This year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is celebrating the receipt of Official Declaration 2. The revelation, published by the LDS First Presidency in June 1978, proclaims that all worthy men, regardless of race, can hold priesthood office.
However, the Declaration’s importance is not limited to male ordination. It also ended a restriction against peoples of African descent participating in the LDS temple ordinances, which Mormons believe allow family relationships to continue after death. This underdiscussed effect of the revelation can be seen in African American Mormon reactions to the Declaration in 1978.
For instance, Shirley Frazier, a black Mormon woman married to a white Mormon man, explained that she had long waited to make her relationship a “temple marriage … She did not think that this would happen for her or her family in her lifetime.”
As Latter-day Saints celebrate the receipt of Official Declaration 2, we should think about the men, women and children who could not enjoy the blessings of the sealing ordinance as well as male ordination.
My historical training helped me to see Mormonism’s racial restriction as a temple restriction that later became a prohibition against black men holding priesthood. To understand the logic upon which the restriction was predicated, one must understand that Mormons did not always define “priesthood" as the LDS Church does today.
At that time, “sealing” did not necessarily mean “marriage,” as it does in modern LDS parlance. It merely meant that individuals had been religiously attached to one another through Mormon temple ordinances. As historian Jonathan Stapley has shown, 19th century Mormons believed that being sealed to righteous men and their wives would guarantee their salvation. Righteous couples that had others sealed to them were responsible for ensuring the salvation of those that were sealed to them and were promised greater blessings and glory for each person sealed to them. Those that had participated in the sealing ordinance were believed to have become part of “priesthood order,” similar to Jesuit priests.
In other words, Mormons believed that there were two priesthoods. The first reflects modern understandings, a church office that endows those acting under its authority in God’s name. The second was a name for the group of individuals who had received the sealing ordinance.
When Brigham Young gave the first public justification for withholding temple ordinances from peoples of black African descent in 1852, he referred to the ways that Latter-day Saints envisioned eternal families at the time. Young, speaking as governor of Utah Territory, but also serving as president of the LDS Church, made a new claim about why he thought that Black Africans were “cursed,” as many people in the 19th century believed. He posited that Cain’s murder of Abel had prevented Abel from receiving the glory and blessings of having many people sealed to him.
Young’s logic, built upon the contemporary understanding of the LDS sealing ordinance, required that no black Africans (whom he called the “children of Cain”) could become a part of the “priesthood” comprised of those that had received the sealing ordinance.
This second definition of “priesthood” fell out of use by the time Mormonism’s racial restriction was formalized decades later, which has contributed to the idea that we don’t know “why” the LDS Church enacted its racial restriction.
In the year of Official Declaration 2’s 40th birthday, we cannot forget the racial restriction’s effects on men, women and children who could not partake in ordinances that made families eternal. It is part of our duties as members of a church that “unequivocally condemn[s] all racism, past and present, in any form.”
Joseph Stuart is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Utah and a lifelong Latter-day Saint.