Scholarship History of the Priesthood Ban

The Priesthood ban for black members of the church is a pet topic of mine.  I have previously discussed Early Black Mormons who held the priesthood, as well as a long 10,000 word article discussing events leading to the ban.  Newell Bringhurst and Darron Smith have put together a list of 9 essays highlighting different studies about black members of the church in their book titled Black and Mormon.  Besides Bringhurst and Smith, contributors include Alma Allred, Ronald Coleman, Darius Gray, Jessie Embry, Armaund Mauss, Cardell Jacobsen, and Ken Driggs.  Racial issues in the church have long held my interest, and I thought it might be nice to discuss the book over a few posts.

On page 4, the two authors note that the church has “obscured and/or misrepresented in official church publications.”  For example, shortly after the revelation was announced in 1978, the June 17 issue of the Church News did not acknowledge that

Joseph Smith had allowed for the ordination of blacks as founder and leader of the LDS Church; and second, that Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith, initiated a practice of denying blacks the priesthood.

The church is finally starting to acknowledge some of these facts.  On page 29, Bringhurst noted that Apostle M Russell Ballard attended the dedication of a monument to Elijah Abel on Sept 28, 2002.  Ballard remarked that Abel was

“one of the few black members to receive the priesthood in the early Church.”  In stating that “black members were not allowed to hold the priesthood from 1852 to 1978,” Ballard conceded, “We don’t know all the reasons why the Lord does what he does….It’s difficult to know why all things happen.”71

In Chapter 1 of the book, Bringhurst explains the changing scholarship between 1945 to present concerning the priesthood ban.  Fawn Brodie in her 1945 book No Man Knows My History put forth the “Missouri Thesis” as an explanation for the priesthood ban.  In a nutshell, she said that conflicts between slave-supporting Missourians and anti-slavery Mormons erupted into problems.  The Mormons, in order to accommodate Missouri sensibilities, acquiesced on the issue and became more pro-slave.  Brodie noted that the Book of Abraham upheld that descendants of Ham should be servants of all, and that blacks should be denied the priesthood.

At first, other scholars supported the Missouri Thesis.  In the 1950s and 1960s, several authors supported the Missouri Thesis, with Stephen Taggart’s 1970 article being the most influential (called Mormonism’s Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins.)  He noted WW Phelps 1833 article called “Free People of Color” caused non-Mormons to accuse Latter-day Saints of “tampering with our slaves” which could “instigate them to bloodshed.”  In an “Extra”, Phelps responded that the article was “misunderstood”, but non-Mormons soon destroyed the Mormon printing press.  Taggart called this incident “the first hint of the emergence of the practice of excluding Negroes from the priesthood.”  Taggart said that the Extra “illustrates the process by which social stress was the instrumental factor in causing the Missouri Mormons to abandon their northern attitudes in favor of an anti-negro posture.”9 Taggart did note that some blacks tried to be baptized in 1835 or 1836 but there was a lack of “general consensus or Church-wide policy covering the subject [or black priesthood ordination] as late as 1838”, but there was no theological justification for denying the priesthood to blacks at this early period.  Bringhurst notes on page 17 that

“With the publication of the Book of Abraham [in 1842] all elements for the Church’s policy of denying the priesthood were present,” Taggart wrote, although he conceded that the “ordination of Negroes continued within the Church as late as 1841.”20

In 1970, Lester Bush disputed some of Taggart’s claims.  Also from page 17,

Bush concedes that Taggart’s study “appear[s] more comprehensive than previous treatments, and…cites some uncommon, though seemingly very relevant references.”  Thus it gave the “impression that a very good case is being made.”  But despite its “generally accurate and well-documented rehearsal of the Jackson County period,” Bush found that it was marred “by an increasing incidence of speculative statements and secondary sources, and a sprinkling of factual errors….Most disturbingly…a number of relevant points [were] omitted from” Taggart’s treatments of “Mormon history and doctrine and the general setting in which they arose.”23

Bush challenged Taggart’s undocumented assertion “that the early Mormons, were, in fact, abolitionists.”  Bush also questioned Taggart’s effort to place the origins of the Mormon black priesthood denial in the 1830s and found unconvincing the 1879 testimonies of Coltrin and Smoot.

[page 18] Bush questioned Taggart’s assertion that Joseph Smith intended the Book of Abraham as a “theological justification” for black priesthood denial.  Bush pointed to Taggart’s own admission that the Book of Abraham was “vague and cannot by itself be said to justify denying the priesthood to Negroes.”  Bush also noted the “lack of evidence that Joseph Smith ever used the book of Abraham to justify priesthood denial (nor apparently did any other Church leader, until the Utah period.)”25 In fact, according to Bush,the earliest or “first known documentation of the policy of priesthood denial” came in 1849, five years after Joseph Smith’s death.  “There remains no period source to support the contention that Joseph Smith was the author of [Mormon black priesthood denial].”  Bush conceded that “Joseph Smith did express the then-prevalent opinion that Negroes were descendants of Canaan and Cain; yet he did not relate this to the priesthood in any account now available.”26

So, we have a difference of opinion as to whether the Missouri Thesis was a correct interpretation for the implementation of the Priesthood ban.  Since the 1970’s most scholars have questioned the Missouri Thesis, including Ronald K Esplin, Michael Quinn, and Armaund Mauss to name a few.  Bringhurst sums up the scholarship to present on page 28,

In conclusion, what is the significance of all of these varied scholarly examinations?  It is evident that both Fawn M. Brodie and Stephen L. Taggart overstated their cases relative to the Mormon Missouri experience.  What about the contradictory, sometimes conflicting findings of John L. Brooker, D. Michael Quinn, Armaund L. Mauss, Robert Ben Madison, Rex E. Cooper, Klaus Hansen, and Lester Bush?  What do they tell us about the LDS presence in Missouri relative to evolving Mormon attitudes on race and the place of blacks?

In a sense, one is left with more questions than answers.  But what is clear is that the Mormon sojourn in Missouri left a mixed legacy–both negative and positive.  On the negative side, the Mormon presence in Missouri caused Joseph Smith and other church spokesmen to express tolerance for black slavery, which was most evident in the church’s official 1835 statement in which the Latter-day Saints pledged not to “interfere with bond-servants” or “influence them to become dissatisfied with their situations.”  This statement was eventually incorporated as section 134:12 in the Doctrine and Covenants and thus accepted as Mormon church canon.

[page 29] In contrast on the positive size is the fact that Mormon black priesthood denial did not emerge during the 1830s, despite the negative developments outlined above, all of which occurred as the Latter-Day Saints struggled to establish their Missouri Zion.  Thus, the central tenet of the Missouri thesis lacks historical credibility.  In fact, the practice of Mormon black priesthood denial was not implemented until 1847, three years after the death of Joseph Smith.  Moreover, at least two African American Latter-day Saints received their priesthood ordinations during the Mormon prophet’s lifetime–the most noteworthy being Elijah Abel.

While there were certainly problems in Missouri, how much of an impact on the priesthood ban were these problems?

10 comments on “Scholarship History of the Priesthood Ban

  1. I have no idea, but I find it disappointing that church leadership still blames the injustice on the Lord:

    “We don’t know all the reasons why the Lord does what he does”

  2. […] the conference center, however, there were quite a lot of fascinating discussions about Mormonism and race (note: the Mormons aren’t the only ones who have race […]

  3. Couldn’t agree more, Bishop Rick. It seems almost blasphemous to me to pin the priesthood ban on the Lord. It’s a cop-out — one that, unfortunately, I hear members of my family repeatedly using. I guess in their minds, it’s a way of making peace with with the matter in order to stay in the Church. And I think it’s a strategy that the Church knows will continue to work as long historical facts are removed or glossed-over in the official manuals, which are the only source of historical information for most Mormons.

  4. I must agree with both of you. The leaders are in a bit of a box. They want to show that God is in charge, so they have to blame everything on him–good and bad. I just don’t think God’s in charge of the bad stuff, and I don’t think he’s as involved in every church policy. Clearly some things are more inspired than others.

  5. This is a fascinating story. I appreciate what you have written here a great deal. By the way the monument that Elder Ballard dedicated is in the Salt Lake Cemetery and it is the gravesite of Elder Elijah Abel and his family.

  6. Hi FD, sorry about our disagreement over Islam. Hope there are no hard feelings. I know I have strong, controversial views about that subject and need to curb my dialog a bit.
    FYI – this is not a thread jack, just a peace offering.

  7. No problem, Bishop Rick. It’s been forgotten — literally. 😀 I can’t quite recall what our disagreement was over, but maybe it was more about the NYC mosque than Islam itself. I’m generally sympathetic towards Muslims than Islam, as strange as that may sound, but I suppose it’s much the same with Mormons and Mormonism.

  8. Nice post. I’m an odd duck. I’m not an active member in any way, shape or form but I have faith in the restored gospel. I’m not the typical member that, “knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the church is true.” That statement implies factual knowledge but instead they should claim to have the spiritual gift to, “believe upon the words of others.”
    Anyway, blacks and the priesthoods has always intrigued me. Church leaders can and do make mistakes. No biggie. Look at Ezekiel 18. He gets slapped silly by God, telling him not to teach a “false” proverb anymore. Prophets make mistakes. A person’s faith should not be based on a church leader’s perfection in the first place. Whether it was Ezekiel himself or someone who record that text in the Bible it lets us know mistakes happen. I agree with all of you that, IF there was not divine inspiration in denying the blacks the priesthood, own up to it. Anyone who “goes astray” obviously “knew the book of mormon was true” but did not have any faith in the lord.
    Then again, I’m not even an active member so what do I know?

  9. Mel Tungate collected excellent material on the history of blacks and the priesthood, before there were blogs.


    I wish we had more of a culture where we could say things like–the church membership was unrighteous and that’s we brought upon ourselves a lack of black ordinations. Blacks weren’t the problem, but the racism of the (largely white racist) body at large.

    There’s good traditions in our faith we can draw from for this–we always talk about how the higher law was taken away from Israel because of the golden calf, and the levitical law with its ten commandments given instead. We talk about Amlicites bringing a curse upon themselves and marking themselves. Because obviously, it is those of us who prevented black ordinations who cut ourselves out, depriving ourselves of the blessings of full fellowship with black saints, marking ourselves as racists to our descendants out to four generations.

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