A Statement from the First Presidency:

“August 17, 1949

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. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”

President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”

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”



  1. Aaron and Nate,

    Of course church doctrine is more analogous to a coherentist approach; the problem is that very few people in the church want to admit it openly.

    I believe this comes from our obsessive focus on obedience to church authorities (see, e.g. ch.8 in the Heber J. Grant lesson manual).

    For example, wouldn’t you need a rigid rule of recognition if you hold to the doctrine taught by Grant, Benson, Tanner, etc. that if you are obedient to your church authorities you will be blessed regardless of whether such authority is right or wrong (a doctrine Joseph Smith explicitly condemned a slavery BTW)? How could you follow such a doctrine without a simple rules such as “most recent authority over past authority,” or “Apostle trumps Prophet?”

  2. Aaron, do you also have McConkie’s statement handy? That’s probably good to post as a corollary.

  3. Aaron: I am wondering if Mauss talks about where this statement comes in historically in the evolution of the doctrine. My understanding is that the ban was not rigorously formalized as a policy until just a decade or two before this statement was issued, and internal (ie within the Twelve and First Presidency) support for the ban began to get eroded in the two decades after this statement. Wouldn’t Hugh B. Brown’s statement to the NYT that the Church was considering lifting the ban have come less than fifteen years after this came out?

  4. Aaron: Post what you find out, or email me. I am curious if we should view this statement as representing some long standing concensus, or rather the high point of a particular kind of theology that was falling appart almost as soon as it was in place.

  5. By my earlier comment, I mean:

    This declaration is extremely bothersome, from the obvious racism it contains to the difficult doctrinal position of attributing earthly advantages to some unascertainable premortal behavior.

    I do take great comfort though in the caveat, “the details of this principle have not been made known.”

  6. Christina,

    Given the ever-changing role of women in the church — early women leaders did have authority that is today restricted to men, such as blessing the sick — I don’t think it’s untenable to believe that the church’s current restrictions on women will some day be lifted.

    Of course, any relaxation of gender regulations might open the door to broader acceptance of homosexuality.

    (Hey, now we’ve hit the Blacks issue, women-and-the-priesthood, and gays, all in the same thread. Anyone want to tie this all in to abortion now? Or polygamy?)

  7. ctkewene,

    There are any number of obvious biological distinctions between men and women. (I won’t bother to elaborate). They are usually very clear-cut (hermaphrodites excepted). Whether certain observed differences in the races are biological is a harder question, with most everyone agreeing they are not (skin tone aside). Even if you believe, a la Murray and Bernstein, that there are significant genetic components to intelligence that correlate highlly with race, there would still be tremendous overlap in abilities (thus, we talk about the “bell curve”) between races. (And races can mix, as well). In short, there are no clear cut binary distinctions between racial characteristics. In other words, there is no racially analogous statement to “boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina.” Thus, it’s not hard for me to see how one could conclude there are inherent differences between the sexes in the “eternal scheme of things.”

    That said, you asked whether sex distinctions must necessarily relate to being able to hold the priesthood. I don’t believe there is any logically unavoidable reason why they must. There are lots of explanations given by LDS members as to why women couldn’t ever hold the priesthood, but I don’t think any of them are logically compelling. But I also don’t think the case for women eventually receiving the priesthood MUST necessarily follow from the fact that Blacks received it.

    My 2 cents on women and priesthood, that I often give, is this: There is no theological explanation or precedent as to why women will never receive the priesthood that is nearly as persuasive as the historical arguments for how we used to “know” Blacks would never get the priesthood, at least in this life.

    Aaron B

  8. Dave raises what is the interesting question for me. For example, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism contains a number of First Presidency statements, but not necessarily the most interesting ones, such as BY’s condemnation of OP’s theology or this one. Clark’s three volume collection of statements of the First Presidency is out of print, rare, and quite expensive. On the other hand, it has been put in computer formatt and is sold at any Deseret Book as part of the Deseret Book gospel library CD.

    Implicit in Dave’s question seems to be the assumption that what we need (or at any rate what would be interesting to see) is some sort of explicit hierarchy of authority and persuasiveness. An analogy would be to a rule of recognition in a positivist conception of law. Whatever its limitations as a theory of law, however, I think that some sort of coherentist approach (eg Dworkin) is a better model for understanding what is “Church Doctrine.”

  9. Getting back to the coherentist issue – I actually think that FARMS adopts a coherentist approach. They just think that the view with God’s hand is just as coherent as the view without God’s hand. They then add in the trump card of the spirit which they feel makes the FARMS-like coherent view more valuable to the believer.

    I tend to find coherentist approaches troubling for various reasons. But to say that coherentism looses God’s hand seems to overlook that typically there are many, many coherent views for any set of data. (i.e. data underdetermines an interpretation)

  10. Here’s the McConkie statement Kristine was (I think) referring to:

    “We have revelations that tell us that the gospel is to go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people before the second coming of the Son of Man. And we have revelations which recite that when the Lord comes he will find those who speak every tongue and are members of every nation and kindred, who will be kings and priests, who will live and reign on earth with him a thousand years. That means, as you know, that people from all nations will have the blessings of the house of the Lord before the Second Coming.

    “We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, “Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.” 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.

    “We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter
    any more.

    “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.”

    (All Are Alike Unto God, A SYMPOSIUM ON THE BOOK OF MORMON, The Second Annual Church Educational System
    Religious Educator’s Symposium, August 17-19, 1978)

  11. I think it does. And I find it frankly reprehensible that it has never been published in the Ensign or in Seminary or Institute manuals or in the church curriculum anywhere. I get really tired of bringing this up in Sunday School (like a few weeks ago, when we were reading II Nephi) and being the only person in the room who has ever heard of it. I’m not sure whether a public apology is necessary or useful, but I do think a forceful and public repudiation of the pseudo-doctrinal notions about race that have floated around the Church for so long is vital. Elder McConkie’s statement would do nicely.

  12. I’m afraid I don’t, Kristine.

    Incidently, the posted statement was lifted from an appendix in Lester Bush’s _Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church_. This is the best single volume on the Priesthood Ban, as it anthologizes most of the important articles on the subject.

    Aaron B

  13. Interesting letter, Aaron. I guess you’re right that it’s more than just a folk doctrine at work here. Christian theologians made the idea of a Preexistence a heresy to avoid just this kind of thinking.

    I’ve often wondered why the Church doesn’t make letters of the First Presidency more available, which they arguably should do if they were official statements of Church doctrine. This letter shows why they aren’t likely to do that, and raises the question of just what the status of First Presidency letters, as a category, are or should be.

  14. Jared,

    I think you’re absolutely right. I would point out, however, that a “most recent authority over past authority” standard could do considerable work, if we limited its application to normative Church pronouncements. That is, this standard is sufficient for most Mormons (fundamentalists excepted) with respect to many controversies. “Brigham Young said to practice polygamy, but Gordon B. Hinkley says not to.” “Brigham Young said not to give Blacks the Priesthood, while Spencer W. Kimball said to do so.” These are easy cases (not that the underlying rationales for polygamy or priesthood denial are easy, mind you).

    The problem comes in when we recognize that Mormon prophets have never been exclusively in the “moral guidance/director of orthopraxis” business. They also provide (or used to provide) cosmological, ontological and historical truth claims. These claims are sometimes inconsistent, odd, or downright embarrassing. (And if you’re Thomas Alexander, and you try to point out everyone’s unwarranted impressions of “doctrinal” continuity, people like Louis Midgeley get mad at you!)

    Returning to Nate’s original point: I wonder if one problem with the “coherentist” approach, a la Dworkin, is that such an approach would make it harder to see the Church’s “doctrinal” history as infused with deity’s purposeful hand, guiding its direction. Any thoughts?

    Aaron B

  15. Jared: I actually think that a simple rule of recognition would present fewer problems that you assume. From my point of view, the problem with the rule of recognition approach is not that it is conceptually unworkable, but simply that there is no consensus on what the rule of recognition is. I agree that many in the church would be uncomfortable explicitly recognizing a coherentist approach. On the other hand, I think that this is more or less what most people are ACTUALLY DOING all of the time.

    Aaron: Perhaps coherentism allows less room for God in history. I am not sure. On at least one reading, it seems that it would allow more room, since part of the way that you tell a compelling story about Mormon theology is by positing some providential plot, even if it may not be the plot explicitly articulated by the particular historical actors. For example, I think that many, many Mormons approach polygamy this way, positing theological explanations at odds with the explicit arguments offered by historical figures but more consistent with what they see as being the best possible account of divine providence. In part, people are simply doing sloppy history, but in large part I think that they are implicitly constructing a coherentist Mormon theology.

  16. Kristine,

    I assume you’re familiar with Armand Mauss’ and others’ efforts to secure just such a “public repudiation”? If not, check out the Ostlings’ _Mormon America_ and Mauss’ _All Abraham’s Children_ for all the juicy details.

    I’m not sure that the Church’s failure to publish the Statement is “reprehensible.” What is unfortunate, however, is the fact that so few discussions of “what constitutes doctrine” in the Church are informed by an awareness of statements such as this one. If such awareness were more widespread, the smug, naive assertions about “doctrine” that are so rampant in the Church would have to be seriously modified.

    Aaron B

  17. Nate and Aaron,

    I don’t believe that a positivist approach in and of itself creates problems. The difficult part is, as you said, coming up with a rule (of course this is always the problem with this approach in law or religion).

    For example, Aaron is right that we can get a lot of mileage out the rule that present authority trumps past authority. It’s easy and simple, but causes some uncomfortable results, which is why members follow it so inconsistently. For instance, it is quite clear that virtually all members of the church give greater weight to anything said or written by Joseph Smith than to any other prophet (for various reasons). It is also true that current church leaders rarely if ever explicitly repudiate anything said by a past general authority. I believe that this also springs from an excessive focus on obedience to church leaders. If you admit leaders were wrong in the past, then you are less likely to inspire absolute confidence in the present.

    The result is that we have a rule of recognition that few members actually use. Instead of having our Prophet explicitly end polygamy as official church docrine (which OD 1 definitely does not do), we have to fall back on a coherentist approach to try to explain it to our children and our critics.

  18. Nate,

    I agree that Dave has hit on the most interesting question, and I find provocative and interesting your analogy to Dworkin, (just as I did in your original T&S post on this subject). I think there is something to the analogy, but I also strongly suspect that the vast majority of LDS believers would find it completely unsatisfactory.

    As to Mauss’ treatment of the statement — I can’t remember exactly how he contextualizes it. It’s been a long time since I’ve studied this issue closely. You’ve piqued my interest sufficiently that I’ll probably have to go home and check.

    Aaron B

  19. Of course the statement is bothersome. However I recall when first encountering the history in college that technically the gospel did go to all other groups. So the prophecy was fulfilled. I think the error was in reading it in terms of *individuals*.

    Of course this leaves the problematic way different groups are treated. But that is something intrinsic to Mormon views even today. i.e. why were Jews the chosen people? Why were only few groups given the gospel? It seems intrinsically unfair.

    The speculation tying this to premortal righteousness seems very problematic, if only because Israel seems to have been fairly wicked through much of its history. Further the common view that we have the experiences here we *need* argues against getting the gospel in this life necessarily being a blessing. It may simply be that others needed experiences outside of the church.

    It’s hard to decide what to make of it all. However simplicist appeals to pre-mortality typically seem hard to swallow.

  20. Please don’t fail to acknowledge my gratuitous reference to “hermaphrodites,” Kaimi, which in light of LDS gender concerns, surely should qualify as a respectable Mormon sub-controversy all its own.

    Aaron B

  21. Thanks Greg!

    Does Bruce R.’s statement then nullify the earlier declaration by the 1st presidency? It would seem to have that scope at first blush.

  22. To take this conversation a little to the side of where it is—
    What about how this relates to women and the priesthood (I know, that time-honored subject)?

    We held weekly campus meetings when I was in college, and one time we invited the (black) Brazilian member of the church who, I believe, was the first to be endowed with the priesthood post-1978 and has been much involved in the issue. We had a fruitful discussion with him as a group. When I was walking him and his wife to their car afterward, I raised the question to him: now that black men in the church have been restored to rightfully holding the priesthood, what does this mean for women in the church holding the priesthood in the future. I was astonished when he so forcefully rejected my query. He, despite his own history as a black man in the church, argued that woman, because of her inherently different position from man in the eternal scheme, would never hold the priesthood.

    I’m sure you have all turned over this issue yourselves, and I understand the various arguments people make on both sides of the issue.

    My question is, why do we think race is eternally insignificant (I assume everyone thinks this, pipe up if you don’t), but gender isn’t? Are these things really so different? Specifically, are they distinct inasmuch as they relate to holding the priesthood?

    I’m interested both in your responses concerning mortal life and to eternal existence, as I see very different answers to each situation.

    I know what the Proclamation on the Family says, but what do you all think?

  23. Whew. Wow. Yikes. Eep.

  24. Yikes, I need to a bit more self-editing before I hit O.K. I meant to say “Apostle trumps Seventy” in the last sentence.

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