On June 8, 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church) gave an announcement that many Mormons never expected to hear in their lifetimes. Today Official Declaration—2 is found in the back of the LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants and is signed by the LDS First Presidency, declaring that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”
Before 1978, males of African heritage were considered “cursed”1 and thus were denied the two LDS priesthoods, which meant they could not participate in the “temple blessings” enjoyed by the rest of the Church membership. The Church’s announcement was so earth-shattering that readers who responded to a 1999 poll given by the LDS Church News overwhelmingly voted this as the top news event for the entire twentieth century.2
The Genesis Group, an official LDS group that is comprised mainly of Black members, has celebrated this event every five years since 1978. However, the LDS Church leadership did not participate in these festivities until the thirty-year anniversary took place on Temple Square on June 8, 2008, when about 2,700 people came to the Mormon Tabernacle to hear a variety of speakers and a multicultural choir.
One presenter was Fred A. Parker III, the president of the LDS Atlanta Georgia stake, who admitted to the audience that not allowing Blacks full rights in the Church before 1978 was “unsettling,” yet “Heavenly Father knows best. The Lord may not be inclined to give a simple and universally satisfying explanation.”3
Elder Sheldon F. Child, member of the First Quorom of the Seventy, was the highest official LDS Church representative and the evening’s only white speaker.4 While some thought that perhaps an apology was forthcoming, others knew it was improbable. “Since no members of the LDS First Presidency or the Council of the Twelve were scheduled to appear, we were confident that no official apology for the prohibition would take place,” Bill McKeever, director of the Utah-based Mormonism Research Ministry, said.
Folklore or a Doctrine? Darius Gray has been a faithful Mormon for forty-four years and in 1971 helped organize The Genesis Group. While he supports his Church’s leadership, Gray admits that facing the racist history of the Mormon Church is painful. “Before this church can move forward,” he said, “we need to acknowledge the dead mule in the room, clean it out and air it out. For me, an apology isn’t the issue (but) teaching the correct principles is.”5
When Marvin Perkins was asked whether or not an apology ought to be given by his Church’s leadership, the co-producer (with Gray) of a two-volume DVD series titled Blacks in the Scriptures responded, “I don’t think so simply because President (David) McKay said it’s not a doctrine. There never was a curse against the blacks. It was a practice.”6 Yet despite the fact that Mormon leaders had elaborated on the idea that those who were less valiant in a preexistent world were cursed with black skin,7 Mormon Church spokesperson Mark Tuttle stated, “This folklore is not part of and never was taught as doctrine by the church.”8
Darron Smith, an outspoken Black Mormon who lost his job as a professor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in 2006, disagrees and feels that he and other Blacks deserve an apology. He believes it is a cop-out to claim that only God knows why it took so long to lift the ban. “We don’t know why the Lord did this?” he asked. “Bull——. It’s called racism.”9
The fact is that skin color has played a role regarding a person’s individual spirituality within Mormonism. For instance, when speaking of the dark-skinned “Lamanites”—ancestors of the Native Americans—2 Nephi 30:6 in the pre-1981 editions of the Book of Mormon indicated the Lamanites would become “white and delightsome” as they became more righteous. This phrase was changed to read “pure and delightsome,” which seems to be an obvious reaction to the 1978 course correction, especially since previous leaders had used this as a proof text in support of the teaching that banned Blacks from the priesthood.10
The structure of the LDS Church also needs to be considered, as Mormons are taught that they are being led by living men who are ordained by God in these “latter days.” In fact, speakers from the LDS general conference pulpit have many times elaborated on the inferiority of Blacks, including second president Brigham Young who bluntly stated, “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”11
Contrary to the “folklore” argument being used by a Church spokesperson, the First Presidency gave a statement on August 17, 1949, that declared how the priesthood restriction was not just a policy, but “doctrine.” The statement reads in part, “The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time.”
Reaction from the Membership Today. Having to deal with Mormonism’s racist past causes great consternation for a number of Black members, including thirty-four-year-old Tamu Smith. When she visited the LDS temple in Salt Lake City for the first time to participate in her marriage ceremony, she was confronted by an older white man who angrily asked her what a [racial epithet] was doing there. Instead of reprimanding him, temple workers came to the man’s defense because they said he didn’t know any better.
“I don’t mind defending my faith to my black friends and family,” Smith said, “but I do mind having to defend my race to my fellow Mormons.” She added, “For racism to stop, we need to hear it condemned at Conference as often as pornography or abuse are. The brethren don’t want to open up old wounds, but those wounds have never healed.”12
Vanna Cox, who last year was Provo (Utah) High School’s first black student-body president, said that she constantly “heard the [racial epithet] all the time when we were kids at [LDS] church activities by kids who knew us.” Yet she isn’t ready to quit the Church because her involvement is “definitely something that helps me. I do love it. But the priesthood ban is always going to be a question for me. It hurts. It sucks.”13 —Eric Johnson
1 For example, see Abraham 1:24 in the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price, Journal of Discourses 7:290 and 10:250, and Apostle Bruce McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine (1966), 108–9.
2 The Church News, December 19, 1999. ”Proliferation of temples across the world” was a distant second.
3 Catherine Reese Newton, “LDS 1978 Blacks-in-the-Priesthood Decision: Why Did It Take So Long?” Salt Lake Tribune, June 9, 2008, http://www.sltrib.com/
4 In fact, there are no blacks in the highest Mormon leadership called “general authorities.”
5 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormons and Black: Grappling with a Racist Past,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 10, 2008, http://www.sltrib.com/faith/ci_9497769.
7 For example, see McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine (1966), 527–28, and Apostle Mark Peterson’s “Race Problems—As They Affect the Church,” BYU address on August 27, 1954.
8 “Mormons and Black: Grappling with a Racist Past.”
10 See http://www.mrm.org/topics/book-mormon/white-and-delightsome-or-pure-and-delightsome-a-look-2-nephi-30-6.
11 Journal of Discourses 10:110.
12 “Mormons and Black: Grappling with a Racist Past.”
13 “Mormon and Black: Vanna Cox Has Questions,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 10, 2008, http://www.sltrib.com/News/ci_9497771.