In recent years, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has urged members to “lead out” in eradicating racism in the Utah-based faith and in society.
After all, from its 19th-century beginnings, the church exercised no racial barriers. Black members were not only welcome in the fledgling faith but also eligible for all of its rights and privileges. The church’s second prophet, President Brigham Young, however, 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,” published by Deseret Book, University of Utah historian W. Paul Reeve, author of the acclaimed “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” flatly states that he doesn’t believe the former priesthood/temple ban was of “divine origin.”
He explores historical records and scriptural passages to explain how and why the church shifted from an inclusive approach on race to a restricted one and, ultimately, back to its universalist theology.
Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast with Reeve.
What do we know about Joseph Smith’s position on Black ordination, suffrage and slavery?
In the surviving record, there’s no indication that Joseph Smith implemented a racial restriction and, in fact, he sanctioned the ordination of a few Black men to the priesthood. The record is really quite clear on that. Also, temple admission policies up to 1840, were open for people of all colors. … His position on slavery evolves over time in the 1830s, simply because of the physical location for where [the Latter-day Saints gathered]. Missouri was a slave state and [members] were expelled from there for [Latter-day Saint leader William W.] Phelps “free people of color editorial.” In response, Joseph Smith issues some statements that try to back away from that, simply saying that Latter-day Saints shouldn’t baptize enslaved people without permission from their masters. But by the time Smith passes away in 1844, he’s advocating for government-funded emancipation.
Do we know how many Black members were ordained during Joseph Smith’s tenure?
Two well-documented Black men were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. It is important to keep in mind that there were white men who were not universally ordained during the time period. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn’t start systematically ordaining young men at age 12 until the early 20th century. So the fact that a few Black men were ordained makes it that much more significant.
What prompted Brigham Young to reverse Joseph Smith’s openness on race?
It was fear of race mixing. In March 1847, Brigham was on record as favorably aware of a Black priesthood holder [Q. Walker Lewis] in Lowell, Mass. Then William McCary, an African American member, started his own schismatic group. By December of 1847, Young became aware of a mixed-race couple in that same Lowell congregation. … And he started to move in a decidedly different direction.
What happened in Utah?
By 1852, Brigham Young, Utah’s territorial governor, is publicly articulating a racial restriction in the context of the Utah Territorial Legislature. Orson Pratt is a legislator in that legislative session, but also a [Latter-day Saint] apostle, where Brigham is obviously the leader of his faith. These men are wearing multiple hats but debating a bill that has been introduced in that legislative session, designed to define the relationship between white enslavers and their Black enslaved. And the debate over that bill…produces Brigham Young’s most strident stance against priesthood ordination for Black men.
How did reading Brigham’s words, which can only be seen as bigotry against Blacks, affect you?
His Feb. 5, 1852, speech is, I think, the worst speech in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m the person that put that speech into sentence form and probably read it more than anyone else on the planet. And I cried. I’ve cried many times over that speech. It’s terrible. Brigham Young articulates a cursed racial identity for people of Black African descent …as descendants of Cain. He buys into a long-standing racial justification that predates the founding of the LDS faith, but brings it into the faith with him and then gives it theological weight. Because [the biblical] Cain kills his brother Abel, all of Abel’s descendants — whom he presumed to be white people — must receive the priesthood before any of Cain’s descendants can. … Brigham Young will say “we just as well give mules the right to vote as Negroes and Indians.” He also says, “What we’re trying to do today in advocating for Black voting rights is to make Black people equal with us,” and he says, “I will be opposed to that all day long.”
What early hints do we get that Spencer W. Kimball, who eventually would become church president, might be willing to lift the ban, as he did in 1978?
Yeah, in 1963, as an apostle, he refers to the restriction as a possible error and says that God may be willing to forgive this possible error.
You say in the book you do not believe the racial restrictions were of divine nature. How do you balance being a scholar with being a person of faith?
Deseret Book [a church publishing arm] actually asked me to grapple with that and to grapple with it openly. And so the readers will get my way of grappling with it. It’s a challenge. It raises the question of prophetic credibility. As a historian, I see how these racial restrictions accumulated precedent over time and eventually became solidified in place in the early 20th century. Why they lasted as long as they did, the historical record for me answers that. But as a person of faith, it just prompts me to be circumspect and hope for ownership of the Latter-day Saint racial past…and become advocates for racial change and racial justice.
What do you say to the idea that there was “divine purpose” in the racial ban, “we just don’t know what it was.”
The book is my answer to the “we don’t know why” defense. We do know. It demonstrates through evidence in the historical record where the racial restrictions came from. Brigham Young, on the 5th of February 1852, clearly said he knew why. He stridently said he knew why.
Did you have any hesitation about going with the church’s in-house publisher, Deseret Book?
I was skeptical and expressed that skepticism the first time they talked to me. I asked them to read Brigham Young’s February 1852 speech in its entirety, and said, “if I do this, I’ll be quoting from that speech. You can’t come to me at the end and say, ‘You can’t [include] that.’” That was my condition. And, obviously, they agreed and the book is now published.
What do Latter-day Saints and their church need to do to rid themselves of racist views?
The current leadership of the LDS faith has asked for Latter-day Saints to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice and to root out racism. How do you root out racism if you’re unwilling to examine its roots? I’m a historian so I believe that understanding the history, being willing to sit with the weight of it, grapple with it, confess it and own it is a part of the healing process. [That], I believe, can help Latter-day Saints to move forward in a position of empathy rather than being defensive and deny it or try to justify and explain it away. What if we could say we participated in this as a faith but we are now willing to stand in places of empathy in matters of racial justice moving forward.