In 1833, a leading Latter-day Saint, William W. Phelps, published a column under the headline “Free People of Color,” making it clear that, since its founding three years earlier, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exercised no racial barriers.
Black members were not only welcome in the fledgling faith but also eligible for all of its rites and privileges.
It was a stance that did not sit well with many Missourians at the time and with the racist views scarring much of America in those pre-Civil War days. It’s also a position that did not last inside the church itself.
The faith’s second prophet-president, Brigham Young, eventually departed from the ways of founder Joseph Smith and instituted a ban barring Black Latter-day Saints from priesthood ordinations and temple ordinances.
That prohibition endured for nearly 130 years, a racist stain that the global faith and its members grapple with to this day.
In his new book, “Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood,” from church-owned Deseret Book, Latter-day Saint scholar W. Paul Reeve, head of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, relies on historical records and scriptural passages to examine how and why the Utah-based church shifted from an inclusive approach on race to a restricted one and, ultimately, back to its original universalist theology.
In this week’s show, Reeve, who flatly states that he doesn’t believe the former priesthood/temple ban was of “divine origin,” discusses the faith’s evolution on this sensitive topic and the challenges that still lie ahead.