Wow, this is a really long post, and I didn’t cover everything, but what I did cover is quite considerable.I hope to hear some comments. I decided to update this post on 9/16 with some of Greg Prince’s insights into this topic. These updates are highlighted in orange. UPDATE: Mar 10, 2009. Black Pete and William McCary were erroneously referred to as the same people.I made revisions to correct this inaccuracy, and this is shown in purple. I have also added some new information from Connell O’Donovan, who is one of the premier experts on this subject.
We have had an interesting discussion in a previous blog post on Joshua’s Unholy War. In this discussion, we have discussed the idea as to whether God commanded Joshua (and Moses) to commit genocide in wiping out the Canaanites in various cities, such as Jericho. I am claiming that the command to extinguish the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua was not inspired.As part of the discussion, we have explored two other topics:the priesthood ban, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. I would like to focus this post on the priesthood ban, and will devote another post to the subject of Abraham.
Few people know that there were at least 5 black members of the LDS church who received the priesthood as early as 1836. I will outline these 5 members below, in this short timeline.
- 1836 – Mar 3. Elijah Abel was ordained an elder by probably by Joseph Smith Jr, or his father Joseph Smith, Sr.Elijah was baptized in 1832. He is referenced on census records as both a negro, and a mulatto.He was bi-racial.In Dec 1836, Elijah is ordained a Seventy by Zebedee Coltrin.
- 1844 – Walker Lewis was ordained an Elder by William Smith, Joseph’s brother, in Lowell, Massachusetts.
- 1844 – Joseph Smith is killed.
- 1846 – Oct. William McCary, was ordained an Elder by Apostle Orson Hyde. He was known as the “black prophet.”William was later excommunicated in 1847 for seducing a number of Mormon, white women into unauthorized polygamy.
- 1847 Brigham Young then declares that black people are not eligible for certain temple ordinances.
- Nov 27, 1900.Enoch Abel, Elijah’s son received the priesthood, and is ordained an elder.
- 1934Elijah’s grandson, also with the name Elijah Abel, receives the priesthood, and is ordained a priest.In 1935, he is ordained an Elder.
As part of our previous analysis of the Joshua situation, I claimed that personal bias can affect revelation.I would briefly submit here that slavery, William McCary’s actions, and slaveholding apostles greatly affected early church leaders’ opinions regarding priesthood eligibility for black members, and in turn, limited their inspiration on the subjects of slavery, and the priesthood ban.
For those who would like additional information on this topic, there are three podcasts from Mormon Stories which explore the priesthood ban in great detail.An interview with Darius Gray and Margaret Young is the best historical perspective.Secondly, Darron Smith gives great insights into the slavery issue.Finally, an interview with Greg Prince gives some wonderful insights into David O McKay’s struggles with the priesthood ban.I highly recommend all of these resources.
I just listened to the Darius Gray and Margaret Young, most of the Darron Smith interviews, and the Greg Prince interview.I have transcribed many of the quotes from those interviews here, and I would like to go into more detail into the priesthood ban.I will specifically quote from both of them.Before we get started, I would like to give a little background on these “experts.”
Darius joined the church in the 1960’s.He attended BYU, and worked as a reporter for KSL television in Salt Lake City.In 1971, he was asked by junior apostles Gordon B Hinckley, Thomas S Monson, and Boyd K Packer to lead a group to help fellowship black members of the LDS church, called The Genesis Group.He is an active member, and has spoken on this topic at BYU, Salt Lake Community College (which I attended), and various other forums.Along with Margaret Young, he co-wrote a trilogy of historical fiction books called “Standing on the Promises” detailing early black members of the church.He also was involved in the production of a documentary entitled “Nobody Knows:The Untold Story of Black Mormons,” which I previously blogged about.
Margaret Young is a part-time teacher of English at BYU, institute teacher, and Sunday School teacher in her ward.She is an active, life-long member of the church from Utah County.A picture of the two of them can be found here.
Darron Smith is a former teacher at BYU, and has taught at the University of Utah, Utah Valley State College (now UVU).He is active in the LDS church, and has been outspoken about the issue of the priesthood ban, and has called on the LDS church to formally apologize for its racist past.His contract was not renewed at BYU, and he believes it is because of his controversial stance on the race issue within the LDS church.He has gone on to teach at other institutions.
Greg Prince wrote the book “David O McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” published by University of Utah Press.You can get it at bookstores or internet bookstores.He spent 10 years researching the life of David O McKay, covering about 40,000 documents, including many of McKay’s diares.He is active in the church, and on the board of Dialogue, a publication on LDS issues.
I would like to outline a little more detailed history of early black church members. There was quite a bit of openness by Joseph Smith to black members of the church.I would also like to show some of the events that influenced early LDS thought into the priesthood ban.Finally, I’d like to talk about how we should handle racist quotes from prophets, and how to be able to reconcile how a prophet can be racist, and still a prophet.I feel this relates well to our previous discussion on Joshua.As we can see from the information to follow, our modern day prophets have had some poor opinions of blacks, and have even referred to them as agents of Satan.
In relation to Joshua, it does not take a great leap of imagination to see that if Joshua held similar beliefs about the Canaanites, these opinions could explain why it was so easy for him to wipe out several sinful nations.These 6 nations were obviously quite depraved, and I can see why he felt it might have been necessary to wipe them out.
Here’s a somewhat longer timeline, though I am certainly not covering all the important issues. I invite all to listen to the podcasts when you have about 9 hours to get through them all. Certainly, I am not covering all of the early black church members, so this should not be considered an exhaustive list.
The first date in this longer chronology is 1830 or 1831. Black Pete joined the church, and was baptizing people. Joseph T Ball was the second convert in the summer of 1832, and went on to become the Boston Branch president in 1844. See this post for more details on these 2 men, as well as others.
Elijah Abel became the second known black convert to the LDS church in 1832.He received the priesthood in 1836, and served 3 missions to Ohio, NY, and Canada.He helped build the Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake Temples, received his washing and anointing in the Kirtland Temple, but was denied the endowment by Brigham Young.He left Nauvoo before the endowment was received in Nauvoo.Margaret Young speculates that Elijah would have received the endowment if he was in Nauvoo while Smith was alive.However, he was on a mission at this time.
In the 1830’s, Jane Manning James joins the church in Buffalo, NY, and then walks the entire distance from there to Nauvoo.She received poor reception by Nauvoo saints (“with much rebuff”), but Joseph was very welcoming and hospitable.He offered to adopt her as a child into the Smith household.She declined because she didn’t understand the implications.If she had accepted, it is likely that she would have received temple ordinances as part of the Smith family.Brigham Young and other church leaders declined to let her receive temple ordinances, but she was sealed posthumously to Joseph as a servant.Her temple work was completed shortly after the revelation in 1978.
In 1839, Elijah is told to limit his preaching to non-white people, due to racial tensions.One of the reasons why there was so much persecution in Missouri was because of the Mormon position on slavery.Darron Smith adds some insights into this time period. “African-Americans, blacks, have always been central to Mormonism since its earliest days, particularly when blacks [did he mean LDS here?] were expelled from Jackson County, Missouri.The whole expulsion from Jackson County, Missouri had to do with a newspaper article written by W.W. Phelps in the Times and Seasons in 1844.Phelps was so excited about all these Mormons congregating in Jackson county, Missouri, that he wrote this article entitled ‘Free People of Color’, where he talked about how the church would grow, and that the Laplander would join, and the hot pot would join, and that all these different nationalities and races and so on, would all come into Jackson County, Missouri.
That newspaper article obviously got into the wrong hands. It got into the hands of Missourians.As you know, Missourians at that time were a slaveholding state.So, the last thing the Missourians wanted to hear was the Mormons trying to incite black folks to come into a slave state, with the understanding that an insurrection might ensue.As a result of that, Mormons were expelled from Jackson County, Missouri.
Nobody knows that.A lot of people don’t even know that story.Leonard Arrington in his book about Mormons has written extensively about that.My very, very good friend and colleague, Newel Bringhurst has written about it.Armaund Mauss has written about it.Several other noted LDS scholars have written about this particular history.”
At this point of the interview, John Dehlin interjected that to be fair, there were other economic, social, and religious issues as well, but the slavery issue was a central issue during this time period.Darron agreed. “I don’t want to say that [slavery] was the only issue, but that was one of the main issues that drove the mobs to be formed in Missouri.In fact, it was so problematic that Phelps wrote an Extra [the next day], to retract what he said.The following day, he got word that Missourians had formed, and were conspiring to expel them.A secret manifesto went around which called on Missourians who were against Mormons to basically take action against Mormons for this particular article.So Phelps, responded by [issuing] this Extra, which was too late by then.A lot of people don’t understand that [slavery] is central to history of Mormonism, is the experience of blacks.”
In 1844, a slave by the name of Green Flake was baptized in Mississippi River by John Brown.(James Madison Flake was owner Green’s owner, and was given Green as a wedding present by James’ father.Green was age 10 at the time.)Brigham Young released Green from slavery in 1854.Green was the person to whom Brigham was speaking when Brigham said his famous quote, “This is the Place”.The actual quote was, “This is the right place.Move on.”
Also in 1844, Walker Lewis was ordained an Elder by William Smith, Joseph’s brother, in Lowell, Massachusetts.
In June 1844 Joseph Smith was killed.At this time, Joseph was running for president, and advocated abolishing slavery by 1850.Such a stance was quite unpopular in slave state Missouri.It is important to remember that Joseph prophesied in 1832 about the Civil War.Slavery and race relations were hot topics during this time period, and Joseph’s abolitionist views were probably just as responsible for his assassination, as his religious views.
Darius Gray said, “Brother Joseph wanted to free the slaves by selling public lands, and taking those proceeds and compensating the slave owners so that they wouldn’t be hurt financially.He was very pragmatic.He realized that there was a great deal of money tied up that supposed property; the lives of beings [known] as slaves.But he was very active in trying to put forth a plan that would be workable.”
In Nov 1844, the apostle (and future church president) Wilford Woodruff visited Lowell, MA. Darius Gray says that Woodruff, “observed that a colored brother [presumably Walker Lewis], who was an elder was present, and there was no remark made about the existence of a black elder being contrary to the doctrines or practices of the church.“
1844-45. Lowell, MA was visited by apostles Ezra T Benson, and Brigham Young.Neither mentioned any problem with a black man holding the priesthood.
April 1845. Orson Hyde refers to negroes as the “cursed lineage of Canaan” and speculates that the curse they bore was for their actions in the pre-existence.This is the earliest known reference by a church leader to a curse happening from actions in the pre-existence.
Margaret Young goes into detail here.“The church had imported from all over the world, but all of the protestant sects especially, the whole idea that blacks were the products of Cain, and that the curse of Canaan via Noah came on the blacks. That was something that had been used to justify slavery from the 15th century.So it is just absolutely ubiquitous, all over the place.People were using that.
But in the Articles of Faith we are told that we are not responsible for Adam’s transgression, that each man is responsible for his own, and you have to extrapolate from that, then, is the black man responsible for Cain’s transgression, or Ham’s transgression, for whatever is implied by seeing his father’s nakedness?The answer has to come back that, no, not if we do believe that every man is responsible for his own sins.
So, then, why could there be any cause for priesthood restriction?In this very speculative idea, given by Orson Hyde, and later echoed by other leaders, but always speculatively.Nobody was saying “thus saith the Lord”.Then comes in the institutional memory, and before too long, we had people saying, ‘well the church has always said that.My understanding is because of what they did in the pre-existence.’But in fact, we only have speculation trying to marry that idea, to justify the priesthood restriction based on something that doesn’t fit into our articles of faith— that blacks are being punished for sins that somebody else committed.
Darius Gray added, “But then we also have the issue that if blacks had been less valiant and had rooted for Satan in that battle that took place, then we would not be here, with physical, tangible bodies.We’re told that the great danger of the conflict required that everyone take a stand, therefore there could be no neutrals, and there could be no fence-sitters, and the fact that blacks are here with physical, tangible bodies, is a clear indication that we are on the side of the father and of the Savior.So the fence-sitter argument doesn’t fit, it does not stand the test.”
John Dehlin noted that the curse of Cain, or the curse of Ham is not an original Mormon doctrine, but rather a protestant doctrine brought into the Mormon church by early church converts.However, the curse stemming from the pre-existence, is a uniquely Mormon idea, because the concept of pre-existence is uniquely Mormon.
Darron, “People need to understand this. These ideas didn’t just spring up from Mormonism.Mormonism has its own particular way of looking at it, i.e. the curse of Cain metaphor.But the Curse of Ham myth, wherein Ham saw his father Noah’s nakedness, that’s the prevailing Judeo-Christian belief that was not only incorporated by Mormonism, but went one step further, with the whole invocation of Cain as being cursed with dark skin for murdering his brother Abel, and so on.That particular idea is unique to Mormonism.”
October 1846 William McCary, was ordained by Apostle Orson Hyde.He was known the “black prophet.”William was later excommunicated in 1847 for seducing a number of Mormon, white women into unauthorized polygamy.
In 1847 Brigham Young then declares that black people are not eligible for certain temple ordinances.Darius Gray says, “That might possibly be that Brigham was reacting to the William McCary ‘Black Pete‘ situation.” (Darius incorrectly believed Black Pete and William McCary were the same person. They are not.)
Darius added, “so while Brigham Young declared there is a restriction on temple ordinances, there is not a restriction on priesthood that year, in 1847.”
On Mar 26,1847, Brigham Young made a statement that he was aware of Walker Lewis, and aware that Walker held the priesthood. Young claimed on this date that there is no race-based ban. The statement is “its nothing to do with the blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh. We have to repent [and] regain what we [h]av[e] lost. We [h]av[e] one of the best Elders–an African in Lowell [i.e. Walker Lewis].” By December 1847, he’s completely changed his mind. Now he calls for Enoch and Matilda Lewis and their mixed-race child to be killed for breaking “the law of God.”
Margaret Young adds, “Prior to this, when people are talking about ‘curse of Cain, curse of Canaan’, it is not used as justification for this is why we’re not going to allow blacks to hold the priesthood, it is being used to justify why blacks have it so hard, or in some cases,A lot of protestant ministers are trying to keep the Civil War from happening, are saying ‘this is God’s design, and these are the curses that support the way things ought to be.So, it’s not a question of priesthood, it’s a question of social status.”
Greg Prince, “That ban came after Joseph Smith’s death.It was during the administration of Brigham Young, and the reasons for it and the exact timing still remain rather fuzzy.What’s clear is that it was not a discrete revelation.It was a policy that was instituted probably in response, probably in response to something going on in the local environment.I’m not sure on that.
But that became accepted as doctrine, the longer it remained in effect. So, by the time you got into the 20th century, everyone just assumed this was based on revelation, that it was doctrinal, and it wouldn’t change.”
This begs the question “What’s changed, what has happened?”
Darius, “The William McCary episode is probably the main event leading to the priesthood restriction.Darius Gray summarizes, “While talking about this event, Brigham said, ‘it is nothing to do with the blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh.We have one of the finest elder’s, an African in Lowell, MA.’ In all likelihood he was referring to Walker Lewis.So even during this period of time, we have William McCary excommunicated, and there is the sensitivity about McCary’s seducing a number of white sisters, still, Brigham says it has nothing to do with blood, for of one blood hath God made all flesh.”
According to Connell O’Donovan, “The catalyst for the priesthood and temple bans was a culmination of McCary’s marriage in 1846 to the daughter of Nauvoo stake president, Daniel Stanton, and then his sexual “sealings” to several other LDS women at Winter Quarters and other LDS camps in 1847, PLUS Enoch Lewis’ 1846 marriage to a white LDS woman, Mary Matilda Webster in Boston, and their having a mixed-race child in 1847. Brigham Young threatened to have the Lewis family killed in December 1847 for breaking the “law of God”. At that point, Young formulated the ban.”
Feb 1849 brings about the first statement about priesthood restriction.Brigham Young said, “Because Cain cut off the lives of Abel, the Lord cursed Canaan’s seed, and prohibited them from the priesthood.”
Darius answers, “As we’re moving closer and closer to the Civil War, tensions are mounting throughout the nation on the topic of slavery, and of course, on the topic of race.Now we have the saints who had been in upper NY state, and then they were in Ohio, and then from Ohio they went to Missouri, and from Missouri, they were run out and into Illinois.From Nauvoo, we came west.But at each of those stages, the saints were spending money moving, they were spending money building new dwellings, they were spending money building new temples:the Kirtland Temple, and then the Nauvoo Temple.By the time the saints got to the Salt Lake Valley, we were poor as could be.We had shot our wad.
But there were seeds that had been planted by early Mormon missionaries, who had gone into the southern states, who had been teaching the gospel there, and in 1850, 12 Mormon slave owners, who possessed between 60 and 70 black slaves, came into the Deseret Territory, and one of those slave owners was the apostle Charles C Rich.We have something else that took place in that time period.The Territorial Legislature passed the law legalizing slavery in Utah, and that’s something that many don’t know.It was called ‘an act in relation to service’, but it gave legal recognition to slaveholding in the territory of Deseret.”
Darron Smith adds to this by saying, “If you want to look at who instigated [the priesthood ban], you will have to look at Brigham Young, because in 1852, or 1854, I can’t remember the date, declared this in Fillmore, Utah, the capital of Utah used to be Fillmore, declared it when speaking to the state legislature.Back then, the separation of church and state was not even a question.He said, and I’ll paraphrase it, ‘no one spake it before me, and I’ll say it now, blacks cannot hold the priesthood.’He goes on to say why, he explains that blacks were cursed, and that they were less than less, and this, that and the other.So he made himself the author of that, which demonstrated beautifully to me, the confusion over it.
I mean if Brigham Young is going to say, ‘if no one has spake it before me, I’ll say it now that blacks can’t hold the priesthood.’To me it is a little bit compelling, that the church didn’t have a policy, and didn’t have any kind of written, expressed dictum, on what to do with their black members of the church.So, with Brigham Young, he made himself the author of that.So certainly, it was Brigham Young.
Also, when the saints came, west, and settled in the Utah Basin, Brigham Young enacted what’s called ‘an act in relationship to service’, which was basically a document that authorized African slavery, and native American slavery in the Utah Territory.One of the things that the federal government was trying to do was to contain slavery to the South.So, the saints came out west, and started slavery— the only territory west of the Mississippi to have slavery.We have a really, really checkered past.
Was this law to have slavery legalized in Utah a pragmatic decision on the part of Mormon leaders?
Margaret, “[this law] was against the advice of John Burnhisle, who was an emissary to Washington, DC, and was part of the California Compromise.”
Darius, “California came into the union as a free state.Utah and New Mexico was given the option of being a free territory, or slave, and New Mexico chose free, and Utah chose slave, and I think it might be because of an accommodation being made to those southern saints— the Mississippi saints who came into the valley.”
1853 Elijah Abel is not allowed to receive his endowment by Brigham Young.
1861-1865. Civil War begins, and ends with the abolition of slavery.It is interesting to note that Abraham Lincoln would have kept slavery if it would have meant keeping the union together.But since the Union was torn apart by war, slavery was outlawed.
1877 Brigham Young died.
1879.A meeting informally ‘canonizes’ the priesthood ban.In the meeting Zebedee Coltrin says that Joseph Smith announces the ban in 1834, but this is contradicted by several items in the above time line.Apostle (and future president) Joseph F Smith challenges Coltrin’s claims, showing 2 certificates showing that Elijah had been re-ordained to the office of the Seventy.Darius, “In those days, you had to be re-certified periodically.Joseph F Smith sought out and found those 2 re-certifications, and presented them to counter what Brother Zebedee Coltrin was saying, so we have conflicting accounts in 1879.”
Margaret, “Let me just contextualize the time also.Brigham Young has died 2 years ago.This is 1879, and Brigham died in 1877.So why is Elijah petitioning again?He’s already been told no.Why are they listening again?Why don’t they say, ‘Well, didn’t Brigham Young already answer that?’It becomes a really important question, and a really important meeting.First of all, Elijah Abel’s wife is dying, and he wants the sealing ordinances, so he understands what is implied by the church doctrine of eternal sealing, and he wants to be sealed to his wife.But secondly, he thinks that with Brigham Young gone, you can approach the new church president, and ask.Indeed, they don’t summarily say, ‘I thought you already got that answer.’
They go back, and revisit, and say ‘What did Joseph Smith say about this?That’s when Zebedee Coltrin provides a pretty old memory, and he gets a couple things wrong in that memory, and then you have Joseph F Smith countering it.That’s when his patriarchal blessing is read.They pull that out of the records, and there are Father Smith’s words, ‘Thou hast been ordained an elder and shall be protected against the powers of the adversary.’So in 1879, there are big questions about this policy.
Darius, “Brother Coltrin’s memory is shown to be unreliable again.His claimed date of 1834 for Joseph Smith announcing the alleged ban, isn’t possible, since Coltrin himself ordained Abel a Seventy two years later than that in 1836.”
Margaret, “This information is taken to Elijah Abel, and he’s also told that Zebedee Coltrin has said, ‘I washed and anointed Elijah Abel in the temple, and never had a worse feeling in my life, and I swore that I would never do so again, unless I were commanded to by a prophet.’Elijah is told that, and he said that Zebedee did not wash and anoint me, but he did ordain me a Seventy.”
In 1880, Elijah is again denied the endowment by the Quorum of the 12.In 1883 Elijah is still on record as a Seventy.In 1895, Joseph F Smith claims Elijah Abel was ordained a High Priest.
1884 Elijah goes on his 3rd mission for the church, returns home, and dies in Dec 25, 1884.Two days later, Jane James asks for her endowment, and is denied.
1900, Nov 27.Enoch Abel, Elijah’s son received the priesthood, and is ordained an elder.
1921.President McKay becomes aware of the priesthood ban for the first time.
Greg Prince, “David O McKay was called to be an apostle in 1906.He recorded that the first time he became aware that a policy even existed, was on a trip around the world which was in 1921.So he’d been an apostle for 15 years, and didn’t even know that there was a policy.If he didn’t know, you can imagine what the level of knowledge was in the general church membership.
Prince continues, “When he was going around the world in 1921 on the request of President Grant, he encountered a couple in Hawaii.I believe the wife was Hawaiian, and the husband was African-American.That’s when he first became aware of the policy.He wrote President Grant, asking if it might be changed, and was told by Grant by return letter that no, there was nothing he could do about it.So, he basically accepted the status quo, and just lived with it until he became church president.”
1934Elijah’s grandson, also with the name Elijah Abel, receives the priesthood, and is ordained a priest.
1935 Elijah Abel (grandson) is ordained an Elder.
1951.David O Mckay becomes president of the church.According to Prince, “Shortly after he became church president, in response to the plea of the president of the South African mission, he became the first general authority to visit that mission.That happened in 1954, and the main reason that he wanted to visit it, was that mission president had just been tied up in knots because of this policy, and because of an addendum of that policy that came in the late 1940’s.The mission president was told that no male [white or black] was to be ordained to the priesthood until all of his ancestral lines could be traced back to Europe.
That was almost an impossible task, so they wound up with a situation that they had very few local men who were able to be ordained to the priesthood.As a result, the church was crippled.He went down there specifically to look at that policy.He changed it on the spot in a conference of the missionaries.He got up and announced that as of that point, that policy would no longer hold.Unless there was firm evidence to the contrary, the male members would be assumed not to have black blood, and could be ordained without further documentation.When he got back from that trip, apparently that was the first time that he began to question the policy himself.There is no indication from any of his records of any questioning prior to then.So it probably was a result of what happened on that trip, and his consciousness being raised by his being on the ground in South Africa, and seeing what the effect of the policy had been.”
1954.President McKay changes the policy regarding South African members of the church.He also has an important conversation with Sterling McMurrin, a University of Utah professor, and former Education Secretary in the John F Kennedy administration.
Margaret talked about a situation regarding a conversation between Sterling McMurrin and David O McKay, which happened in March 1954.Many church members felt the church policy banning priesthood to blacks was church doctrine, but McKay affirmed that it was merely church policy, not doctrine.”In Sunday School, they started talking about the priesthood policy was a doctrine of the church, and I said I don’t believe it’s a doctrine.I believe it’s a policy.Pres McKay replied, ‘I’m glad you said that, because I believe that’s what I believe as well.”Greg Prince details this conversation in much more detail in his book about David O McKay.Prince goes further and quotes President McKay as saying, ‘It is a policy, and there will be a time when the policy will change.’
1950’s or 1960’s.Greg Prince relates the following story.”On at least more than one occasion, he [McKay] more than stretched the rule, because there was a young man, and 11 year old in Cincinnati, who’s mother was from Barbados, and clearly had African ancestry.The bishop, feeling that this was such an outstanding young man, prevailed upon the stake president to write a letter to the First Presidency to see if anything could be done, because he was shortly going to turn 12.
To the stake president’s surprise, the letter that came back from the First Presidency said, ‘Ordain the young man.’Not understanding what this really meant, the stake presidentwrote a 2nd letter and gave him greater detail than he had in the 1st letter, saying ‘I don’t think you understood the first time.’A second letter came back from the First Presidency, and it said, ‘Ordain the young man.’He was ordained.
1963, Oct.NAACP plans to protest the LDS church position on blacks.Greg gives us some more details.“In 1963, the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP was very upset at the church’s backward stance on Civil Rights, and in an effort to try to get them to change, they threatened to picket General Conference.This came to the attention of Sterling McMurrin, and he brought it to the attention of Hugh Brown of the First Presidency, who brought it to the attention of Pres McKay.Pres McKay was not about to concede anything to the NAACP, but he at least agreed that Hugh Brown could read a statement in General Conference in 1963 to try to defuse the situation.He would not let him make it, however, as an officialFirst Presidency statement.It was just to be a statement that he would read without making it official.
What Pres McKay didn’t know was that Brown went to Sterling McMurrin and asked him to write the statement, which McMurrin did.That at least defused the situation an ironically, that unofficial statement, two years later, was republished by the church and now labeled the official statement.It was progressive because it was written by McMurrin at the request of Brown.Both of those men were progressive on that subject.Because it was written by them, it had a much more moderate tone than it would have had it been written by Pres McKay.”
1968.Sterling McMurrin writes a letter to David O McKay’s four sons, detailing the conversation he had with Pres McKay concerning the priesthood ban being policy, not doctrine.
Greg, “In 1968, in order that this [conversation] be preserved, he [McMurrin] wrote it down and sent it to Llewelyn McKay, one of David’s sons, and sent it also to his other e sons.Llewelyn took the letter to his father and read it to him, and his father said, ‘yes, that’s exactly what I said.’So we don’t just have to take Sterling’s word for it.”
“[The letter] first came to the forefront when Steven Taggart, a graduate student, got wind of this, found out that there was such a letter, went to Sterling and asked for permission to include it in his paper and Sterling referred him to Llewelyn McKay, who allowed him to do it.”
Greg, “In the late months of his life, the McMurrin letter to Llewelyn McKay ignited a firestorm.Up until the time that letter became public, even President McKay’s counselor’s had no idea that Pres McKay had that conversation with McMurrin in 1954.Once that became known, and once Pres McKay affirmed the accuracy of that account— the account saying that ‘it is a policy, and the time will come when the policy will change.’Then you had 2 groups that formed around President McKay, who was in poor health, and was not really in command of the situation.On the one hand, you had Hugh Brown, who felt that if it was indeed a policy, and it was the first time he had been made aware of that nomenclature, that it would just take and administrative action to change it.
On the other hand, you had Alvin Dyer, who was an extra counselor in the First Presidency, and Harold B Lee, who was the Acting President of the Quorum of the 12, and later became church president, both of whom feared that because it was called a policy, that in fact it could be changed administratively.So Brown on the one hand tried to change it.Dyer and Lee on the other hand tried to block him from changing it.Ultimately, they prevailed and were able to neutralize Brown’s initiative.
The tragedy caused a great deal of hurt feelings amongst these men, and it was all for naught because neither side understood, that even though he had called it a policy, Pres McKay would not have changed it unless there had been a revelation to that effect.So you had this enormous flurry of activity and division between these men, going all the way up to the top.It was all superfluous, because it wouldn’t have resolved it and changed it, no matter what they had tried.”
John Dehlin, “There’s a passage or two I read in Michael Quinn’s book ‘Extensions of Power’, where he tells a story that basically gives the impression that Harold B Lee’s out of town, David O McKay’s is ailing, not really actively at the helm of the church.Hugh B Brown leads a discussion of this topic in the late 1960’s, rallies the quorum to agree that the ban on priesthood blacks should be lifted, but then with a black hat, Harold B Lee swoops into town, catches wind of the vote, and kills it before it’s allowed to take effect.Is there anything you’ve read that validates that?Is that just totally pulled out of the sky?”
Greg, “I’m not sure how valid that account is.I think in it’s essence, there may be some validity to it, because in the McKay diaries, there are some journal entries from Alvin Dyer, that he gave to Claire Middlemiss [McKay’s secretary], and she included them in the McKay record, where Dyer says that Brown had tried to change it, but didn’t give any details.So of that much, I’m pretty confident.But since I wasn’t confident of the others, I didn’t put those details into the book.It’s possible that there is more out there, than I was able to gather.”
1969, Hugh B Brown proposed that the church’s policy be reversed.This policy was approved by the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the 12.President McKay was out due to illness, and Harold B. Lee was out travelling on church business when the vote was taken.A re-vote took place, and the measure to extend the priesthood to blacks was defeated.
Greg, “Hugh Brown never really understood where President McKay was on this.He assumed that if he pushed, that it might happen.Whereas, Pres McKay always said that it would take a revelation to do it, even though he called it a policy, he meant that it was only a policy that could be changed if the Lord said ‘Change it.'”
1970, Jan 18.Pres McKay dies.
1971.The Genesis Group is created to specifically fellowship Black members of the church, under the direction of Joseph Fielding Smith.
1973. Lester Bush wrote an article in a magazine called Dialogue: Journal for Mormon Thought. The article was titled, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: an Historical Overview.” O’Donovan states that it was “Extremely controversial at the time. this article proved, without being strident, that there never was a “revelation” to ban the priesthood and it had merely been a policy that leaders had followed for decades without any justification whatsoever. Many today consider the article THE pivotal academic support for ending the ban. Bush’s solid, undeniable research could not be refuted by the church and it lay bare the antiquated policy.”
1978.Spencer Kimball announces that the priesthood will be extended to all worthy male members.
Ok, so that’s a rough timeline, and I think it really emphasizes many of the social and political things that were going on in this time period.I think it illustrates well, the many issues the prophets and apostles faced during this time.I just found this website with a chronology on blacks and the priesthood ban at http://www.blacklds.org/history which references LDS and other churches policies regarding blacks. There is another interesting timeline at http://www.xtimeline.com/timeline/Chronology-Pertaining-to-Blacks-and-the-LDS-Priesthood
I’d like to address some of the folklore regarding blacks that happened inside the church, and some of it is still happening today.
Pres John Taylor stated on 2 occasions that blacks were representatives of Satan.Let me quote Darius Gray directly here.“Now you can’t get much worse than that to say that blacks are here so that there can be a balance in all things, and that we are here to represent Satan.Is it doctrinal?No.Will the brethren today support that statement?No.But it was made by the president of the church.So is that doctrine, or is that folklore?That’s folklore.”
Now some church members might be quite uncomfortable with the knowledge that a prophet of God would make such a pronouncement.
Margaret has a great quote on prophetic infallibility.Incidentally, I’ve already blogged on this topic earlier.“We don’t believe in the infallibility of prophets.We think that Brigham Young did some remarkable things in leading the Mormons on that great, historic migration, but he was blind in certain aspects.There is just no question about it.I used the word ‘evolution’ before when talking about Joseph Smith.I see us as a church evolving, consistent with what Joseph Smith talked about in the King Follett discourse, when he talked about, you climb up a ladder in your knowledge.We certainly refer to it in the temple, as we get better.We learn things.We grow from our infancy into our boyhood.We grow from our boyhood (or girlhood) into manhood and womanhood.I’m now 50, and you’d think that I would have figured out a whole lot of stuff, and I still am absolutely flummoxed by situations.
I fully acknowledge that I have a whole lot to learn about many, many areas.This area is one that I have taken a lot of time to find things out about.Other areas, I’m not prepared to talk about.Brigham Young was marvelous in so much of what he did.But the statements that he made, did start a disastrous chain effect.The marvelous thing is that we are a church that believes in continuing revelation.”
She goes on, “I’ve had to pinch my nose, when I read some of the terrible things that have been said by past leaders of the church, understanding the damage that they have done, and the damage that they continue to do, because they are very much with us.We are in the internet age.With the click of a mouse, you can bring up what Brigham Young said on inter-racial marriage.You can bring up what he said about blacks being eternally destined for servitude.They are ugly, ugly statements.
Apostle J.Reuben Clark has said, “They [general authorities] sometimes have spoke out of turn.You will recall, that the prophet Joseph declared that a prophet is not always a prophetâ€¦.Even the president of the church himself, may not always be moved upon by the Holy Ghost when he addresses the people.This has happened about matters of doctrine, usually of a highly speculative character, where subsequent presidents of the church, and the people themselves, have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”
Margaret Young agrees with Clark. “What you see with Joseph Smith is evolution.You see him in the earlier years making statements about the seed of Cain and statements that are reflective of the protestant ideas of the time.But you see him really growing and I personally think that we grow in our acceptance of other nations and peoples as we become acquainted with them.We know for a fact that Joseph Smith had a deep friendship with Elijah Abel, that he had a tender relationship with Jane Manning James, that there were other African-Americans in Nauvoo, and that they knew and loved Joseph Smith, and I suspect that he knew and loved them.
Slavery was repugnant to him. We haven’t gone over all the things that he did.But as mayor, a man was charged with whipping his slave, and Joseph Smith came down very hard on it, [and] the whole idea of anyone being in bondage.When someone asked Joseph Smith, what if this person wants to come to Nauvoo, but he wants to bring 50 slaves with him.The answer was ‘Tell him â€“ Free his slaves, educate them, and then come and join us in Nauvoo.’
So I see a great evolution in Joseph Smith, and that to me is the promising thing for all of us.The more he becomes acquainted with African-Americans within the city, and sees how they embrace the faith, and how they love him, his heart opens up.”
We probably wouldn’t say that he obtained full enlightenment on this because he was very much opposed to inter-racial marriage, and said that they should keep to their own species, and that’s pretty late in his life. Michael Quinn, one of the very knowledgeable church historians talked about Joseph Smith being absolutely radical for his time, in his view, on race.”
Darius, “You can bring up the statements made by, I call them the Orson twins:Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt.This isn’t a question of the glossing over or making pretty, the hideous statements of the past.There were racist statements made.That’s a fact, and I know that.Yet I realize that these were men, and they were fallible, just as you and I are fallible today.Yet, I have a testimony.I am a Latter-Day Saint.I am a religious person here speaking to you.I have a testimony of the truthfulness of this restored gospel.I know that God has to use we, imperfect people to bring about his purposes.So, if imperfect people were called, who had attitudes that were not Christian, it does not demean their calling from God.Brigham Young was a prophet of God. Did he have racial attitudes?Absolutely.
I have to separate the two.Otherwise, I would have been offended by some ward member 30 years ago, 40 years ago, and never had the experiences of being in the gospel these last 41 years. So, I have to make that separation.They were imperfect, not to gloss over it, but recognizing their humanity, and that I too am imperfect.”
It is important that all church members help get rid of racist folklore.Darron Smith related an experience on his mission (in Kalamazoo, MI) regarding racist folklore.“I didn’t know what to believe.I was being to be Mr. Obedient.I was trying to get them an answer that was adequate, and at the time, I thought that was adequate an adequate answer to give.So at that moment, that’s when I began to say, ‘there’s something wrong with this.There’s something really wrong with this’.And I cannot tell you how many missionaries I have spoken to over the years who continually spew this kind of racist folklore. It’s not just missionaries, but well-meaning, and not so well-meaning members of the church, who continue to talk and talk about blacks as if we were cursed, or less than, or inferior, and continually invoke these old racist assumptions by Joseph Fielding Smith, and Brigham Young, and then get pissed off at someone like me, or someone like you, John, when you say, ‘that’s inappropriate.’These men are racist.They have problems.They are products of their time.
[Some will] look at it [and say], ‘no, they’re not racist.They’re men of God,’ as if they are somehow immune from the ills of society.So, that’s been probably one of the most problematic experiences in this endeavor that I have been engaged in, is being absolutely flabbergasted at the blind obedience that many members of the church have, even if it’s racist blind obedience, and failing to think for themselves, and saying ‘what a minute, racism has always been a systemic and persistent, structural anomaly in US society.Why would the church be any different?I know we have such a high regard for our church.I understand that.I’ve been a member long enough to know that.But also, I’ve been a member long enough to know that it’s been always that way, particularly when you are looking as social issues.I think that’s the case for a lot of churches.But for our church, unfortunately, we persisted in this longer than most churches did.”
It is important to remember that there are both good stories, and bad stories of racism within the church.Darron adds, “There’s some schizophrenia with Mormons as well.If you look at the roots of Mormonism, Mormonism started in the Northeast, New York, Palmyra region.So you’ve got primarily an abolitionist spirit in that area during Joseph Smith’s time.You’ve got a lot of Mormons from the Northeast, and from the Midwest, who have very strong abolitionist leanings.So the church was always being constructed in the mid 1800’s to late 1800’s, as an abolitionist movement.That is an adjective that Joseph Smith and others vehemently deny.
But yet, you see some schizophrenia in the way in which the prophet even dealt with the issue.On the one hand, the prophet was very, very sympathetic towards black folks.On the other hand, he believed in the mythology that blacks were cursed.”
Darron gives an example of Joseph’s love and Christianity towards a black man. “There was a slave who had run away to a free state, and he was trying to buy his family’s freedom, and he had a horse.The prophet knew he was breaking the law, if you want to call that breaking the law.Nevertheless, for the story’s sake, the prophet purchased his horse from him, and told him to go back and claim his family.This is not hearsay, by the way.I want your listeners to understand it.This is all documented in church history.This is not like I’m making this up.This is all documented.That particular story can be found in an old journal, called The Woman’s Journal.The Relief Society back then kept notes, wrote, and published things…”
“What [this story] does is it actually complexifies Joseph Smith.Even out of the words of Jane Manning James, Elijah Abel, they had high regard for Joseph Smith.Jane Manning James was considered one of Joseph’s family members, even in her own words.There was a lot of respect and admiration for the prophet, Joseph Smith.Most of that changed during Brigham Young’s administration.”
Regarding racism in general, both white and black people need to help get rid of it.“We’re all complicit in it.We want to excuse these experiences, and erase them, and Pollyanna our past, and not really deal with the things that vex us even today as members of the church.So, rather than address these issues of race, and really confront these issues honestly, and forthrightly, we pretend that they don’t exist, or stonewall, or create verbal gymnastics to get around the issue, which continually make Mormons look suspect in the eyes of those who otherwise, may even consider the church an option as a theological and religious option.So we really do shoot ourselves in the foot.
One of the things that I told one high ranking member of the church about this issues is that not coming clean with this issue really puts black people in a really bad situation, because black people then have to defend a racist policy.Blacks have to bear the burdens of white racist sentiment.It’s just that simple, because white people can walk away and say, the church is still true, and this has nothing to do with the church being true, or anybody being false prophets.
It has to do with integrity.It has to do with the very thing that the church teaches us as members of the church:to reconcile.Ask for forgiveness.Atone for our past.We teach that on any given Sunday, on any given week.We’re teaching our families the importance of forgiveness, the importance of atonement.Then we refuse to atone.That’s a bad example.I think it’s an awful example.”
It is important to acknowledge the past, and not hide from it.Darius said, “We need to heal.We need to be able to acknowledge, as they did in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.We need to acknowledge the realities of the past.We need to speak openly to the current reality and sensitivity and bigotry, and we need to be able to heal, and move forward as true brothers and sisters.”
John Dehlin, “Once I started reading that there were minutes of these discussions where the brethren were deciding all these issues, it really blew open my conception of how decisions might get made.I naively have always that when an important decision needed to be made from the church, the prophet goes up to the Holy of Holies, he prays, a light comes down from above, and he gets out his pen and pencil, and writes down what the new policy or instruction is.But when I read a little more about the history, I see that they way that things are dealt with are very real, and make a lot more sense to me.If you can, talk a little more about that an LDS person hearing that even this topic was debated, and that there were various issues, what do you come away with how decisions are made and how different parties or personalities play in these types of important decisions for the church?”
Greg, “Different decisions are made differently.That’s not a way of sidestepping the issue, it’s just stating the reality, and that is, you have the personality of the president, and how he may approach a topic, and then you may have the topic.In some cases, it will be a matter of open discussion between the First Presidency and the Quorum of the 12.In other cases, it may be very private.In the case of the Provo and Ogden temples, President McKay made that decision without ever taking it to the Quorum of the 12.They found out about it after the fact.”
He goes on, “There were other cases where such as this where it became a matter of open discussion with divergent opinions, and on that particular one, the sentiment of the Quorum of the 12 carried the day.So, it depends on who it is at the time, and it depends on what the issue is.Now the example that you gave, of the president retiring to the temple, alone, is exactly what happened with Spencer Kimball went over to the temple, and ultimately got the revelation that changed the policy of blacks and priesthood and ordination.So it can go either way, depending on the person, and depending on the issue.”
John, “As a coping mechanism, I agree that a decision can come straight to the prophet.But I hold open the possibility that God sometimes needs the apostles to be on board, not just intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually as well, and that it’s possible that the Lord can even allow things to wait until he feels like the apostles are all of one heart and one mind.”
Some people will ask, Why did it take a revelation to change the policy?Greg answers this question, “The basic policy remained intact, because he felt, as did President Kimball, that it would take a revelation to change it, and in fact, it did take a revelation to change it.The first time that President McKay nibbled at the policy was in 1954 when he went down to South Africa, and changed the rules for genealogical research.
The impact worldwide was not great at all, but it was a major effect on the South African mission.Subsequently, on occasion, he would do other things that though they didn’t change the policy, indicated that he was certainly willing to stretch it.Fro instance on occasion, there would be a proposed marriage and the issue would be raised that one of the couple apparently had African blood.On those occasions, he would err on the side of leniency, and say that he was prepared to defend that decision before the Savior and let the marriage go through.
Greg continues, No, he [McKay] did not change the policy, and it took another 8 years after his death for the policy to change.We have to believe that he was preparing the gournd that later proved fertile for President Kimball, so that revelation could take place.”
John Dehlin, “How do you come out on the issue of revelation, and how revelation works through prophets, and specifically, what revelation looked like and how it worked for Pres McKay?”
Greg, “The over-riding conclusion in this and other areas, when you look at Pres McKay’s administration is that revelation is process, not an event.True, there may be events involved in it, but this is a long haul.There’s a lot of work involved.There’s a lot of questioning, and research, a lot of sweat equity.So you have to take it in over the long haul and say that it really is a process that is punctuated occasionally by events.In the case of blacks and priesthood, for Pres McKay, this was an intensely personal issue.
He didn’t solicit much in the way of input from outsiders, and in fact, he rebuffed repeated attempts from those outside the church, from those outside the hierarchy, and occasionally even from inside the hierarchy, who tried to force his hand on the issue.This is in sharp distinction to other areas such as the development of the international church, where he welcomed, and readily appropriated suggestions from throughout the world to advance internationally.So you can’t just draw a single model that would govern the way revelation occurs in the church.It is like a multi-faceted gemstone.What you see depends on the vantage point that you’re observing it, and the mode of revelation that may come into play on a particular subject is going to a combination of what the subject is, what the timing is, and quite importantly, what the nature of the president of the church is.
The same thing is applicable on an individual level.As you face dilemmas in your own life, and you’re seeking inspiration to try to guide you, it’s not likely that there’s going to be a single discrete event that’s going to give you the answer.Yes, it can happen, but generally it doesn’t.And this is why I think it’s so important to look at the administration of Pres McKay, because we have so much detail that we can look at and understand it, and apply that to the individual’s lives, because I think that the rules are the same.So that’s the take home lesson on this.If you understand what happened in the Mckay years, you can understand what happening in the church today, because the process is the same, and you can apply that to your own life.”
I look forward to your comments.