Notes on the Priesthood and Temple Ban

[Preface: I bought the house I currently live in back in 1988. Since then I have attended church in a building just five minutes from my home. I live in a suburb of Chicago, so our membership is more diverse than a typical ward. We have lots of Hispanic families (and our bishop is Hispanic) and about a half-dozen Asian families. We also have (or had prior to the pandemic) about a half-dozen black families or individuals.  There was a time, maybe 20 years ago or so, when we had a couple of dozen black people regularly attending. (One Sunday I actually did a count and counted 22 in attendance.) Over time they all drifted away. To their credit, the stake leaders tried to do something proactive about it and invited Darius Gray and Margaret Young to come and do a fireside, including a screening of their then recently released “Nobody Knows.” It was a lovely event. But eventually we lost all of the then active black members (what we have now is a bit of a resurgence). I remember one time I walked by the foyer and saw the bishop sitting on the couch talking to our then most faithful black sister, and she was crying. I’m sure he didn’t intend to have a hard conversation in a public setting, it must have just devolved spontaneously. Soon she had moved out of our ward and joined a different church. I don’t know the tenor of that conversation, but it wouldn’t be hard to guess. I may be wrong, but my belief is that missionaries do not affirmatively raise our fraught racial history with investigators or new converts, which means they are always at risk of having to absorb some difficult history all at once. So I decided to try to pull together some of my thoughts on the subject so that if I am ever put in the position of having that kind of a difficult conversation with one of our members I’ll have a bit of a road map as to how to go about it.]

1. The Curse of Cain. The curse of Cain is the idea that after Cain slew his brother Abel God cursed Cain and his descendants with black skin. This simply was not a thing in ancient Israel. A few Christian leaders speculated about such a possibility in the early Christian era. The seminal argument for this position was put forward by a Muslim writer in the middle ages. The idea didn’t begin to arise in the west until about A.D. 1500. It became popular because it seemed to provide a way for a good Christian to profit from the Atlantic slave trade. In 17th and 18th century America it became a widespread assumption; even some abolitionists believed it. It is an unfortunate coincidence that our church was organized at a time when this idea was so universally accepted, because that meant many early members (and leaders) of our church accepted it as well. 

Was there really a curse of Cain? Yes, but it wasn’t what people usually mean by that expression. The Lord pronounces the curse for Cain killing his brother Abel thusly in Genesis 4:

11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;

12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

The curse was two-fold, and was aimed at his profession as a farmer, which he loved and was skilled at: he would no longer be able to raise crops (i.e., he would no longer have a green thumb), and he would be a wanderer in the land (which of course is incompatible with being a farmer, who must remain at a single location near his crops). 

Cain complains bitterly at this punishment:

13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

And so the Lord responds:

15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

What exactly was the “mark”? The text doesn’t say and we don’t know for certain. But the mark was not the curse; to the contrary it was meant as a protection. And there is nothing in this text to suggest that the mark would persist to his posterity. Logically it would relate solely to Cain.

The Hebrew word rendered “mark” here is ‘owth. Of its 80 appearances in the Hebrew Bible, this is the only one where it is rendered “mark” in the KJV; usually it is rendered “sign, symbol, pledge, token,” overwhelmingly in positive senses.  So the rainbow was the “sign” of the covenant never again to destroy the earth by flood. The blood of the Passover was a “true token”; it could mean a pledge in the sense of an assurance for the safety of a traveler. It can refer to attestations of the divine presence. It can refer to the sign or symbol of a prophet. It can refer to miracles as attestations of the divine presence. It can also refer to signs or tokens on the hands, arms or forehead. Orthodox Jewish phylacteries (small boxes with scriptures inside tied by leather straps to one’s forehead and forearm) use the word to refer to the spot on the forehead and forearm where the boxes are to be placed. The word is also attested for writing on a person’s forehead. While speculative, I personally think the word is used in this latter sense, perhaps with a tattoo of the divine tetragrammaton (YHWH) on his forehead to show that he was under the Lord’s protection and thus was not to be killed. Whatever it was, the mark or sign of Cain was not a curse but rather a protection, and it was specific to Cain alone and not to his descendants.

Did Joseph Smith believe that black skin was a result of the curse of Cain?  Yes, he did. That belief was so widely held at that time and place that it would have been shocking if he didn’t believe it. But to his credit he did not seem to see it as a barrier to holding the priesthood or receiving the higher ordinances that then existed. It had genuine negative consequences in the world he lived in, such as the evil of slavery, but he seemed to see the curse idea as more an antiquarian thing from Bible times than a current lived limitation.

I personally am not surprised or dismayed that Joseph believed that black skin was the curse of Cain. That belief was almost universal at the time. What I do find unfortunate is that Joseph encoded the curse idea several places in his scriptural productions. A couple of passages of the Book of Mormon refer to the curse of a “skin of blackness”; Moses 5 is a Midrash on the story of Cain that elaborates and expands upon the biblical account in Genesis 4; and Abraham 1 also elaborates on curse of Cain ideology. But to some extent at least that negative material may be counterbalanced by the trajectory. While the Church was located in Missouri, Yankees in a slave state, Joseph felt the need to step very gingerly about this issue. After the Missourians kicked the Mormons out of their state and they fled to Illinois they no longer had to appease the Missourian slaveholders. Indeed, in 1844 Joseph ran for President of the United States on a platform that included soft abolitionism (i.e., securing funds from the sale of public lands to compensate slave owners for the emancipation of their slaves and to resettle the slaves as free men and women in Texas). That idea almost certainly was not politically viable, but for present purposes it’s the thought that counts.

2. The Curse of Canaan.

Noah was a descendant of Seth, not Cain, so how did the curse of Cain supposedly survive the flood? If Noah’s wife were a descendant of Cain, then all of their children would similarly be descended from Cain, and so the whole of humanity would be descended from Cain. The only way to keep the curse of Cain alive after the flood was to posit that one of the sons’ wives was a descendant of Cain. And so many people guessed that Ham’s wife was a descendant of Cain. If that were true, that would mean that Ham’s son Canaan was a descendant of Cain through Ham’s wife. 

Chapter 1 of the Book of Abraham sort of goes in that direction, but with a twist. It mostly ignores Canaan the son of Ham. Rather, it focuses on Ham’s wife, whom it names as Egyptus. Ham and Egyptus had a daughter, also named Egyptus. And Egyptus the younger had a son named Pharaoh, the first of the kings of Egypt. The text refers to the people of Egypt as Canaanites, although according to the account they do not actually descend from Canaan, who would have been an uncle to the first Pharaoh.

Verse 23 suggests that the name Egyptus in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden. None of that is correct. The -us is a masculine Latin ending; feminine would be Egypta. Chaldean is an old-fashioned word for Aramaic; this is not Aramaic. The word comes from Greek Aigyptos, which comes from Egyptian Ha(t)-ka-ptah, which means “temple of the soul of Ptah.”

It is interesting that the Book of Abraham characterizes the Egyptians as Canaanites, even though their lineage in the story does not actually flow through Canaan. (And no, they were not Canaanites.)

Most curse enthusiasts posit Ham’s unnamed wife as a descendant of Cain, thus making Canaan a descendant of Cain as well. The idea is that Canaan’s descendants are black Africans living in Egypt. This link is necessary to support the curse of Cain ideology underlying the African slave trade.

Anyway, Genesis 9 tells the weird story of Noah being passed out drunk and naked. Ham sees this and goes to tell his brothers. His brothers walk backward with a garment to clothe his nakedness. Noah awakes and angrily curses, not Ham, but his son Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” And that supposedly is the renewal of the curse of Cain following the flood.

But that reading simply doesn’t work. Why? The Canaanites weren’t black Africans. They were a Semitic people that lived in the southern Levant. They were basically cousins to the Israelites. They lived in the same land, spoke almost the same language, and overlapped considerably in their religious practices. This “curse” is an etiological myth, meant to foretell how the Israelites would gain hegemony over the Canaanites. This has nothing to do with black Africans.

Some people get confused by the similarity in the names Cain and Canaan. In fact, those names are completely unrelated. Cain comes from qayin “smith, metal worker,” and Canaan comes from kena’an “lowland” or “westland” (from the perspective of the great world powers Assyria and Babylon to the east).

3. The “One Drop” Rule.

Brigham Young famously announced the “one drop” rule, to the effect that the least consanguinity with a black ancestor was disqualifying as to the priesthood. Little did Brigham know that if his standard is true, then we’re all (including him) disqualified from holding the priesthood. Because when you go back far enough, if a person had descendants that live today (and in Brigham’s view Cain did have such descendants or we wouldn’t need to talk about it), everyone alive today is descended from that person (with possible small exceptions where reasonable mixing does not occur, such as an Amazonian rain forest tribe). This reality was not understood in Brigham’s day, but it is well accepted in the field of contemporary population dynamics.

Here is an illustration I gave once in the context of patriarchal blessing lineage assignments. Imagine if we had the knowledge to complete a massive pedigree chart going back to the time of the biblical patriarchs. How many ancestral slots would there be at that time depth? If we assume 25-year generations, then over 100 years a child would have 16 ancestral slots on the pedigree chart. (E.g., a baby born in 2000 had two parents born in 1975, four grandparents born in 1950, eight great grandparents born in 1925 and 16 great, great grandparents born in 1900.) So how many slots would there be in the year 1800? 32, right (16 +16)? No, the slots increase geometrically, not arithmetically, so the answer is 256 (16 x 16). So if the patriarchs lived circa 1900 B.C. (a total guess just for illustrative purposes), the number of pedigree chart slots at that time depth for our baby born in A.D. 2000 would be something like 16 to the 38th power (16 ^ 38) (the 38 reflects 19 centuries before Christ and 19 after). That number (using an internet exponent calculator) works out to something like 5708990770823839524233143877797980545530986496. Since that is way, way, way more than the total number of people who have ever lived on this earth, how can that be possible? The answer is common ancestry. There are that many slots at that time depth on the pedigree chart, but they’re not all unique names; the same name is probably going to appear kajillions of times on the pedigree chart. And if the 12 patriarchs all had descendants that survived until today, then each of those patriarchs is going to fill many, many slots on that pedigree chart for our hypothetical child.

So Brigham’s “one drop” rule makes sense only for the very recent past. Since Cain presumably lived 6,000 years ago, it doesn’t make a lick of sense for him.

4. The 1852 Restriction.

Brigham Young announced the priesthood restriction in 1852. This was grounded in curse of Cain ideology. But Brigham added an unusual twist, to the effect that the ban would be lifted only after all of Abel’s posterity had received the priesthood. How was that supposed to work in practice? How would we possibly know when such a thing had occurred? It was a bizarre, thoughtless standard that seemed to guaranty the ban would never be lifted because there simply was no way to affirm the posited conditions had been met. This was simply muddled, nonsensical grasping at theological straws. “That long promised day” by itself is a lovely bit of rhetoric, but I cannot appreciate it, because the words have reference to Brigham’s bizarre bit of theology. In my view the 1978 revelation simply overturned an injustice; it was not a marker that somehow all of Abel’s descendants had now received the priesthood, opening the door to Cain’s descendants. I find Brigham’s idea completely absurd and I fully reject it.

5. The Preexistence as a Theological Deus ex Machina

Not only was Brigham’s explanation of the ban nonsensical, it had another, serious theological problem. Our Second Article of Faith reads: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This is a reference to the theological concept of Original Sin. The Article of Faith reflects a common-sense position that it would be unfair to punish a person today for something Adam did 6,000 years ago. The Article of Faith may not reflect sophisticated theology, but it has a strong, common sense appeal. Brigham’s position directly violated the Article of Faith; if it’s unfair to punish us for something Adam did 6,000 years ago, how is it fait to punish blacks for something Cain did 6,000 years ago? It’s not, and even good members of the Church could easily see the problem.

So a possible solution was floated, based on the Mormon concept of a Preexistence. Mormons believe in a preexistence of spirits, which is not common among Christians but also not completely unattested. Preexistencism is a position that has been accepted by some Christian thinkers.  Brigham’s position was patently unfair, but what if we push the critical actions back into the Preexistence? Then we could say the individuals involved had directly and personally taken the action or failed to take the action in question. That avoids the Original Sin problem; blacks would be punished not for an abstraction, but for their very own actions in the Preexistence.

While that idea might work formally, it was deeply problematic. If someone fought in the War in Heaven on the side of Jesus, then they pretty much by definition are on the side of Jesus. Conversely, if they fought on the side of Lucifer, they would not have been born at all and embodied on this earth. That is why this theory speaks of being “neutral” or “fence-sitters” or “less valiant.” The only way to thread the needle to make the argument work is with such milquetoast characterizations as these. Nice try, but no cigar.

6. Conclusion.

If it is not yet clear by now, let me affirmatively state my opinion that the priesthood and temple ban was nothing but a (really bad) mistake made by human, fallible men. There never was a curse; no one lacked valiancy. Our leaders are human and fallible and capable of making mistakes, and in this case that is exactly what they did and it was a really big mistake. Thank God for the scholars of the Church, who carefully demonstrated that Joseph never imposed the priesthood and temple ban, which gave President Kimball and the other leaders of the time in 1978 the leeway they needed to receive revelation to reverse the ban.

Comments

  1. Question says:

    Question about the source for Brigham Young and the one drop rule. Are you using the Woodruff transcript of the 1852 address rather than LaJean Carruth’s shorthand transcript? The term “one drop rule” wasn’t generally used or codified for another half a century (“one drop” doesn’t appear in this context in any literature in Google Books for decades afterward), so it’s an anachronistic usage.

  2. Wondering says:

    Question, I think LaJean referred to Woodruff’s attribution of the “one drop rule” and said the phrase was not in the shorthand. But the transcript I’ve found (not yet having found LaJean’s) does include: “Now then in the kingdom of God on the earth, a man who has has the Affrican blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of preisthood…” That much does seem to be a “one drop” rule whether it was called that or not. Still looking for LaJean’s transcript.

  3. Here, here. Thanks, Kevin.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    One drop is traditional. See for instance the below article by Paul. Whatever you want to call it, Brigham himself has black ancestry.

    Click to access Race_the_Priesthood_and_Temple.pdf

  5. Question says:

    Not sure what you mean by “traditional.” It doesn’t appear in other literature until the 1890s.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Paul quotes it that way in the article I describe above. If LaJean’s shorthand reading does not support it, that’s fine. My point is not dependent on the specific formulation “one drop.”

  7. Aussie Mormon says:

    Do you have any info about what the ancient Israelites actually thought/felt about Cain? Is it pretty much limited to the content of those five verses?

  8. Excellent summary Kevin. I am saddened by the pain that the priesthood ban continues to cause even after its rescission decades later. I think some progress can be made in retention of our black brothers and sisters in the kingdom by understanding, but at this point even more progress could be made if there were an actual apology. The sense that a person, corporation, or even a church never has to say it is sorry is very foreign to me. Understanding offers context, but it is woefully inadequate. Think about another injury, say if someone hits someone in the face. One can offer various explanations depending on context such as:
    “I was angry, so I hit you in the face’
    “I was drunk, so I hit you in the face”
    “You cut me off in traffic, so I hit you in the face”
    “My entire Klingon culture and context taught me that violence is the honorable way to solve problems, so I hit you in the face”
    “I was dreaming I was boxing, and I have REM sleep movement disorder, so I hit you in the face.”
    “Violence was very common among the founders of my church in the 900’s, so I hit you in the face.”
    “I wanted your cookie, so I hit you in the face.”
    And we could go on, but while these explications offer context, they do little to arrive at reconciliation. How much better to say, “I was wrong, I am sorry for the pain I have caused, I am trying to do better, I never should have hit you in the face, please forgive me.”
    It continues to boggle my mind why the church cannot offer an apology. At least there are statements in Gospel essays and here and there that say the priesthood ban was wrong. Why can’t we take the next step and say we are sorry? I do acknowledge that good steps that are almost like an apology have been taken:

    https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/06/18/their-church-may-not-be/

    Anyway though, your comprehensive notes are excellent. Thank you!

  9. Bro. Jones says:

    Excellent write-up, Kevin. What do you propose we do next, both as individuals and as an institution?

    I taught a youth Sunday school lesson with very similar content to this post, and received a sharp reprimand from the bishop afterwards. Severe parents of the youth in the class complained I had taught “false doctrine.” I emailed my notes to the bishop, asked him to indicate which parts were incorrect, and offered to give a correction in the next class. He grumbled and just asked that I “stick to the manual” from that point. This occurred in 2018. So indeed, how do we move forward from this? (I know there’s no easy answer.)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Should the Church apologize? A few thoughts:

    1. Personally I think we should. But mine is not the most important opinion.

    2. Normally we think of defending the Church and defending Church leaders as the same thing. But this is a case where it’s not. We should do what’s best for the Church as an institution moving forward, whatever that may be. Historic church leaders are on their own on this issue.

    3. The 1978 revelation just changed the policy. It didn’t state the policy had been wrong, and it didn’t apologize for the policy. It was so challenging for SWK to get it across the finish line, I’m fine with that. At the time the most important thing was to change the policy. I can understand the Church taking some time to catch its breath.

    4. But the Church sort of said “Ok, that’s done” and went on to other things, which meant people could think the policy was correct and it was just time to change it. It took longer than it should have, but the the Church eventually said in its Essay that both the curse theory and the preexistence theory were wrong, and there was no other theory. So we now have a disavowal, but still not an apology.

    5. My understanding is that our faithful black Saints have different views on this subject. So I think church leaders should reach out to many of them and get their perspectives and use that feedback to make a decision about issuing an apology.

    6. If they decide to issue an apology, I’m sure President Nelson’s buddies at the NAACP would be happy to help him wordsmith it.

  11. Thank you, Kevin. Thank goodness there are people like you in the church who actually get it. If President Nelson actually wrote this article this would be the last statement on it and we could all move on. Instead we are stuck in this exhausting loop of trying to clarify what the truth is. Church is the only place in my everyday life where in-your-face, textbook racism is normalized and even given divine sanction. (2 Nephi 5:21-24, I’m looking at you.) I would respect church leadership so much more if there was an apology, and an acknowledgement of the damage that the church’s institutional white supremacy has done to us all. Everything that I say about race can be said for our gay brothers and sisters. Thanks again, Kevin. I hope and pray for better days in the church. (P.S. I don’t judge anyone for leaving or not joining the church over this issue. It’s hard to listen to the Spirit when there are still falsehoods being spread on something that should’ve been cleared up in 1978.)

  12. LaJean Carruth says:

    Here is the link to my transcript of Brigham Young’s 5 February 1852 speech in the CHL public catalog; he gave this speech at the legislature’s request after the bill on servitude was passed and signed. He did NOT mention “one”drop” – that was a social construct from the south, where a person could be considered Black, and a slave, if they had one drop of African blood, as long as it came through the maternal line. I searched my transcripts of Young’s sermons, literally thousands of pages now, and found no reference to “one drop.” UofU history professor Paul Reeve, attorney Christopher Rich, and I are finishing a book on race and servitude and priesthood in the 1852 Utah Territorial Legislature, which will cover the topic in depth. Here is the link: https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/fc314280-4158-4286-a6c7-6571eccf11ad/0/0 (These links sometimes have trouble in Explorer; try Firefox or Chrome)

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the helpful info, LaJean. I was at the MHA presentation where the three of you presented on this topic, and am very much looking forward to the book. The 1852 legislative session is critical to our understanding of this topic.

  14. Another windbag says:

    I live in a similar ward as Bro. Barney describes but in a different city and I see the same retention problem. Although not nearly as scholarly, I have come to pretty much the same conclusions. A water-shed event was when a black kid (and his mom) from New Orleans moved into my high school in Utah before 1978. He was the only black student in the school.

    I hated our track coach and gave him a “double bird” gesture whenever I won a race which wasn’t often. Track was spring training for football and he let the football guys bully the rest of us. Everyone assumed the black kid could run fast. The coach called me into his office with the black kid and told me to “take care of the n******”. I might have dropped the F-bomb on him, I can’t remember. But I acknowledged the coach was a jacka** the second we left his office and I went out of my way to be a friend to him..

    He really couldn’t run that fast. He didn’t like to study. He hated snow and frigid weather. He wanted to return home to his friends. His mom was getting disguised with the church. I helped him study and get his GED because he didn’t have enough credits and I told him to lie about his age. They moved away that spring. But I felt the ugliness of racism that day in the coach’s office and I never forgot it, aside from all this academic fireworks that came later.

    One question that remains unsettling is inter-racial marriages. These were illegal in Utah as late as the 1960’s when my cousin had to go to California to marry his Chinese girlfriend. Today, in my ward, people generally try to be nice to both of the partners in such unions, after they are married. But parents get extremely uncomfortable when the sons of former crack mama’s living in government housing who get baptized want to date their teenage daughters. YW presidents complained when the black bishop of a predominantly black ward was giving teenage girls condoms because he knew what was happening, which included his kids. And my daughter often crashed the church dances in the lily white suburbs outside of our stake. Only when they brought friends with dark skin, were they not welcome.

    Some of my black friends think inter-racial marriages are not inherently evil, but just not a good ideas in most cases because of vast cultural differences. It is better “to marry within your own tribe,” is how they explained it to me. I suppose since I am already married and my kids are adults with better sense than me, it is really not my concern.

  15. YourExmoFriend says:

    The church should apologize, but it’s pretty damning that that supposed prophets, seers, and revelators insisted that racist theories were doctrines of the church ever but especially that it took so long to change. Just read the letters sent to Lowry Nelson and Gov. Romney about their support for civil rights. Heck I was taught these racist ideologies in the 90s.

    The truth is simple. Cain is a mythological character. Canaanites and Africans have no relationship to this myth. The scriptures in the book of Moses and Abraham are wrong. This curse did not exist and the scriptures about them are not true. The leaders of the church led us astray when they taught them.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Another windbag, I’m glad you raised the issue of interracial relationships. I remember SWK being very against them, but I don’t recall whether he softened that stance after the revelation.

  17. lastlemming says:

    He softened his stance only to the extent that he characterized his opposition as “fatherly advice” rather than as a commandment.

    (I have another comment in moderation, if you wouldn’t mind checking on it.)

  18. I love what Sistas in Zion wrote about it today and how Missouri apologized for the extermination order twice—long after it was over—by leaders who were never involved.

    Seems the church needs to do the same for blacks.

    Seems the bloggers are all collaborating to work toward getting that apology.

    I look forward to that day.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Ggirl I too saw the Sistas’ posting. Brilliant way to frame it.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Brigham seemed to offer a path for blacks to get the priesthood, but it was completely illusory. As Paul writes in the article I reference above: “”Brigham Young insisted that because Can killed Abel, all of Cain’s posterity would have to wait until all of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood. . . . It was an ambiguous declaration he and other Mormon leaders returned to time and time again. It suggested a future period of redemption for blacks but only after the ‘last’ of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood. Brigham Young and other leaders failed to clarify what that meant, how one might know when the “last” of Abel’s posterity was ordained, or even who Abel’s posterity were.”

    This is a very important point. Brigham’s supposed remedy didn’t make a lick of sense and was simply unachievable, which presumably was the intention all along.

    There is the Saturday’s Warrior/My Turn on Earth Problem of how waiting spirits come into mortality when a human suffers a premature death. For long periods of history there was no priesthood on earth, or it was limited to a specific tribe. We also believe in free agency. If the elders knock on the door of someone with a replacement Abel spirit and he refuses their offer to join the church, that by itself would scuttle the posterity of Cain getting the priesthood.

    It was intentionally a terrible, unworkable idea, because lt was never intended to actually work.

  21. Wardglad says:

    While not trying to minimize the struggles of black members and their desire for an apology (which I support), the issue of racism is one that effects almost all races in the Church. I attend a Chinese language ward in an area with a large Church population. Many of the ward members could linguistically function in English units, but choose to stay in this one because of the racism they face in other units. There’s even micro aggressions from towards the Chinese ward from members of other wards in our stake. While I would love an apology over denying black members the priesthood for so long, it wouldn’t change much for black members until the white members change their attitudes towards members who are different from them. The apologies from Missouri were possible because the issue was over and it was no longer relevant. I do not think we are there yet.

  22. James Sarantis says:

    Not sure about you guys but this issue and others we’ve dealt with actually strengthens my resolve to look for the humanity of the church in past and present dispensations. It would be foolish for me to think there wouldn’t be warts. I’m sure we’d be shocked to see how biblical prophets lived and what they’re beliefs were. People leave the church with a false notion that members and especially leaders should be infallible. I tend to focus on the fruits of the organizations and what kinds of people it generally produces.

  23. Mike H. says:

    Several thoughts:

    The Heading in OD 2 was changed a few years back, stating that Joseph Smith did ordain several Black African Men to the Priesthood. I wonder why that suddenly came up.

    The whole “pure blood” idea has serious issues on a longer time scale. Looking at the Genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament, we have some rather Babylonian sounding names along the way.

    “I’m sure we’d be shocked to see how biblical prophets lived and what they’re beliefs were.” I suspect you’re right, since so much of the anecdotal history of past dispensations have been lost.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Mike H., I wonder whether the change to OD2 you mention may have arisen as a result of the work done on the Gospel Topic Essay.

  25. If we continue to be a place where it is safe for white supremacy and other hatred to flourish we don’t deserve to keep Black or other marginalized members, plain and simple. No child of God willingly endangers others like that without mocking God.

  26. Instead of making assumptions as to why the Black members of your ward left, why didn’t you visit them and ask.
    I hate these, “I don’t know but here is what I surmise” pieces. They are so prententious.

  27. Thanks for the concise and educational summary of the history of this issue. I suspect there’s a lot of truth in your speculation about the ban’s effect on Church activity levels of POC. Regarding Pres. Kimball’s statement about the long promised day, I always took that to refer not to BY’s assertion about Abel’s posterity but to his own long prayerful wait for the change, which I think he had heard hints of from President McKay.

  28. Why is the Church a “safe place for white supremacy”? Even if I were so inclined, I’m not sure why I would feel safe to be such a person in the church. If any person in our ward were to express such ideas openly there would be backlash. I suppose, however, that the person would not be shot, so in that sense he/she would be safe.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Renae, I was not involved in leadership, so to my sensibilities it would have been presumptuous of me to go around grilling people why they left. I believe the Bishop was talking to these people, butt he had no reason to report the results to me.

  30. Another windbag says:

    I have talked to a few black people on their way out and some who almost left. An apology would be nice, but I do not think it would help that much. The problem of retention of black converts is only a little more than the same problem of retention of new converts in general. Black people in the South on average tend to be more religious than white people. Their religions are more genuine, more cardiovascular taxing, and way more outwardly expressive emotionally. They are anything but boring or sappy like so much of Utah Mormon culture.

    Theirs tend to be more of a religion of redemption from serious wickedness, rather than a covenant pathway that seldom strays very far into temptation. Although Mormons are tribal, the black church has a much stronger week-by-week emphasis on community with more activities, outreaches and thanking people for their service. They have better music and sermons that preach to wake you up instead of preach to put you to sleep. Less virtue signaling, less obsession with the small stuff and fewer rules. Less judgmental. More straight talk; we are all rotten and headed for hell if we don’t accept Jesus who will change us. Your swearing, short skirt, long hair, tattoos, excessive jewelry, whatever is not the problem. (To the degree, we think.) Not walking with Jesus is the problem.

    Consider the 9:00 meeting yesterday at Ebenezer Baptist where MLK grew up. https://www.ebenezeratl.org/watch-us-live/ Spending one hour thoughtfully gazing into one of their church meetings will teach you more than several hours blogging with each other.
    The first 5 minutes is like digital browsing the bulletin and the next 5 minutes are announcements/introductions. Meh. A little after 11 minutes, the opening song begins. Cool. Ignore the money begging (which is also more aggressive).
    For the impatient, check out the prayer that begins around 26 minutes and really gets going around 28 minutes. Then the song before 40 minutes and the praise after 40 minutes is quite a contrast to our meetings. The story of the miraculous healing of lupus could be partially histrionic and partially retreating disease with side effects of treatment creating problems. Maybe not. Don’t get distracted from the main message (Jesus) because the preacher is not “ringing our bells at the right time.” Can you imagine a sermon like this in general conference?

    This is only one of the churches we are competing with and where our converts are going when they leave us. You might see why conversion and retention of people in our church from this background is difficult even before they face the inevitable built-in faith crisis our misguided history and petty sugar-coating of it guarantees.

  31. Warner Woodworth says:

    Kevin, I sure appreciate your insights here. The struggles of Blacks in the church has eased occasionally, but then roared back at other times. Back in my younger years growing up in inner city SLC, I recall a faithful high priest eventually being told he “looked Negroid” so his priesthood use was officially withdrawn. I was shocked. He later left the church officially. The brightest member of the church when I was on a mission in Brazil was Tupinambá, a Black and indigenous guy with a BA and law degree. He spoke fluent English, so was asked to translate several LDS books, not only scriptures, but those by Joseph Fielding Smith. Married to a wealthy blond member, they were highly respected by we missionaries, and some members. But the pain of “being unworthy to bear the priesthood,” and the jealousy expressed by a few white Brazilian leaders took a toll, and they both left the church. Not only did I grieve over this ugly policy, but I fasted once a week, and prayed daily that it would be changed. My prayers were finally answered in 1978, thank goodness. It only took 17 years:) I’ve been back to Brazil combating poverty dozens of times since, but never could find my friend and hero, Tupinambá. Black saints throughout the USA, as well as Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and elsewhere still struggle, whether becoming stake or mission presidents, bishops, Relief Society presidents, or even my friends who were called as general authorities. Our church still has a long way to go.

  32. stephenchardy says:

    True story: In about 1990 I was a member of the “Priesthood Executive Committee” in our ward in Massachusetts. I learned there about a young professional African-American couple, newlywed, who had just joined the church. They seemed sensational. We received weekly exciting updates on their progress. Then they learned about the priesthood ban. (Not from us.) Totally blind-sided by it, they wondered out-loud what other skeletons were in our closet. I remember the sister saying that “I want no part in a church where I have second class status.” They left the church. I remember asking the ward mission president: “Did you tell them about the priesthood ban?” No, he hadn’t, and insisted that we don’t need to tell people about it. We don’t teach about polygamy, or the united order, or any number of other historical “oddities.” I was totally dumbfounded. Stunned. Really? You would not tell an African-American family about this relatively recent era (remember this was 1990, just 12 years after the ban?) Even now, over 40 years since the end of the ban I still think that they should hear about it. I think it should be required.

    I remain shocked that we don’t have a policy of discussing it BEFORE baptism. They already are learning about angels dropping in on Joseph Smith like rain from heaven; they are already being asked to believe in golden plates, and modern day prophets. Surely this is a good time to do a bit of “spiritual inoculation” and discuss it in a faith-promoting way. Obviously this would require that our missionaries also be up to speed on it and able to discuss it intelligently.

  33. Thanks, Kevin. This is very helpful. Too bad this unfortunate mistake lasted for so many decades and is still affecting us today.

  34. your food allergy is real says:

    stephenchardy, can you outline a faith-promoting way to inform someone of this history? I’m not sure that it can be done.

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    Whether to disclose pre-baptism or not disclose at all and cross your fingers is quite a problem. A MP only cares short term to boost his stats, so his bias will be not to disclose and hope for the best. If someone reasonably knowledgable explains the history in a sensitive way you’ve got a shot of them absorbing it (that an institution had a racist policy would hardly be a shock) and if they proceed with the baptism they have some inoculation on this issue. But if you don’t tell them and they learn later on their own, the odds of them continuing with the church are dismal. I think the church would be better off as an institution to always disclose, but the current mission system strongly disincentivizes disclosure.

  36. Stephen Hardy says:

    I think that it can be done in a faith promoting way. Something like this (very briefly):

    Principle one: our church members like many (not all) members of other churches carried deep and harmful misconceptions about people of color

    Principle two: although there were enormous cultural barriers to change, our members and inspired leadership found a way to do the right thing.

    Principle three: there remain structural issues of various kinds today which need to be addressed as we continue to build a Zion-like community. We need inspiration which comes both bottom up and top down. We need both.

    Principle four: we have hope that other areas/weak spots/blind spots that need addressing can also similarly become areas for improvements

    We love our church. Because we love it we must address the cultural and tradition-related teachings and practices that harm certain people outside of our imagined core (like people of color, but obviously others as well) and build our communities as we believe God would want.

    It’s a very positive message. We must unflinchingly address our shortcomings and then grow. We’ve done it before and will do it again.

  37. Stephen Hardy says:

    I agree so strongly with what Kevin Barney just said. Our new members can learn it now from our missionaries and church members. Or they can learn it later. But when they don’t learn it from us…. In the case of the young professional African-American family: they learned it from the pastor of the church they were leaving. Believe me, it wasn’t presented in a thoughtful way but was used to destroy their faith in what I’m sure the pastor saw as a misguided religion. It’s true that it appears that MPs seem to have great incentive to baptize but not to retain. It’s awful.

  38. Loursat says:

    To Kevin’s and Stephen’s comments I would add that it matters even more that disclosures about problematic things should come within a long-term relationship of trust, confidence, and love. For many (maybe most) converts, relationships like that don’t exist with members of the Church. Converts often feel very close to the missionaries who find and teach them, but they have not established even rudimentary friendships with Church members who won’t be transferred away in a few weeks. No matter how logically faith-promoting we make the discussion, it’s seldom really useful if there’s not a durable support system for new converts in the form of available, permanent friends.

    Of course, this is the underlying weakness of the entire missionary program. The burden of finding and teaching converts rests on full-time missionaries, so the incentives in the conversion process are all based on the missionaries’ short-term goals. This creates a vicious cycle in which the members who live permanently in a place become reluctant to expose their friends to the missionaries’ damaging tactics of hurry-up short-term conversion. Members and missionaries work at cross purposes, and new converts are left without support. This is a problem that can be solved with structural reforms to missionary work. As many have observed elsewhere, the fact that the Church does not make those structural changes suggests that improving retention is not, in fact, the highest priority in our institutional missionary efforts.

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