On Lifting the Priesthood and Temple Ban

The Daily Universe, BYU's Student Newspaper, June 9, 1978 (source: http://tinyurl.com/nwyme3v)

The Daily Universe, BYU’s Student Newspaper, June 9, 1978 (source: http://tinyurl.com/nwyme3v)

What was obvious[1] fell into long desuetude just a little over twenty years after the Church was established:

“And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her: and the highest himself shall establish her. (Psalm 87:5.)

Those who join God’s people in Zion leave the world and all its distinctions behind. Though a man be born in Rahab or Babylon; Philistia, Tyre, or Ethiopia — that is, heathen, black, white, or of a tribe traditionally hostile to God’s chosen people — it shall be said of him once he has joined himself with the cause of Zion, “this man was born there” (Psalm 87:4). We are assured that “[t]he Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Psalm 87:2). For this very reason, “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God” (Psalm 87:3). All who join with Zion are of Zion: “this man was born there.” Joseph Smith seems to have understood this intuitively, authorizing the ordination of several black converts, including most famously Elijah Abel, to the priesthood.[2]

“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (1779), John Newton (text), Franz Joseph Haydn (music), Hymn 46, LDS Hymnal (1985), included in first LDS hymnal.

Early in the perpetual story of seeking to establish Zion — though after Enoch and his people had already set the example for all the posterity of his great-grandson Noah to follow — the Lord made not only the well-known promise to Abraham that “I will make of thee a great nation” and “make thy name great among all nations,” but he also promised Abraham that “thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations” (Abraham 2:9, emphasis added). The Old Testament essentially presents a heavily edited and compiled history of this process — of the seed of Abraham ministering and bringing the Priesthood unto all nations.

In the same breath in which He made Abraham this fateful promise, the Lord also explained to Abraham that his “seed” for purposes of this part of the promise included more of the earth’s peoples than his biological descendants: “for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father” (Abraham 2:10, emphasis added). The Lord promised Abraham that this broad figurative “seed” (all who “received the Gospel” and are therefore “called after [Abraham’s] name” and “accounted [Abraham’s] seed”) would be the Priesthood and that the right to the Priesthood would “continue” in Abraham and his seed (Abraham 2:11).

This is how the promise could be fulfilled that “in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal” (Ibid.): By initially ministering the Gospel and bringing the Priesthood unto all nations so that all who receive it are then “accounted [Abraham’s] seed,” thereby having the right to the Priesthood, the literal seed of Abraham was able to set the process in motion by which “all the families of the earth” could receive this blessing.

For the avoidance of doubt, the Lord reinforced this idea clearly through the teachings of his servant Paul after Christ’s ministry, death, and Resurrection:

26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.

27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29, emphasis added.)

By the time Joseph Smith established the Church through revelation from God on April 6, 1830, therefore, if there were any confusion about this matter arising from the Abrahamic context, it had at least been clear for close to 1,800 years that all who accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are baptized are Christ’s, “then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

For good measure, the Lord did not leave his faithful in the Western Hemisphere in the dark about this Abrahamic inheritance of all those “accounted [Abraham’s] seed” by virtue of having accepted the Gospel. The Lord revealed to Nephi presumably sometime between 559 and 545 B.C. that God “doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).

Later, Nephi’s younger brother Jacob even corrected Nephi’s own assumption about the cursing of the Lamanites resulting in a black skin. Preaching that the Nephites were filthier before God because of their practice of polygamy and concubinage than the Lamanites, Jacob very forcefully dissociated the idea of a black skin being connected to such spiritual filthiness:

Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against [the Lamanites] because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers. (Jacob 3:9.)

Despite these teachings, which appear to have been clear to Joseph Smith, the man through whom the Abrahamic context and The Book of Mormon material was revealed, “for much of its history — from [1852] until 1978 — the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances” (“Race and the Priesthood”). Protestant folk beliefs used to justify slavery and master race ideology, which held that the Biblical “curse of Cain” (and of Noah’s grandson Canaan) were “black” African skin pigmentation, had — despite lack of scriptural support for this idea — taken root in the Church and blossomed in 1852 after Brigham Young preached two sermons on the subject (Ibid.). These were then supplemented with a speculative Mormon gloss theorizing that people born in this supposedly inferior African race (or any other inferior caste, class, or circumstances) were merely reaping the just desserts from disobedience or apathy in the pre-mortal “War in Heaven,” in which a host of God’s “spirit children” followed Lucifer, rebelled against God’s Plan, and were repelled and cast out by the heavenly host loyal to Jesus Christ and led by the Archangel Michael. (See Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (Spring 2008), free download at this link.)[3]

Aware that such teachings tie in to a number of prominent nineteenth and twentieth century master race ideologies, and deeply uncomfortable about the implications of such doctrine, many Mormons today dismiss these teachings as having been isolated speculative theories and folk beliefs, though they were not taught as such at the time. Instead, many Church leaders, including a number of Church Presidents, taught these ideas as immutable doctrines binding on all members and part and parcel with the whole of the Gospel.

Some Church members at the time, however, including Lowry Nelson in the 1940s and 1950s and Armand Mauss and Lester E. Bush, Jr. in the 1960s and 1970s, identified the source of these teachings in Protestant folk ideology meant to buttress slavery and racial segregation and as having entered Mormon discourse with Brigham Young’s leadership following the assassination of Joseph Smith. In their work they seem to have been following the example set by Zelophehad’s daughters as they petitioned Moses to seek the Lord’s guidance to change an incorrect and unjust tradition (Numbers 27:1-7, NRSV). Spencer W. Kimball, President of the Church beginning in December 1973 and who presided over the process of receiving the revelation to drop the priesthood restriction for men of African descent and the ban on temple ordinances for black men and women, was not particularly receptive to such an approach (Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” 28-29). But Peter’s experience nearly 2,000 years previously had shown that the leader of the Church could err by holding to tradition (Acts 10:19-33). President Kimball was convinced that revelation could come to him and change the status quo on this issue as well (Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” 42).

President Kimball’s faith that this could be possible finally bore fruit:

In June 1978, after “spending many hours in the Upper Room of the [Salt Lake] Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,” Church President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors in the First Presidency, and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a revelation. “He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come,” the First Presidency announced on June 8. The First Presidency stated that they were “aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us” that “all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood.” The revelation rescinded the restriction on priesthood ordination. It also extended the blessings of the temple to all worthy Latter-day Saints, men and women. The First Presidency statement regarding the revelation was canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2. (“Race and the Priesthood,” internal footnotes omitted.)

The revelation was received on June 1, 1978 and announced on June 8, 1978, the date of Official Declaration 2 now included in the Doctrine & Covenants. Let us each therefore remember the Priesthood Ban on this day and the difficulty of the process to obtain guidance in rescinding it. Let us offer thanks that the Priesthood Ban was lifted on this day in 1978, through the leadership of Spencer W. Kimball, as we enjoy the blessings of the restored Priesthood worldwide on a daily basis in our personal lives and in our wards and stakes.

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MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Official Declaration 2

Numbers 27:1-7 (NRSV), Psalm 87 (KJV), Acts 10:19-33 (KJV), Galatians 3:26-29 (KJV), 2 Nephi 26:33, Jacob 3:9, Abraham 2:9-11

The Collect: Heavenly Father, who revealed Thy Gospel through Thy Son so that all who believe and are baptized could become the seed of Abraham and heirs to the promise, grant that we may learn from the process involved in receiving the 1978 priesthood revelation, accepting that Thou hast yet many great and important things to reveal concerning Thy Kingdom and renewing our gratitude and respect for the priesthood power that Thou hast restored and once again made accessible to all, Thy own power which blesses our lives continually, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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[1] “There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.” See “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics, December 2013, at https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood (last visited June 8, 2015).

[2] “During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois.” Ibid.

[3] “It is noteworthy that Joseph Smith, who translated the Book of Abraham, probably in 1835, drew no connection between premortal life and priesthood curses.” Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” 10, note 5 (citing Jay M. Todd, The Saga of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 228, 264, 320–24).

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, John. Today should be a high day in the Mormon liturgical year.

  2. Completely agree!

  3. Excellent!

    Incidentally, the youth curriculum provides the topic of “Prophets and Continuing Revelation” for May, and “Priesthood and Priesthood Keys” for June. Both ripe opportunities to discuss the June 8, 1978 revelation. The online lesson outlines don’t link to it, but the past two years I’ve discussed the revelation either on the last Sunday of May or on the first Sunday of June (or both) as an example of continuing revelation and as a example of the continued restoration of priesthood and priesthood keys to the earth.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Amen.

  5. Dave K. says:

    Sorry to nitpick a very good post, but recent scholarship suggest Joseph may have only approved of the ordination of Elijah Ables and other black men. He may not have actually performed the ordinations himself. See the March 24, 2015 post on this blog.

  6. I am aware of W. Paul Reeve’s hedging on the question of whether Joseph Smith personally laid his hands on Elijah Abel to ordain him to the office of Elder while reaffirming that he approved of and authorized the ordination, even if he did not personally perform the ordination himself.

    But this post does not state or imply that Joseph Smith himself personally laid his hands on Elijah’s head to ordain him to that office. So I don’t see the relevance of your comment. It doesn’t affect the content of this post at all, does it?

  7. huh, I actually see at the end of the third paragraph the line that seems to imply that JS personally ordained Elijah Abel — I can see where your comment came from. I didn’t intend that meaning but that is the facial implication of what I wrote. I will change “Joseph Smith seems to have understood this intuitively, ordaining several black converts, including most famously Elijah Abel, to the priesthood.” to “Joseph Smith seems to have understood this intuitively, authorizing the ordination of several black converts, including most famously Elijah Abel, to the priesthood.”

  8. FarSide says:

    “Aware that such teachings tie in to a number of prominent nineteenth and twentieth century master race ideologies, and deeply uncomfortable about the implications of such doctrine, many Mormons today dismiss these teachings as having been isolated speculative theories and folk beliefs, though they were not taught as such at the time. Instead, many Church leaders, including a number of Church Presidents, taught these ideas as immutable doctrines binding on all members and part and parcel with the whole of the Gospel.”

    The church’s essay on Race and Priesthood disingenuously refers to the priesthood ban as a “policy” and conveniently ignores the numerous statements by several latter-day prophets, seers and revelators who unequivocally declared it to be an immutable doctrine. John, thanks for the setting the record straight on this and several additional points. A very nice historical overview of the issue.

  9. The account by Edward Kimball, son of the late prophet, is a must-read for those interested in how modern revelations are received. However, it is a disturbing read for it clearly lays out that leaders such a David O. McKay were aware of the lack of scriptural basis for the ban, but didn’t push for any changes because the members were not ready for it. (p. 19).

    It seems that the change could have happened sooner, but various leaders were concerned about the Brethren. While I can understand their concerns, one wishes that there could be some room for boldness when doing what is right.

  10. I haven’t read the account by Edward Kimball. David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism gives a different account. It claims President McKay was praying for guidance on whether to reverse the ban.

  11. I should’ve said this first, I loved the post.

  12. jesselund86 says:

    Haven’t read the post yet, but thank you for saying “temple and priesthood ban”. We do a terrible disservice when we sweep the temple ban under the rug. I think most people fail to realize that it wasn’t just about exercising priesthood but also about receiving priesthood ordinances.

  13. Thanks– of AA decent. We need to keep talking about this and bring our faith from the banks of exclusivity.

  14. April Young Bennett says:

    Thank you for an excellent post outlining the history of the priesthood/temple ban. I loved how you clarified that what is now called a “policy” was once called a “doctrine” and how even Book of Mormon prophets were fallible and fell into the trap of racism, some of whom wee rebutted by other prophets.

    I am grateful that more and more, we are referring to the ban as the “priesthood/temple ban,” a more accurate descriptor of what it actually was. However, as a woman who is still to this day banned from the priesthood, I do not love that the LDS.org essay says that “the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.” Actually, the Church did not ordain men OR WOMEN of black African descent to its priesthood. The difference, of course, is that the ban on priesthood ordination for black men was lifted, while the ban for black women remains in place today.