The Mormon Priesthood and Temple Ban on Black People
Essay originally posted 1 June 2022
Quotes from general leaders of the Church
These show the Mormon Church’s racist justifications were taught and preached as doctrine from God, not as mere theories.
“Now, it would seem cruel to force pure celestial spirits into the world through the lineage of Canaan that had been cursed. This would be ill appropriate, putting the precious and vile together. But those spirits in heaven that rather lent an influence to the devil, thinking he had a little the best right to govern, but did not take a very active part any way were required to come into the world and take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan ; and hence the negro or African race” (Speech of Elder Orson Hyde Delivered Before the High Priests Quorum in Nauvoo, April 27th, 1845 Upon the Course and Conduct of Mr. Sidney Rigdon, and Upon the Merits of His Claims to the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. p. 30).
“... the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed” (Brigham Young while President of the Church, Journal of Discourses 7:291, October 9, 1859).
“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” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 10:110).
“And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God” (President of the Church, John Taylor August 28, 1881 Journal of Discourses 22:304).
“That the Negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits, few will doubt. It cannot be looked upon as just that they should be deprived of the power of the Priesthood without it being a punishment for some act, or acts, performed before they were born” (Joseph Fielding Smith, I believe before he was President of the Church, The Way to Perfection, possibly page 43).
“Negroes in this life are denied the Priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty (Abraham 1:20-27)” (Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1966, pp. 527-528; the Mormon scripture verses referred to by McConkie describe the curse of Cain being passed down through Ham, son of Noah, after the flood.).
“The Book of Abraham is rich both in doctrine and in historical incidents. Of the latter the fact of the large influence (if not identity) of Egyptian religious ideas in Chaldea in the days of Abraham is established; the descent of the black race (Negro) from Cain, the first murderer; the preservation of that race through the flood by the wife of Ham--‘Egyptus,’ which in the Chaldean signifies ‘Egypt,’ ‘which signifies that which is forbidden’--the descendants of ‘Egyptus’ were cursed as pertaining to the priesthood--that is, they were barred from holding that divine power; the origin also of the Egyptians--these things, together with the account of Abraham migrating from Chaldea to Egypt, constitute the chief historical items that are contained in the book” ( Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol.2, Ch.47, Pg.128).
In 1947, the First Presidency responded to Lowry Nelson’s dismay about the priesthood ban saying,
“‘From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.’ Its explanation, they said, was to be found in the premortal existence” (First Presidency in 1947, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood” by Edward L. Kimball, BYU Studies 7, no. 2, 2008; p. 17).
“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes” (The first presidency on August 17, 1949, as found in FAIR’s “Statements made by Church leaders regarding the priesthood ban”, 19 Apr 2022).
Someone to look up to
It happened so long ago I can’t remember exactly how old I was. I think I was around 13. If I was 13, it would have been in 1978 or 1979. I had somehow gotten into trouble at school and had to stay for detention. I was generally a well-behaved kid, so this was not a typical event for me. Since I rode the bus to school, this meant I either had to call my folks or some other adult in my life for a ride and in effect rat myself out, or I could walk home. I walked. As luck played out that day, another boy (can’t remember his name) who lived near me, but in publicly subsidized housing (the projects), also ran afoul of some teacher and ended up in detention. We walked home together, and part of the way was along the railroad tracks that were a couple of blocks from my house and practically in my companion’s back yard. Before leaving the tracks, he asked me something to the effect of, “If you won $5,000, what would you do with it?” The specifics of my response have faded from my memory, but I remember that I spoke of things I’d like to buy for myself. Then I witnessed something that left an indelible impression in my heart and mind. My detention companion said that if he were to win that kind of money, he’d buy his mom a car and take care of some of her other needs. He wasn’t saying this to show he was better than me; his selflessness was completely focused on his mom at that moment. I had no doubt that if he had actually received such a windfall of cash, that he would have tried to spend it all on his mom. I was not a selfish child by most standards, but in contrast to this young man from the projects, my selfishness was obvious. The unselfish child in this example was Black. I am white. Normally our skin color would not be relevant, but it is in the context of this essay. Growing up I had seen good and bad behavior among Black people (as is the case among those in any sufficiently large group), but the most selfless words I ever heard uttered by a young man were from the lips of my detention companion. Because of his example and the teachings of my mother, race or skin color was never a reason for me to discriminate against someone.
The Church had looked down on my neighbor
Several years later I began studying the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and its doctrine at the invitation of my Mormon girlfriend. Until 1978, the Mormons did not allow Black individuals or anyone of Black African descent to receive their priesthood. After this priesthood ban, Black people were also banned from Mormon temples. I found this incompatible with the concept of a loving god. The missionaries and other Mormons pointed out that others had been excluded from the priesthood as described in the Bible. This only confirmed to me that the Bible was less than perfect. However, after many months of studying the Book of Mormon and the gospel as taught by the Mormons, I accepted this gospel and determined that though I could not understand the priesthood and temple ban on Black people, if it had been commanded by God, then I would just accept it on faith. The problem lies in the assumptions of this last sentence. There never was a revelation given from God to any prophet of the Church to the effect that Black poeple should be banned from the priesthood or the temple. I had been taught incorrectly.
Discovering what actually happened
I intentionally refrain from saying I was lied to. I give those who taught me about the Church the benefit of a doubt. To me it appears that even many in the top leadership of the Church have believed that the priesthood ban was the result of revelation from God. The following statement by the First Presidency of the Church communicates this belief:
Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God…
“Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s pre-existent state.”
~First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, December 15, 1969, as found in FAIR’s “Statements made by Church leaders regarding the priesthood ban”, as retrieved 19 Apr 2022, including the ellipsis
Unfortunately, the Church overlooked the history in this case. There currently is no record of any prophecy denying the priesthood to Black people. In fact, it is well established that during the time of Joseph Smith, the founder and first President of the Church, there were some Black men ordained to the priesthood. The most famous of these was Elijah Abel who also participated in temple ordinances (see the Church’s essay, “Race and the Priesthood”, as retrieved 19 April 2022). Elijah Abel even served multiple missions for the Church and “was ordained to the Third Quorum of the Seventy in Kirtland in December 1836” (Black Members of the Church Research Guide).
The priesthood ban on Black people seems to have been instigated by Brigham Young, the second president of the Salt Lake City based, and largest of the Mormon sects. “In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of Black African descent from priesthood ordination,” and all Black women and men were banned from the temple later (The Church’s essay, “Race and the Priesthood”, as retrieved 19 April 2022).
Declared as doctrine, not theories
The Church admits,
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: Black people 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.
~The Church’s essay, “Race and the Priesthood”, as retrieved 19 April 2022.
However, as if to cast these justifications for banning Black people as being something other than a result of the institution of the Church and its general leaders, the above quote has a footnote that says,
‘Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, wrote in 1907 that the belief was “quite general” among Mormons that “the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest.” Yet this belief, he admitted, “is not the official position of the Church, [and is] merely the opinion of men”’ (Footnote 14 in the Church’s essay, “Race and the Priesthood”, as retrieved 19 April 2022).
The essay even goes as far as to call these justifications “theories,” as if the Church as an institution and its general leaders were not responsible for these “theories.” However, the Church proclaimed these justifications enough that a member of the Church could have been accurately accused of not following the prophet if they denied these teachings. These racist justifications were consistently proclaimed by general leaders of the Church as they carried out their roles of prophets, seers, and revelators. The quotes on the right side of this page demonstrate the Church only recently began backpedaling by labeling these racist justifications “theories.”
The harm to this day
It’s common for defenders of the Church and its justifications for the priesthood and temple ban to quote Apostle Bruce R. McConkie. Prior to the 1978 “revelation” lifting the ban, Elder McConkie was one of the general leaders of the Church preaching the gospel that included the curse of Cain and the lack of pre-mortal valor of Black people as God’s doctrine. After the 1978 “revelation,” Elder McConkie said,
There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever 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.
~Elder Bruce R. McConkie, All Are Alike unto God, August 18, 1978
These defenders would have us understand that in this quote Elder McConkie denounced the teachings about the curse of Cain and Black persons’ lack of pre-mortal valor, but the Apostle said to forget everything they said “contrary to the  revelation.” The “revelation” does not address the Mormon racist doctrines that justified the ban. The Official Declaration 2, where the removal of the ban is canonized, does not address any justification for the ban. In other words, Elder McConkie was not denouncing the racist doctrine that justified the ban. As far as I can tell, the first time the Church denounced those racist doctrines was in about 2014 when it published its essay, “Race and the Priesthood”. If I am wrong about that, please direct me to an earlier denunciation of these doctrines.
In fact, Elder McConkie’s book, Mormon Doctrine, in which he published his racist teachings about the curse of Cain and lack of pre-mortal valor of Black people, was being published until 2010 (Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Landmark ‘Mormon Doctrine’ goes out of print”, The Salt Lake Tribune, May 21, 2010).
Similarly, the book, The Latter-day Saints: A Contemporary History of the Church of Jesus Christ, by William E. Berrett apparently espoused the same racist doctrine.
[T]he 2017 edition of Berrett’s book (Berrett himself died in 1993) still refers readers who want to know more about the topic of race and the priesthood to sections about the “curse of Cain” and other blatantly white supremacist teachings in Joseph Fielding Smith’s The Way to Perfection, which the Church-owned publisher Deseret Book distributed until May 2018 …
~Rebecca de Schweinitz, ‘“There Is No Equality”: William E. Berrett, BYU, and Healing the Wounds of Racism in the Latter-Day Saint Past and Present’, p. 70)
These teachings permeate the culture and mythos of the Church because the Church has done very little to make amends for these and other racist teachings. During my mission in 1987, I was given a copy from another missionary of the presentation “For What Purpose” by Alvin R. Dyer. The presentation explained these justifications for the priesthood and temple ban were doctrine. I don’t think I had the title page of the talk, so I didn’t see that Alvin Dyer would later become a member of the first presidency of the Church. At the time he presented this, he was an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church. I thought he was merely some rogue mission president teaching false doctrine, so I concluded that his teachings were false. I had no idea he was just repeating what at that point was nearly a century of doctrinal justification from general leaders of the Church. Unfortunately, some number of missionaries I worked with thought this talk by President Dyer was great. They seemed to be excited that his presentation showed doctrinally that they had been chosen to preach the gospel because Alvin R. Dyer taught that their whiteness showed they had been superior in their pre-mortal valor.
In 2012, a BYU religion professor, Randy Bott, echoed these racist doctrines. From the Washington Post’s interview with Dr. Bott, the paper explains,
According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.
~Jason Horowitz, “The Genesis of a church’s stand on race”, The Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2012
Professor Bott retired from BYU shortly after this incident, but I would argue the Church and its general leaders are more to blame than the professor because they had taught these ideas as the gospel truth and had done little to call out the teachings. In essence, the professor was supporting Church leaders in his unfortunate interview, and the Church seems to have thrown him under the proverbial bus for his support.
The foundation for these bigoted teachings set by general Church leaders from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s was not unique to Mormonism, but what is the value of their claimed priesthood authority or prophetic leadership if it results in the evils common to the rest of society? Yes, I accept that an oracle of God could make mistakes. But, if the mistakes were horribly drastic like wrongfully denying the priesthood of the living God to an entire race and prohibiting those of Black African descent the salvific temple ordinances, then I would expect God to set that prophet straight immediately, not more than a century later.
I would also expect a prophet, a man of God, to make sure that an apology was made for a mistake of this magnitude. They have not apologized for the Church’s racist dogma. They have not renounced by name the chief evangelists of these racist doctrines. Even the Church’s essay, “Race and the Priesthood” is tucked away on a difficult to find cranny of the Church’s web site. They could make the essay language much stronger and clarify that the justifications were the official declarations of the general leaders of the Church. The Church knows how to use modern promotion campaigns and does not hesitate to spend millions of its adherents’ dollars to do so (see “Use of the word ‘Mormon’”). They could promote a more strongly worded “Race and the Priesthood” essay in a similar advertising campaign, preach of the essay’s importance from General Conference, and publish it in the Church’s monthly magazines a few times a year.
Instead, most members are unaware or only vaguely aware of the new and carefully worded admissions. The impressions of more than a century of false doctrine in regards to Black people are left to fester in the minds of those thus indoctrinated, leaving many devout Mormons to think Black individuals had been less valiant in the premortal life. What might a true believing Mormon Black person conclude about him or herself if left to assume the priesthood ban was the result of a revelation from God and no apology and very little correction of the false doctrine were offered? What conclusions might non-Black Mormons draw regarding their Black brothers?
A better path for me
Here are just a few examples of white, yet enlightened contemporaries of the founders of the Mormon Church. They were not perfect, but they were worlds beyond the general leaders of the Mormon Church at the time regarding the abolition of slavery and the rights of African Americans.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Mark Twain
- John Adams (2nd President of the United States)
- John Quincy Adams (6th President of the United States)
- Abraham Lincoln
- Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in general
- My ancestor who fought for the “cause of freedom” [abolishing slavery] for the North during the American Civil War.
I put my ancestor on that list, but it gives me no bragging rights. I could just as easily have been born into a lineage full of confederate leaders who fought for what they thought was their right to own another person. My own blindness to my privilege in society has led me to do too little, to fail to stand against all sorts of bigotry, including that perpetrated by the Mormon Church to this day. I could try to say the Church is somehow responsible for my failures, but I’m a recovering Mormon, so I need to apologize. I’m sorry for the support I gave a racist church for as long as I did. I will look to the brave examples of others as they fight bigotry. I will look up to the valiant example of my neighbor who walked home from detention with me when I was about 13 and taught me about being selfless. I will try to honor him by standing firmly against racism.
Priesthood and Temple Ban