Thursday, 22 May 2014


Having dealt with both fallibility and errancy, it is time to tackle the specific example that I was given to understand was the major problem in this individual's mind: that of blacks and the Priesthood. Here is the final part of my essay/article/study/investigation/thingy, comprising my take on this issue, how I understand it, and also my conclusion as a whole.

   I would like to address one particular example in depth. Namely: the issue of blacks and the Priesthood. There is no scriptural basis for permanently limiting the Priesthood to a particular lineage or race. Note that I use the word permanently. In the Old Testament, the Priesthood was restricted to the tribe of Levi, but this was never intended to be a permanent arrangement.

   In the revelations given to Joseph Smith, the Priesthood was never limited to a particular race or ethnicity. In fact, on 3 March 1836, Joseph Smith himself ordained Elijah Abel, a black man, to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood.[1] Furthermore, in December 1836, this same Elijah Abel was ordained a Seventy by Zebedee Coltrin, presumably with the knowledge and approval of Joseph Smith.8 Furthermore, in 1844 or earlier, Walker Lewis, a black member of the Church, was ordained an Elder by William Smith (a younger brother of Joseph Smith).[2] In 1844, Joseph Smith ran for President of the United States, and one of his key policies was the abolition of slavery.[3]

   By stating these facts, I am trying to show that the early Church was not racist (and neither is the modern Church, for that matter). Although the Church as a whole did not become involved in the political question of slavery,[4] and the Church did not try to free slaves or baptise them without their owners’ permission,[5] Church members themselves did not own slaves during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, and Church membership (and, originally, the Priesthood) was always open to people of any race. I stated before that the Church as a whole did not become involved in the question of slavery. This is not to say, however, that individual members of the Church did not have personal political views on the matter. For example, I explained earlier that Joseph Smith was opposed to slavery, stating on one occasion: “It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty and oppression [of slavery].”[6] However, many other members of the Church did not share Joseph’s political views. Orson Hyde and Brigham Young, in particular, were both very much in favour of slavery, and were both, quite frankly, very racist in their personal views of blacks. As I explained before, this does not mean that they were not inspired men of God. It merely means that they were flawed, as human beings have always been.

   Racism is not a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it has been very common in history, particularly in the 19th Century. A combination of his personal aversion to blacks and the tendency to speculate that was so common in the early days of the Church led Orson Hyde to state on 27 April 1845 that negroes were the cursed lineage of Canaan and expressed his personal theory that God had cursed them to be slaves to white men in mortality as a punishment for their actions in the pre-existence.[7] It is worth pointing out again that he did not claim that this was the revealed word of God; he was merely speculating and expressing his personal theories and ideas.

   Unfortunately, early leaders of the Church frequently expressed their personal theories quite forcefully and vigorously, which often led to confusion in the Church regarding what was revealed and inspired of God and what was mere human speculation. However, it is obvious that Orson Hyde, whatever his political views and doctrinal speculations, saw nothing wrong with black men holding the Priesthood, for he personally baptised and ordained a black man to the Priesthood himself in October 1846.[8] Now, Brigham Young is a different story. He was an extraordinarily bold man, nicknamed the ‘Lion of the Lord,’[9] much more forceful and vigorous in expressing his personal views than Orson Hyde and also, unfortunately, much more confident and certain of his own speculation and ideas. For some reason, five years after the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young came to the conclusion that God did not wish for black men to hold the Priesthood. I am not sure exactly what reasoning led him to this particular conclusion, but it may have involved a combination of his personal prejudice against black people (which again, is a personal weakness and flaw which has nothing to do with his role as a Prophet), his political views (he was a staunch supporter of slavery) and his love of speculating about the Gospel. In any case, he somehow came to believe that God did not want black men to hold the Priesthood. He taught and defended this personal theory quite vigorously and boldly throughout his time as President of the Church, beginning in February 1849.[10] There are any number of quotes that involve Brigham Young proclaiming this belief, for example: “Because Cain cut off the life of Abel...the Lord cursed Cain’s seed and prohibited them from the Priesthood,”17 and: “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood...I know it is true & they know it.”[11] Evidently, Brigham Young was quite certain of his theory and his conclusion and defended it vigorously. As Governor of Utah, he also gave legal recognition to slaveholders in Utah and from the time the Saints settled in Utah some Apostles and other Church leaders began to hold slaves.

   This very confident and bold certainty that was characteristic of Brigham Young was perhaps his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Without it, I am confident that the Saints could never have reached Salt Lake. The martyrdom of Joseph Smith left the Saints confused, vulnerable and without a leader. Into this gap, the Lord called Brigham Young to stand up and lead the Church with the fire of his determination, boldness and confidence. Nobody else could have led the Saints westward, and nobody else could have established the Church so securely in the Rocky Mountains. Yet this very boldness was also a great weakness to the Church, because it means we end up finding quotes such as those above, which can give the wrong impression about certain issues. One thing is certain: no matter how boldly and vigorously Brigham Young may have defended and promoted his views of blacks and the Priesthood, he never once claimed to have received a divine revelation teaching this doctrine. He was convinced that his personal theory about blacks was correct, but he never claimed that God had revealed it to him. There are no revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants in which God says that black people ought to be excluded from the Priesthood. This was a personal theory and view held by Brigham Young and several other prominent Church leaders, based entirely on their personal views. Because of their high standing in the Church and because of the vigour and boldness of Brigham Young in defending his theories, the vast majority of the Church soon came to accept the exclusion of black men from the Priesthood as an unquestioned and necessary fact of the Church and the Gospel.

   This was taught and accepted as doctrine for well over a hundred years, despite never being authorised or sanctioned by divine revelation. For example, in 1958, Bruce R McConkie wrote in his book, Mormon Doctrine, the following words: “The negroes are not equal with other races when the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom...this inequality...grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in [the pre-existence].”[12] It should be noted that in the preface of Mormon Doctrine, Elder McConkie wrote a disclaimer at the urging of the First Presidency, clarifying that all the views expressed therein are merely his own personal opinions and conclusions and do not necessarily reflect the official positions and teachings of the Church. Similarly, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in 1935: “A curse was placed upon [Cain] and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures.”[13] This gave many Church members the impression that blacks would never be eligible to hold the Priesthood. However, again, it is important to note that in his book, Joseph Fielding Smith made clear that the views expressed therein were his own personal opinions rather than official statements of Church doctrine. The point is, because of their high standing in Church leadership, these Apostles did influence the beliefs of many members of the Church, and it was a widespread belief in the Church for many years that blacks would never hold the Priesthood. However, the fact remained that the policy of restricting blacks from holding the Priesthood was never introduced by divine revelation. It was a policy that Brigham Young felt should be introduced, because of his personal opinions and beliefs, but there is nowhere in the Standard Works of the Church where the Lord instructs the Church that black men should not hold the Priesthood. Indeed, in the days of Joseph Smith, blacks were ordained to the Priesthood. Thus, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve began to feel that the practice was unscriptural and not in harmony with the will of God.

   In 1969, President Hugh B Brown proposed that the policy be reversed and black men be admitted to the Priesthood.[14] This proposal was approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, with the absence of President David O McKay, who was not present due to health reasons, and President Harold B Lee. When President Lee returned, he argued against the policy change and demanded another vote. This time, President Lee convinced enough of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve that the policy could not be changed without an explicit divine revelation, and President Brown’s proposal was rejected.21 To clarify the Church’s position on the issue, the First Presidency issued a letter to all Bishops and Stake Presidents, saying that: “Negroes...[are] not yet to receive the Priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man...[However], sometime in God’s eternal plan, the negro will be given the right to hold the Priesthood.”[15] Over the following nine years, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the policy of excluding black men from the Priesthood and did not feel that it was a policy which God approved of. However, they were also very reluctant and hesitant to reverse a policy which had been a part of the Church’s teachings for over a hundred years, since the time of Brigham Young. Therefore, they decided collectively to pray and enquire of God. In response to their plea for knowledge and guidance, they received a divine revelation instructing them to end the practice of excluding black men from the Priesthood.

   Intriguingly, one of those present when this revelation was received was Bruce R McConkie, one of those General Authorities who had been most adamant that blacks should not be given the Priesthood. Following the divine revelation in 1978, he said: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”[16] Since 1978, the blessings of the Priesthood have been extended to all worthy male members of the Church without regard for race or lineage. Some might wonder why God waited a hundred years before telling the Brethren to cease restricting black members from holding the Priesthood. The answer is quite simple: nobody thought it was an issue for a hundred years, and therefore nobody thought to ask. God would never have answered Joseph Smith if he hadn’t gone to the Sacred Grove with a question to ask. He would never have told Nephi the interpretation of Lehi’s vision if Nephi hadn’t asked. Similarly, when this practice became an accepted part of the Church, nobody thought to question it for a very long time. It was only as Spencer W Kimball became so confused by the seemingly un-Christlike practice that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve knelt together in prayer and earnestly sought the will of the Lord. And in accordance with His promises throughout the scriptures, when they asked, He answered.

I use this example of blacks and the Priesthood because it highlights a very important truth: Church leaders can get things wrong. They can make mistakes, they can speculate and theorise and come up with the wrong conclusions, but this does not mean that they are not divinely appointed Prophets of God. I sustain the Brethren, and I admire them as very wise, capable men and inspired leaders. But I do not expect them to be perfect. They struggle with a very strenuous and difficult calling. I sympathise with them and I can honestly say they do a much better job of leading this Church than I could ever do. Much of the time, they must use their own judgement and talents to fulfil their calling. Those talents are very capable, but they are also limited. Naturally, they will get things wrong from time to time. But, as evidenced by the 1978 revelation, when they are open to the whisperings of the Spirit, and take important issues and concerns before the Lord, He answers them. God really does speak to modern Prophets. As I pointed out earlier, I cannot give anybody a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith or Wilford Woodruff or Spencer W Kimball or Thomas S Monson. Only God can do that. But hopefully, through the things I have written, I have helped whoever reads this to understand these men better, and to better understand what it means to be a Prophet. For those who have received a testimony of the divine calling of these men but who have been confused and concerned by these issues, I hope this has been helpful. In conclusion, I would like to echo the words of President Gordon B Hinckley: “We recognise that our forbears were human. They doubtless made mistakes...There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building His perfect society. If some of them...stumbled, or if their characters may have been...flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much.”[17] 


[1] Minutes of the Seventies Journal, Hazen Aldrich, entry for 20 December 1836. 
[2] William L Appleby, letter to Brigham Young, 2 June 1847
[3] History of the Church, Vol. 6, Ch. 8, p. 197-198
[4] Messenger and Advocate, Volume 2, Number 7
[5] D&C 134:12
[6] History of the Church, 4:544
[7] Speech of Elder Orson Hyde upon the course and conduct of Mr S Rigdon, Nauvoo: Times and Seasons Press, 1845
[8] Bringhurst, Newell G. (1981), Saints, Slaves and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press
[9] Hirshson, Stanley P. (1969), The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young, Knopf
[10] Bush, Lester E.; Mauss, Armand L. (1984) Neither White nor Black
[11]Brigham Young, Address to the Territorial Legislature, 16 January 1852, recorded in Wilford Woodruff’s journal of the same date
[12] Mormon Doctrine, 10th printing, p. 527-528
[13] Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Genealogical Society of Utah, 1935, p. 101-102
[14] Quinn, Michael D. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, 1994, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, p. 14
[15] ‘The First Presidency on the Rights of the Negro’, 15 December 1969
[16] Horne, Dennis B. (2000). Bruce R McConkie: Highlights From His Life and Teachings. Eborn Books
[17] ‘The Continuous Pursuit of Truth’, Ensign, April 1986, p. 5

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