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Black Mormons

Black Mormons

Black MormonsThe following is true.  Black members of the Mormon Church could not hold the priesthood until 1978.  However, the following is also true.  The Mormon Church (real name, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is not a racist church.  From the very beginning, the Church was about equal rights, regardless of a member’s race.  Founder and first prophet of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith Jr., said the following about slavery: “It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?”1 Later, Joseph Smith would run for president with anti-slavery as one of his platforms.  He saw any inequality between blacks and whites as the fault of slavery and slavery alone.  In fact, he said, “[Blacks] came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them.” 2Therefore, the Mormon Church refused to treat blacks as property from the beginning.  Slaveowners who joined the Church were asked to give those slaves the choice of taking their freedom.  After the Church, almost as a whole, fled to Utah, they removed the words “free,” white” and “male” from their Constitution’s voting requirements.3  Black Mormons were, thus, allowed to vote before the blacks of the United States could.  It’s unfortunate that they lost this right when Utah joined the United States.But although blacks were members of the Mormon Church from the beginning, they could not hold the priesthood or receive the fullness of Mormon temple ordinances until 1978.  Why?  This is unclear.  At no time did the Lord specifically ban black members from the priesthood, but He didn’t command that it be given to them when it wasn’t.  We should be very careful about trying to decide why this was, although people have always had theories.  For example, some believe blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood because of the powerfully racist atmosphere in the United States at the time and that other Church members weren’t ready, but no one actually knows.  Without the word of the Lord on the whys of the matter, we can’t know.

Again, blacks became able to receive the priesthood in 1978, specifically on June 8th.  Then President of the Mormon Church, Spencer W. Kimball, thought a great deal about the black members of the Church and the priesthood.  He pled with the Lord, asking if black Mormons could have the priesthood and all the blessings that other members of the Church had.  The following is the Lord’s answer: “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” 4 Black Mormons today are able to hold the priesthood and participate in ordinances in Mormon temples.

The Mormon Church is not a racist institution.  This doesn’t mean that no member or leader in the Church has never said something racist or had racist ideas.  The Mormon Church, like all churches and groups, is comprised of imperfect human beings.  And members and leaders of the Mormon Church were, to some degree or another, all products of their time.  They were not immune to believing things that other people of their time believed – and the world of the nineteenth and the first half the twentieth century was painfully racist.  But we must remember that the Mormon faith is professed by imperfect people – and that the Church itself never officially professed these racist ideas and profess the opposite today.  Mormon congregations have never, in the entire history of the Church, been segregated.

Today, there are three Mormon temples in Africa, and the Church has hundreds of thousands of black Mormons as members.  And late President Hinckley restated that we are to love everyone, despite any differences. “Let there be no animosity among you but only love, regardless of race, regardless of circumstances. Let us love one another as the Lord would have us do.” 5

(1) Joseph Smith. History of the Church. 5:217-218
(2) Joseph Smith. Letter of the Prophet to John C. Bennett–On Bennett’s Correspondence Anent Slavery. History of the Church, 4:544.
(3) Times and Seasons, Vol. 1 No. 12 October, 1840.
(4) Doctrine & Covenants. Official Declaration 2
(5) Gordon B. Hinckley, “Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign, June 2004, 3

4 Comments

  1. John says:

    The article postulates that the Mormon church is for equality for Blacks within the church, citing as it’s example that Joseph Smith was anti-slavery. The article thus implies that being anti-slavery is the same as being pro-equality. But these are not necessarily synonymous terms. One can be anti-slavery and still not for affording Blacks the same rights and privileges as Whites. Let’s not confuse the issue.

    The article also offers a strange logic that although God didn’t ban Blacks from the priesthood, he didn’t command it be given to them either. This statement implies that the Church only acts on direct commands from God and cannot make decisions based upon the free agency and sense of morality God has given its members. If God did not ban Blacks from the priesthood, why not make the priesthood available to Blacks, particularly if the Church felt such a moral outrage about unequal treatment for Blacks? The logic is just a bit too tortured.

    The article gives the impression that it was due to President Kimball’s “pleading” with the Lord that God finally commanded that Blacks be allowed the priesthood. But this would imply that our all-loving Heavenly Father required pleading to have all his children in the church treated equally. This implies that President Kimball had a greater benevolence and sense of righteousness than the Heavenly Father with whom he needed to plead. I have a bit higher regard for the moral, ethical and benevolent inclinations of our Heavenly Father it was necessary to plead with him to achieve equality for Blacks.

    The article goes on to say that the Mormon church is not racist and never “officially” professed racist ideas. But it is not necessary to “officially” express racist ideas to be racist. All that is necessary is to have policies and precepts that treat a certain racial group differently.

    I applaud that the church now may have policies and precepts that counter racism. But that certainly was not its history. I think the church loses rather than gains credibility and respect by these efforts to rationalize or blame God for the Church’s prior discriminatory practices. Such efforts do an injustice to the church, people of black descent, and most of all, our Heavenly Father. The church would gain greater credibility and respect by acknowledging that it previously had discriminatory practices and that it has since realized the error of its ways, repented from them, and has made a commitment to equality for all regardless of racial background. Let’s not blame our Heavenly Father for our own shortcomings. Remember, we’re human and prone to err, but it is our Heavenly Father who is divine.

    1. Gale says:

      I like this comment, John. I think it’s my clumsy writing that is to blame. I think the members of the Church had to be ready to receive Black members not only as part of their membership, but as their leaders, and the civil rights movement helped all citizens in that direction. Remember that Joseph Smith wanted to make Missouri a haven for Blacks who fled slavery, and free Blacks. That’s a little bit better than being anti-slavery but not pro-civil rights. He was highly progressive for his day. Part of the historical problem is that try as they might, the brethren have not been able to locate records showing the true reasons for the ban against Blacks holding the priesthood, so we don’t know whether the ban came from God or man from this current perspective.

  2. Deborah Gantt says:

    It is unfortunate that the majority of the LDS membership do not know the whole truth about the Priesthood in the early days of the church. For example, Elijah Able, a Black man, was ordained into the Priesthood by Joseph Smith himself and served two full time missions. and it has been recorded in the church records; also his son and grandson likewise were baptised, and ordained into the Priesthood. Walker Lewis, a Black man was ordained into the Priesthood and a few others. Blacks held the Priesthood, It was not until after the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred that a “POLICY” was put in place restricting the prieshood; but in the beginning…it was not so!! I wish the LDS membership would understand this as well as the general population.

    1. Gale says:

      Thanks for your comment, Deborah, we try to include that information in most of our articles on Blacks in the Church. For those who want to know more, a great website is http://blacklds.org

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