After the lesson, one individual in particular waited to talk to me, and holding up a phone showed me a picture of a grandchild hugging a black person. They were to be married in a few months. I can’t claim special revelatory knowledge, but after the discussions of that day–of what we do know–this good person, who had struggled, was now healed. We both blinked back tears.
I had about one and a half hours to treat the Priesthood Restriction and Official Declaration 2. Much of the discussion, especially the time leading up to the great revelation was based on Edward Kimball’s “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 5-85. This was a slightly edited version of the extended chapter included on the CD-ROM with his 2005 Lengthen Your Stride (Deseret Book). This really is an extraordinary piece and I encourage everyone to read it, if you haven’t.
I supplemented the article with material that it treated only lightly or not at all. What follows is an incomplete overview of that day. I introduced the topic by discussing how Christians and Muslims had invented the connection between Cain/Ham and black Africans as a tool of subjugation as part of the Slave trade during the sixth and seventh centuries ce (see here and here). Also note that the folk belief that ancient Egyptians or Canaanites were black is simply false. In the US, however, these beliefs grew virulent as a justification for America’s brand of race-based slavery. By the early 1800s you see Christians debating whether black people even had souls.
No surprise that Mormons who grew up in this environment had some engagement with these beliefs and over time integrated versions of them into Mormon cosmology. Still Joseph Smith was very progressive and stated emphatically that not only did black people have souls, but they were as capable of refinement as white people. Quite a few black men were ordained to priesthood office with Elijah Able and Walker Lewis being the most well known (but a number of less known folks as well). Still, you should be prepared to find all manner of quotations about black people by early church leaders that would be deemed completely unacceptable by both modern secular and modern Mormon perspectives.
Elijah Able participated in the Kirtland Temple liturgy and received a patriarchal blessing promising him the fullness of blessings in the Church. Walker Lewis was a branch president in Massachusetts in the early 1840s. It is of Walker Lewis that Brigham Young spoke when discussing the aberrant activities of one black member that “its nothing to do with the blood for of one blood has God made all flesh, we have to repent (and) regain what we av [sic] lost–we av [sic] one of the best Elders an African in Lowell [i.e., Walker Lewis.]”
So where did the priesthood ban come from? Well, we have no clear cut documentation. However, the best current scholarship at this time suggests that the restriction arose in response to marriages between white women and black men around 1847. In Utah in 1852 Brigham Young detailed his support of the priesthood restriction and slavery. However, it should also be mentioned that Young thought slavery was destructive and was not right, so he is somewhat ambivalent.
All sorts of theological reasons grew up to rationalize the restriction. For example, Young believed that both Cain and Able were princes and that when Cain slew Able, he prevented Able’s posterity from coming to earth. Cain’s posterity was therefore denied the prieshtood until Able’s posterity was restored (perhaps in the Millennium). This one didn’t get much traction. Another popular belief was that Black people had been “fence-sitters” in the pre-mortal world. This latter belief is a pernicious bastardization of Mormon foreordination belief. In 1907 Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
There is nothing in our standard works, nor any authoritative statement to the effect that one third of the hosts of heaven remained neutral in the great conflict and that the colored races are of that neutral class. The statement has been put forth at various times until ^the belief^ it has become quite general that the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest. But this is not the official position of the Church, merely the opinion of men.
Despite this position, he and other Church leaders eventually grew to accept this “opinion of men” in their official teachings. It is at this point that I shifted to Ed Kimball’s paper, which, again, is extraordinary. Though I did not frame it as such, in my mind the miracle that it demonstrates is not that a revelation came, but that President Kimball was able to patiently help turn the hearts of the governing quorums over to allow for such a revelation. It is true that other leaders had asked before him, but it is my belief that the Lord preferred an outcome like Official Declaration 2 as opposed to Official Declaration 1 (which we had discussed the week before). If you are familiar with some of the now public statements of Church leaders like Delbert Stapley, I think you may agree with me.
I shared differing accounts of the reception of the actual revelation: Arrington’s, McConkie’s and Hinkley’s. After some more discussion from Kimball’s paper, I then shared what I believe to be Elder McConkie’s finest hour. A couple months after the revelation, he addressed some faculty at BYU:
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.
I also shared Elder Holland’s comment from the PBS documentary:
One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. …[M]y earlier colleagues.., I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. …But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed.
After this statement, I shifted into prophetic mode, invoking the name of the Lord, and I exhorted the class to never spread the false teachings regarding race and the priesthood, including ideas of cursed lineages, white resurrection and proscriptions on inter-racial marriage. I also exhorted them to not allow such things to go unchallenged if they ever heard them taught. I then read the final paragraph of a talk I once gave on the topic, and barely kept myself composed.
I had opened the discussion with President Hinckley’s comments from the 2006 Priesthood Session:
Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
I asked the class if they could imagine this being read forty years ago. I didn’t say it then, but I submit now that it would not have been less true.