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Former ban on black priests still reverberates through Mormon faith
Religion, race and politics » If Romney gets the nomination, the nation’s first Mormon presidential nominee will challenge the first black president.

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The ground floor of the Joseph Smith building, which houses BYU’s religion department, showcases a likeness of the golden tablets from which Joseph Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon. Paintings upstairs depict the Lamanites, the tribe in Mormon scripture that bears dark skin as a sign of God’s curse.

In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, "were black." One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

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It’s not clear whether Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, who ordained at least one black priest, supported the ban. But his successor, Brigham Young, enforced it enthusiastically as the word of God, supporting slavery in Utah and decreeing that the "mark" on Cain was "the flat nose and black skin." Young subsequently urged immediate death to any participant in mixing of the races. As recently as 1949, church leaders suggested that the ban on blacks resulted from the consequences of the "conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence." As a result, many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades.

"God has always been discriminatory" when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people "all that he seeth fit." Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains 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."

The current president of the Genesis Group, Don Harwell, considers such thinking vile. Driving to a local shooting range, he pulls over to find a bit of Mormon scripture on his iPhone.

"He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free," reads Harwell. "I have it right here."

Harwell joined the church 30 years ago after his "womanizing" ended his marriage. As a young man, he considered Mormons "racists" for their ban on black priests, but in 1983 he met a women who was Mormon and underwent a profound spiritual conversion. That marriage eventually didn’t work out because "it was hard for white girls married to black guys" in those days, he says.

At the Magna Gun Club, he opens up his rifle case, which displays a business card identifying him as the Genesis Group president, and laments the lousy shooting conditions with his friends — overwhelmingly white, Mormon and regretful of their church’s past.

On the drive back to Salt Lake, Harwell makes it clear he does not appreciate any attempt to connect the historic plight of blacks in the church to Romney, whom he strongly supports.

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"This is the only stuff they can come up with," Harwell says, referring to Romney’s political enemies. While he gives credit to church leaders who agitated against the ban, he acquits rank-and-file members who remained quiet. "We have prophets, seers and revelators as our leaders, and we have to follow them," Harwell says, emphasizing that Romney "had no control over what the church did."

As Romney left Utah and moved to Massachusetts, a debate raged in Mormon intellectual circles between those who accepted the ban as doctrine and those who considered it a temporal policy. Progressives argued that the ban’s origins lay in pioneers seeking to appease anti-abolitionists as they passed through Missouri.

In 1973, Lester E. Bush, an amateur Mormon historian, made a strong case that no church president had ever received a revelation instituting the ban and thus no revelation was required to lift it. The next year, in the face of a potential NAACP lawsuit, the hierarchy quietly reversed another policy against performing baptisms of the dead and allowed other sacred rites "for people who had any Negro blood in their veins." But the major issue was still the priesthood.

"There were internal conversations at the highest levels," said Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and religion.

Romney remained disengaged with the issue. "I don’t remember conversing with him about it," said Barlow, who served as a counselor to Romney in the Boston church. Romney "was a very practical leader, not a theologian, not a historian, not a scholar but a business genius."

In June 1978, Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that God has "heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come" in which "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."

The lifting of the ban, which, like the church’s anti-polygamy Manifesto, is now part of church scripture, was an indelible moment that many Mormons consider the most emotional in their lives. Romney has said he pulled his car over to the side of the road to weep with joy upon learning of the lifting of the ban. "Even at this day it’s emotional," he said in 2007 on "Meet the Press."

Only five months after his revelation, Kimball dedicated a flagship temple in Brazil, a key gateway for expansion for a growing church. Soon after, the church sought to cleanse the aura of racism from church textbooks and, in 1981, even from a scriptural passage, in which a righteous tribe is described as "pure" rather than "white."

More than three decades later, the church says it still doesn’t know where the ban came from.

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