Shooting down Priesthood Ban Myths

On February 25, Scott Gordon president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) sent out a newsletter to subscribers noting that February is Black History Month.  Gordon explained why black history matters, and explained 3 myths about the ban.  Just 3 days later, Professor Randy Bott created a stir when he tried to explain why the priesthood ban took place.  Bott stated that (from the Provo Daily Herald)

“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, he said. He quoted Mormon scripture stating that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.”

Bott compared blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explained that, similarly, until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?”

Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

Scott Gordon, President of FAIR

It was nice to see Gordon’s “pre-emptive strike.”  Here’s what Gordon said in an email sent to subscribers. (Emphasis mine)

February is black history month. Many white members of The Church will say “who cares?” or “good for them!” or even “aren’t they over that yet?” and move on about their daily tasks. That’s unwise. With the presidential election in full swing, our faith and our history of race relations has come under the spotlight of public scrutiny and the intensity will continue to grow. As that happens, I am hopeful that we as members are educated to move the discussion forward instead of saying things that are harmful to the Church and hurtful to many of our members.

The United States has a long history of difficult race relations. My home teacher served in the Air Force in the South, and was shocked
when he found it unlawful to share a cab off base with his black friend. They couldn’t go into the same restaurants or get their hair cut at the same barbershops. This was in the days of segregated restrooms and water fountains. Most of us, as members, have never had state laws dictating where we are allowed to go and with whom we are allowed to congregate. People can’t tell by looking at you if you are Mormon.

Many of us live in areas that are not racially integrated, so we have never had to examine our long-held beliefs and traditions. Just to give a hint of my thoughts on this–having one or two non-white members of your ward doesn’t really allow you to claim you have a lot of experience in race relations. The reality is that most Mormons live in the Western United States, which has a much lower concentration of blacks. In those those states where LDS are 5% or more of the population, the percentage of blacks does not reach the national average.

USA      12.6%
Idaho     0.6%
Wyoming   0.8%
Utah      1.1%
Arizona   4.1%
Nevada    8.1%

Even in California, which has a large population of Church members, the percentage of blacks is only 6.2%, still below the national average. If one factors in how many blacks actually attend Church with you, it highlights the reality that you probably don’t
frequently interact with black Americans. This translates into never needing to examine your traditions and beliefs. Even if you don’t
have a racist bone in your body and you love all people as children of God, you may still not realize that some things you say are
hurtful or simply untrue.

Here is a list of three myths that are often repeated, and simply must stop.

Myth #1: Blacks couldn’t have the priesthood because they had the curse or mark of Cain

This belief was commonly held by many Protestant denominations in early American history. It was often used as a justification for slavery and reached its peak about the time of the Civil War. Many people who joined the LDS Church brought this teaching into the Church with them. Most Protestants later changed their talking points on this to say the children of Cain were wiped out during Noah’s flood, so the cursing came though the flood through Ham.  Therefore, the more modern phrasing of this belief is the so-called “curse of Ham.” But the curse of Cain continued to be taught in the then geographically isolated LDS Church.

While the scriptures do talk about a mark being put on Cain, there is no scriptural explanation of what that mark may be or how it relates to the priesthood. One member of my high priest quorum suggested the mark is likely to be male pattern baldness.

There is a scripture in the Book of Moses talking about the children of Canaan being black (Moses 7:8), but there is no given connection between Cain and Canaan. Just because a name sounds similar, doesn’t make it the same.

Even in the Book of Abraham, the priesthood restrictions were not put on “blacks”, but on the lineage of the Egyptian Pharaoh. This was at the time of Abraham, long before Jesus Christ. If you were alive at that time, it is likely you would have been restricted from that priesthood as well.

Myth #2: Blacks were neutral or less valiant in the pre-existence

This terrible teaching was repudiated by none other than Brigham Young himself. Unfortunately, it continued to be perpetuated by many members throughout our history, and even ended up in books authored by Joseph Fielding Smith.

In an interview, apostle Jeffery R. Holland said the following: “One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated.

… I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it.  All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.”

For those who are troubled by the fact that explanations given repudiated, we have to look at the words of Bruce R. McConkie, who was originally a proponent of those theories. He said, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

“We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter anymore.”

Myth #3: The best example to explain blacks not having the priesthood comes from the Levites. The Levites were able to hold the priesthood, while others were not. This shows how God restricts people of certain lineages from receiving the priesthood just like he did with blacks.

While it may be true that Levites could hold the priesthood while others could not, it has little to do with this issue. The ancient practice where only one group is able to exercise the priesthood and work in the temple has little in common with modern times when everyone is able to hold the priesthood except for one group.  Repeating this claim as an explanation doesn’t provide adequate support for the argument, and the claim completely falls apart when we recognize that Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, William Smith, and Orson Hyde all ordained blacks to the priesthood in the 1830s and 1840s. The explanation is not helpful and can be hurtful.

So why couldn’t blacks have the priesthood? Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.”

Men are slow to change in their beliefs. Even in the New Testament, Peter had to be lifted beyond his prejudice to sit and eat with the Gentiles. I hope we all take the time to familiarize ourselves with this topic and not perpetuate the hurtful and harmful myths that have been repeated for so long.

It is worth an hour or two of our time to read several articles on Mormonism and race, so we can help those around us. It will help us relating to African-Americans who join the Church. It will help us in teaching our children in such a way that they won’t make hurtful assumptions. It will help us in keeping our children from falling away as they learn about this past practice. Finally, it will help us in explaining our beliefs to those outside of our faith. It is not only simply worth our time to learn about black history, it is essential.

–Scott Gordon
President of FAIR

If only Brother Bott read FAIR before speaking to the Washington Post!  I don’t agree with Bott, and I do agree with FAIR.  Myth #3 is interesting to me. It was pointed out to me that Official Church website says

Ever since biblical times, the Lord has designated through His prophets who could receive the priesthood and other blessings of the gospel. Among the tribes of Israel, for example, only men of the tribe of Levi were given the priesthood and allowed to officiate in certain ordinances. Likewise, during the Savior’s earthly ministry, gospel blessings were restricted to the Jews. Only after a revelation to the Apostle Peter were the gospel and priesthood extended to others (see Acts 10:1–33; 14:23; 15:6–8).

See http://www.lds.org/study/topics/priesthood-ordination-before-1978?lang=eng

It seems that FAIR is not in line with the church website there, and in fact, the church website seems to agree with Randy Bott’s conclusions, despite disavowing them.

Where is Correlation when you need them? On this issue, I am siding with FAIR, but one can easily see why Bott thought his explanation was in line with the church.

As Gordon stated, ‘Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “I don’t know what the reason was.”‘  This just isn’t a satisfactory response, as many people will try to fill in the gaps, such as Randy Bott.  Even FAIR doesn’t give a very good answer–they give the party line that nobody knows.  So the church has a bunch of unsatisfying responses to the problem.  Most people try to speculate, as Bott did, or accuse the church of racism.  While Hinckley states that the church has “rectified” the problem in 1978, it leaves a wound to fester uncleansed.

There are many who call for the Church to simply state the obvious: early leaders were racist.  Some people think this is a bad idea, because it will undercut the church’s authority as divinely guided.  On the other hand, such a response would be welcomed by others as refreshingly candid, and it could lead to more blacks joining the church, and resulting in a net gain of converts.

What do you think would be the repercussions if the Church stated the ban was racist?

8 comments on “Shooting down Priesthood Ban Myths

  1. “The ancient practice where only one group is able to exercise the priesthood and work in the temple has little in common with modern times when everyone is able to hold the priesthood except for one group.”

    Well, if you factor out women and homosexual men, then “everyone” was able to hold the priesthood.

  2. I agree, the Church should come out and say it. They should start with the fact that the very earliest leaders, ie. Joseph Smith, and others, did ordain blacks to the priesthood, as Myth 3 explains, and then move into the most likely reason it stopped, ie. racism. Racism was a big problem all around the U.S. I think you’re right, it would be very refreshing and I think would make it easier for blacks to get over the “controversy”.

  3. I would feel better about the church stating the ban was racist if we could at least point to some historical documents supporting that position. There is a lot of junk in the church archives. Are there any out right racist writings of early church leaders? The ban remained until 1978. Are there any writings up to that point that are a smoking gun? Overall, I don’t know quite what to think about the priesthood ban. There are several other doctrines and practices that have no support or explanation, such as the prohibition against sealing living women to more than one man. All of us want to conclude that racism was the basis, but I haven’t read anything yet that points to it. As a Saint who grew up and still lives in the gulf South, I rub elbows with people of color day in and day out. I do have experience with black members of the church, though there are relatively few in number. Most protestant churches are still segregated around here, meaning there are just as many “black” churches as there are “white” churches. It will be a long time before we are truly a color blind society. I don’t think a public statement by the church will influence more blacks to join the church, at least not in the south. I don’t think it would hurt, but I don’t think it will mean much to the average southern black person.

  4. For the church (via its prophet and seer) to come out and say that the early church leaders were racist would require the the prophet receive a revelation that such were the case. To do so without such a conformation would be presumptuous and judgmental. When a man like Gordon B. Hinckley says, “I don’t know,” it may be an unsatisfying answer, but I believe that he was telling the truth.
    Whatever the original reason, which none of us can know with any degree of certainty without some type of revelation, we do know that it was lifted by revelation.
    At this time, the point is really moot. But this issue is much like the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Spaulding/Rigdon Book of Mormon authorship theory; dead horses that refuse to die.


  5. Glenn, I plan a post to discuss racism that you may find interesting within a week or so. Briefly, I don’t think the prophet is the sole authority on what constitutes racism.

  6. Mormon Heretic :
    Glenn, I plan a post to discuss racism that you may find interesting within a week or so. Briefly, I don’t think the prophet is the sole authority on what constitutes racism.

    MH, I agree with you on that point. I think that god is the sole authority on what constitutes racism. But I will be interested in your post.


  7. […] Randy Bott’s comments in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, the subject of the Priesthood Ban has become a hot topic of late.  Jeff Spector […]

  8. The LDS ban on blacks holding the priesthood until 1978 was started by Brigham Young who was a racist. The ban persisted so long because many of the leaders and members were also racist during that period. All the excuses given to justify it by leaders and members were stupid and easily proven wrong by the churches own doctrine. During all this time the church was teaching a doctrine which has never been refuted and is taught to this day. That doctrine contradicted the stupid ‘blacks were inferior or less valiant b.s.” It is that ALL children who die before the age of eight go to the highest degree of glory; the Celestial Kingdom. Yes, even black children. All good Mormons hope to go there. Since Brigham started this travesty millions and millions of black children have died before turning eight. And nobody in the church has ever said those kids wouldn’t go to the Celestial Kingdom. Amazing nobody thought this through.

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