Observant Mormons are urged to speak no ill of the Lord’s anointed, which is generally understood to be the leadership of the Church. Elder Dallin H. Oaks expanded on this in the February 1987 Ensign where he taught that Latter-day Saints should not criticize Church leaders, adding, “It does not matter that the criticism is true.” Elder Oaks repeated this sentiment in a 2007 PBS interview, saying that “it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”
In order to avoid criticizing Church leaders, Mormons have historically engaged in a pattern of blaming anyone and everyone possible for actions of Church leaders except for the leaders themselves. A classic instance of this phenomenon is the Church’s ban on allowing black men to hold the Priesthood and its ban on allowing black men and women to enter the temple.
In spite of an important essay released by the LDS Church on Friday, December 6, 2013, this pattern continues.
The Curse of Cain
The first step was to blame an ancient miscreant named Cain for the problem. The argument ran that Cain committed a sin so grievous that all his posterity was cursed with a skin of blackness so as to mark his descendants as not worthy of the Priesthood. Largely ignored was the fact this argument seemed to run headlong into an Article of Faith that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. (If not punished for Adam’s transgression, why for Cain’s?)
Fence-Sitters in Heaven
The next step was to blame the black people themselves for the Priesthood ban. This was accomplished by creating from whole cloth the theory that blacks were denied the Priesthood and temple ordinances in this life due to their not being valiant in the pre-mortal war in heaven. This story blames the victims for the ban, and was apparently considered so significant that it was advanced without one scrap of revelation to support it. Perhaps this should not be surprising as the same could be said for the Priesthood ban itself. (It is heartening that the recent “Race and the Priesthood” essay explicitly disavows both teachings of the “Curse of Cain” and the “Pre-Mortal Fence Sitters”.)
Racist Culture is Responsible
Another tack appears to be taken in the Church’s new “Race and the Priesthood” essay; that of blaming all non-members of the Church for their role in creating a racist culture into which Church leaders were born and who imbibed with their mother’s milk the racist attitudes of the surrounding civilization. “The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.” Church leaders, it is thereby suggested, are not to be blamed for racist attitudes that were not of their own making and which they could not prevent absorbing from the non-member racist culture in which they were raised.
Church Members Weren’t Ready
A new argument that appears to be gaining currency is to blame the Church members themselves for the Priesthood ban. The members responsible must be distinguished from Church leaders so as to avoid speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed. This argument is recognizable by the language that the members of the Church “were not ready” for the Priesthood ban to be lifted until 1978. (An example of this argument was advanced in the second half of the recent Radio West broadcast linked to below.) Apparently the racist attitudes of LDS Church laity were so universally and firmly entrenched that allowing blacks the Priesthood any earlier would have resulted in mass disaffection and ultimate Church dissolution.
We Just Don’t Know
It has also become fashionable to respond to the query of why the LDS Church banned blacks from the Priesthood with a simple, “We just don’t know.” (An example of this can be found in Elder Jeffrey R. Hollands’ 2007 PBS interview.) But as observed by Marvin Perkins in a recent Radio West broadcast, saying “we don’t know” is equivalent to blaming God for the Priesthood ban. Saying “we don’t know” when we don’t know something is the appropriate response. But saying “we don’t know” while simultaneously averring the Church is led by direct and continuous revelation to Church leaders effectively shifts responsibility away from Church leaders and toward God.
This position was reflected as early as the 1969 First Presidency Statement on the subject, which states that “Negroes” are “not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man. . . . Until God reveals His will in this matter, to him whom we sustain as a prophet, we are bound by that same will.”
It should be noted parenthetically that though the new essay correctly identifies Brigham Young as the Church leader who first publicly announced the Priesthood ban in 1852, the suggestion remains that it was done at God’s direction by the inclusion of the story that, “After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.” If God wasn’t behind the ban, why didn’t He just tell His prophet when asked?
Who is Missing from the Blame Game?
Mormons appear to be so constitutionally averse to criticizing their leaders that they are willing to place responsibility for the Priesthood ban on anybody and everybody in the world (and out of the world in the case of God) rather than state the simple and obvious truth—that the Church leaders who instituted and perpetuated the Priesthood ban for over 125 years are the ones responsible for (…wait for it…) the institution and perpetuation of the Priesthood ban for over 125 years.
This reluctance to even discuss the historical facts relating to the ban, and when discussed to avoid laying responsibility for the Priesthood ban at the feet of Church leaders, may account for a number of interesting aspects of the Church’s new “Race and the Priesthood” essay.
Clues in the New Essay
Is this why the new essay was released on a Friday, the day of the week unanimously agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans alike as the optimum time to put forward damaging information?
Is this why the new essay was not broached in General Conference? Although we can see in retrospect that Elder Uchtdorf was likely preparing the soil for release of this new essay when he said last October, “And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, and doctrine.”
Is this why the new essay was apparently not accompanied by a press release, or sent out to every bishop to be read over the pulpit in all congregations throughout the Church?
Is this why the new essay was not signed, and why nobody in current Church leadership is associated by name in any way with it?
Is this why the new essay is not displayed on the home page of the LDS Church website, but is instead buried three clicks deep? (First click from the home page is “Teachings”; second click is “Gospel Topics”; third click is “Race and the Priesthood.”)
The home page instead displays such presumably more important subjects as “Christmas Lights on Temple Square,” “Following the Christmas Devotional on Social Media,” and how to download “Christmas Wallpaper.” (LDS Church home page accessed 12/14/13.)
Is this why the essay buries in footnote 13 its one example of a Church leader writing that the belief was “quite general” among Mormons that “the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest”? Is this why this lone instance cites to personal correspondence by Joseph Fielding Smith (pointedly designated as “Apostle”) in which he mentions the “fence-sitting” teaching, but hastens to add it “is not the official position of the Church [and is] merely the opinion of men”? Is this why the one example comes from an obscure and unpublished piece of personal correspondence rather than more easily accessed and published sources such as Joseph Fielding Smith’s “The Way to Perfection,” “Doctrines of Salvation,”1 or “Answers to Gospel Questions”?2
One can only imagine the degree of document winnowing Church historians engaged in to find this one cited example from the 1907 personal correspondence of “Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith.” More germane and more accessible would be the 1949 First Presidency Statement in which the teaching that blacks are not allowed the Priesthood is described not as a policy but a doctrine: “It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.”
In addition to inheriting the curse of Cain, misbehavior of blacks in premortality is put forth as a rationale for the ban in the 1949 First Presidency Statement: “[F]ailure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.”
The new essay which seems to take pains to avoid labeling the Priesthood ban as doctrine contrasts with the 1949 First Presidency Statement declaring the Priesthood ban as not policy but “doctrine.” Not only is the 1949 First Presidency Statement not mentioned in the new essay, it also appears to be missing from the Church website. Additionally, the 1949 First Presidency Statement was signed by all three members of the First Presidency, highlighting the absence of any signatures appended to the new essay.
Is this why the new essay frames Brigham Young’s promise that one day blacks would be permitted the Priesthood as being fulfilled by Spencer Kimball’s 1978 revelation? Is it why the essay omits from Brigham Young’s prediction the condition that blacks would not receive the Priesthood until every white man to be born on earth would first have the opportunity? Or as Brigham Young put it (and as quoted in the 1949 First Presidency Statement), “And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”
And ultimately, is this why the new essay’s most glaring omission is that of an apology?
Implicit in an apology is the acknowledgement that something wrong was done by the Church. An acknowledgement that something wrong was done would be tantamount to criticizing Church leaders. Church leaders must not be criticized, “even if the criticism is true.”
Does the Church’s tenet that its leaders must under no circumstances be criticized lie behind the failure of the Church to issue an apology for the Priesthood ban?
My father taught me when I was a boy that it takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. President Monson mentioned last General Conference that the LDS Church now has over fifteen million members. That is pretty big. The question is whether it is big enough.
I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over 35-years, coincidentally having been baptized the same month the Church announced the lifting of the Priesthood ban. In that time, I have developed a great deal of respect for the leaders of the Church. That respect would not be diminished by a formal and public apology for the Priesthood ban, but only enhanced.
Why is an apology required? For the sake of black men and women, both in and out of the Church, who were told for over a century that they were second class citizens on earth as it was in heaven. For the sake of the white members of the Church, who were taught racial discrimination as part and parcel of their religious heritage. And last but not least, for the Church itself, which cannot stand approved before God until it has fully repented of this transgression against His children. As the Church itself teaches in its Gospel Principles Manual, “If we have sinned against another person, we should confess to the person we have injured.”
Nothing short of an apology will once and for all put the issue of the Priesthood ban to rest. Church leaders have seemed surprised that this ghost continues to haunt them. Lifting the ban in 1978 did not put the issue to rest, and neither have the 35-years that have intervened since. Disavowing the teachings behind the ban did not put the issue to rest. Saying “we don’t know” why the ban was instituted and perpetuated did not put the issue to rest. And neither will this new essay put the issue to rest; nor will a hundred such essays. As important a step as this new essay is, and as many Church historians as may have contributed to it, all that was ever needed was an apology. An apology is all that will ever be needed. And an apology is all that will ever suffice.
My sincere hope is that such an apology will be forthcoming, be accompanied by the signatures of the First Presidency, be announced in General Conference, be publicized by a press release, be sent to all bishops to be read over the pulpit, and be prominently featured on the home page of the Church website.
And lastly, that it not be another 35-years in the making.
1 Joseph Fielding Smith’s objection to the teaching appears to have been restricted to the idea that pre-mortal blacks were “neutral,” as he later wrote, “There were no neutrals in the war in heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.1, pages 66-67. In other words, Joseph Fielding Smith believed that blacks were prevented from receiving the Priesthood due to unspecified “transgressions” in the pre-mortal existence; his only quibble was with the idea that they had been “neutral.” It appears that footnote 13 in the new essay may have been manipulated in such a way as to convey a different impression to the casual reader. One cannot help noticing that three quotes are spliced together, and that Joseph Fielding Smith’s private correspondence is not widely available to other than Church historians for purposes of comparison, located as it is in the Church History Library.
2 “Kindly see chapters 15 and 16, in the Way to Perfection, for further light in relation to the reason why the Negro cannot receive the priesthood. In brief, it is as follows: Because of transgressions in the first estate which deprives him in this second estate. Since Cain slew his brother Abel in order to obtain all the rights of priesthood to descend through his lineage, the Lord decreed that the children of Cain should not have the privilege of bearing the priesthood until Abel had posterity who could have the priesthood and that will have to be in the far distant future. When this is accomplished on some other world, then the restrictions will be removed from the children of Cain who have been true in this ‘second’ estate.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Volume 2.