For many years, the Lord instructed the prophets that those of Black African descent could not receive the priesthood or the ordinances of the temple. The Brethren said that the reasons for this restriction had not been fully revealed. But they taught that these children of Heavenly Father would someday receive these blessings. (See First Presidency letter, Dec. 15, 1969; in Church News, Jan. 10, 1970, 12.) — D&C Teacher Resource Manual, p.272.
Here is the letter referred to and which CES seems to deem the most authoritative statement on the matter (emphases mine):
December 15, 1969
To General Authorities, Regional Representatives of the Twelve, Stake Presidents, Mission Presidents, and Bishops.
In view of confusion that has arisen, it was decided at a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to restate the position of the Church with regard to the Negro both in society and in the Church.
First, may we say that we know something of the sufferings of those who are discriminated against in a denial of their civil rights and Constitutional privileges. Our early history as a church is a tragic story of persecution and oppression. Our people repeatedly were denied the protection of the law. They were driven and plundered, robbed and murdered by mobs, who in many instances were aided and abetted by those sworn to uphold the law. We as a people have experienced the bitter fruits of civil discrimination and mob violence.
We believe that the Constitution of the United States was divinely inspired, that it was produced by “wise men” whom God raised up for this “very purpose,” and that the principles embodied in the Constitution are so fundamental and important that, if possible, they should be extended “for the rights and protection” of all mankind.
In revelations received by the first prophet of the Church in this dispensation, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Lord made it clear that it is “not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” These words were spoken prior to the Civil War. From these and other revelations have sprung the Church’s deep and historic concern with man’s free agency and our commitment to the sacred principles of the Constitution.
It follows, therefore, that we believe the Negro, as well as those of other races, should have his full Constitutional privileges as a member of society, and we hope that members of the Church everywhere will do their part as citizens to see that these rights are held inviolate. Each citizen must have equal opportunities and protection under the law with reference to civil rights.
However, matters of faith, conscience, and theology are not within the purview of the civil law. The first amendment to the Constitution specifically provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affecting those of the Negro race who choose to join the Church falls wholly within the category of religion. It has no bearing upon matters of civil rights. In no case or degree does it deny to the Negro his full privileges as a citizen of the nation.
This position has no relevancy whatever to those who do not wish to join the Church. Those individuals, we suppose, do not believe in the divine origin and nature of the church, nor that we have the priesthood of God. Therefore, if they feel we have no priesthood, they should have no concern with any aspect of our theology on priesthood so long as that theology does not deny any man his Constitutional privileges.
A word of explanation concerning the position of the Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owes its origin, its existence, and its hope for the future to the principle of continuous revelation. “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the Church have taught that Negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were 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.
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.“
President McKay has also said, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood.”
Until God reveals His will in this matter, to him whom we sustain as a prophet, we are bound by that same will. Priesthood, when it is conferred on any man comes as a blessing from God, not of men.
We feel nothing but love, compassion, and the deepest appreciation for the rich talents, endowments, and the earnest strivings of our Negro brothers and sisters. We are eager to share with men of all races the blessings of the Gospel. We have no racially-segregated congregations.
Were we the leaders of an enterprise created by ourselves and operated only according to our own earthly wisdom, it would be a simple thing to act according to popular will. But we believe that this work is directed by God and that the conferring of the priesthood must await His revelation. To do otherwise would be to deny the very premise on which the Church is established.
We recognize that those who do not accept the principle of modern revelation may oppose our point of view. We repeat that such would not wish for membership in the Church, and therefore the question of priesthood should hold no interest for them. Without prejudice they should grant us the privilege afforded under the Constitution to exercise our chosen form of religion just as we must grant all others a similar privilege. They must recognize that the question of bestowing or withholding priesthood in the Church is a matter of religion and not a matter of Constitutional right.
We extend the hand of friendship to men everywhere and the hand of fellowship to all who wish to join the Church and partake of the many rewarding opportunities to be found therein.
We join with those throughout the world who pray that all of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ may in due time of the Lord become available to men of faith everywhere. Until that time comes we must trust in God, in His wisdom and in His tender mercy.
Meanwhile we must strive harder to emulate His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose new commandment it was that we should love one another. In developing that love and concern for one another, while awaiting revelations yet to come, let us hope that with respect to these religious differences, we may gain reinforcement for understanding and appreciation for such differences. They challenge our common similarities, as children of one Father, to enlarge the out-reachings of our divine souls.
Faithfully your brethren,
The First Presidency
To my mind, there are several points of note. The church:
- claimed to have favoured civil rights for blacks.
- suggested that it held a 19th century anti-slavery position.
- wanted its priesthood policy to be seen in terms of its own first amendment rights.
- claimed that the priesthood ban was taught by Joseph Smith.
- felt it necessary to make it clear that blacks were spirit children of God, and descendants of Adam and Eve.
- believed that the priesthood ban was God’s will and came through revelation.
- did not claim to know the reason for the ban.
- claimed that the ban originated in the pre-existence.
- prayed that the ban would one day be lifted.
Of the 1969 milieu, Mauss writes:
During this period, President Brown moved once again for an administrative decision to drop the priesthood ban. Presumably he was joined by President Tanner, his nephew and colleague in the First Presidency. Throughout the latter part of 1969, Brown strove vigorously to win the concurrence of President McKay, whom he knew to share his view that the priesthood ban could properly be ended administratively. However, McKay was by then fading fast toward his death the next January, and he was not often physically capable of sustained deliberations. The decision-making process this time was complicated not only by President McKay’s condition, but also by the fact that the First Presidency had by that time temporarily acquired five counselors, rather than the usual two
While we cannot be sure just how much resistance President Brown encountered among the rest of the General Authorities, the other counselors in the First Presidency at that time were Joseph Fielding Smith, Alvin R. Dyer, and Harold B. Lee, all of whom were on record with conservative views on the race question. In any case, the public statement that ultimately issued from all these deliberations was not an announcement of an end to the priesthood ban against blacks, as President Brown and Tanner had proposed, but rather the letter of 15 Dec. 1969, which, while promising eventual change, actually only reaffirmed the traditional policy. As in 1963, President Brown may have allowed his optimism in the deliberations to spill over into his public utterances, for he was widely quoted in the press during December 1969, as intimating imminent change. The change was not yet to come, however, and President McKay died on 18 Jan. 1970, thereby dissolving the entire First Presidency. A week later, the new president of the Church, Joseph Fielding Smith, assured the world at a formal news conference that his views on church policy and doctrine had “never been altered” and that no changes should be expected.
Anticlimatic as this episode may seem, it would be a mistake to overlook the significance of the document it produced. The December 1969 statement of the First Presidency (signed only by Presidents Brown and Tanner “for” the First Presidency) dealt with the theological basis of the priesthood ban for the first time in twenty years. This portion of the statement is notable for its parsimony: While referring back vaguely to a premortal life, it said nothing about that life, nothing about the war in heaven, or about any differential merit having implications for mortality. It said nothing about Cain or Ham or marks or curses or perpetual servitude. It relied almost entirely on the simple claim that the Church had barred Negroes from the priesthood since its earliest days “for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.” Thus, in its first official statement on the controversy in nearly a generation, the Church chose to set aside almost the entire doctrinal scaffolding that had bolstered its priesthood policy toward blacks for more than a century.