Lowry Nelson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the Utah State Agricultural College, engaged in a series of communications in 1947 with the First Presidency of the LDS Church regarding the issue of race and the priesthood.
Who Was Lowry Nelson
Born in Ferron, Utah, in 1893, Lowry Nelson received his B.S. degree in agronomy from Utah State Agricultural College in 1916. He began his career in 1916 in the Utah County Agriculture Service, and became the director of the Brigham Young University Extension Division, in Provo. He earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in 1924 and 1929 from the University of Wisconsin. In 1934, Nelson worked in Washington, D.C. as a Regional Advisor for Rural Rehabilitation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Later, he was a professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Minnesota from 1937 until 1958. In 1945 and 1946, he was a rural sociologist for the United States Department of State and made a study of Caribbean rural life and developed an international reputation as an expert rural sociologist.
Following his return from Cuba in 1947, Lowry Nelson received a letter from Heber Meeks, a Mission President of the Church inquiring about the possibilities of doing missionary work in Cuba. This letter precipitated Nelson’s interest in the church’s policies toward people of color. Dr. Nelson maintained a lifelong interest in the question and communicated frequently with church authorities. He published articles, books, and pamphlets about a variety of church-related problems, some of which were met with disfavor by church authorities.
Since the foundation of the church, and especially since Brigham Young, there was a complete ban on black members of the church being ordained to any priesthood or receiving any temple ordinances. Lowry Nelson had concerns about the ethics of the church denying the priesthood to individuals of African descent. He argued that the Church’s teachings were inconsistent with the idea of a loving God who is no respecter of persons. In response, the First Presidency assured him that it was doctrine and that he needed to align himself with church leadership.
As a sociologist and a member of the church, Lowry Nelson states “I do not believe that God is a racist.” This sounds like he has a modern understanding of things and his thoughts would likely find acceptance at any BLM rally. The church members and apologists like to excuse church leaders for being “men of their times”, but how does that make sense when we have real heroes who are in the same time frames? What about Abraham Lincoln next to Brigham Young, both men from the same times but wildly different views on race, women, and even execution? The “men of their times” argument falls flat when we see examples of contemporary men doing things we can still find honorable today.
The Racist Doctrines
The LDS Church had a longstanding policy that restricted men of African descent from holding the priesthood, which is the authority to act in God’s name, and even entering the temple, where members make holy covenants with God. This policy was based on teachings and interpretations that linked African lineage to the biblical story of Cain and the curse of Ham. The official church essay on Race and the Priesthood does state however that this is not “accepted today as the official doctrine of the church” but it was clearly accepted as official doctrine until 1978 when it finally began to stop these racist practices.
Letter from President Meeks
First, the Mission President of the Southern States, Heber Meeks, headquartered in Atlanta Georgia, contacted Dr Nelson regarding his views on the people in Cuba and “the advisability of doing missionary work” there. Nelson has lived in Cuba for the better part of a year and was an old friend familiar with rural experience in the foreign country. He even has a collection of photographs from his time in Cuba among others in the digital library at the University of Utah. President Meeks asked Lowry his thoughts on missionary work prospects in Cuba and if the people would be receptive. He is especially interested in whether there are “groups of pure white blood” and if they are “maintaining segregation from the Negroes.”
A short time ago at the request of the First Presidency I visited Cuba in view of doing missionary work on that island. While there I met Mr. Chester W. Young who was in Havana representing the Nation Office of Vital Statistics Parr-American Sanitary Bureau, He was very helpful to us and in the course of our conversation I learned that he was very well acquainted with you and wished to be remembered to you. We found both his wife and him to be very delightful and charming people.
He advised me that you spent some two years in Cuba making a study of rural communities. Your study there would be very helpful to us. I would appreciate your opinion as to the advisability of doing missionary work particularly in the rural sections of Cuba, knowing, of course, our concept of the Negro and his position as to the Priesthood.
Are there groups of pure white blood in the rural sections, particularly in the small communities? If so, are they maintaining segregation from the Negroes? The best information we received was that in the rural communities there was no segregation of the races and it would probably be difficult to find, with any degree of certainty, groups of pure white people.
I would also like your reaction as to what progress you think the Church might be able to make in doing missionary work in Cuba in view of, particularly in the rural section, the ignorance and superstition of the people and their being so steeped in Catholicism. Do you think our message would have any appeal to them?
My observation, and we made some very fine contacts with outstanding leaders in many of the fields of activity, was that in the urban communities there are groups to which we could make an appeal, particularly with the youth program of the Church. Many of the leaders expressed themselves that there was a great need for such a program as our Church has, in their communities.
I assure you I will deeply appreciate any information you can give me along the lines as indicated. With kindest personal regards and best wishes, I am sincerely your brother,
Heber MeeksLetter to Lowry Nelson from Heber Meeks, June 20, 1947
Lowry Nelson’s Response to President Meeks
Lowry Nelson wrote a letter in return and sent an additional copy to the First Presidency. He expresses his concerns about the racial restrictions in the letter and discussed the negative consequences of the policy. He argued that it contradicted the church’s teachings of equality and brotherhood and emphasized the importance of treating all individuals with dignity and fairness, regardless of their race or ancestry.
It is nice to have word of you after so many years. I am writing this, as you see, from our alma mater where I am teaching the first term of the summer session A thousand memories of student days flood in upon me every day. It is pleasant to see old friends and to make new ones among those who have joined the staff since I left.
Yes, I spent a year in the Caribbean from September 1945 to September 1946, Most of ncr time was spent in Cuba, but I managed to get to some of the other islands as well. I have nearly completed a book about Cuba, but it will be some time before it is published. I was pleased to have word of my friend Chester Young, whom I saw in Havana and also in Santo Domingo during my year down there.
The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad. Your letter is the first intimation I have had that there was a fixed doctrine on this point. I had always known that certain statements had been made by authorities regarding the status of the Negro, but I had never assumed that they constituted an irrevocable doctrine. I hope no final word has been said on this matter. I must say that I have never been able to accept the idea, and never shall. I do not believe that God is a racist. But if the Church has taken an irrevocable stand, I would dislike to see it enter Cuba or any other island where different races live and establish missionary work. The white and colored people get along much better in the Caribbean and most of Latin-American than they do in the United States. Prejudice exists, there is no doubt, and the whites in many ways manifest their feelings of superiority, but there is much less of it than one finds in USA, especially in our South. For us to go into a situation like that and preach a doctrine of “white supremacy” would, it seems to me, be a tragic disservice. I am speaking frankly, because I feel very keenly on this question. If world brotherhood and the universal God idea mean anything, it seems to me they mean equality of races. I fail to see how Mormonism or any other religion claiming to be more than a provincial church can take any other point of view; and there cannot be world peace until the pernicious doctrine of the superiority of one race and the inferiority of others is rooted out. This is my belief.
In reference to Catholicism, while the Cubans are nominally Roman Catholic, they take the religion rather lightly , Wherever I went, I asked rural people about the church and invariably they told me that they saw the priest only once a year, when he came around to baptize the babies at $3.00 per head; like branding the calves at the annual roundup. Some families have crucifixes and other paraphernalia in their homes and carry on something of the ancient ritual, but my impressions is that it means little to most of them.
The Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists have, as you know, done a great deal of missionary work in the Island, and have rendered Cuba a great service in maintaining schools, hospitals, etc.; however, they have limited their work largely to the urban centers. There is a great service to be rendered rural Cubans if the right approach were made. Mormonism is well adapted to render such service with its system of lay leadership and many activity programs. Many rural Cubans have nothing in the way of organized social life. To them, the family is the basic institution and beyond it, the neighborhood. Our Church would provide them with something very sorely needed. It would develop leadership among them, provide them with hope and aspiration, give them a feeling of importance as individuals which they have never had. They have been exploited by priest and politician; they have been led to believe that the government is not any of their responsibility and that the Church is the business of the priest and the bishop. While there is a great deal of individualism among them, they have definite and. discernible feelings of inferiority when it comes to matters of leadership.
I am talking about the white people now; the rural people are predominantly white. That is, they are as white as Mediterranean peoples are – Spanish, Italians, etc., who have been in contact with “color” for centuries. The Moors occupied Spain, you know, for seven centuries. There are no pure races; on this anthropologists are in general agreement. Of course, this does not mean that Negro blood exists throughout the white race or vice versa . There is grave doubt, however, as to the purity of the Nordic, Mediterranean, or even the Negro. Because I think our system of religious organization could serve the rural Cuban people as no other system could. I am sad to have to write you and say, for what my opinion is worth, that it would be better for the Cubans if we did not enter their island – unless we are willing to revise our racial theory. To teach them the pernicious doctrine of segregation and inequalities among races where it does not exist, or to lend religious sanction to it where it has raised its ugly head would, it seems to me, be tragic. It seems to me we just fought a war over such ideas.
I repeat, my frankness or bluntness, as you will, is born of a fervent desire to see the causes of war rooted out of the hearts of men. What limited study I have been able to give the subject leads me to the conclusion that ethnocentrism, and the smugness and intolerance which accompany it, is one of the first evils to be attacked if we are to achieve the goal of peace.
I trust you will understand my writing you as I have. Sincerely,
Lowry NelsonLetter to Heber Meeks from Lowry Nelson, June 26, 1947
Lowry’s Inquiry to President George Albert Smith
As he states in his letter this is “the first intimation” he had that there was any “fixed doctrine” regarding the blacks and the church’s priesthood ban. He states that he “had never assumed” it “an irrevocable doctrine” and clearly states “I do not believe that God is a racist”. Understandably, Lowry is troubled by this attitude and wants to get to the bottom of it. He sends a copy of his letter directly to the President of the church with a short explanation. Lowry Nelson’s cover letter to President George Albert Smith is as follows:
Dear President Smith:
I am in receipt today of a letter from President Heber Meeks, an old school friend, copy of which I am enclosing together with a copy of my reply. It is self-explanatory.
Perhaps I am out of order, so to speak, in expressing myself as I have, I have done so out of strong conviction on the subject, and with the added impression that there is no irrevocable church doctrine on this subject. I am not unaware of statements and impressions which have been passed down, but I had never been brought face to face with the possibility that the doctrine was finally crystallized. I devoutly hope that such crystallisation has not taken place. The many good friends of mixed blood – through no fault of theirs incidentally – which I have in the Caribbean and who know me to be a Mormon would be shocked indeed if I were to tell them my Church relegated them to an inferior status.
As I told Heber, there is no doubt in my mind that our Church could perform a great service in Cuba, particularly in the rural areas, but it would be far better that we not go in at all, than to go in and promote racial distinction.
I wanted you to know my feelings on this question and trust you will understand the spirit in which I say these things. I want to see us promote love and harmony among peoples of the earth.
Lowry NelsonLetter to President George Albert Smith from Lowry Nelson, June 26, 1947
The Racist Response from The First Presidency
Through an additional request for a copy of the letter to President Meeks, The First Presidency, consisting of George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark Jr., and David O. McKay, responded to Nelson’s letter on July 17, 1947. Their reply reiterated the church’s stance on the issue. They explained that the restriction on the priesthood for individuals of African descent was a “direct commandment from the Lord” and emphasized that it was not a matter of policy or preference, but doctrine. They even refer to interracial marriage as “most repugnant to most normal-minded people” and even “contrary to church doctrine”.
Dear Brother Nelsons
As you have been advised, your letter of June 26 was received in due course, and likewise we now have a copy of your letter to President Meeks. We have carefully considered their contents, and are glad to advise you as follows:
We make this initial remarks the social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.
The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things.
Your knowledge of the Gospel will indicate to you that this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a~vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does.
Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the preexistence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we my be born, have a relationship in the life heretofore.
From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.
Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous. Modern Israel has been similarly directed.
We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.
Faithfully yours,Letter to Lowry Nelson from the Office of the First Presidency, July 17, 1947
George Albert Smith
J Reuben Clark, Jr.
David O McKay
The First Presidency
The First Presidency Statement stated that the restriction had been in place since the early days of the church and non of the church leaders have questioned this doctrine. They expressed confidence in the wisdom of God’s will and affirmed their commitment to upholding the priesthood ban citing that anything else is contrary to church doctrine and they even go so far as to state that interracial marriage is contrary to the doctrine of the church.
Lowry Responds to Racist First Presidency
Lowry didn’t receive this letter until months later when he returned from a trip overseas. He responded at length though and gave the First Presidency a very well-articulated and thoughtful yet respectful letter:
Your letter of July 17th sent to me at Logan was forwarded here, but I had already left for Europe and so did not get it until I returned to my office September 8. I want to thank you for it, and the attention you gave me. The letter is, however, a disappointment to me, as you may surmise it would be from what I said in my letter to President Meeks,
It seems strange to me in retrospect – as it must have seemed to you – that I should have never before had to face up to this doctrine of the Church relative to the Negro. I remember that it was discussed from time to time during my boyhood and youth, in Priesthood meetings or elsewhere in Church classes; and always someone would say something about the Negroes “sitting on the fence” during the Council in Heaven. They did not take a stand, it was said. Somehow there was never any very strong conviction manifest regarding the doctrine, perhaps because the question was rather, an academic one to us in Ferron, where there were very few people who had ever seen a Negro, let alone having lived in the same community with them. So the doctrine was always passed over rather lightly I should say, with no Scripture ever being quoted or referred to regarding the matter, except perhaps to refer to the curse of Cain, or of Ham and Canaan, (I went back and re-read the latter the other evening. It was difficult to find any element of justice in Noah’s behavior toward Ham, since the latter merely reported to his brothers that his father was lying there in a drunken state and in a nude condition, and the other boys put a cover over him. Because Ham reported his father’s condition, he was cursed.)
But anyway, I really had never come face to face with the issue until this summer. In the meantime, since my youth, I have chosen to spend my professional career in the field of the social sciences, the general purpose of which is to describe and understand human behavior. I probably should have had less difficulty with some of these problems – such as the race problem – had I remained in agronomy and chemistry, my undergraduate fields of specialization. Be that as it may, my experience has been what it has been. As a sociologist, I have sincerely tried, and am still trying, to understand human social relations; the varied forms of organization, the processes of conflict, cooperation, competition, assimilation, why peoples and cultures differ one from another, etc.
As one studies the history and characteristics of human societies, one soon comes to recognize certain basic principles. One of these is social change. Any given society over the years undergoes changes. It is forever in a state of flux. Some scholars have regarded such change as progress, and have even considered that progress is inevitable. Others chart the rise and fall of civilizations and think in terms of cyclical change. Others express still different hypotheses, but none of them consider society as a static entity.
Another principle which stands out as one studies the development of cultures is the tendency of institutions to resist change. Although they are established, or grow up, originally as means to the end of satisfying the needs of man, they (the institutions) tend to become ends in themselves. It seems to me that Jesus was trying to get this point over to the society of his day, when he spoke of putting new wine in old bottles, and that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. This was an affront to the legalism of the Pharisees, and others of similar outlook, and of course, the institutions had to be protected even at the cost of His crucifixion.
Another principle that has come to occupy a central position in the analysis of human behavior is that of ethnocentrism. As defined by William Graham Sumner, who first developed the concept, it refers to the “view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything and all others are sealed and rated with reference to it.” (The Folkways, p. 13.) Insofar as the “out-group” differs from the “in-group” it is regarded as inferior by the latter. A people with a different skin color would be automatically assigned to an inferior status. A language different from that of the in-group, is of course, an “inferior” one; and so on. This tendency is common to all groups.
Now, what does this add up to in my thinking? It means that (1) if one accepts the principle of cultural or social change and applies it to the Hebrews, the Old Testament history of the group is interpreted accordingly. In their early stages of development they had beliefs and practices, many of which, were subsequently supplanted by other ideas. Jehovah to the Hebrews of the Pentateuch was essentially a tribal diety. It was not until Amos that the idea of a universal God was proclaimed. And the concept of God as Love was an essential contribution of the mission of the Savior. (2) This, to me, represents “progressive revelation”. It seems to me that we still have much to learn about God, and some of our earlier notions of Him may yet undergo modification. (3) The early Hebrew notion of the colored people with whom they had contact in the Mediterranean basin, was quite naturally, that those people were inferior to themselves, a consequence of their extreme ethnocentrism.
Why did they not have something to say about the Japanese or Chinese or the American Indian? To me the answer is that they did not know these groups existed. But one can be pretty certain that if they had known about them, they would have developed some similar explanation regarding their origin to that concerning the Negro, and would have assigned them also to a position less exalted than their own.
(4) And once these things got written down – institutionalized – they assume an aura of the sacred. I refer in this respect not only to the Scripture, but to more secular documents as well – the Constitution of the United States, for instance, which many people do not want to change regardless of the apparent needs. So we are in the position, it seems to me, of accepting a doctrine regarding the Negro which was enunciated by the Hebrews during a very early stage in their development. Moreover, and this is the important matter to me, it does not square with what seems an acceptable standard of justice today; nor with the letter or spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I cannot find any support for such a doctrine of inequality in His recorded sayings.
I am deeply troubled. Having decided through earnest study that one of the chief causes of war is the existence of ethnocentrism among the peoples of the world; that war is our major social evil which threatens to send all of us to destruction; and that we can ameliorate these feelings of ethnocentrism by promoting understanding of one people by others; I am now confronted with this doctrine of my own church which says in effect that white supremacy is part of God’s plan for His children; that the Negro has been assigned by Him to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water for his white-skinned brethren. This makes us nominal allies of the Rankins and the Bilbos of Mississippi, a quite unhappy alliance for me, I assure you.
This doctrine pressed to its logical conclusion would say that Dr. George Washington Carver, the late eminent and saintly Negro scientist, is by virtue of the color of his skin, inferior even to the least admirable white person, not because of the virtues he may or may not possess, but because – through no fault of his – there is a dark pigment in his skin. All of the people of India –who are not Negroes according to ethnological authority, but are Aryan – would presumably come under the Negro classification. I think of the intelligent, high-minded, clean-living Hindu who was a member of the International Committee over which I had the honor to preside at Geneva from August 4 to 10, this year. He drank not, smoked not, his ethical standards were such that you and I could applaud him. Where should he rank vis~a-vis the least reliable and least admirable white person in Ferron? Or I could name you a real Negro with equal qualifications.
Now, you say that the “social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.” I may not hare the same concept of “social” as you had in mind, but it seems to me the only virtue we can recognise in men is that expressed in their relations with others; that is their “social” relations. Are the virtues of honesty, chastity, humility, forgiveness, tolerance, love, kindness, justice, secondary? If so, what is primary? Love of God? Very well. But the second (law) is like unto it.
I must beg your forgiveness for this intrusion upon your time. I realize that I am only one among hundreds of thousands with whon you have to be concerned. My little troubles I must try to work out myself. But I desire to be understood. That’s why I have gone to such length to set down here the steps in my thinking. I am trying to be honest with myself and with others. I am trying to find my way in what is a very confused world. After seeing the devastation of Europe this summer, I am appalled by the sight of it and the contemplation of what mankind can collectively do to himself, unless somehow we, collectively – the human family – can put love of each other above hatred and somehow come to a mutual respect based upon understanding, and recognize that others, although they may be different from us, are not by that fact alone inferior. Are we becoming so legalistic (after the fashion of the Pharisees that we cannot adjust our institutions to the charging needs of mankind. Are we, as some have charged, more Hebraic than Christian?
Sincerely Your Brother,Letter to the First Presidency from Lowry Nelson, October 8, 1947
Professor of Sociology
President George Albert Smith Calls Lowry to Repentance
The next month the church responded to Lowry with a reprimand and a hope that he can “reorient” his “thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God”.
Dear Brother Nelson:
We have your letter of October 8 in further development of the matter discussed in your earlier letter.
We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.
Faithfully yours,Letter to Lowry Nelson from the First Presidency of November 12, 1947
THE FIRST PRESIDENCY
George Albert Smith
The letter also discouraged members from questioning or challenging the decision, emphasizing the importance of unity and obedience.
The First Presidency responds asking him to put away his scholarly tools, that revelation trumps scholarship, and appeals for him to use his talents in towards defending white supremacist doctrines, rather than the world which rejects them.The Lesson from Lowry Nelson, Chris Clarke
Nelson Publishes Mormons and the Negro Article
Lowry Nelson, however, was not satisfied with the First Presidency’s response. He believed that the church’s policy was rooted in racism and continued. He later takes the matter public when he published an article in The Nation, a magazine “founded by abolitionists in 1865” that believes “that independent journalism has the capacity to bring about a more democratic and equitable world”. His published article discusses the injustice of the Mormon view on race and calls on members like himself who find the priesthood ban an “embarrassment and humiliation” to rally for the policy to be altered. He clarifies that the church could change its doctrine and that perhaps it should with new revelation. He states that “if the question could be openly discussed they would line up on the side of justice.” Lowry even states that voicing this dissent, especially in writing could lead to excommunication but hopes that the church can see this as constructive criticism (even though it is wrong to criticize church leaders). Here is his “Mormons and the Negro” as found in The Nation 174 (24 May 1952).
According to Mormon theology the status of the Negro on earth was determined in the “pre-existent” state, specifically in the War in Heaven (Revelation 12:4, 7). As everyone knows, Lucifer rebelled and was ”cast down,” taking with him one third of the hosts of Heaven. These are the sons of perdition. Michael clearly had a majority with him, some more active supporters than others. Although I can find no Scriptural basis for it, I have heard it said that the active pro-Michael group was no more than one-third. The other third “sat on the fence” refusing to take sides. The latter, in the Mormon lore of my boyhood days, was identified as the Negro. This places him in a sort of never-never land, a twilight zone between the Satanic hosts and those who were ready to be counted on the side of Michael. Thus the blessings of the Mormon Church cannot be extended to anyone with Negro “blood.”
This unfortunate policy of the church is a source of embarrassment and humiliation to thousands of its members (the writer among them) who find no basis for it in the teachings of Jesus, whom all Mormons accept as the Saviour. The issue has become increasingly important as members of the church outside of Utah and adjacent states have increased rapidly in recent years and are brought into direct contact with Negroes, and who see their fellow Christians engaged in programs to reduce racial prejudice — programs in which they cannot fully participate. Such persons would like to see the policy altered in the interest of peace and simple humanitarianism.
The doctrine of white-race superiority, so much the vogue In the early nineteenth century when Mormonism had its beginning, has been so thoroughly debunked as to catalogue its adherents today as either grossly uninformed or victims of traditional irrational prejudices, or both. Mormons as a group are not ignorant people; they rank high in formal schooling, with an extraordinarily high proportion of college graduates. Many of them naturally find it difficult to reconcile what they learn in college about racial differences and equalities with the stand taken by their church. Curiously the position of the church on the Negro does not carry over to other racial groups. Natives of the South Seas, Mongolians, and American Indians are given a clean bill of health. And Mormons, according to their theology, regard the Jews as their own kin! The doctrine, however, does not mean there is no anti-Semitism among Mormons, but that is another problem.
The basic question remains as to whether the church will modify its present stand on this matter. Perhaps a more important question is, can it change? Theoretically the church has a means by which its doctrines may be modified. It was founded upon the idea of “progressive revelation,” that as God spoke to the people in Bible days, so He continues to do today through the head of the church. An announcement ex cathedra on this question would be accepted by the body of the church; joyfully by some although, no doubt, reluctantly by others. It is recognized, of course, that it is very difficult for a religion based upon revelation to modify its doctrines, but few other denominations have the procedures for change that the Mormon church has. The leaders of this church are men of good will. It is difficult to believe that deep in their own hearts they are not troubled by the ethical problem which this bit of dogma presents.
A very real difficulty is the fact that those who disapprove the church’s attitude have no way of expressing their point of view. It is safe to say that most of the one million members give passive assent to the present policy. For most of those living in Utah and adjacent states the Negro question is academic; they hardly ever see Negroes, much less live in the same community with them. In any case, they would find comfortable agreement with the white supremacy idea because of latent historical prejudices which they share with so many other white people. However, my knowledge of the deep humanitarianism of the Mormon people leads me to think that if the question could be openly discussed they would line up on the side of justice.
Such open discussion, especially in print, however, is a perilous undertaking for any member. It automatically leaves him open to the charge of “disobedience to constituted authority” which may lead to his being excommunicated. The upshot is that discussions by interested persons are largely subrosa. So widespread are such discussion groups that they might be said to constitute a “Mormon underground.” The participants are not disloyal church members; rather they are generally active in the church and rationalize their conduct by weighing the many admirable features of their religion against the features with which they disagree.
In writing this article for publication the author does so in a spirit of constructive criticism and in the conviction that his church, with so many admirable qualities and achievements to its credit, is faced by a challenge to place itself alongside those other groups which are laboring against racial bigotry.
[The writer is a lifelong member of the Mormon Church .]Mormons and the Negro, by Lowry Nelson, The Nation 174 (24 May 1952).
The Official Declaration 2
Despite his efforts, Nelson’s views did not lead to any significant changes in the church for a while.
The church’s policy regarding race and the priesthood remained unchanged until 1978 when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation that lifted the priesthood ban. It’s ironic that the church, in the end, does exactly what Nelson suggested: they announce a new revelation and begin from that point forward to refer to the priesthood ban as a policy change only. The church gaslights the world about it ever being referenced as doctrine. This change, commonly referred to as the “Official Declaration 2,” marks a significant shift in the church’s approach to race. Lowry Nelson lived until 1986, so he lived to see the day when the church took the first step to practice equality for all races.
We can only imagine what vindication he felt when the church finally changed its “policy” regarding blacks and the priesthood. Would he also be pleased to hear the church of today claim that it was only ever a policy and not doctrine?
As part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the revelation Dallin H. Oaks said that, “the Lord rarely gives reasons for the commandments and directions He gives to His servants,” but acknowledged the hurt that the restrictions caused before they were rescinded, and encouraged all church members to move past those feelings and focus on the future. The LDS Church has not formally apologized for its policies and former teachings.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_Revelation_on_Priesthood#Official_Declaration_2
These communications between Lowry Nelson and the First Presidency in 1947 offer insight into the discussions surrounding race and the priesthood within the LDS Church during that period. They reflect the church’s position at the time and the concerns raised by a member who sought to reconcile the policy with principles of equality and inclusivity.
These letters show that the church considered the priesthood ban and view on race clearly as doctrine and the whole First Presidency talked about it as such. While today they want to claim that it was only ever a policy and then play at guessing why it was there when generations of church leaders made it clear it was doctrine and why the ban was in place! These letters show that the church could have heeded a faithful member and been ahead of the social revolution of the civil rights movement. They could have been a voice for equality and justice and love that would still shine today like MLK and other leaders. They had their chance, but they waited another 30 years to do what was right. They stood idle and watched as real leaders were assassinated. Then today, they want to claim friendship with the NAACP, which is dandy, but they completely ignore the facts and history. They ignore the missed chance at being a positive example and leading the world by example. The reality is they were behind the times and remained in a racist state for generations beyond most of the industrialized world. They still today have never officially apologized or condemned their own racist past, doctrines, or scriptures. They work to use propaganda and newspeak in order to reposition the church as a global entity and a friend to all. They praise the day when the priesthood ban was overturned and claim it was just a policy change – but if it was that simple a change, why didn’t they do it 30 years earlier?! Why was the policy even in place?
Did the priesthood ban weigh heavy on your shelf? Do you remember when it was announced or do you remember learning about it? Were you proud that your church was openly racist until 1978? Are they still? Share your story. Tell your own mormon faith transition story at wasmormon.org.