Dallin Oaks says the church doesn’t apologize, but it hasn’t stopped the question of whether it should

Some say doing so for the past priesthood/temple ban would enhance the faith’s moral authority. “The role of a church is to be a moral exemplar,” says scholar. It should “err on the side of repenting too much.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Oaks has famously said that the church doesn't apologize for past events, that “we look forward and not backward.”

Repentance, including an apology, is seen by many Christians as “godly sorrow for sin.” It is, they argue, essential for salvation — and not just for individual believers.

In today’s world, several churches — including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, which had split from the north in 1845 — have expressed profound remorse for their involvement in slavery and continued racism.

“Slavery played a role in the formation of the convention and … too often we had not acted to promote racial equality, and we apologize for that,” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission told NPR in 2009. “We lament that. We grieve over that and we repent of it and we ask for the forgiveness of our African American brothers and sisters.”

The Anglican Church of Canada recently apologized to victims of sex abuse in their denomination.

So why won’t The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apologize for the faith’s 126-year-long priesthood/temple ban against Black members?

Indeed, some members have expressed their collective regret at the policy, abandoned in 1978, and church leaders have done much in recent years to make amends, condemning racism in all its forms from the pulpit and forming an alliance with the NAACP on ongoing projects serving the African American community.

Still, the 16.6 million-member church has not issued any kind of formal apology about the racist prohibition, and it appears not likely to, according to Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency.

“I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them,” Oaks told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2015. “We sometimes look back on issues and say, ‘Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve.’”

Though the question focused on rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ members, Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, generalized it to all of Mormon history.

“I’m not aware that the word ‘apology’ appears anywhere in the scriptures — Bible or Book of Mormon,” Oaks reiterated the next day in a video chat with The Tribune. “The word ‘apology’ contains a lot of connotations in it, and a lot of significance.”

The best way “to solve these problems is not a formal statement of words that a[n] apology consists of,” he said, “but talking about principles and goodwill among contending viewpoints.”

Oaks’ statement — that “we look forward and not backward” — has taken on the imprimatur of official policy, even though pronouncements in scripture or by the combined First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are deemed the most authoritative.

Plus, it’s not that simple, says historian Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.

“Can someone apologize on behalf of the dead to the dead?” Mason wonders. “Who has a right to apologize for the deceased?”

There have been apologies

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Mason speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019. The scholar says by apologizing for past misdeeds, churches "enhance their moral authority rather than weaken it.”

The distinction between “profound regret” for historical misdeeds and an apology is accountability, Mason says. What blame do contemporary Latter-day Saints bear for what happened in the past?

After all, the Missouri governor isn’t responsible for Lilburn Boggs’ 1838 “extermination order” against the Mormons, Mason says, though in the past few decades both Missouri and Illinois officials have offered apologies for their respective states’ violent actions against early Latter-day Saints.

In 2007, apostle Henry B. Eyring, now of the First Presidency, offered words of regret (which some reported as an “apology”) on behalf of church members at a memorial service for victims of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre during which Latter-day Saint militia members slaughtered 120 men, women and children in an immigrant wagon train on their way to California.

“We can’t change what was done in the past,” Mason says, “but we can commit in an ongoing way to historical transparency and own our role in the massacre.”

The LDS Church did issue a public apology on behalf of a member who had performed proxy baptism rituals for the parents of Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate.

The question of an apology for the priesthood/temple exclusion is trickier, Mason says. “No one is accountable for what Brigham Young said in 1852, nor its reiteration by subsequent prophets, or even [church President] David O. McKay in the 1960s. But there are still people alive who were directly harmed before 1978, and it was not the end of the story. The church didn’t grapple with its racist past, which deeply shaped the institution, some of its teachings and the way we interpreted scripture.”

That’s where an apology could come in, he says, “in acknowledging ongoing harm.”

Churches are “legal entities, but I hope they are more than that,” Mason says. “The role of a church is to be a moral exemplar. It wouldn’t be too bad to err on the side of repenting too much.”

The scholar doesn’t think of churches as being perfect. “Transparency and acknowledgment and apology, if done thoughtfully and sincerely,” he said, “would enhance their moral authority rather than weaken it.”

Does it matter to Black Latter-day Saints?

(Photo courtesy of Kimberly Applewhite Teitter) Latter-day Saint Kimberly Applewhite Teitter says an apology from the church for its past priesthood/temple ban "would give me strength to endure all things well.”

The church has tiptoed up to an apology for the priesthood/temple prohibition, blogger Steve Evans writes in a By Common Consent post. “Pastor Cecil Murray received a personal apology from President Gordon B. Hinckley for the church’s participation in slavery and racism.”

And the Rev. Amos Brown of the NAACP seems to believe current President Russell M. Nelson already has apologized for the church’s racist policy.

The Latter-day Saints “had the courage to say, ‘We have unfortunately been complicit in the evil of racism in this nation,’” Brown said at the group’s convention in 2019. “‘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.’”

As a Black Latter-day Saint, Kimberly Applewhite Teitter is not sure what an official apology would do.

“If I depend on what others do for my own testimony and relationship with God,” the Salt Lake City mom and therapist said, “I’ll be waiting a long time and potentially placing myself at risk.”

Teitter does recall how she felt, though, when a “fake apology letter” was circulating in May 2018, just before the “Be One” gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the ban.

“I remember sitting in my car and reading the letter and noticing a weight that I didn’t realize was even there being lifted off of my shoulders, and I quickly found myself in tears,” she says. “And then, 15 minutes later, when I learned the letter was not real, there were no more tears. I got out of my car and went to work. I didn’t think too much of it, or so I thought. But then a couple of days later, when a saint of a woman was offering outreach via food delivery to Black LDS people who may have been impacted by the [episode] (as she does for other marginalized communities within the church), I was initially going to turn it down until I realized I had yet to eat a good meal in that time period.”

Teitter is “grateful to be a member of the church, and I’m grateful for my relationship with Christ, because in combining the two I’ve had lots of experiences with being deeply forgiving to people who ‘know not what they do,’” she says. “But I’m only human, not divine yet, and sometimes I think my body can’t take the weight of constant forgiveness with no one to bear my cross along with me.”

An institutional apology “would help me to feel that the burden was being lifted or shared,” she says, “which would give me strength to endure all things well.”

It might also spur “more institutional corrections of wrongs,” Teitter says, noting errors in the “Come Follow Me” Sunday school manual. She wouldn’t have “to deal as much with lay membership having room to justify mistreatment of people that is out of alignment with the gospel, like saying that American slavery was a positive thing or that everyone has to wait for the priesthood, so one group waiting isn’t bad,” Teitter says. “It might affect the willingness of people to repent when they have made a racist error, to see that modeled at high levels of the church.”

Public regret, prophetic infallibility

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amos C. Brown and church President Russell M. Nelson during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

The question of an apology for the racist policy is “much deeper and more foundational for the church,” Mason says. “It speaks to the authority of prophets.”

Top leaders and members agree that the church and its prophets aren’t perfect, but believing that inspired men could be so wrong about such an important issue “is potentially destabilizing,” the professor says. “This is why the idea persists that Brigham Young must have been inspired despite the fact that there is no solid historical evidence that the ban came by way of a revelation.”

Every church president from Young until Spencer W. Kimball defended the exclusion — if not the justifications for it.

Church leaders seem hesitant to concede that God was not behind the Black policy, Mason says, “because of how high the stakes are — a de facto infallibility of prophets.”

It’s why Brigham Young University religion professor Brad Wilcox could apologize for the way he described the policy, but not for what he saw as “God’s timeline.”

Mason doesn’t think the church has to be in such a theological bind.

“Prophets make not just little mistakes on inconsequential matters; they can be deeply wrong and for a very long time,” Mason says, “yet they retain their authority as prophets and apostles.”

The Bible provides plenty of examples of prophets and other religious heroes who were profoundly flawed (Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Jonah, David and Peter, to name a few), he says, but that’s “part of the mystery that the Bible wants us to grapple with.”

So far, Latter-day Saints “haven’t leaned into that theology,” Mason says. “But embracing a richer scriptural theology of flawed but chosen prophets, God’s fallen people and the ongoing perfection of the body of Christ, both individually and collectively, could help change that.”

It would provide more space for believers to “be even more moral and ethical,” he says, “and produce better repenters and apologizers.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.