Home > Uncategorized > What We Know about the Priesthood Ban on Blacks

What We Know about the Priesthood Ban on Blacks

There has been a lot of chatter about Prof. Randy Bott’s comments in the Washington Post offering a potential reason for why the Mormon Church banned blacks from holding the priesthood until 1978. In the wake of his racist comments[1], there has also been a lot of push back by both the institutional church and church members that have distanced themselves from Bott’s comments, emphasizing the party line that “We don’t know” why the ban was put in place or permitted and that any explanations for its origins are speculative.

That line, “We don’t know,” gets repeated so much that we might begin to think we know nothing about the priesthood ban, when or why it started, and how it evolved. To the contrary, there is a significant deal we do know about the the ban, and if we are going to come to a greater understanding on this issue, we need to start with those facts.[2] For instance:

  • The priesthood ban did not begin with Joseph Smith. Not only did he never talk about a ban on the priesthood, he ordained at least two black members, including Elijah Abel, who would later head West with the Saints to Utah. This is not to say that Smith’s views on Africans and African-Americans were light years ahead of his time, but there is no evidence that he viewed those of African descent unworthy for holding any priesthood office.
  • While no single date can be given for when the ban began, Brigham Young began talking about it in the 1850s and the policy emerged from there.
  • Young never justified the policy with reference to any revelation he received, according to the records. His justifications usually centered on traditional scriptural interpretations that were popular during the American nineteenth century, such as that blacks were descendants of Cain and therefore of an inferior race.
  • Not only is there no official date, but the policy appears to have evolved piecemeal over the course of the nineteenth century. Elijah Abel, for example, never had his priesthood revoked, but was not allowed to be sealed to his family, despite requests he made to church leaders [see here for more of his fascinating story]. After Brigham Young’s death, church leaders maintained the same policy that was in place during Young’s tenure, justifying the ban with both speculative doctrine about blacks and by citing Young as a precedent.
  • The policy largely continued as such for decades. During the mid-twentieth century, David O. McKay took up the question of the priesthood ban in private prayer and in council with members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. He ultimately concluded that it was a policy, not a doctrine, but that it would require a revelation to over turn it. He also felt, after asking the Lord numerous times, that the Lord’s response was “Not now, and stop asking about it.”
  • Members of the Quorum of the Twelve during this time were divided on the issue, with some believing that it needed to be overturned while others arguing it should stay in place.
  • Spencer W. Kimball took up the issue during his tenure as president, carefully reviewing both the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Lester Bush’s seminal article “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.” He also prayed, meditated, and fasted earnestly on the subject [for more on that story, see here].
  • Meeting in the Salt Lake Temple, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve felt prompted that the Lord’s will was to reverse the ban and they acted in unison. Elder McConkie, who had justified the ban by perpetuating many of the traditional teachings about blacks, declared in a meeting of church educators that they should forget everything he, Brigham Young, and others had said about the priesthood ban, that they were working from limited understanding, and that the church’s new policy was of God.
  • Since then, the Church has insisted, at various times, that any of the reasons offered by previous leaders for why blacks could not have the priesthood (unfaithful in pre-existence, descendants of Cain, or simply not ready as a race to hold something so sacred) are speculative and not doctrine of the church.

There are obviously many more facts that I’m leaving out, but these are a few basic ones that we should remember. And I think the research that has been done on this topic is an instructive reminder that why we would like revelation to swoop in and tell us exactly what and why things happened the way we did, God often leaves it up to us to make the effort to figure things out on our own. And so rather than waiting on bated breath for him to explain Himself (as if He needed to), we need to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves and ask, “What if it was not God’s will that the ban be put in, but ours?” I can only speak for myself, and I understand that others have very different opinions on this, but I think rather than repeating over and again, “We don’t know,” (which we have been doing for more than 30 years and which still has not put to rest racist folk doctrines), we need to acknowledge that the first step in repentance, for individuals and groups, is to admit: “We were wrong.”


[1] I don’t want to make Bott out to be a scapegoat, so don’t see this as a personal attack. However, while he and others have claim that he was misrepresented and have tried to make the reporter the culprit, it’s important to note that he penned a very similar argument to the one quoted in the WaPo story on his blog “Know Your Religion.” That blog was taken down yesterday, but this is a Google cached version of that post.

[2] These facts are coming from Bush’s article, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Greg Prince’s biography of David O. McKay, and the excellent documentary, “Nobody Knows: the Untold Story of Black Mormons,” as well as the other links cited, though it’s ultimately my fault if I’ve misrepresented them.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ron Barker
    March 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I’m with you on finally admitting that we were wrong as a church. I think I can understand why, but that is not justification. If there was no revealed reason to begin the practice — and the church affirms there was not — then it had to be driven by the prejudices of the age. I take comfort in the fact that Official Declaration 2 does not overturn any revealed doctrine, it affirms what is right and just.

  2. Ondalynn Vance
    March 2, 2012 at 12:13 am

    Interesting blog, Dallin. Thanks for sharing.

  3. March 3, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I love your approach to some of these sensitive issues. Keep writing, Dallin. And I’ll keep reading.

  4. @UtahMormonDemoGuy
    March 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    This is a very well done and concise summary of a complicated issue. I think the Church’s statement that is does not know why, *how* or when the ban came into effect makes it clear that it was not God’s revealed will. If it were, wouldn’t the Church and the Prophet have known that that is *how* and *why* it came into effect? I am hopeful that this statement is the penultimate step to an acknowledgement that the ban was the product of common societal prejudices of the day and “traditions of our fathers” that crept into Church policy. I rejoice (and I do not use that word lightly or often) that the ban was abandoned long ago. I only wish the Church had done it sooner.

  5. Crismon Lewis
    April 13, 2012 at 2:35 am

    Great overview. Very helpful to get all the factual history in such a concise way. Thanks!

  6. Will
    July 3, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Dallin – I’m enjoying reading your blog and I agree whole-heartedly with your conclusion. Time to just be straightforward about this (and a lot of other things too). Nice read!

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    well, keep up the good work fellows.

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