We don’t do an awesome job of discussing Official Declaration #2, even though it serves as the best starting point for us to bracket off what some of us may designate The Global Era of Mormonism. It allowed men of African descent to receive ordination to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and it allowed women to receive their temple endowment (and the fact that those two changes were made in conjunction with each other should highlight for us that women ought not be seen as apart from “the priesthood” after all). And we are right to celebrate the contributions of black Latter-day Saints; we should do it more, do it frequently, and do it gladly. If we can’t talk about a vexed racial history involving a large percentage of the human population but can talk about the miracle of the quails, the miracle of the Mantle, the Utah war, the Handcart Companies ad infinitum, shouldn’t that strike us as a little…skewed?
The time is coming soon for Gospel Doctrines classes the world over to discuss this passage of scripture that, at once, offered exuberance and anxiety–often simultaneously. This piece is intended to be a supplement to—not a replacement of— the Gospel Doctrine material already available to instructors. A manual can be only so all-encompassing, and as Church curriculum employee, David Marsh, urged in his interview on LDS Perspectives, we should do all the reading that we can on a gospel subject. It is not only a tolerable idea; it is a decidedly good one.
The topic makes folks itchy, to put it mildly; none of us likes to think of ourselves as members of a faith that partitioned off billions (not even remotely an exaggeration once Africans and black Brazilians are included in the equation). But if you feel itchy, you’re in good company: it’s an itchiness that African-Americans have been experiencing for generations—and in almost every theater of American life. The priesthood/temple ban reflected one more layer on a broader system of mass disenfranchisement and exclusion from American life. James Baldwin said that to be a relatively self-aware African-American in America meant to live in a state of constant rage at all times.
So, welcome aboard.
The purpose of this post is accessibility, not comprehensiveness. And in a few spots, I have included links to key resources; surely, there can be many, many more links out there. There are several good resources available that will give you all the documentation you crave regarding the origins, development, entrenchment, and lifting of the temple/priesthood bans on peoples of African descent.
The sum total of the Gospel Doctrine manual’s treatment of Official Declaration #2 can be found here:
Revelation extending the blessings of the priesthood to every worthy male member of the Church
Explain that in June 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation that extended the blessings of the priesthood to every worthy male member of the Church. Ask the assigned class member to summarize the account of this revelation from Our Heritage, pages 125–27.
Read Official Declaration 2 with class members. How has this revelation been a blessing to the Church?
What can we learn from the process President Kimball went through before receiving this revelation? (See Our Heritage, page 126.)
And herein lies a tale. Many tales. In order to understand the declaration’s significance, we need to have a sense of not only what it did but the circumstances that made it necessary. When we speak of Official Declaration #2, we often talk around, over, or in between the relevant issues. We manage to take a subject that has everything to do with race and…make it not about race. Everyone breathes a little easier. We smiles and nod. We softpedal and spin it, probably to ease our sense of anxiety–even though we all know that a complicated reality lies just beneath.
Phew. We don’t need to have that conversation in Gospel Doctrine class. Faith crisis averted!
So, gospel doctrine life hack: when the conversation is about race, talk about race. We do no one any favors by pivoting. And we do violence to the historical record if we refuse to engage it. If you can’t say what the declaration actually was, then, as with any topic, we don’t get to talk about it.
And it will be just as tempting to replace it with an equally sweeping: “We’re just racist” Twitter-length analysis. True though it may be (were it not, we would not have had a How Many Apostles Can Denounce Racism Contest in the last General Conference), it sends us into a whirlwind of non-productive angst. More, it performs this magical act: it makes it about you—not about those whom it has affected most directly. Chimamanda Adichie has warned us of the “dangers of a single story.” And no matter one’s ideological persuasion, it is entirely possible (and even natural) to impose a narrative on a slice of the human experience, especially one that does not accord with how we interpret the world.
Resist that emptation. Lean into the anxiety, not away from it. Elder Maxwell encouraged Latter-day Saints to move headlong “into the fray, not away from Ninevah.” And the fact that Mormons opted into one particularly discomforting aspect of Ninevah-like discourse? We have a particular obligation to “lean in.”
In other words:
- See it
- Own it
- Solve it
- Do it
Social media discourse (and, I argue, it is a distinctive platform for discourse with its own ideological rules, norms, and boundaries) is meant for memes, quips, and, occasionally, thoughtful and sustained discussion–and each of these discourses serve important roles. A zinger can capture a truth (whether documentable and verifiable or “lived” and subjective) that a treatise cannot. But it will not save us.
So, without further ado_
Myth One: Jesus Gave The Gospel to Jews and then to the Gentiles. The Priesthood Ban is No Different.
This is a tempting myth. Jesus is recorded as saying, after all, that “I am not sent but unto the House of Israel.” The profundity of the vision Peter received in Acts 10 gives the narrative genuine grandeur, including Peter’s own personal conversion. Moreover, at least some top-level General Authorities have deployed this analogue.
But it has some disqualifying weaknesses that disqualify it from holding any kind of explanatory value.
Were it true, Joseph Smith would not have authorized the ordination of African-Americans to the priesthood. Nor would Brigham Young (who considered one African-American man one of “the best elders we have”).
- Elijah Able[s]
- Walker Lewis
- Joseph Ball (likely)
- William McCary
- Isaac Van Meter
Myth Two: “The Ban Just Meant That They Could Not Pass the Sacrament or Give Blessings. No big deal. It was like the Levites serving in the temple”
- No one who has spent any amount of time in the Church can say, with a straight face, that these ordinances are niceties.
- More importantly, it was not confined to ordination to the offices of deacon, elder, etc. It also prohibited men and women of African descent from receiving their endowments or their sealing ordinances. Every president of the LDS Church from Joseph Smith to Thomas S. Monson has effused about the meaning and impact of the temple; Gordon B. Hinckley called it the symbol of our membership. The Levites did not hold sole access to salvation because of their temple service.
It is a very big deal.
Myth Three: “It was a product of the times”
Possibly more intoxicating than #1 and more dismissive than #2. And worst of all, it bears little relationship to reality.
While racial tension was, indeed, rampant in nineteenth-century, we need to be particular about how we deploy that to explain various events. So, to do this, I will take the Alma approach to engaging it:
- Did other individuals say, believe in, and support ideas and policies similar to that of Brigham Young et al. that blacks descended from Cain and/or Ham? Yes. I have a floor filled with books attesting to this. This is low-hanging fruit. And if that’s all the fruit we eat, then we will not understand even a fraction of the issue.
- Were there individuals in mid-nineteenth-century America who would have disagreed with Brigham Young’s views on racial origins? Yes. While Brigham Young supported a form of African slavery (an “act in relation to service,” to be sure—originally named “an act in relation to African service”), Orson Pratt vehemently disagreed with Young on his interpretation of the Cain-ite curse vis à vis slavery. Rees E. Price, a Mormon convert in Cincinnati, was a radical abolitionist. James Moyle, the British superintendent of Salt Lake City Temple Construction, found slavery to be repulsive and wondered why white Americans couldn’t treat them like human beings. Angelina Grimke, a prominent abolitionist, dismissed the race-based cursing out-of-hand. Theodore Weld and Lyman Beecher did as well. In 1888, the American Mill Hills (an English missionary society) established an integrated seminary and three years later,, Father Charles Uncles was ordained to be the first black Catholic priest in the United States. In 1893, Father John Slattery, an Irish father in Baltimore, established St. Joseph’s Society, a Catholic seminary dedicated training black priests.
- Were there individuals in sub-Saharan Africa who would have disagreed with Brigham Young et. al? Yes. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a former slave liberated by the British, opened up the Church Mission Society Niger Mission in 1841; he served as bishop in the Niger Valley for over a generation. And Hope Waddell’s efforts to establish the Presbyterian ministry in Calabar resulted in a fully functioning, independent black Presbyterian church with black ministers by the end of the nineteenth-century.It is more proper to say that LDS thinking developed in the context of particular places and particular times with particular theologies.
Myth #4: “It was implemented for the Saints to protect themselves from persecution”
As with most mythologies, there is a grain of truth in this, but it only takes us so far (and not far, at that). In short, one of the public rationales used to justify expelling Mormons from Jackson County was that they opposed slavery and were inviting free blacks to move into the state of Missouri (illegal, according to the state laws). W.W. Phelps, the editor of the Evening and Morning Star, had given them cause to believe this; he made a statement expressing tepid support for black immigration: “let prudence guide.” Critics, already keen to find reasons to attack Mormons, seized on the statement. Phelps attempted to backtrack (even to the point that he was assuring people that Mormons were a white-only Church—not to fret, friends). But it was too late. As Governor Daniel Dunklin observed in 1836 regarding the now-displaced Mormons’ racial guilt: vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Some 17 years later, Brigham Young associated expulsion from Missouri with the Saints’ rejection of slavery.
Thus, to some extent, this explanation makes sense—and is backed up by the evidence. However, the evidence does not carry it through to the end. While there was some level of public posturing in the 1830s, Brigham Young’s first support of the priesthood ban in 1849 (which, to reiterate, reflected a marked shift from his support of black inclusion in March 1847) was stated in private to a fellow apostle: Lorenzo Snow (himself a disenchanted alum of the renowned abolitionist college, Oberlin). Snow wanted to know when they would “unlock the door” to Africans, and Young told him that they were descendants of Cain and that it would take place only once Abel’s posterity had received the entirety of the gospel blessings. There was no public audience to please, no mobs to placate.
In early 1852, when Brigham Young first publicly announced the priesthood (and, by extension, temple) restriction and his support for “African service” before the Territorial Legislature (which, to “servants” like the Bankhead family and Green Flake was slavery–there is a reason that at least one Utah slave wept with joy upon hearing the Emancipation Proclamation), his audience was, again, not an angry mob but fellow Mormon politicians. He believed in the priesthood ban and slavery because he held that Africans descended from Cain. More, he declared that intermarriage with Africans merited death.
And finally, let’s be real: if Brigham Young and others were that concerned about persecution, then they really chose to lean into the “exposure therapy” for their fears by loudly embracing polygamy, a practice that almost led to the Church’s dismantling under sustained prosecution from federal authorities.
Myth #5: “We don’t really know why the priesthood/temple restriction was implemented. ”
Let’s take a trip in the Stevenson magic time machine to 1849 and/or 1852. You get to sit with Brigham Young and ask him, as Lorenzo Snow did, “why do you believe peoples of African descent should not hold the priesthood?”
His answer would have been clear: they are descended from Cain.
Let’s say you get to sit down with Bruce R. McConkie in the 1950s and ask him why peoples of African descent ought not hold the priesthood. His answer would have been clear: they were “less valiant” in premortality and, thus, were descended from Cain/Ham.
There is evidence that some LDS leaders believed that we could not explain identify the origins of the priesthood/temple restriction. In 1969, Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner released a statement to the Deseret News indicating that the priesthood restriction existed “for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.” It is far above my pay grade to state God’s mind, but it is worth emphasizing: we have an absurdly robust documentary trail from Parley P. Pratt through Spencer W. Kimball verifying that the “whys” believed by Church leadership were known. Since that time, top church leaders such as Jeffrey R. Holland and Dallin H. Oaks have rejected those explanations. From 1847 through 1969, every meaningful statement from Church officials have claimed to know why the restriction existed.
Myth #6: “Joseph Smith did not implement the priesthood restriction; once he died, Brigham Young did.”
This mythology is born of fuzzy, aerial renderings of the historical record. When we establish chronologies, we like sweeping categories: “the era of the slave trade,” “industrialization,” etc. These sweeping epochs are useful, but they come at a cost: inevitably, you miss this or that exception, complication, or blurring of the chronological dividers.
It is true that, according to all contemporary records, Joseph Smith did not implement the priesthood restriction. His confidantes found his willingness for inclusion distasteful. Zebedee Coltrin said that only Joseph himself could convince him to administer ritual ordinances to a black individual. Orson Hyde was a bit befuddled that Joseph Smith would trust black people: would they not rise above him if he continued to empower them? (Joseph’s response was: wouldn’t you if you were placed in their circumstances?).
The mythology enters when we suppose an abrupt transition between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Both Joseph and Brigham made racial jokes. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, at some point, accepted slavery (though Joseph flipped by the early 1840s). And both Joseph and Brigham approved of African-Americans holding the priesthood; in March 1847, Brigham Young celebrated the efforts of Walker Lewis, an abolitionist-minded black priesthood holder in Lowell, MA: “one of the best Elders we have” and proclaimed the equality of man: “We don’t care about the color.”
The circumstances of Brigham Young’s shift from March 1847 to February 1849 are not entirely clear. We know that in December 1847, he learned of Enoch Lewis, Walker Lewis’s son, siring a child with a white woman. For all Brigham Young’s willingness to abide black priesthood holders, interracial marriage was, in his mind, a crime against humanity that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the human race. Making matters worse, the sexual antics of the runaway slave, William McCary, and his wife, Lucy Stanton (a white daughter of Daniel Stanton, a former stake president), inflamed the prejudices of the LDS community in Brigham Young’s absence. They expelled McCary and Stanton from the community, and it would be in this context that Parley P. Pratt was the first LDS leader to go on record connecting ethnicity to a present-day priesthood restriction. The role of that collective rage in shaping the environment in which the priesthood restriction came into being should not be understated.
This lesson presents a wonderful opportunity to discuss a vexed issue in a (hopefully) safe space. It might cause anxiety. If my experience is indicative, then there will be some level of deflection and resistance. Try not to use the opportunity to prove your own enlightenment, “woke-ness,” or superior love. Instead, attempt to cultivate an environment in which the conversation can be simultaneously candid and charitable. When doing so, I have had Latter-day Saints acknowledge feelings about which they are embarrassed. In Durban, South Africa, an Afrikaaner man approached me and confessed that he, shamfeully, struggled with hateful feelings. In Wisconsin, a housewife said (in a room filled with white people) that she would not feel comfortable with a black bishop. While it is painful to hear these things, it is important that we (esp. we white folks) work with them in the same way that we address any number of other human frailties, ranging from pornography addiction and anger management to gambling.
See it. Own it. Solve it. Do it.