The 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