Were church leaders “wrong”?

In the short time since the “Race and the Priesthood” section of Gospel Topics was added to lds.org, I have seen various reactions. Some people have asked if church leaders were wrong about the priesthood and temple restriction, then could they possibly be wrong about something significant today? Similarly, I have seen the syllogism rephrased for rhetorical effect: The ban was not wrong. If it were then church leaders could similarly be wrong about something today like [invoke pet topic here].

The disavowal of racist teachings in the statement used the word “theories” to describe ideas advanced by church leaders and others in explaining the restriction. Without an unequivocally disavowal of the actual restriction, some people have argued that while any reason for the ban is to be considered mistaken, the actual restriction was nevertheless the will of the Lord. For years church leaders have made statements like Elder Holland’s comment in his PBS interview “We simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.” The introduction to Official Declaration 2 in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants states that “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” Some have argued that claiming the restriction was a mistake is tantamount to claiming to know “why that practice…was in place.”

First I want sidestep any discussion of the difference of policy and doctrine. As far as I am concerned “doctrine” is category that is analytically useless. We are going to focus instead on teachings, beliefs and policy. I think what the OD2 intro and Elder Holland were saying was that there is no evidence in church records for any sort of revelatory impetus for the restriction. Again, some will say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence [sigh].

I am reasonably familiar with parts of the records of the Church, and have seen a great many primary documents relating to church leader teachings about the restriction. I submit that while some people may not know why or how the temple and priesthood restriction was instituted, church and other records document what Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders believed and taught about the policy. Brigham Young initiated the restriction and clearly taught why he initiated it (see here, for example). Subsequent church leaders taught similar or divergent beliefs over time. Look forward to Paul Reeve’s book next year.

With the understanding that the beliefs and teachings of Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders on this matter were wrong, we have a couple of possible ways to think about the issue:

1. Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about the restriction and the restriction was a mistake.

2. While Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about everything related to the restriction, including the reasons for initiating it, the restriction was nevertheless God’s will.

I understand that some people may not like the idea of option one. For those with fundamentalist leanings with regard to church leadership and history or those who have a presentist frame of reference, this is a very disturbing, disruptive, and even destabilizing conclusion.

From my perspective, option two has several problems. It requires either that God be the author of and responsible for everything (tsunamis and war included), or that God deliberately perpetuated egregious error in belief and teaching in his church. It elevates church policy over the beliefs and teachings of leaders and members.

I generally believe that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. I believe that church leaders are authorized by God to direct the church and the administration of our salvific liturgies. I also believe that these authorized agents of God at the general, local, and personal levels, like all of us, can be mistaken. I hope that we can be charitable and empathetic with our leaders and coreligionists, past and present. There is more than the priesthood restriction to ponder. As we are able to do so, I think that option one becomes less destabilizing. We find compassion. And if we are serious about our faith, I believe that we will need it.


  1. Who am I to judge?

    I am so very grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    I see great truth in Paul’s teachings in Romans ch. 14.

  2. Amen! My own personal thought is that the ban was culturally based and not of God at all. What this type of “admission” or “apology” or whatever you want to label it does for me is reinforce the idea we all as individuals need to cultivate a relationship with Christ by being open to the Holy Ghost for confirmation. I know this is easier said than done and I have a long road to go for myself in my growth, but again, there are two lines of communication, right?

  3. I have a suspicion that when we get to the final judgment and see the big picture of what was important and what wasn’t and how different ideas or practices or mistakes or whatever are made up for by the Atonement, so many things that seem like huge topics or stumblingblocks will fall away. I also think that God is going to shake His head at us and say, “Wow, you were so concerned about THAT?” And we’ll look at each other and say, “Heh heh, uh, I guess so. Our bad.” That’s on individual as well as global levels. Not that that excuses any malice or wrongdoing or even mistaken promulgation of ungodly or uncharitable “theories,” nor does it mean we should just throw up our hands and say “It is the will of God so I can’t do anything about it.” I think that we will have to answer for every idle word that proceeded forth from our mouths and that we will see the effects of what we did. It’s just to say that I hope that a lot of things that we spend time and energy worrying about turn out to be way less impactful on our eternal salvation than we think they are right now. And I hope that the bitterness and anger engendered by discussions and speculations about [topic of choice] will dissipate when we have a wider perspective. Otherwise the afterlife will be very unpleasant.

  4. What I really pray for isn’t this continual battle between right/wrong but a turn to greater modesty in Mormon discourse, a humility of awe before the things of God, an acceptance that all of our human discourse is inadequate before God and in some senses inevitably wrong. Were church leaders wrong? Yes and always. Everyone is, hence compassion. Thanks, J.

  5. It seems that no one at BCC is willing to call a spade a spade.

  6. Agreed, Ben.

  7. So Ben, tell us what is a spade.

  8. Not sure I understand the difference between your 1 and 2 unless 1 implies there is no God or he is not involved in the Church?

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Matt W., that seems like an odd conclusion to me. I don’t see the value of the binary that God is either responsible for every single thing or nothing at all. I think option one allows for God to let people make mistakes.

  10. I think Brigham Young himself answered this question when he said:

    “We often hear it said that the living oracles must be in the Church, in order that the kingdom of God may be established and prosper on the earth. I will give another version of that sentiment. I say that the living oracles of God, or the Spirit of revelation must be in each and every individual, to know the plan of salvation and keep in the path that leads them to the presence of God.”


    “The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people; and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction, what a pity it would be! How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray.”

    This flies in the face of the Church-approved Woodruff Doctrine, which states that no man can lead the church astray. Brigham admitted the church could fall, the scriptures are adamant it can fall, yet we choose to believe the fallacious teachings of our modern leaders that it can never fall. It is through the Spirit and only through the Spirit that we will not be led astray. It is on us as a membership to make sure apostasy doesn’t occur. The priesthood ban remained in place until 1978 because we as a membership failed in our duty to consult the spirit in the matter. Only in a state of unscrutinizing blind acceptance can false doctrines flourish, and this is a prime example.

  11. A distinction I think is important:

    I find that I have all the empathy in the world for fallible individuals who make mistakes in the course of the monumental task which has been given them (some more than others, though).

    What I have a hard time being so charitable toward is the mental gymnastics we subject ourselves to in order to defend and deny said mistakes at any cost out of misguided institutional loyalty disguised as faith and / or obedience. I’ve long since been out of patience with these things and the people who propagate them.

    (I suppose this is more or less a less eloquent paraphrase of RJH’s comment.)

  12. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” “We see through a glass, darkly.” “to act and not to be acted upon” “No power **or influence** ought to be maintained by virtue of the Priesthood.” (The similar statements are nearly endless.)

    If all have sinned, all can make mistakes. We do the best we can, and, as the OP says, I think charity is the key. Our leaders aren’t infallible, but they are good people doing their best to lead us to God. I sustain and support them and follow their leadership, except when doing so violates my conscience. It is up to us to take responsibility for our own beliefs and actions, regardless of what our leaders say.

    Just this past Thursday, the following posted on my blog:

    “Sustaining and Supporting vs. Following and Obeying: People Are Not Yet Gods” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2013/12/sustaining-and-supporting-vs-following.html)

  13. Well stated. Call me a cold, heartless unbeliever, but I can find zero evidence of the hand of God at any point along the way with regard to the priesthood/temple ban. Until the very end.

    It’s frustrating to sense that the church is missing the most important lesson of this whole episode: that God lets church leaders make bad decisions and deal with their own prejudices. We need to pay more than lip service to the notion of infallibility. Leaders need to strive to inspire without being placed on a pedestal.

    I think it would create. Much healthier religious culture.

  14. Thank you for this. I just LITERALLY (last night/this AM) had someone making those exact same comparisons with me in a FB thread. Some people simply aren’t comfortable with evolution of thought/attitude/position in the Church (and probably aren’t comfortable with that “other” evolution either. But that’s another topic.)

    Here’s what may become my stock answer: There is no “wrong” in welcoming and including all, and nothing to retract later.

    (Although how to effect that “welcome and inclusion” will likely be an on-going subject for many, many years…)

  15. @Trevor– AMEN.

  16. Reminds me of that quote: “Catholics say that the Pope is infallible, but they don’t believe it. Mormons say that the Prophet is fallible, but they don’t believe it.”

  17. What if the Lord knew the church couldn’t survive in the racially intense environment that existed post-civil war? Maybe the sin is on the heads of hard hearts within the church at the time. It’s still a hard thing for me to consider, but given President Kimball wanted the ban lifted many years before it actually was, I think it’s a valid thought.

  18. awilk, what if, as the statement implies, the ban was inevitable because of racism at all levels of the Church (not unanimous, but at all levels). What if God simply lets the bitter fruit grow until the root can handle the trimming?

    There is a good lesson in that for our time relative to other issues, and I’m not trying to imply any particular issues when I say that.

  19. We can, without fear of reproof, say that the Priesthood/Temple ban was racist and the Church disavows it. Period.

  20. I’ve never understood the whole “what if The Lord instilled the priesthood restriction so that the church could survive persecution in the 19th century” because, well, polygamy.

  21. “There are some lines — I’d probably say “lines,” plural. The chief among these is the issue of advocating against the church. Personal beliefs within the give-and-take of life and associations and whatever you choose — there are lots of people who carve out their life in the church all the way out to the edge and beyond. I guess that’s always the way it’s been, and that’s always the way it will be. But I think where the church will act is when there is an act so decisive or so glaring, and particularly in this case, so much cast in the spirit of advocacy, that the institution itself cannot retain its identity and still allow that.” – Elder Holland interview

    This exchange with Dr. Lowry Nelson and the first presidency has been making the rounds recently, and I think it most clearly exemplifies the crux of the problem:

    Click to access Lowry_Nelson_1st_Presidency_Exchange.pdf

    I’m sure discussion about the origin of the ban will continue, although I’m a bit surprised that this story isn’t discussed a bit more frequently:


    The question as to whether or not leaders were “wrong” is certainly important, but more important in my opinion is whether or not as individuals who are loyal to leaders we bear responsibility for perpetuating the ban as well as its explanations. I think in that sense we become equally culpable. Given the fact that Elder Holland has continually spoken about loyalty my suspicion is that this will continue to be an issue.

  22. I am just relieved that you now have an official statement that will let you say in Sunday school, when the stake patriarch or whoever trots out the “fence-sitters in the pre-existence” or “curse of Cain” nonsense, “the church disavows those teachings.”

  23. We’ll if they are mistaken about damning a race to hell, about polygamy, about cutting employee hours so the mega billionaire church can save a few pennies and avoid the dreaded new health insurance initiative called Obama care or Romney care, if they are seemingly all about mega malls and money, so where exactly is their authority? What makes them different from any other church? Why give them 10% before you pay rent and utilities when they won’t tell you where the money goes?

    My father is friends with one of the grand poohbaughs who justifies all the money they retain (estimated at $40-80 billion) as necessary for communicating the message. Really? Didn’t the “Lord” inspire the creation of the internet so they could do it on the cheap? Shouldn’t a church give all it’s riches away and follow Christ? How much does the one true church stifle the SLC and surrounding economy for its own selfish ends? Why do they follow plantation economics while giving lip service against its racist past? Is the new racism class based instead of the older skin color based? The church really embraces the ship jobs to the subsistence wage countries form of neoliberalism. Just look at where the garments are made – Mexico.

    Anyway, it’s great that they are finally admitting through Elder Uchtdorf that mistakes were made but not by the modern leaders (impliedly). I’m sure those mistakes include its racist past, polygamy, the first vision changes, etc., etc. So where exactly is the authority to do anything if the foundational past and the present fruits are rotten? At a certain point the cognitive dissonance has to either give way to the truth or you have to live in antidepressant bliss.

  24. What does it mean to be right and what does it mean to be wrong? Of what value is there that the Church be main stream rather than taking a stance that clearly is not? Polygamy, Trinity, Universality of priesthood participation amongst the races and even the sexes, same sex vs. opposite sex attraction, all of these topics have valid arguments on both sides. All have been or can be subjected to change, perhaps change for the better. The question is not whether a change means we once had it wrong, but whether we accept the change as being one for the better. More change is on the horizon. Are we ready for change? We’d better be!

    I like to think that in our hearts we know what uniquenesses are fundamental and hence changeless and what ones are not and hence subject to being changed. We now permit gay boys to remain in our Scout Troops. We have opened up Conference Priesthood sessions allowing women to view them live, where before all they could do was read the text later. Are these changes harbingers of more to follow? I expect some are and some are not. But if and when changes come I am ready! Are you?


    I suspect your thoughts are correct! And I suspect my Sociology 101 instructor at BYU in 1969 would agree with us. His PhD dissertation addressed this issue. And I suspect than in 1978 he shouted for joy as did many others. I’d like to think that his work help lay the groundwork for that change. Where other students addressed him as “Professor,” I addressed him as “Brother.” For most of his academic career he had been a Benedictine Monk, “a Brother” in both thought and deed! Yet he changed and I’m thankful that he did.

  25. Jonathon: perhaps that was an over simplification on my part. Let me attempt to further unpack my thinking.

    Your two options followed by my subsequent unpacking:
    1. Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about the restriction and the restriction was a mistake. [implication being this mistake was not God’s will]
    A. It was God’s will to allow BY and subsequent church members to make mistakes as the benefit of allowing them mistakes outweighed the good of having them do the right thing. (Or some other variation of “greater good” served). God remains powerful but leaves us wondering at the value of “doing the right thing”. Why follow church leaders who can be so dramatically wrong? What other greater good was there? I think this is the option you prefer if I am correct. Does this not say that in a way it was God’s will, as he allowed it to happen?
    B. It was not God’s will and he did all he could to prevent it. God’s power is drastically limited by such a statement. Why commune daily with such an ineffectual God? I find such a belief stifling to my faith. (And yet, like a dog to his vomit…)
    C. There is no God, he has no will.My least favorite option.

    Is there another option I am not perceiving? Sincere thanks for helping me think through this.

  26. “How much does the one true church stifle the SLC and surrounding economy for its own selfish ends?” Um, what? This is stifling?

    “Although the combination of commerce and religion in this case may seem unusual, business leaders and developers credit the mall with spurring new business and enlivening what had been the faded core of Salt Lake City, home to 189, 900. ‘The center has added 2,000 jobs and brought more than 16 million visitors into downtown,’ according to the Economic Benchmark Report of 2013, paid for by the real estate firm CBRE. Taking into account the improving economy, the report credits the mall, at 50 South Main Street, with helping downtown retail sales increase by 36 percent, or $209 million, in 2012.”
    New York Times

    Let’s not let emotion cloud our thinking, drive us into irrational rant mode, or polarize into binary absolutes.

    “if the foundational past and the present fruits are rotten” Yes, but that’s an awfully big if. There is too much good to grant your absolute negative.

  27. amen Ben S.

  28. I wonder how many of us who write and express views on here are simply too gutless and/or too intertwined with the social structure of the church to follow through to its proper conclusion what we really believe to be true; namely, that there really is no valid truth claim that can be sustained by the church, and it is not therefore worthy of our continued devotion to it. What I fear we do is to grumble, question, criticise and contend against some of its basic precepts, as the weak alternative to being brave enough to walk away. Too cowardly to go; too unconvinced to really stay. Aren’t there other institutions out there that have ‘good’ men and women as leaders, which allow for a belief in God to be followed according to the dictates of our own views (I deliberately do not use the word ‘conscience’)? Do we even need church to follow God? We are wedded, it seems to me, to the institution because of the many binds that tie us to it, not because of a belief in some of its core doctrines.

  29. Don’t see it possible to say that leaders “were wrong about the restriction and the restriction was a mistake” without also saying they are also now wrong for restricting it by gender.

    I’d love to see an argument that holds up.

  30. None of us here, Jimmydar.

  31. BCC community continues to discussion important spiritual issues without the use of scripture. It is as though scriptures are banned at BCC.

    We already know the church is under condemnation for treating lightly the Book of Mormon. I guess that point just never caught on so your minds…have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 84:54)

  32. richdanny says:

    nope. How about they had a restriction and they put their own reasoning onto it given the social mores/ignorance of the era because everyone kept asking them for an answer, especially Quakers.
    Look at the restriction to pigs if Jewish. They can say, pigs could be part of the devil, that bacon was a dividing point between gentile and jew, etc., etc or they can say well, it was a good restriction up until we found out that there are many diseases that we can catch from pigs, so to that point, God as a health move said, don’t eat pigs.
    Lets see, given that they were already hanging, tarring and feathering white Mormons, by having black priesthood holders, it would be really, really good to give people even MORE reasons to tar, feather, burn churches, etc. I can think of a few more reasons why God would have nothing wrong with blacks holding the priesthood but not giving it to them until they wouldn’t be killed over it. I think it is really good that the priesthood is saying we don’t know than trying to rationalize it and making people look stupid a century later. How many times do Mormons try to trap their leadership into making an answer fit social mores.

  33. With the notion that the ban never came from revelation and the two options J has stated how do we interpret this (and many, many other incidents inquiring about the ban) from Pres. McKay in Prince’s biography?

    “Well I’m badgered constantly about giving the priesthood to the Negro. I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.”

    Was David O. McKay lying?
    Did he receive a prompting that the ban was uninspired, but lacked the support/will to revoke it?
    Did he genuinely believe God was telling him not to revoke the ban at the present time, leading him to be that at least for those moments in history, the ban was inspired? If so, was he receiving false revelations?

    These parts of the history must be dealt with as well. What other interpretations have I missed?

  34. So the disaffected are out in force and Jared is posting as “Fred”?

  35. Richdanny, calm down and go back and read the article. It’s full of allusions to the Church being influenced by broader culture. That is part of being humans about the Lord’s business. It has, does, and will continue to happen that way.

  36. Sometimes, I despair, as I read comments from my fellow congregants that sadden me far more than anything anti-Mormons write.

    richdanny, please read Elder Holland’s plea that we stop trying to justify the ban, quoted in the following compilation post. He called it the least we can do.

    “Repudiating Racist Justifications Once and For All” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2009/04/repudiating-racist-justifications-once.html)

  37. There’s nothing like comparing the priesthood ban to forbidding the consumption of pigs to really raise my ire. Richdaddy, you have no more strikes left.

    Fred, yes clearly scriptures are banned, as Kristine’s post illustrates. You knucklehead, what sort of response did you think your trollish comment would produce?

  38. I applaud the Church for their recent statement on race and the priesthood, especially since they probably could have let the past remain cloudy. After all, the main thing is that the priesthood was extended to blacks over 30 years ago. In light of that, much of the criticism I see the church receive on matters like this comes in overwrought tones.

    However, (and I usually avoid topics like this but since is a public space that invites such discussion, here goes) the Church’s recent statement does raise some hairy issues. For example, if the “Curse of Cain” or if the view that blacks were denied the priesthood specifically because of God’s command were opinions under-girded merely by Mormon folklore, (i.e. not “official”) then the church’s recent announcement is very illuminating.

    But, if the line between folklore and official doctrine (call it “teaching” if you prefer, just so we don’t lose sight of what’s official) is hazy, then it sort of clouds what counts as modern/contemporary revelation, and takes away some of the luster of prophecy (I might start to think some of the official statements the church makes today are wrong, and I didn’t think that was kosher as any dissent on my part wouldn’t count as sustaining my leaders).

    Here I think it’s important not to lose sight of the concept of “doctrine” and the role it plays. Now, there’s no need to get bogged down simply by one word, (again, call it teaching if you prefer) so if there’s more baggage to the word than I’m aware of, fine, just so long as we don’t lose sight of the intellectual authority formal proclamations of the church carry. The LDS church is not similar to Mainline Christian churches (e.g. Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc) in the sense that members of those denominations can cherry pick their beliefs or agree merely in some amorphous sense with the Church’s mission and remain a member in good standing.

    Considering that official statements from the church are by their very nature not “folklore” then if official teaching outright contradicts itself from Time A to Time B, then the very nature of modern revelation is put into question. For example, several times on the internet I’ve seen what claims to be a formal statement from the First Presidency – issued in 1939 – explaining why the priesthood was withheld from blacks. The recent official release from the church contradicts that 1939 statement. Sure, church leaders always claimed blacks would eventually have the priesthood, and now they do, but the recent statement disavows the reasons offered in the past. The problem is, some of the reasons now being disavowed were included in past formal statements from the First Presidency. Please note that I am not saying the the Church’s official stance on matters cannot evolve, because it can. The Word of Wisdom was not originally by “command or constraint” but was eventually made so; blacks were denied the priesthood but later it was extended to them, etc. (these examples do not involve outright contradictions).

    If the idea that dark skin was a result of a curse, or if the idea that blacks were denied the priesthood because of God’s command are now claimed to have never been officially sanctioned teaching, it makes it seem like there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as official, and the process is actually somewhat ad hoc. Or again, worse yet, at times what does count as official teaching turns out to be wrong, which is supposed to be impossible. And any attempt to parse a doctrine/policy distinction is a glaringly obvious attempt to imbed an excuse for the ad hoc nature of deciding which is which. Yet, if the oomph of the unique LDS claim to modern revelation can be sustained, then deciding which is which is necessary!!

    We’re left with a muddy result: What belongs in categories like folklore, policy, teaching, doctrine, etc, is a backward looking, or ad hoc process, and the most parsimonious conclusion is that larger sociological reasons are often the best explanation for why these changes take place, rather than divine revelation. I completely understand if no one is persuaded by that, but hopefully we can agree that this official proclamation really muddies up what counts as official, and what counts as doctrine, and the method of simply pointing to statements from the First Presidency as the final word on any matter is no longer a warranted method, or at least it just got much weaker.

    I say all that with due respect. Thanks for the chance to participate.

  39. J. Stapley says:

    So I go to church, and things go bonkers. Nice. Thanks for taking care of things Steve. I’m going to close comments now, because I don’t have the energy. Also, go read Kristine’s post if you haven’t.

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