‘A product of his culture’ — Why there may be more ‘Brad Wilcoxes’ in LDS circles

Racist and sexist rhetoric will continue at times, scholars say, until the church addresses the issues more widely.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Brad Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men general presidency, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

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When Brad Wilcox, a Brigham Young University religion professor and high-ranking Latter-day Saint leader, stepped to the pulpit more than a week ago to address youths in Alpine, he likely had little sense of the firestorm that would follow his sermon.

For one, he had given the same talk before — a point he noted in his most recent apology.

Indeed, this particular talk can be traced back to at least December 2019. The only difference between those previous versions and the one he gave Feb. 6 seems to be that the latter was recorded and then widely shared.

Overnight, excerpts whipped through social media. Once there, an audience bearing little resemblance to Wilcox’s typical assemblage of teenagers analyzed and agitated over the meanings and implications of his statements regarding women, members of other faiths and the former priesthood/temple ban for Black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The fallout was swift. By Monday evening, Wilcox, second counselor in the church’s Young Men general presidency, had issued an apology on Facebook, a rare move for a Latter-day Saint leader. The next day, BYU issued a statement, saying the church-owned Provo school was “deeply concerned” with Wilcox’s speech and welcoming “his sincere apology.”

But, according to those interviewed in the aftermath, the beliefs Wilcox shared during his address were not all that surprising. His animated tone and boisterous delivery might have been a far cry from the stoicism of many church leaders past and present, but the messages were among those repeated at times in Latter-day Saint meetings.

Defending the ban as ‘a God thing’

Of all of Wilcox’s statements, none drew more attention and criticism than his remarks about why members shouldn’t focus on the fact Black males didn’t get the priesthood until 1978, when the prohibition was lifted.

“Maybe instead of asking why the Blacks had to wait until 1978 to get the priesthood,” he said, “we should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”

In reality, a few Black men were ordained to the priesthood under church founder Joseph Smith. It wasn’t until later that Smith’s immediate successor, Brigham Young, put in place the prohibition.

In 2013, the church published an essay, “Race and the Priesthood,” outlining this brief period of ordination, as well as the racist attitudes of many Americans in 1852, when Young, the second church president, announced a policy restricting Black men from ordination. The essay stops short of outright ascribing the ban to racism, but it also doesn’t flatly state that God was behind it.

Wilcox’s comments on the timing of the ban’s removal appeared to be at the center of his speedy apology in which he wrote “the illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong” and failed to reflect his intended message of “trusting God’s timing.”

As reported in an Exponent II blog post, however, Wilcox is not the only one using a version of this “illustration.” In the book “When It Doesn’t Make Sense,” published by church-owned Deseret Book last fall, popular youth speaker and writer John Bytheway wields a similar line of reasoning — in his case to seemingly quiet concerns about Latter-day Saint women not being able to receive priesthood “keys.”

“Why didn’t anyone have the priesthood from about A.D. 100 until 1829,” Bytheway writes. “How fair is that?”

Jasmine Bradshaw is a Black biracial Latter-day Saint of the anti-racism podcast “First Name Basis.” While she felt “sad and hurt” by Wilcox’s remarks, she said for her “this is so very little about Brad and very much about the organization as a whole.”

Wilcox, she said, is a “product of his environment.”

She was disappointed, for instance, to hear Wilcox attribute to God the ban that prevented Black males from holding the priesthood and Black members from participating in temple rituals. But it wasn’t the first time she’d heard this line of thinking from a prominent leader.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency takes a photo with attendees at the Freedom Awards Gala, an event of America’s Freedom Festival at Provo on July 1, 2021. Oaks spoke at the "Be One" celebration.

Speaking at the “Be One” celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ban’s repeal, apostle Dallin Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, suggested that while some continue to seek reasons for the restrictions, “most in the church, including its senior leadership, have…trusted the wisdom and timing of the Lord and accepted the directions of his prophet.”

To Bradshaw, the message was clear. Oaks, the man next in line to lead the church, was letting everyone know that, as she put it, the ban “was a God thing and not just a racism thing.”

She was devastated. “I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.”

A convert, Bradshaw said had she known before her 2014 baptism that this belief still held sway, she “would have been a lot less likely to have joined.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Grammy winner Gladys Knight performs at an event in the Conference Center on June 1, 2018, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the church's end to the priesthood/temple ban for Black members.

Matthew Harris, a historian at Colorado State University-Pueblo and author of a forthcoming book on Black Latter-day Saints since World War II, also pointed to Oaks’ comment as critical to understanding how deep — and high — this defense of the ban’s divine origins goes.

Ultimately, Harris said, Wilcox “isn’t aware of his own ignorance” when it comes to issues of race — and that he’s not alone even within his own department at BYU.

As evidence, Harris pointed to the 2021 BYU report on “Race, Equity, and Belonging.”

Among its findings was that “many students” of color “reported that some of the most hurtful experiences they have had occurred in religion courses, where sensitive gospel topics such as the priesthood and temple ban and skin color in the Book of Mormon can be misunderstood or insensitively presented.”

Given this kind of environment, Harris said, simply telling Wilcox to “be more circumspect is missing the point.”

When asked about the concerns raised in the report regarding religious education’s treatment of issues regarding race, BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins said the department “is carefully considering” the 26 recommendations outlined within it.

“These recommendations are currently being discussed and actively reviewed by the faculty and leadership of religious education,” she said, “who want every student to feel valued and included in their classes.”

Putting women on pedestals

(BYU Photo) The Relief Society general presidency speaks at the 2021 BYU Women's Conference on Thursday, April 29. From left are Sharon Eubank, President Jean B. Bingham and Reyna I. Aburto.

During his Alpine devotional, Wilcox further aimed to address “how come the girls don’t have the priesthood” — yet another question he says he often hears.

“Girls, you’re going to hear a lot of people say a lot of things and many of them say them with very angry voices,” he said. “Just because somebody’s loud, doesn’t make him or her right.”

He then told the story of a woman he did not know approaching him at a conference and angrily demanding that women should be ordained — despite not knowing what the priesthood was exactly.

In doing so, he was “playing up the angry feminist trope,” said Caroline Kline, co-founder of the Exponent II blog, a move she thought seemed calculated to “dissuade young women and women from asking these questions about basic and clear inequities that exist in the current church structure.”

While the church has pushed back against some feminist movements (it opposes the Equal Rights Amendment), Kline said “way more common in LDS circles” than these kinds of negative characterizations was Wilcox’s “pedestalization” of women.

Latter-day Saints, he told Alpine’s youths, should be asking, “What is it that sisters are bringing with them from a premortal life that men are trying to learn through ordination?”

According to Kline, statements like these suggest “women are not ordained because they must have some essential noble quality that men are lacking.” And they are everywhere in Latter-day Saint rhetoric.

In the eight years since she joined the church, Bradshaw said she’s heard this explanation on multiple occasions when asking her leaders why women aren’t ordained.

“I hear the same thing repeated every single time,” she said. “‘Oh women don’t need it. They’re just generally more righteous than men.’”

Comparing Latter-day Saints to other Christians

Throughout his sermon, Wilcox made it clear that while other faiths may have some truth, “they’re not playing with the whole piano” — a metaphor he attributed to the late apostle Boyd Packer.

Still, it was another comparison regarding members of other religions that gained the most attention. Growing up, he said, his kids would play church the same way a child might play school or house.

“And I used to think that’s so cute,” he said. “But now I’m older, and now I realize it wasn’t just cute. It’s actually what most people in the world are doing. They’re playing church.”

John Young is a historian from Florida’s Flagler College who, along with Wilcox’s niece Miranda Wilcox, co-edited the book “Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy.”

“Brother Wilcox has been a great minister to the young people in the church in particular,” he said. He seems to have adopted a “kind of smugness,” however, that is common throughout the church when discussing members of other faiths.

“I don’t really blame him for that,” he said. “He’s really just a product of his culture.”

In contrast, Young said Wilcox’s comments diverged from the line adopted by the leaders of the church in recent decades.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “from [the late] President Gordon Hinckley on there has been a greater respect for people of other faiths.”

A new way of doing things

Naming what was insensitive and inaccurate about Wilcox’s remarks is important, scholars said, but for real change, there needs to be a shift in the wider conversation around issues of race, gender and respecting other faiths.

Church leaders, including Wilcox, “need to be explicit in their apology” regarding racist statements, the ban and other teachings, Bradshaw said. “They need to say, ‘We are sorry. We shouldn’t have done it. This is what we’re going to do differently moving forward.’”

Harris added that without churchwide sensitivity training, “more Brad Wilcoxes will emerge, saying things they think are OK when in fact they’re racist and offensive.”

When it comes to difficult questions about gender, Kline said a good place to start is always “honoring those questions and treating them with respect.”

Kline’s suggestion falls in line with senior apostle M. Russell Ballard’s 2016 instruction to employees, like Wilcox, of the Church Educational System.

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Ballard said. “... It is perfectly all right to say, ‘I do not know.’ However, you have the responsibility to find the best answers to the thoughtful questions your students ask.”

Finally, Young said, understanding how other Christian traditions have formed, and continue to form, the church could help Latter-day Saints speak differently about them.

“We need to acknowledge,” he said, “that God was inspiring people all through these periods of what we consider apostasy.”