There has been a lot of discussion in Mormondom regarding race and the priesthood. The church denied the priesthood from black members (specifically those of African descent) from the 1850s until 1978. They did not relent through the end of slavery, through the proposed State of Deseret joining the United States as Utah, and through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The church wants us to believe that it was all in the Lord’s timing, but it seems more like it wasn’t until the racist leaders had left their seats of authority for the grave and a new crop of leaders who thought differently and saw that the church needed to change in order to grow and stay “relevant”. This perfectly explains why the church is so far “behind the times” on issues of social justice.
Documents show this progression when comparing the racist speech of Brigham Young in 1852 beginning the priesthood ban, the Lowry Nelson exchange with the First Presidency in 1947, the First Presidency message of 1949, the First Presidency statement in 1969, the 1977 excommunication of Byron Marchant, the Official Declaration in 1978 and the changed rhetoric through this interview below in 1988.
There are more examples of this type of change being fueled by outside pressures: polygamy, worthiness interviews, the priesthood ban, women’s rights and participation, and the ongoing battle for LGBQT+ rights. There are plenty of predictions that the church will become more LGBQT+ friendly in the next 20-30 years, once the homophobic leaders give way to more accepting leaders and ideologies. What can we learn about how the church works by what they say 10 years after the big priesthood change?
Leaders are happy to discuss how happy they were when the priesthood ban was lifted and give praise to God that it was (even though they claim it was his command in the first place too). Leaders will tell of the celebrations when they met and discussed that it was time to reverse the policy and that they received unanimous revelation from on high. They don’t talk as much about the reasons the ban was lifted. Though surprisingly there are a couple of conversations and interviews (like this one with Holland who dismisses the racist Mormon doctrine as folklore), that do. Here is one from the Provo Herald when celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Official Declaration 2. Dallin Oaks and Neal Maxwell are interviewed by the AP about the policy and the reasons for lifting the ban.
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Here is a partial transcript of an Associated Press interview with Elders Neal A. Maxwell and Dallin H. Oaks of the Mormon Church’s Council of the Twelve Apostles regarding the taitn s policy banning blacks from its priesthood, and he reasons the ban was lifted 10 years ago:
AP: Was the ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood a matter of policy or doctrine?
MAXWELL: Well, I don’t know. It certainly was church policy and, obviously, with some considerable commentary from early church leaders about it. It’s difficult for me to go beyond that.
OAKS: I don’t know that it’s possible to distinguish between policy and doctrine in a church that believes in continuing revelation and sustains its leader as a prophet…. I’m not sure I could justify the difference in doctrine and policy in the fact that before 1978 a person could not hold the priesthood and after 1978 they could hold the priesthood.
AP: Did you feel differently about the issue before the revelation was given?
OAKS: I decided a long time ago, 1961 or 2, that there’s no way to talk about it in terms of doctrine, or policy, practice, procedure. All of those words just led you to reaffirm your prejudice, whichever it was. The only fair, just way to think about it is to reaffirm your faith in the prophet, and he says you don’t do it now, so you don’t do it now. And if he says tomorrow that you do do it, then you do it.
MAXWELL: Mine was similar, with the sense of expectation that the direction would some from heaven at some time… As we went to the upper room, we sang a song. I regard myself as a pretty good reader ot what is going on (but) had no inkling of what was going on. And as we knelt down to pray, the spirit told me what it was going to be … and after that prayer, President Kimball began the description. I began to weep.
AP: It appears that prior to 1978, there was a lack of unanimity among the brethren regarding the origin and efficacy of the policy, We understand 10 of the Council of the Twelve voted in 1969 to lift the ban as an administrative procedure, but the plan was overturned by Harold B. Lee.
MAXWELL: These are things about which I wouldn’t have any knowledge.
OAKS: That’s a new one to me, too.
AP: To follow up, just for the sake of argument, in your deliberations on any issue, is unanimity required for a decision?
MAXWELL: The scripture does lay a requirement of unanimity upon us, and I think that is adhered to, not in a nitpicky way, but it is substantial.
AP: Does a policy such as this, the priesthood prohibition, require a revelation to change, or can it be done through discourse among the brethren?
MAXWELL: I think anything as: major and significant as this would have required the spiritual endorsement and sanction that was obviously there.
AP: As much as any doctrine the church has espoused, or controversy the church has been embroiled in, this one seems to stand out. Church members seemed to have less to go on to get a grasp of the issue. Can you address why this was the case, and what can be learned from it?
OAKS: If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, ‘Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,’ you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reason to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to the one we’re talking about here, 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 decided that 25 years ago, so it was very easy for me when it was changed.
AP: Are you referring to reasons given even by general authorities?
OAKS: Sure. I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon that reason by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking. My experience with this was to say, I don’t know whether this is commanded in the Pearl of Great Price. I’m not positive about that commandment in relation to this. I put my faith on the president of the church whom I sustain as the prophet. When he tells me that this is what the church does, then I’ll go with that. Let’s don’t 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.
AP: Do you think President Kimball had a better understanding of the reasons?
OAKS: I don’t personally. I talked to him about it. He asked me what I thought were the reasons. He talked to dozens of people, maybe hundreds of people. He talked to me about why, why do we have this. I said, ‘I don’t know, president.’Provo Daily Herald | 1988-06-05 | Page 21
There were also many many pressures from every angle to change. There were pressures from the government, and global issues due to the racist thinking being unique to the US still. The church was having trouble making sense of the Utah-born rules in a global organization, like in Brazil or Fiji, where there were members with dark skin, but they weren’t considered African. There were even pressures from within the church and a member, Byron Marchant, voted opposed to sustaining church leaders during 1977 General Conference, and legal issues when the church was involved with a lawsuit against the NAACP regarding African-American youth involved in the church-sponsored Boy Scout programs.
What are your thoughts on these responses from these apostles? They feel very legal and delicate answers but also don’t say a lot. They are quick to dismiss things as unknown to them which are easily verifiable. Did answers like these or even these specific answers play a role in your doubts or faith transition? Please join the movement as wasmormon.org and share your story.
- Byron Marchant, Dissident Excommunicated in 1977 for Opposing Priesthood Ban
- Mormon Leadership Dismisses Racist Doctrines as Folklore
- 1969 Official First Presidency Statement on the Doctrines of Banning Blacks from the Priesthood
- Authoritative Statement by the LDS Church on the Doctrine of Blacks in 1949
- Brigham Young’s Racist Remarks on Slaves, Seed, and Priesthood Doctrines