From 1852 until 1978, people of African descent were not allowed to receive the priesthood in the LDS church. No reason was given for the racist policy, though there are many theories. Mormons have a difficult time because there is no good answer! How do you justify racial discrimination?
An apology is just an admission of guilt, as far as the anti-Mormons are concerned. What this really shows is the difference between the Left and the religious Right. The Left is allowed to admit their racist history and “evolve,” but Mormons cannot do this because Mormons believe truth is eternal and God has never been a respecter of persons. A church that was once racist and hateful is a church that was not led by God.
So how do we reconcile this history?
First, put it in context. None of us were around in those times and we don’t know the circumstances. Look at what was going on. Also consider how things might have been if the policy wasn’t in place. Finally, we need to consider how this issue is being exploited by political activists to punish their ideological enemies.
Make Peace With Democrats
Joseph Smith ran for president on an anti-slavery platform that rankled his non-Mormon neighbors. He rallied against racism in a staunchly racist state, a major cause of his martyrdom and the genocidal “extermination order” of Mormons by the government.
At the time Brigham Young first announced the policy, Utah faced a hostile pro-slavery President, Millard Fillmore. The largest army on U.S. soil in history marched toward Utah. The threat of total extermination was real. Later, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the government were looking for another crusade, following the Civil War, and Mormons became their target. Mormon polygamy was labeled the “new slavery” in the newspapers and leaders declared they would save women from their Mormon oppressors.
With their widespread missionary work across the globe, the newspapers believed Mormons were breeding a new race that combined all the other races. Political cartoons showed polygamous Mormons with Black and Asian babies. By announcing the priesthood policy, Brigham Young was assuring American leaders that they were not breednig a new race or rebelling from America’s stratified culture.
It doesn’t make it right, but when you’ve had your land stolen, your wife raped, and your children murdered for opposing slavery, and now they were sending a huge army to kill you, you might be ready to make concessions.
This theory is hard to ignore, as Brigham Young announced the policy not to the church but to a state assembly. The great irony is Mormons were pushed into this position precisely because they were against racism. Joseph Smith’s strong anti-slavery platform led to great persecution, and the race policy helped alleviate that persecution.
Keep Church Together Amid Rapid Expansion
Another theory is that the policy unfortunately was needed to keep the church together amid rapid expansion. The small church could have fallen apart in its infancy if so many different cultures had been mashed together so quickly.
This is a phenomenon that I have witnessed first-hand as a missionary in Europe. The branch-president of a small congregation in a far-off city decided one day to sell magic rocks from the pulpit, and the Relief Society started telling people’s fortunes with Tarot cards. The congregation was utterly torn apart by this apostasy, and innocent members were kept from the blessings of the priesthood.
I didn’t think it was coincidence when multiple passersby on the street told me the dominant local Catholic parish had been roiled in massive scandals of its own. A people’s dominant religious culture is important to consider. This would be unlikely to happen in America, but it happened in Europe because the people in that particular city live very different religious sensibilities.
The pressure for cultural change was very different for some races. I don’t think African-Americans would have gone selling magic rocks, but there certainly would have been massive chaos with the integration of different religious sensibilities. The church was far from settled, as most LDS leaders were not in Utah. They were out spreading the gospel across the globe. Every little chaotic moment was a huge deal back then.
For all their virtue signalling, this is something Leftists understand as well. When corporations spread to Tibet, do they immediately hire locals of that country to leadership? No, they send some of their people in to train locals to future leadership.
When Leftist hero Chairman Mao swept across China, he pushed a dominant culture because he understood it was necessary for national stability. The church does not believe in destroying cultures or pushing cultural supremacy, but gradual integration appears to be prudent, according to this theory.
Why did Jesus instruct his apostles to preach only to the Jews at first and not the Gentiles? Was it because the Gentiles were unworthy or cursed? No, it was because they were widely disparate cultures and the church was too small in its primacy to handle their integration. As it was, the cultural integration proved too much for the early Christian church, and it fractured along racial lines. Various churches inserted local doctrines from native religions, and huge wars killed many people until the Catholic church finally held the Nicene Creed (which still got many things wrong).
Why did Moses restrict the priesthood to the sons of Levi? Priesthood was frequently restricted in history in order to keep power centralized and the church stable. Not fair, but maybe it was necessary for survival.
Possible Communist Infiltration
Another thing to consider is that radical Leftist groups were associated with the civil rights movement. Mormons supported equal rights as well, however they strongly opposed Communism. Open association with Communism could have been a big problem.
The LDS church was very susceptible to this kind of infiltration due to the lack of centralized leadership. Polygamy kept away feminists–another cause of the day that was unfortunately associated with Communism–yet Socialists still infiltrated the church through feminism. Does this make women’s suffrage evil? No. But it is a fact that Communists hopped on the feminist bandwagon and integrated into organizations through such positive movements.
The church was already known as a champion for abolishing slavery. Other abolitionists fiercely excluded Mormons due to anti-Mormon sentiment, so they were lonely and desperately looking for allies. Isolated, the Communists could have easily acted friendly and spoken nice words about common goals, and then taken positions in the church and pushed their wildly different ideology.
I don’t think this theory explains why the policy started but it could explained why it wasn’t repealed right away. By 1978, the church was less isolated and civil rights were generally accepted.
What Does ‘Cursed’ Mean?
In his announcement, Brigham Young said: “this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain.” That was his opinion, not doctrine. He spoke of a curse that would be lifted with the civil rights movement:
“That slavery will continue, until there is a people raised up upon the face of the earth who will contend for righteous principles, who will not only believe in but operate, with every power and faculty given to them to help to establish the kingdom of God, to overcome the devil, and drive him from the earth, then will this curse be removed.”
Brigham Young prophesied that Blacks would “have the privilege and more” of holding the priesthood at that future time. What was the “curse” holding them back? Well, Brigham Young made it clear it was not a matter of skin color:
“You talk of the dark skin, I never saw a white man on earth. I have seen persons whose hair came pretty nigh being white, but to talk about white skins it is something entirely unknown.”
Embedded Cultural Bias – Some are outraged to read in the scriptures that people are “cursed” because of their parents. How is that fair? But really, this is an observation more than a declaration. Some people are born into nicer circumstances, aren’t they? The popular thing now is to blame it all on historical oppression and racial privilege. Socialists believe class inequality is always because of oppression. But sometimes it’s simply because of a choice your forefathers made.
The church sought from day one to spread the gospel to every nation, to fulfill the prophesy that it would fill the entire earth, including Africa. The scriptures declare God esteems “all as one, black and white.” So then, why aren’t there missionaries in every country on earth? Racism? No, the church did not close its borders to the Chinese, for example; China closed its borders to the Mormon church. Still today, nations like Communist China do not enjoy the blessings of the gospel because they shut themselves off from it.
In the Book of Mormon, Lamanites were likewise cursed because they closed their borders to the gospel. Does this make the Lamanite or Chinese descendants evil? Absolutely not, but embedded cultural bias means their children will not enjoy the blessings and enlightening direction of the gospel and priesthood power, until that barrier disappears. So in one case, the “curse” is the circumstance of being born in a society that is intolerant towards the gospel.
External Barrier – But when it comes to Blacks in America, the curse was not a barrier that they put up themselves; the barrier was imposed by others. Sometimes people really are oppressed by others and racial privilege actually is a thing. I believe this was the case with Blacks in America, and that this is what Brigham Young was referring to.
In the case of 19th century African-Americans, I don’t think they as a society were intolerant of the gospel, but mainstream American society placed social barriers around them and perpetuated the “curse.”
Brigham Young declared Whites should not marry Blacks due to the curse, because they might be led away from the church if they do. This echoes the commandments in the Old Testament to not marry outside Hebrew society for the sake of religious unity. Of course, today, it is ridiculous to think skin color or race will determine if someone goes apostate, but back then it was a worry. Cultural division were much more driven by race. And I would say it is important today to marry someone who shares your same religious ideology.
The “curse” was never dark skin. That was the “mark” of the curse. This distinction is something the scriptures taught about the Lamanites: “…revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers.” (Jacob 3:9) The curse was embedded bias. As time went by, dark-skinned Lamanites learned the gospel, and then the “mark of the curse” was no longer the case.
Today, how likely is an inner city Chicago resident to listen to a nice Utah missionary and accept the gospel? Embedded biases and cultural barriers persist because of intolerance on all sides. But I think barriers to the gospel today tend to have more to do with politics than race. Polls show intolerance for Mormons is determined most by political affiliation.
In the journey for equality, the church continues to focus on merit, on being realistic about circumstances, on being realistic about survival, and on embracing others as your brother when social barriers are finally lifted.
Different Solutions To Racism
I see lots of fringe Mormon blogs introduce Social Justice as the solution to the Mormon race “problem.” They insist that class inquality is always due to oppression, in direct contradiction with scripture. For example, fringe-blog Rational Faiths says Nephi called it a “curse” because he held “an ideological system that enables one group to plunder another group.” Racism equal plunder.
In our zeal to show that we do not like racial discrimination one bit, we Mormons could do more damage than good. For example, BYU professor Randy Bott told The Washington Post some ideas. What Randy Bott didn’t consider was that there was an intense presidential campaign between an African-American and a Mormon going on, and the Washington Post simply wanted to twist his words to smear Mormons, and that’s exactly what happened. The media soon spread anti-Mormon articles that included his remarks.
We don’t need to speculate whether Brigham Young was a racist or wonder why the church was imperfect. There are always unfortunate circumstances. Rationalizing makes God look imperfect too, and it gives the media license to dwell on the subject. It was wrong, that’s it.
From the beginning, the Book of Mormon commanded us to preach to all people, and not to discriminate.
“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2 Nephi 26:33)
The prophet Joseph Smith’s views on race were ahead of their time:
My cogitations, like Daniel’s, have for a long time troubled me, when I viewed… two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours…
The wisdom which ought to characterize the freest, wisest, and most noble nation of the nineteenth century, should, like the sun in his meridian splendor, warm every object beneath its rays; and the main efforts of her officers, who are nothing more nor less than the servants of the people, ought to be directed to ameliorate the condition of all, black or white, bond or free; for the best of books says, “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth.”
How long did it take Leftists and the Democrat Party to catch up to this conclusion? Divine revelation is superior to social justice, and even today you see the misdirection of those on the Left, who tear down statues, give unmerited rewards, and spread racial division in the name of equality. If the LDS would just stick by their principles–let the army come, let the newspapers print their cartoons–they would always be on the right side of history.
We should celebrate our church’s history. The racial restriction with the priesthood was unfortunate and inexcusable, but our doctrine regarding race has had it right all along. The doctrines of popular culture continue to push racism, and we need to stick by the classical principles that we’ve had from the beginning.
When I was 5 years old my friend said to me one day, “You know, some people say that I have black skin. Isn’t that weird?”
That was the strangest thing I had ever heard. My family did not talk about people in terms of color. “What? Your skin isn’t black. It’s a little dark, but there’s nothing really that different about the way you look. Why would people call you black?”
“I don’t know. It’s weird.”
Regardless of everything that happened in history, it still seems totally unnecessary.