Recent research into the history of the LDS priesthood/temple ban on blacks — which ended June 8, 1978 — puts the prohibition’s origin squarely on the shoulders of Mormonism’s iconic pioneer-prophet: Brigham Young.
The racial policy, which barred black men and boys from being ordained to the church’s all-male priesthood and women and girls from its temples for more than a century, caused endless pain and suffering to Mormons of African descent. And it clearly contradicted universalist LDS teachings that “all are alike unto God” as well as the doctrine that consequences of sin are not passed down through the generations.
What does that suggest, then, about Young, a man beloved and revered by so many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Her ancestor was not “a racist or a bigot,” says Mary Ellen Elggren, chairwoman of the Brigham Young Family Association and a great-great-granddaughter of the famed Mormon leader.
There were practical reasons for the restrictions, says Elggren and other descendants, who point with pride to their ancestor’s leadership, vision and vitality.
In the era of slavery, many churches split over the race issue, she says, which may have pushed Young to create racial distinctions to avoid schism and bloodshed.
“It is important for us to realize the [social and political] climate,” says Truman Clawson, a great-grandson of Young, “and what was taking place in the country.”
The successor to Mormon founder Joseph Smith had seen his people driven out of their homes in Missouri and Illinois, had faced U.S. government assaults and endured persecution on every side.
“Brigham loved Joseph, but he had a different mission,” Clawson says. “[Young’s] mission was to save the church any way he could. He did whatever it took to preserve the church.”
In the end, though, believers may never fully grasp why the ban was needed at all, only that, as Elggren says, “it was God’s will.”
Historians, however, have to deal with more earthbound explanations.
Changing views on race
In at least four scriptural passages, Smith notes that his gospel message was for “all creatures” — without any racial or ethnic distinctions.
And, though the nascent faith was born into a 19th-century America fractured by slavery, blacks were welcome participants in the growing church. Several men, including Elijah Abel, were even ordained to the all-male priesthood and participated in temple rituals in Kirtland, Ohio, according to the LDS Church’s official "Race and the Priesthood” essay.
During the final years of Smith’s life, his views on race evolved, says University of Utah historian Paul Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,”
When running for U.S president in 1844, Smith built an anti-slavery platform, arguing for “government-funded gradual emancipation of slaves,” Reeve says in a “Mormon Land” podcast for The Salt Lake Tribune.
The charismatic LDS leader also insisted that “any perceived inferiority of black people is only because of their lack of opportunity,” Reeve notes. “If given equal chances, blacks could arise to the same level or above white Americans.”
That was a “pretty dramatic notion of racial equality,” the scholar says. “It was quite atypical for 1840s America.”
To this point, Young seemed to share the founder’s vision.
In 1847, three years after Smith’s murder, Young praised Q. Walker Lewis, a black man who had been ordained to the priesthood, saying, “We have one of the best elders, an African.”
By 1852, however, Young would declare that all blacks bore a “curse” and would no longer be eligible for Mormon priesthood or temple privileges.
So what happened?
Fears of interracial marriage
After the long exodus across the country to the Rocky Mountains, the Latter-day Saints had resettled in the Great Basin, where they attracted converts from all over, including the Deep South.
“The universal nature of Mormonism had welcomed a wide spectrum into the gospel community,” Reeve says, “including free blacks, white slaveholders and black slaves, abolitionists and anti-abolitionists.”
It was up to Young and other leaders to sort out how to govern this brew of believers. And the issue of interracial marriage — amid fears of “race mixing” — raised its ugly head.
In a February 1852 speech before the Utah Territorial Legislature, Young set up a racial hierarchy, drawing on the biblical tale of Cain killing his brother Abel, the same story Southern Christians had used to defend slavery.
“The Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the priesthood nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Abel had received the priesthood, until the redemption of the earth,” Young intoned to the legislators. “If there never was a prophet, or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. ...Were the children of God to mingle their seed with the seed of Cain, it would not only bring the curse of being deprived of the power of the priesthood upon themselves but entail it upon their children after them, and they cannot get rid of it.”
Some LDS historians, however, draw on different passages to come to alternative conclusions about Young’s role.
Ronald K. Esplin, a Young biographer and president of the Brigham Young Center Foundation, points to the leader’s remarks suggesting he may have had some kind of divine communication on that matter.
Clearly, Esplin says, Young believed the ban did not come from him and was not his to change.
“A man who has the African blood in him cannot hold one jot nor tittle of the priesthood. Why? Because they are the true eternal principles the Lord Almighty had ordained,” Young said in the same 1852 speech. “Who can help it — men cannot, the angels cannot, and all the powers of earth and hell cannot take it off, but thus saith the Eternal, ‘I am, what I am, I take it off at my pleasure,’ and not one particle of power can that posterity of Cain have, until the time comes he says he will have it taken away. That time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more.”
The historical record is “ambiguous,” Esplin says. “Whether he learned these views from Joseph Smith or whether they came from his experience with [interracial marriage] or from God, I don’t think we know.”
The LDS Church’s own essay, though, does not mention any revelation to Young to establish the ban but rather only societal influences on the man considered by many to be “Lion of the Lord.”
Still, Young’s descendants, including Elggren, believe their prophet was prophesying a “temporary ban, and could foresee the future when it would be removed.”
“Brigham said the day would come when black members would receive all the blessings they were denied,” Elggren says, “ — ‘and more.’”
So when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball reported receiving a “revelation” on June 1, 1978, ending the priesthood prohibition (it was announced a week later), Young’s descendants were not surprised. After all, June 1 was their ancestor’s birthday.
A new day
At least one descendant believes Young was working for the change from, well, heaven.
Some years ago, Marcy May Brown, who is a great-great-granddaughter of one of Young’s wives, went to Africa to film a documentary about the history of black Mormons.
In Ghana, Brown met some LDS converts who joined the Utah-based faith even before 1978. One of them, Billy Johnson, told the filmmaker the pioneer leader came to him in a vision and said, “Buck up, Billy. Help is coming.”
The African Latter-day Saint even named his first son “Brigham Young Johnson.”
There are more than 10,000 Young descendants, and they are hardly unanimous about the roots of the ban, says Richard Lambert, current president of the family association.
Whatever their view of its origin and their ancestor’s role in it, Lambert says, they share a common belief that God directed Kimball to open the priesthood to “all worthy males.”
The legendary Young may have shared some “biases common to 19th-century American society,” he says, “but Spencer W. Kimball was able to transcend the biases of his day — which was what was needed to be a complete change.”
As a group, the Young family “wholly rejoiced and embraced the change 40 years ago,” Lambert says, “and we are confident that our ancestor rejoiced and embraced it, too.
“We want to do everything we can to be embracing of everyone,” he says, “no matter what color, gender or orientation, to let them know they are welcome.”