Their church may not be apologizing for black priesthood ban, but individual Latter-day Saints are doing so

(Courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks 110th annual NAACP convention in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019.

Rather than waiting for top Latter-day Saint leaders to issue a formal apology for the church’s centurylong ban on blacks holding the priesthood and entering temples, some people in the pews are offering their own mea culpa for the faith’s past.

“As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” they write in a petition posted this week on Change.org, “we wish to join others in a heartfelt apology for the role that we have played in promoting racist ideologies and behaviors which have injured and burdened our brothers and sisters of African descent.”

As church President Russell M. Nelson recently encouraged believers to do, the petition says, “we sorrowfully repent of the sin of racism and pledge our minds, hearts and hands to the eradication of this moral scourge in our homes, churches, neighborhoods, states and nations.”

Further, the petition signers “commit to being more diligent and exemplary followers of Jesus and embrace all as brothers and sisters,” and to “actively oppose and do all within our power to root out the evils of racism of any kind.”

It seemed the right time for Latter-day Saints to take a stand, said Andrew Clawson, given the ongoing protests against racism and the increased willingness of white people to accept accountability for the persistence of prejudice.

“There’s not much I can do on behalf of the whole church,” said Clawson, a Salt Lake City attorney who co-wrote the petition. “But we thought it might make sense if we, as individual members, apologized on our own for our role in it.”

The Utah-based faith “has a long history of racist practices, teachings and doctrines, but we’ve taken steps to fix them,” he said, starting with ending the priesthood prohibition in June 1978.

More recently, Clawson said, the church published “Race and the Priesthood,” an essay disavowing earlier explanations for the ban.

“I would hope the church does apologize for our past; I believe it’s necessary to move on,” he said. “The people long to talk about it without any worry or fear that they’re criticizing the prophet.”

Last summer, it seemed to some that the church president already had.

At a national convention of the NAACP in Detroit, the Rev. Amos Brown said Latter-day Saints “had the courage to say, ‘We have unfortunately been complicit in the evil of racism in this nation. … But unlike some persons in this country, we are humble enough to say we are sorry, we are going to change our ways, we are going to do a new thing, sing a new song, talk a new talk, walk a new walk.’”

In his convention speech, Nelson never offered an apology — nor has the church ever done so.

When asked this week if Nelson had offered his contrition in private, Brown, chairman emeritus of religious affairs for the NAACP, said the church’s regret was “demonstrated” in its actions.

He noted the church and the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, are working together on self-reliance programs.

An apology is implicit in “locking arms,” Brown said. “You don’t see that with a lot of white evangelicals.”

In response to questions this week about a possible apology, church spokesman Doug Andersen reiterated Nelson’s Facebook statement decrying racism amid the widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd.

Nelson “has been very clear about the position of the church on the issue of racism,” Andersen said, pointing to these lines in the 95-year-old president’s pronouncement that “the Creator of us all calls on each of us to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. Any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent.”

Andersen’s statement did not address the question of whether the church would apologize for its former priesthood ban.

In 2015, apostle Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency and next in line to assume the church’s reins, said the church doesn’t apologize for past misdeeds but rather looks forward.

Last year, however, church-owned Brigham Young University-Idaho apologized for a short-lived policy that sought to prevent students from using Medicaid as a valid form of health insurance.

And, in 2007, apostle Henry B. Eyring, now second counselor in the First Presidency, expressed “profound regret” for Latter-day Saints’ role in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which 120 men, women and children were slaughtered. The statement, according to historian Richard E. Turley Jr., who has written extensively about the ambush, insisted that Eyring’s statement was meant to be an apology.

In this historic moment, many Mormons “would feel really good if the church would make a formal apology for the past,” said Bryant McConkie, the other Utah attorney who helped craft the petition. “It would be tremendously meaningful.”

He would like to see his fellow believers “show their love for black men and women,” he said. If the petition “can facilitate it a little, that would be a wonderful thing.”

Until Latter-day Saints “account for our actions and heal the wounds of those we have hurt,” Clawson said, “we can’t begin to build [a Zion] community.”

— Tribune news editor David Noyce contributed to this story.