Mormons and the NAACP – Blacks and the Priesthood

The church has made much self-congratulation and self-promotion PR regarding its new relationship with the NAACP in the past couple of years. They are speaking words of unity and shared vision, which is great, but there is a backstory.

The Backstory of Blacks and the church

The race relations between the church and blacks is very troubling. Many racist beliefs, statements, and policies in the past forbade the full participation of people of color. The church denied the priesthood to any and all black members. The doctrine was (and still is as explained in the Book of Mormon) that dark skin is a curse from God. Blacks were denied the priesthood and were also denied entry to the temple. The temple is the pinnacle of Mormon worship. It was reserved for whites. This priesthood ban was not explained at the time and later suggested explanations were not officially canonized. These explanations were presented by church leaders as church doctrine – even if it wasn’t fully accepted or formalized as doctrine. They were preaching speculations by explaining that blacks were not valiant in the premortal life or were “fence-sitters” during the war in heaven. Eventually, they were able to class this ban as a policy and remove it. They did this though by stating that they finally and happily received the revelation to remove it, as if God was forcing them to be racist against their will. These racist ideas and doctrines were believed and presented as church doctrines though, and now the church denies this and states that it was only ever a policy – and not doctrine.

You may think that this was done away with during the old history of the church or during the civil rights era. We’d like to think that our church is progressive in civil rights and that it embodied the “we are all children of God” mantra deeply, but no. In the grand scheme of things, including all races is a very new concept to the Mormon church. The priesthood was granted to people of color, or as the church called them “of African descent,” in 1978, a mere 42 years ago. The Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. The church continued to deny full participation based on race for a further 14 years.

Not only were blacks not allowed to hold the priesthood, but they were not allowed to attend the temple (endowments as well as sealings or temple marriages). Black members were not allowed to be sealed. Sealing is a fundamental part of the church practice, sealings keep a marriage binding in the afterlife or in effect remove the “’til death do you part” clause in a wedding. This was denied to all blacks.

A requirement to serve in any leadership roles in the church is holding the priesthood, so blacks were not allowed to serve in any leadership callings. They couldn’t even do the small things – such as blessing or even passing the sacrament. A 12-year-old white boy could already do more to serve in the church than any black man. Holding any form of the priesthood in the church was denied to all blacks. Even serving in Boy Scout troop leadership was forbidden to black youth in the church, since these positions were correlated with quorum leadership positions, and black youth were forbidden any leadership without the priesthood.

Interracial marriages were also forbidden. These were seen as especially despicable and called out as a sin. Brigham Young taught multiple times that the penalty for black-white interracial marriage was death! He stated that the killing of the interracial couple (as well as their children) would be a blessing to them and to the church. Interracial marriage was discouraged even into the 2000s. Please, read more about Interracial marriage and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance.

Heading for Official Declaration 2, Doctrine and Covenants, a standard work of the LDS Church

The origins of the practice are clear, though maybe not the reasons (unless we accept the simple fact that it was not ordained of God and was simply the prejudices of racist leaders).

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood … subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple.

Race and the Priesthood, Gospel Topic Essay

They admit that officially they don’t understand or know why the ban was there in the first place (but hint it was merely racist theories of the day). That it was more a tradition than anything, but also that they couldn’t or wouldn’t stop enforcing and propagating this awful tradition (which they wanted us to believe was contrary to their own hearts), without God specifically telling them to stop.

Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.

Race and the Priesthood, Gospel Topic Essay

Let’s examine that line again, “None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine”. But in the past, many of these “theories” were preached and widely accepted as doctrines. They can easily dismiss them as “theories” because they disagree with them and think they were wrong, but for over a century it was accepted doctrine. Don’t forget: “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). The church is gaslighting everyone when they say none of these explanations are accepted by the church, they must add the qualifying and clarifying phrase to limit this statement to the specific time period of “today”. Yesterday that was not true, but today it is. That used to be the doctrine, but today it no longer is. The doctrines of the Gospel don’t change though.

Finally though, in 1978, the ban barring blacks from the priesthood was “lifted”. They act like they had been begging God to lift the ban for years and he finally acquiesced. Like they think they talked God into choosing the right. When in fact it was brave and defiant members forcing their hand to stop the discriminatory practices.

In discussing the ban now they claim it was only a policy but earlier it was something so important that it couldn’t be changed without a direct revelation from God. They would have to ask for him to lift His priesthood ban. They talk about praying and pleading with the Lord and finally receiving this permission “after extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple”. Why does it take such deep introspection to make a decision that is so obvious and clear? They call it the “the long-promised day” when the priesthood would be given to everyone. Such a pharisaical position to care more about policies for so long than about the people these policies affect.

Just a few decades earlier the church leadership was in a much different position and made the claims that it was NOT a policy they could change, but doctrine tied eternally to the Gospel. They also quote some of the “theories” as statements to back this up.

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.

Statement of the First Presidency (George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark & David O. McKay) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 17, 1949, Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

While we can’t ignore the significance of church leadership establishing official relationships with the NAACP, this is a clear change in course when looking at the church history as a whole. It is great to see them doing this, but hard to see them do this while ignoring or even hiding the past. They seem to be attempting to erase or rewrite history. Is that a stretch? Not really, when there are church leaders that can make statements to position the church as one that “has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism”. Spoken by Alexander Morrison of the Seventy, while the content of the talk is praiseworthy and anti-racist, it sidesteps all culpability of the church What version of the church is he talking about that has always stood against racism?

"How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations." - Elder Alexander B Morrison, First Quorum of the Seventy |
“How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations.” – Elder Alexander B Morrison, First Quorum of the Seventy: Standing Against Racism?

How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations.

Alexander Morrison of the Seventy “No more strangers” Ensign Sept 2000

So, while the church can make statements about how friendly they have “always” been towards all races, these statements ignore their own current teachings and practices of over a century and a half. They are whitewashing the dirty history of racist thoughts, teachings and actions. They are again gaslighting people of today into thinking the church position and race relations have been squeaky clean from the beginning. You can’t just rewrite history by saying the church has always been “strongly against racism” – it’s simply not true of yesterday or arguably even today.

NAACP and the Church Today

In yet another symbolic gesture of racial unity, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson joined with top NAACP leaders Monday in calling for an end to “prejudice of all kinds.”

Russell M Nelson, current church president issued a joint statement with the leaders of the NAACP to condemn prejudice and racism and call everyone to just love one another. The statement was released on the online publishing platform medium and signed by all the leaders. This is significant progress for the church to work with this civil rights organization – even though it was opposed to the civil rights movement. It does have the appearance of being a publicity stunt though, full of photos of church leaders embracing people of color and interlocking arms and talking about not being racist and loving everyone regardless of race. Interesting to note that this statement was published on the 42nd anniversary of the lifting of the priesthood ban, as the church is positioning itself as an ally and recalling how long ago this was lifted and changed. Not to mention that 1978 wasn’t all that long ago in respect to the civil rights movement. Some harmless yet shameless self-promotion at best in the name of PR.

The church teaches that to make amends or reparations there are steps to follow, including recognizing the error, apologizing for it, and working to make things better. But, they couched the “revelation” to end the priesthood ban as that only, a revelation, they claimed to just be doing the will of God. So, no apology can or will be offered. They believe that they can’t apologize for God, which does make certain sense, but they also claim that many things in church history are the errors of men, not God.

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

But they also state in the gospel topic essay on race and the priesthood that (today) they disavow the previous teachings as errors of men. They apparently can’t apologize for previous church leaders either. But they appear to be trying to take it both ways, they want to acknowledge that is was wrong while at the same time demote the previous doctrines and policies to mere theories. They can stand and condemn all racism, but especially and seemingly only in others, not their own very recent history.

In speaking to the NAACP Convention, Nelson has had a perfect platform to offer a formal and official apology for the role the church played in racism and prejudices in the past, but he rather chooses to talk vaguely about loving one another and avoiding prejudice. There is no apology offered.

The NAACP Reception

Though the NAACP is showing high trust and immense trust to move things in the right direction, they are also not fools. The fanfare of the timing and the self-promoting nature of the relationship is not lost on them. In a follow-up article the leaders have made these following statements:

While he supports the sentiments expressed in Monday’s article, Wil Colom, special counsel to the NAACP president, said the group “hasn’t seen very much” progress on joint projects.

Indeed, the two organizations have collaborated on a handful of employment and education initiatives. But those were “minor efforts,” Colom said. They “do not befit the stature and magnitude of what the LDS Church can do and should do.”

The NAACP is “looking forward to the church doing more to undo the 150 years of damage they did by how they treated African Americans in the church,” Colom said, and by their “endorsement of how African Americans were treated throughout the country, including segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

Both groups “have learned lessons from the past,” the joint commentary piece stated. “Both of us have been willing to listen to and learn from each other.”

But there seems to be “no willingness on the part of the church,” Colom said, “to do anything material.”

He looks forward “to their deeds matching their words,” he said. “It’s time now for more than sweet talk.”

They seem to be pointing out that though there is great talk from the church, there isn’t much movement for a church of such means and size. He acknowledges the damage that needs repair and notes that not enough or even much is being to do repair that damage.

So while the church is quick to praise and publicize their work with the NAACP, the feeling is not mutual. While befriending the NAACP, it really feels like too little too late. “It’s time now for more than sweet talk” and lip service. A truly inspired Christ-like example and Christ-led organization, would have done this “from the beginning”.

More than Sweet Talk

This “more than sweet talk” is a sentiment shared by many current members of the church even. See this petition:

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we wish to join others in a heartfelt apology for the role that we have played in promoting racist ideologies and behaviors which have injured and burdened our brothers and sisters of African descent.

An Apology for Racism from Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

While this is a great positive direction. Remember this is an apology from certain members of the church on their own, and not an official apology of the official church. They are members who sincerely are apologizing though, so that’s a start.

This whole topic of mistreating blacks as an organization and a religion was a huge part of my own faith transition. Facing it squarely, I couldn’t reconcile the church I saw, with the church I wanted to see, the church I needed to see in order to continue in it. It essentially exposed the man behind the curtain, who once you see, you can’t unsee. I condemn the racist past of my church and my country and my race as a whole. It was wrong, no excuse. I won’t and don’t stand for it. This Juneteenth let us celebrate freedom and equality. Let us love, let us repair, let us heal.

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