By Gerry Baird
On May 17, 2018, a new web site appeared that was shared prolifically. It was designed to look just like the LDS Church’s newsroom web site (even a media source was fooled) and contained an apology from the First Presidency for the racist practices that prevented black men from receiving the priesthood and all blacks from receiving living temple ordinances until 1978. To his credit, the author of the web site containing the false apology from the Church has since issued his own apology for the trauma it caused. The timing of the false press release was coordinated with discussions among top Church leaders and representatives from the NAACP. Additionally, the Church’s 40th anniversary celebration of black men receiving the priesthood, featuring Gladys Knight and Alex Boyé, will soon be held at the conference center. Reactions to the posted apology were positive, but when it was found to be a hoax many felt devastated and traumatized. I want to address those who were hurt by this event as well as those affected by the priesthood ban that began in Brigham Young’s time and ended a century after his death.
My father was a missionary in Brazil in the early 1970s. So many different lineages are present in that country that it was often very difficult to determine who could and couldn’t receive the full blessings of Church membership. He told me that while on his mission there was a black man who believed so strongly in the Church he was willing to be a member even though he couldn’t hold the priesthood or enjoy temple blessings. That man’s faith was quite remarkable, but I’m sure there were many other men and women like him around the world. None knew at the time that President Kimball would soon be lifting the priesthood ban.
Over the years, many explanations have been offered by Church leaders for the ban. All of these were only theories, and they are now repudiated on the official LDS website. However, at one time they were taught as hurtful doctrine. One theory involved blacks being less valiant than whites during the war in heaven. Another theory suggested that blacks carried the curse of Cain. The facts, as currently acknowledged, appear to be this: Joseph Smith ordained two blacks to the priesthood and one participated in temple ceremonies. Brigham Young announced in 1852 that those of African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, but he also alluded to the possible changing of this policy in a future day. This policy remained the official stance of the Church until a future prophet received what is often simply referred to as “the revelation”. The text of this revelation is published in the Doctrine & Covenants as Official Declaration 2.
The Church depends heavily on its claim to priesthood lineage that began when Christ organized the church that was later restored through Joseph Smith. The priesthood was returned to the earth by the angelic visitors John the Baptist as well as Peter, James and John. Additional priesthood keys were restored in the Kirtland temple. These keys were then passed to Brigham Young and so on until the current prophet, Russell M. Nelson, received them. He is the only man on Earth authorized to use all priesthood keys, including the sealing power which allows families to be together forever in the eternities. He can delegate the keys to others, which is necessary for practical purposes. He is also God’s spokesman on Earth.
A series of obvious questions arises when considering this narrative. If God speaks through prophets, did God discriminate in 1852 then change His mind in 1978? Was Brigham Young in error or was he prophetically guided, perhaps in response to political pressures surrounding slavery in the Utah territory (similar to Wilford Woodruff’s politically-influenced manifesto ending polygamy)? Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle at the time the 1978 revelation was received, declared that past practices were the result of “limited understanding” and talked of new “light and knowledge”. There is a similar parallel to blacks receiving the priesthood in the early Christian Church when it was revealed to Peter that the gospel could now be shared with the Gentiles. Christ was very clear about ministering primarily to the House of Israel, but this ban was lifted under Peter’s leadership.
If the 1852 priesthood ban was a product of its time, as the Church’s web site implies, are other policies subject to radical changes in the future? Could gays marry in the temple or women hold the priesthood? Or is it only because Brigham Young left the possibility for change open to future prophets that this particular policy was able to be amended? In a church that believes in ongoing revelation, it can be hard to know what is fixed and what isn’t. One might think the scriptures define firm boundaries about what is acceptable, but in LDS practice the voice of God speaking through the prophet is often seen as the final word on a subject, at least until more revelation is given.
Discussions about the institution of the Church itself can be highly contentious. Some see it as a perfect organization while others see it as subject to social pressures and imperfect but inspired leadership. Of course, the disaffected see it as not divine at all. The positive reactions to the recent fake apology seem to indicate that the “field is white” for institutional vulnerability. What would President Nelson stand to gain by issuing an apology for past racist practices? What might he lose? The decision, of course, is ultimately his to make. However, it seems an apology could go a long way towards mending fences that were broken during a less enlightened era in history and in the Church. The God I know does not discriminate or change His mind. Therefore, in my admittedly limited view as a mortal lay member of no particular consequence, the Church was in error for many years. If so, why not admit this? Why not speak truth about a past that is no longer institutionally condoned or continued?
The 40th anniversary of the priesthood being made available to all worthy males is, to some, an event worth celebrating. To others, it draws attention to a shameful discriminatory practice. The actual press release issued by the Church was positive but contained no explicit admission of past wrong. Those whose church trauma involves blacks and the priesthood must continue to wait for an apology that may never come. For that, I am truly sorry.
Gerry Baird is a software project manager with an MBA from Utah State University. He is the author of several religious/inspirational books and is currently pursuing a degree in mental health counseling from Grand Canyon University. His passions include piano, kayaking, yoga, meditation, religious studies, and offering a nonjudgmental listening ear to the beautiful people he meets in real life and through social media.