New Church Article on Race and the Priesthood

By | December 7, 2013

It is no secret that before 1978 those of African descent could not hold the priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (It is technically wrong to say that “blacks could not hold the priesthood,” as non-African blacks could hold the priesthood before 1978.) People of all races could belong to the Church, but withholding the priesthood from one group of people based on their race stopped them from participating in the ultimate ordinances offered by the Church for both individuals and families.

blacks2This fact has led many to call Mormons racist. The charge isn’t heard as much today as it was during my earlier life, but it still exists. Discussions around this point and issues related to the priesthood ban have been the topics of articles, essays, discussions, seminars, and books for generations. There have been many theories proffered for both the inception and ending of the ban, and no doubt there will be many for years to come. (The history of blacks within the Church is fascinating and, at times, painful to read.)

Recently (within the past few days) the Church published an article on its website entitled Race and the Priesthood. It is worth a read, as it very clearly and succinctly lays out the facts surrounding the ban and, more importantly, the Church’s current position relative to race and racism.

I am particularly encouraged by this paragraph from the article:

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 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.

In a single paragraph—only 68 words—the Church has finally, gratefully, and (hopefully) permanently put an end to some ugly theories about the races that are periodically proffered by otherwise well-intentioned people.

The final sentence of that paragraph is also very interesting if you think about it. It means that any past racism—which would, by definition and by specification of “any form” include racist statements and actions by past Church leaders—is “unequivocally condemned” by the Church today. This marks the formalization of comments along this line made in April 2006 by President Hinckley:

I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?

I, for one, applaud the straight talk and the appearance of this article. I hope it is widely shared by Saints everywhere.

3 thoughts on “New Church Article on Race and the Priesthood

  1. Per


    As far as I can see the Church article on Race and the Priesthood in effect says that:

    1: All Presidents of the Church from at least Brigham Young until, and including, Harold B. Lee were racists.

    2: It is possible for the president of the Church to lead the people astray.

    Concerning point 2:
    President Wilford Woodruff said: “I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God.” Was he wrong in saying this since so many presidents, according to the wording of the article, has been leading the Church astray?

    What are your thoughts concerning these two implications of what the article says?

    1. Allen Post author

      Good questions.

      I do not agree with your first conclusion; it is an example of presentism. I do not believe that they were racists when judged by the standards of their day(s), and examples can be found where their attitudes and pronouncements compare quite favorably with the feelings of others during their day. It is, of course, unwise to judge past individuals by the standards of today, and to do so is uncharitable, at best.

      I also disagree with your second conclusion. You seem to be confusing “lead people astray” with “wrong.” Do I think that presidents of the Church can be wrong? Sure; they are human, and there has been only one perfect man to walk on the earth. We do not believe, as a Church, in the infallibility of the prophet or any of the 15 men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. In fact, shortly after the 1978 revelation, Bruce R. McConkie, one of those 15, pointedly said ‘forget everything we said before; we were wrong.’ What is one to make of such a statement by a prophet about the feelings and actions of other prophets?

      What I make of it is that (as I said) they really can be wrong. And, by extension, them having been wrong in this case did not “lead the Church astray.” In other words, Wilford Woodruff was referring to a different concept when he made his statement than what you assume. I believe that he was referring to the idea that the Lord won’t let the president of the Church do something that will remove the Church from the covenant position which the Church occupies relative to the Lord. If you want another way of saying it that might be clearer, I believe that Wilford was saying “I say to Israel [the covenant people], the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you into apostasy.”

      I think it is evident that the leaders of the Church were, in earlier years, wrong in their feelings about blacks. I do not feel that it is proper to judge them as racists because some of their statements and actions would be judged as racist if they occurred today. I also believe that Wilford Woodruff’s statement is still valid, as those leaders’ statements and actions did not lead the Church into apostasy, away from the saving ordinances of God.

      Thanks for asking my thoughts on the matter.

  2. Per

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I do agree with you that the earlier leaders were not racists. My concern was that I think the article can give the impression that the Church today condemn them as racists.

    I also agree with you that presidents of the Church can be wrong. I will look into what you said concerning “lead the Church astray” versus “being wrong”.

    Thanks again.

Comments are closed.