Since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a new statement on Race and the Priesthood in December 2013, there has been a lot of discussion on the subject. Many people have rightly praised the statement for setting straight some false concepts that had crept into the Church. Many, in my view, have also jumped to some conclusions that may or may not be well founded.
Below is a summary of the Chursh’s statement on Blacks and the Priesthood, and as a bonus, some of my thoughts and analysis on the subject. Most important is that future missionaries read the statement, do some follow up study of the scriptures and other sources cited, and be prepared to discuss the subject when and if it comes up during their missions.
Highlights from the Church’s Statement on Blacks and the Priesthood
The statement from the Church on Blacks and the Priesthood is 4 pages (6 with footnotes). I encourage you to read the statement in its entirety, but here are some of the quotes that stood out to me most:
- “For much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple …ordinances.”
- “During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies. …There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.”
- “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 [ordinances]. …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.”
- “President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would ‘have [all] the privilege and more’ enjoyed by other members.”
- “The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude’ in the Territory of Utah. According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s ‘curse’ on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.”
- “The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.”
- In the 1950s, “Church President David O. McKay emphasized that the restriction extended only to men of black African descent. The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood.”
- “Given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy… After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.”
- “While there were no limits on whom the Lord invited to ‘partake of his goodness’ through baptism, the priesthood and temple restrictions created significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spread in international locations with diverse and mixed racial heritages.”
- “Church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings. In June 1978, after ‘spending many hours in the Upper Room of the [Salt Lake] Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,’ Church President Spencer W. Kimball …received a revelation. …The revelation rescinded the restriction on priesthood ordination. It also extended the blessings of the temple to all worthy Latter-day Saints, men and women.”
- “The Church began priesthood ordinations for men of African descent immediately, and black men and women entered temples throughout the world. Soon after the revelation, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, spoke of new ‘light and knowledge’ that had erased previously ‘limited understanding.'”
- “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.”
- “The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is ‘no respecter of persons’ and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of race—is favored of Him.”
What the Church’s Statement Says and Does Not Say
The statement is clear on where the Church stands on this issue today. Race and national descent is not a factor in receiving the priesthood or receiving temple ordinances. The whole human family are children of God, he loves them all equally and invites all people, regardless of race or national origin, to come unto Christ, receive the ordinances of salvation, and partake of the blessings of the gospel here on earth and in Heaven.
The statement is sufficiently vague, though, on the history of the practice and particularly the reason for the priesthood and temple restrictions. While it is easy to jump to other conclusions, the Church gives no official reason of why the priesthood restriction was in place. While it denounces previous explanations put forth by Church members and leaders, such as racial inferiority, lack of premortal valiance, and a curse as manifested by dark skin, no official explanation for the former policy is given.
The discussion of the reason for the restriction is sufficiently vague as to allow multiple interpretations. It would be easy for readers to interpret the statement as saying that the Church today believes that Brigham Young was wrong in putting the priesthood restriction in place. Yet the article never comes out and says that the priesthood restriction was improper or racist. In fact, it goes to great length to point out that the restriction was not based solely on race, but on a combination of race and nationality (Africa descent). Therefore, one could also interpret the statement as saying there is no reason to believe the policy was not a result of divine inspiration to Brigham Young and the subsequent prophets and presidents of the Church.
The full reason for the restriction may never be known while we live on this earth. Each one of you will have to decide for yourself, if knowing the reason is important to you. What’s important to me is that we have the light and knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the scriptures, living prophets, and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and he is certainly doing a marvelous work and a wonder on the earth today. The blessings of the gospel are infinite and they can be enjoyed on earth and last throughout eternity. And missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the wonderful opportunity to bring these blessings to all the peoples of the earth.