we’ll go through them in context one at a time. I’m just going to start at the top and go through as many as I can this week. Before I do, I just want to make one thing clear: I do not agree with any of these statements or the attitudes behind them. I don’t condone them, and I grapple with how men who were called of God could hold these beliefs about other children of God. All I’m trying to do is to put them in context of the times in which they were said, and in the talks or books themselves.
For over 150 years the Church has taught and sustained racially prejudiced doctrines while attributing these actions to the will of God.
This is only partially true. The famous Priesthood revelation was given 45 years ago as of June 9th. The Priesthood restriction was in place from 1852 to 1978, a total of 126 years. As anyone with basic math skills can point out, that is not “over 150 years.”
Moreover, while different theories and speculations as to the reason behind the restriction were taught and shared by various members, including many of the church leadership, it was only doctrine in the sense that it was something some people publicly taught. Official doctrine, by definition, is the codification of a set of beliefs by a church, religion, or branch of knowledge. The reasons behind the restriction were never officially codified or canonized by the Church. Some leaders were fond of presenting their opinion as fact, but it was also acknowledged that no one knew for sure what the reason was.
It was attributed to the will of God because they truly believed it was the will of God. And we don’t actually have anything from God saying otherwise.
These teachings include a ban on black members from holding the priesthood and participating in the temple, and went as far as preaching death as a consequence for inter-race marriage.
Just to be clear, even when Utah was not yet a state and Brigham Young had basically full control over the territory, and even though there were interracial couples in the territory at the time in violation of the law, no one has ever been put to death by the government in Utah/Deseret territories for being in an interracial marriage. There are tragically three lynchings of black men in Utah’s history, and one of those, Thomas Coleman, was murdered over his relationship with a white woman. The exact nature of their relationship varies according to the source, from friendliness to courtship. The other two men, Robert Marshall and William “Sam Joe” Harvey, were killed by mobs after they each killed a white man—though, in Marshall’s case, it’s not definitive that he committed the murder for which he was hanged. None of these horrifying events were condoned by Church leaders.
Recently, the Church has tried to clean up this part of its image by disavowing these past teachings.
That’s one rather cynical way to look at it. You could also look at it as the Church trying to ensure that all of its members know definitively that those old theories are not true and that they are not to be shared as being accurate explanations for the restriction.
- Racist Teachings
- President Brigham Young
“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.10, p.110)
This particular paragraph of the Journal of Discourses gets quoted out of context quite often. We do not have the original transcript of this talk, so everything said in this paragraph needs to be looked at with some degree of skepticism.
The reporters for the Journal of Discourses took shorthand, word-for-word transcripts of the sermons in question as they were being given. Then, they were translated from shorthand script into English. During that conversion process, they were edited by the reporters. Those edits ranged from minor grammatical corrections of a few words here and there to large passages that were either omitted or added by the reporters. They’d freely write their own thoughts into the sermons and put things into their own words, disregarding what the original speakers actually said.
Some of the sermons in the JoD contain significant departures from the original spoken text, and the speakers were often not given the opportunity to approve the talks before they were published. This agitated the speakers. In fact, according to the article linked in the above paragraph, on one notable occasion Heber C. Kimball actually called out the reporters from the pulpit during his sermon and forbade them from altering a single word of his talk.
We only have the original shorthand transcripts for a small number of those sermons, and they can be found online at the Church History Catalog in the section titled Parallel Column Comparisons. At the upcoming FAIR Conference this August, the only person in the world currently able to read George Watt’s personal shorthand style, LaJean Purcell Carruth, will be discussing all of this. George Watt was the main reporter for and the person behind the creation and publication of the Journal of Discourses.
The Church’s website also contains a 3-part series of articles discussing all of this at length, called “Preached vs Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies.” You can find those articles here:
This information has only come to light in the past few years, but we often only have the gist of any particular talk. The exact wording is often quite different. Carruth and her team did not find any talks that were unaltered, but the degree of difference varied by the talk.
So, unless we have the original shorthand transcript for a particular talk recorded in the JoD, we can’t know for certain how much was altered and how much was intact. The subject of the sermon and the basic premise of each talk is accurate, but the exact words used are often anyone’s guess. We simply cannot treat any of those talks as definitively accurate.
Because we don’t have the original transcript of this talk, we have no idea if Brigham Young said this or not. He certainly gave a sermon where he discussed this topic toward the end, but we don’t know if these were Brigham Young’s words or George Watt’s words. Brigham said other similar things before that were sometimes seemingly literal and other times seemingly symbolic, but we can’t be positive that this particular quote came from him.
We also can’t be sure there wasn’t a whole lot of removed context that’d make that paragraph make more sense.
Particularly given the context in the transcript of this talk, this quote is somewhat confusing. It’s all about how the US Government was corrupt and while the Saints were loyal to the country, the government was not loyal to them in return. In this portion, he said that Congress should have passed laws governing the treatment of slaves and ensuring that they were treated humanely and not like animals. He also said in the very next paragraph after the cited quote that the white race would be cursed for their treatment of the black race unless they repented.
This weird contradiction in just a few paragraphs has led many people to look for other explanations. For example, W. John Walsh suggested that historical context gives quote this an entirely different meaning. He pointed out that when Brigham mentions “the chosen seed,” he’s talking about Priesthood holders who have joined the covenant of Abraham. Because interracial marriage was illegal in Utah after 1852, when Brigham gave this speech in 1863, white Priesthood holders could not marry black women. So, this hypothetical relationship would either have been fornication or adultery, which obviously are both serious sins that have strict penalties under the laws of God. President Spencer W. Kimball once taught, “Marriage gives life. Fornication leads to death.” He was talking about the spiritual death that comes from unrepentant sin. Maybe that’s what Brigham Young was talking about too, especially considering that in some areas of the country, as Walsh points out, unmarried white men were urged to satisfy their hormones with black women so as to protect the white women from being defiled or subject to unwed motherhood. In those parts of the country, they didn’t consider that as being wrong or sinful. So, Walsh believes that Brigham was teaching that white Priesthood holders shouldn’t be using black women for premarital or extramarital sex, because it was still a sin even if, in other parts of the world, they considered black women to be something less than human.
He isn’t the only one to have made that suggestion, and maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong. I’m not advocating one way or the other because I genuinely don’t know. I know that the sermon in question is contradictory and confusing if taken to mean interracial marriage, but Brigham was also vehemently against interracial marriage and he was known to make other contradictory and confusing statements. So, until we can discover the exact wording of the sermon, and until Brigham can explain himself on this particular quote, I will just say to take it all with a grain of salt. Look at the JoD critically, but also look at Walsh’s interpretation critically.
“How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.7, p.290)
This quote and the one two down from here are literally from the same paragraph of this sermon. The talk is about how mankind was blessed with light and intelligence from God, and that people can either rise above their station as they learn more and become more enlightened, or sink below it as they succumb to the natural man. In context, this quote says:
The whole object of the creation of this world is to exalt the intelligences that are placed upon it, that they may live, endure, and increase for ever and ever. We are not here to quarrel and contend about the things of this world, but we are here to subdue and beautify it. Let every man and woman worship their God with all their heart. Let them pay their devotions and sacrifices to him, the Supreme, and the Author of their existence. Do all the good you can to your fellow-creatures. You are flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. God has created of one blood all the nations and kingdoms of men that dwell upon all the face of the earth: black, white, copper-coloured, or whatever their colour, customs, or religion, they have all sprung from the same origin; the blood of all is from the same element. Adam and Eve are the parents of all pertaining to the flesh, and I would not say that they are not also the parents of our spirits.
You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, un-comely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the “servant of servants;” and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree. How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed. When the residue of the family of Adam come up and receive their blessings, then the curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will receive blessings in like proportion.
Now, this is one where we do have the original transcript, and it’s significantly different throughout most of the talk. Large chunks were removed and rewritten. This portion is mostly intact, but still not identical, and I’m copying it over without punctuation just as it appears on the website:
…the whole object of the creation of the world is to exalt it to live forever and forever not to come into this world and quarrel and contend about the things of this world subdue the earth beautify it let every man and woman worship God with all his heart pay his devotions and sacrifices to him the Supreme and Author of his existence do all the good he can to his brethren you are flesh of my flesh bone of my bone and God has created of one blood all the nations and kingdoms that dwell upon the face of the earth black or white copper colored spotted or whatever color or customs or religions and [illegible] our God has created all those nations of one blood the flesh from the same element the blood is from the same element the tabernacle from the same element their parents the same Adam was our father pertaining to the flesh I would not really get up an argument and say he was not the father of spirits too she Eve was the mother pertaining to the flesh and I would not say she was not pertaining to the spirit neither and all the human family sprang from this same character we are his offspring you see the countenance dark black uncouth uncomely disagreeable rude in their habits wild and deprived seemingly of all the blessings of intelligence bestowed on mankind we are taught they come from the first man that commits the odious crime of killing one of his brethren shall be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam Cain killed his brother you might have killed him and that would have stopped the whole [family?] but no I will put a mark on him it is the flat nose and black skin passed along down until you come through the ark with Noah and then another curse pronounced upon the same race and that they should be the servants of servants they will be and the abolitionists can’t help it neither now how long are they to be cursed this mark and curse will remain on them and they never can hold the keys of the priesthood or share in it until all the races of children and descendants of Adam have received the promised enjoyed the blessings of the priesthood and keys there of upon this earth until the last one of residue of Adam’s children are brought up in favorable condition before the children of Cain can receive the first ordinances of priesthood they was the first that was cursed and they will be the last ones the curse be removed from I am tiring myself very materially…
So, obviously, Brigham’s beliefs differ quite a bit from ours on this topic. He was raised a Protestant, and he held onto some pretty Protestant ideas even after his conversion. One of the very common beliefs of the first half of the 19th Century was that black people were the descendants of Cain and were cursed because he was cursed. Others believed the same about the curse of Ham, and Brigham was known to have combined the two on more than one occasion, as he did here. This is one of those racist theories our current leadership has disavowed.
Brigham was not the only early leader of ours to espouse these ideas. Many of them did, including Joseph Smith in 1836. Today, we have a different understanding of generational curses in the scriptures than they did in the early days of the Church.
Their interpretations were colored by the society in which they lived, just as ours are. That can be a hard thing for some of us to accept and understand. But everyone thinks their interpretations of the scriptures are correct. The key is recognizing that and being willing to change your interpretations as you gain more knowledge.
“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.7, pp.282-291)
I switched this quote with the one below because it’s dealing with the same paragraph of the same talk as the one we just covered. I already quoted this sentence in context from both the JoD and from the original transcript.
What I wanted to highlight was the wording of the original transcript. While he was talking about black people being cursed according to his understanding of the scriptures, he wasn’t talking about all black people being “uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of…intelligence.”
He was describing the impression you get when you look at certain people. The original wording was describing those people who have a “dark black” countenance. “Countenance,” especially as used in the scriptures, is someone’s facial expression or the way God watches over His children. It can also mean a person’s bearing: the way they hold themselves, the way they move, the air they give off.
If someone has a dark countenance, the expression usually doesn’t refer to that person’s skin color. It means someone who is angry or upset or even, in some circumstances, evil. It’s like having a dark aura. Brigham seemed to be talking about people who didn’t have the gospel, who needed the light of Christ to elevate them.
Remember, the point of the talk was that human beings could improve themselves and gain further light and knowledge in this lifetime. He was talking about rising up from a lower station in life to a higher one, through the light of the gospel. He also specifically brought up black people in the context of saying that someday, their curse would be reversed and they would be given the ability to improve their station, too. But, he said, that opportunity had to come from God at the right time, and wasn’t something that he or the abolitionists or any other human being could do.
At least, that’s the impression that I get when I read his full talk. Other people might disagree, and that’s okay. I’m not denying that Brigham Young held racist beliefs. So did Joseph Smith, so did Orson Pratt, and so did every other person living in the 1800s compared to today. Our society has changed. It doesn’t make them bad people. It just means they’re flawed human beings like the rest of us. And sometimes, they got things wrong.
“You may inquire of the intelligent of the world whether they can tell why the aborigines of this country are dark, loathsome, ignorant, and sunken into the depths of degradation …When the Lord has a people, he makes covenants with them and gives unto them promises: then, if they transgress his law, change his ordinances, and break his covenants he has made with them, he will put a mark upon them, as in the case of the Lamanites and other portions of the house of Israel; but by‑and‑by they will become a white and delightsome people. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.7, pp.335-338)
I’m not sure why this quote is in here when it’s not talking about black people, but okay, sure, let’s address it.
This talk has a very similar theme to the last one, improving yourself and increasing your knowledge through the light of Christ and your devotion to the gospel. This similarity in themes is not surprising, considering it was given the day before the prior talk was at the same General Conference. Unfortunately, we do not have the original transcript of this talk.
Since the quote is edited, I’ll post the entire paragraph here:
You may inquire of the intelligent of the world whether they can tell why the aborigines of this country are dark, loathsome, ignorant, and sunken into the depths of degradation; and they cannot tell. I can tell you in a few words: They are the seed of Joseph, and belong to the household of God; and he will afflict them in this world, and save every one of them hereafter, even though they previously go into hell. When the Lord has a people, he makes covenants with them and gives unto them promises: then, if they transgress his law, change his ordinances, and break the covenants he has made with them, he will put a mark upon them, as in the case of the Lamanites and other portions of the house of Israel; but by-and-by they will become a white and delightsome people.
Here, Brigham was talking about Native Americans and how they were in a lower station in life compared to white Americans. It was common belief among the early Saints that all Native Americans were believed to be the descendants of the Lamanites, and were cursed by God for the destruction of the Nephites according to the prophecies of the Book of Mormon. He used the words “white” and “dark” in the context of “good” and “bad.”
However, there’s no denying there was a racial component to this, and the attitude is gross and off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not going to defend this statement, but I’m also not going to get too worked up over it. A man from the 1800s held racist beliefs. That’s not a shock to me. Everyone in the 1800s held racist beliefs.
Brigham Young taught some profound things in his lifetime, and he did a lot of great things. I have no doubt that he was exactly who the Lord needed to move the Saints to the Rocky Mountains and keep the Church together and thriving over the next half a century. There’s a lot about the man worth admiring. However, assuming it’s accurate, this quote isn’t one of them.
No human being is ever going to live up to your expectations 100% of the time—yourself included. We are mortal, and we make mistakes. We disappoint each other all the time. We need to be able to cut each other some slack, or we’ll never make it through this life without our relationships surviving intact. Learning how to separate the good from the bad is a skill and it takes practice to learn.
And you know what? It works the same way with our church leaders, too. We can’t hold them to standards we aren’t willing to hold ourselves to. They’re fallen and mortal, just like we are.
The only ones who are not going to let us down in this life are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They won’t, because They’re perfect.
Expecting that perfection from other human beings is an exercise in futility. We’re flawed. When God calls us to do His work here on Earth, He doesn’t magically erase those flaws. He expects us to serve Him despite those flaws. And like Elder Holland said above, those flaws are in us. They’re not flaws in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, as we read over all of these quotes and the ones we’ll go through next time, just remember: if God only called perfect people, the only one He’d have ever called is His Son. If we want to be forgiven for our flaws at the Judgment Bar, we need to be willing to forgive the flaws of others.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d 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.