An Unfortunate History of Racism in the Church?

Some years ago as I was listening to a national talk radio program, a very wise black woman called in. I don’t recall what subject was being discussed. But she made a simple observation that I had never before considered, and have never since forgotten. She said, “I believe that race is a test.” The implication was that it is a test from God, though she didn’t say that. And, unfortunately, the host was not as taken with her profound observation as I was and let it pass without comment or inquiry. But I am grateful for the insight of this woman. I’m sure that God has many reasons why he chooses to fill the earth with different cultures, different languages, different religions, different ethnicities, different races. He knows that for some, the differences among men are a blessing and a delight, but for others, the source of endless and ruinous enmity. Examples of that enmity abound throughout the world and throughout history. Indeed race, among other things, is a test from God for all mankind, one of those means by which he will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25).

But if race is a test, it is a multifaceted test. I believe it is not only wrong in the eyes of God to be a racist – that is to hold that one race of his children is inferior to another, but that it is also wrong in the eyes of God to hurl the charge of racism at another unjustly. For some in our day, it seems, the charge of racism rolls off the tongue very easily. It is almost like a weapon in their hands. And it is a very effective weapon because it is very difficult, even for the innocent, to defend oneself against that charge. Because the charge of racism is so damaging, and because there is hardly any defense against it, it is a charge that ought not be made wrongly.

We have often heard the story told by President George Albert Smith of a time when he was so ill he thought he had passed to the Other Side. In a vision, he saw his grandfather, George A. Smith, walking toward him. Said President Smith:

            “When grandfather came within a few feet of me, he stopped. His stopping was an invitation for me to stop. Then…he looked at me very earnestly and said: ‘I would like to know what you have done with my name.’ Everything I had ever done passed before me as though it were a flying picture on a screen – everything I had done. Quickly this vivid retrospect came down to the very time I was standing there. My whole life passed before me. I smiled and looked at my grandfather and said: ‘I have never done anything with your name of which you need be ashamed'” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church – George Albert Smith, pg. xxvi).

With regard to the subject at hand, I think there is an important principle to be learned from this story. It is that the good name of all God’s children is a sacred matter. If President Smith’s grandfather would hold his grandson accountable for what he had done with his name, may we not liken that principle to ourselves and expect that we will be held accountable for any injury we have done to the good name of another? I think that is a reasonable conclusion.

Jonathan Decker, in Race in Mormon History, states that “as a church we have an unfortunate history of racism.” Brother Decker seems to believe that the priesthood restriction endured by men of African descent was born of racism, not by way of commandment from the Lord. I don’t agree with his premise that we as a church have a “history of racism.” A history of difficult doctrines and strong words? Yes. But I don’t believe that the priesthood restriction which ended in 1978 was born of racism any more than the difficult doctrine of plural marriage was born of “tyranny, self-indulgence, and lawlessness” (The Mormon Question, Sarah Barringer Gordon, pg. 47), as some have charged.

For example, Brother Decker quotes President Spencer W. Kimball:

            “The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball).

Brother Decker assumes that the error President Kimball is referring to was made by early Church leaders, and so he states:

            “Notice that President Kimball was open to the notion that the priesthood ban was a mistake. It truly may have been brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion.”

I am afraid Brother Decker, in rendering this opinion and all that it implies, was not careful in his reasoning. President Kimball was open to no such notion. How can we know that? We just need to read a little further. President Kimball went on to say – though Brother Decker did not include this in his essay:

            “If the time comes, that he will do, I’m sure. These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.
Blacks and the priesthood: I am not sure there will be a change, although there could be. We are under the dictates of our Heavenly Father, and this is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it…” (Ibid)

Strong words from the prophet of God speaking of a very difficult doctrine from the Lord. Could President Kimball have been more clear as to the origin of the priesthood restriction? “It (was) the policy of the Lord who established it.” How could anyone misinterpret those words and argue that it may have been “brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion?”

By the words “release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation,” President Kimball does not suggest any revelatory error on the part of early Church leaders (which is what Brother Decker implies). Rather, he refers to those whose errors caused the Lord to impose the priesthood restriction in the first place. Laman and Lemuel made errors which affected their posterity, which caused Lehi to lament as he blessed his grandchildren:

“Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents” (2 Nephi 4:2).

The error of ancestors can bring a curse upon their posterity. Is there any doubt that generations of Lamanites were cursed as to the priesthood because of the error of their distant ancestors? And isn’t it clear from the words of Lehi that the time would come when the error would be forgiven, the ban released, and the deprivation ended?

But to argue that President Kimball’s words regarding “possible error” are pointed at “prejudice or incorrect opinion” by early Church leaders is, in my view, a serious error on the part of Brother Decker. If he included the rest of President Kimball’s words, his argument would have fallen apart and his unfair “brought about by prejudice or incorrect opinion” conclusion would have been plainly manifest to his readers. This kind of selective presentation of facts is not a light matter when we are talking about the names of good men.

I appreciate the perspective of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on the matter of the priesthood restriction:

            “One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. …
It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, PBS interview, March 4, 2006).

A very difficult doctrine was given to the Church by the Lord without explanation. In this, I see the dilemma experienced by Father Adam, who for a long time offered up sacrifices to the Lord. When an angel appeared to him and asked him why he offered sacrifices to the Lord, Adam responded, “I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). What Elder Holland is saying is that the leaders of the Church were in a similar situation with regard to the priesthood ban. Why was the priesthood withheld? They knew not, save the Lord commanded them. But some of them attempted to explain the doctrine “to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it” – the “folklore” – when they shouldn’t have.

The priesthood ban was lifted nine months after I joined the Church. I remember it well. It was and continues to be a very difficult subject because it is hurtful to brothers and sisters whom we love, because it is an obstacle to bringing many into communion with the Saints which we dearly desire, and because it is so easy to wrongly attribute that policy to ugly racism. But the sum total of the lives of these earlier leaders is that they were magnificently good men, righteous men; men whose lives were marked by fidelity to God and charity toward all men. If they made errors in attempting to explain things they really didn’t understand, don’t we make the same mistake when we attempt “to give shape to…to give context for, to given even history to” the motives behind their explanations when we really don’t understand what was in their hearts? I agree with Elder Holland. It would have been better had they not tried. But I don’t believe that the errors they made in attempting to explain the doctrine of the Lord should convict these good men of racism.

It troubles me that so many Latter-day Saints are so willing to point the boney finger of indignation at Church leaders and condemn them as racists and bigots. If you have access to volumes of statements by almost any given individual, could you not select a few statements and – ignoring the tenor, tone, and content of the vast majority of his stated convictions – portray that man in an unflattering light? I think you could. Read all of Brigham Young’s teachings and statements, and let them give context to the statements that seem hard to explain. The Lord has warned:

            “For behold, the same that judgeth rashly shall be judged rashly again; for according to his works shall his wages be; therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord(Mormon 8:19).

One of the purposes of the Lord in bringing to pass the restoration of all things was “that faith also might increase in the earth” (D&C 1:21). The priesthood ban has been a sore test of faith for many. But by great faith, hundreds of thousands of the children of God of African descent have learned for themselves that this is the work of God and have embraced the fullness of the gospel in spite of the obstacles. Today the children of African descent are blossoming as the rose all around the world. But, as with the posterity of Laman and Lemuel, the children of African descent endured a period of time in which some of the blessings of the gospel were withheld from them. Why? As President Hinckley and other Church leaders have said, “We don’t know why.”

Indeed, race is a test. So also is humility, forbearance, and the willingness to let God judge the hearts of our brothers. “An unfortunate history of racism” in the Church? I just don’t think that is a fair judgment. I say we refrain from charging those of “less enlightened eras” (Brother Decker’s words) with capitulation to the ugly orthodoxy of their time and give them a break based on the goodness of their lives. Strong words do not necessarily equal racism. I would also argue that we too have ugly and destructive orthodoxies in our own time – like the corrupt and soul-destroying welfare state – which Brigham Young and others recognized as wicked and rejected, but which many of us embrace because of the beams in our own eyes. In other words, we may not be as enlightened as we like to think. Perhaps a little more humility, a little more forbearance, and a little more willingness to let God be the judge of these things is in order.


About John C. Greene

I am a rapidly aging businessman in Connecticut and author of Walking in Darkness at Noonday; married since 1975 to Kyong Sook; three children, long time empty-nester. I have been a convert member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over half my life. While a member of a rock band in LA in the mid-1970s I became fascinated with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's story of solitary bravery in the face of political imprisonment, his exile from his homeland, and his book "Gulag Archipelago." The book had a profound impact on me as it made me realize that there is a vast difference between the land Solzhenitsyn was born to and the land where I was so fortunate to have been born. That was the beginning of my interest in liberty, correct principles of government, and the peculiarly LDS doctrine we call the agency of man.
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3 Responses to An Unfortunate History of Racism in the Church?

  1. Brother Greene, with respect, you have misrepresented me somewhat. I am open to the idea that I was mistaken, and you present a very solid counterargument for me to consider. That said, you accuse me of “selective representation of facts,” then do the same thing with my article and my arguments.

    You say that “Brother Decker seems to believe that the priesthood restriction endured by men of African descent was born of racism, not by way of commandment from the Lord” when the fact is I presented both sides of the argument. The part of my writings that you chose to omit is an entire paragraph that begins with “However, it’s also possible that the priesthood ban was the intent of the Lord.” This paragraph is actually longer than the one where I explore the possibility that it was a mistake, so no, I’m not overlooking it. I then say “Whether the ban was the Lord’s doing or an error of imperfect men is not for me to say. All I know is that in 1978 he revealed to a living prophet that priesthood blessings were to go to all races.”

    You wrongly give the impression that I cut off the President Kimball at a place I did not, then wrongly state that I didn’t include the quote that follows it. I included the full quote, up until the phrase “bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority,” which is where that quote ends. It was given in 1963.

    You tack on a different quote, the next paragraph in the book it’s true, but given at a different time, where President Kimball states that the priesthood ban came from God, then imply that I ignore that principle. Except in my article, three paragraphs up, I include a quote from President Kimball where he says that “the restriction was placed by the Lord.” I did not overlook it. I did not bury it. I put it right out there in the open. I had two quotes which, to me at the time, said two different things, and I drew the conclusion I did.

    Your argument that, when President Kimball spoke about the “possible error that brought about the deprivation” he meant the error of the ancestors that brought about the curse in the first place, was a perspective that I actually hadn’t considered until I read your words. Thank you, sincerely, for giving me that to ponder upon.

    The history of racism that I refer to is statements by past church leaders that have since been refuted by later brethren. Elder Holland rightly views the ones dealing with the priesthood ban as attempts to provide history, context, and folklore when they shouldn’t have. I agree, for surely the true doctrine of God was never racist. But I have no problem seeing those misguided explanations as being influenced by the prevailing opinions of the day, which were. As the explanations and opinions were never revealed by God, they should have just said “we don’t know,” as you and Elder Holland imply.

    I’m sorry, but some teachings were racist and have been refuted as such by church leadership. I do not wish to trudge up the specifics, indeed I avoided doing so in my article, but you’ve left me without the option. Brigham Young said that “some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind…The curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the priesthood, or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favorable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the priesthood” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7, p. 290-291). Elder McConkie said that “those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions placed on them during mortality are known to us as negroes…Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty…President Brigham Young and others have taught that in the future eternity worthy and qualified negroes will receive the priesthood and every gospel blessing worthy to man” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, “Negroes”).

    These aren’t just difficult doctrines and strong words, as you imply. They are incorrect teachings. Blacks DID get priesthood blessings, and not in the eternities or after every last descendant of Adam got the opportunity, as President Young taught. Calling blacks “uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable, and low in their habits, wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of human intelligence” contradicts Joseph Smith’s statement: “Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability.The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places.” It also contradicts the Book of Mormon doctrine that “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26: 33).

    The racist teachings have been refuted by no less than President McConkie, who said “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter anymore. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject.” Later versions of his book, Mormon Doctrine, were revised to omit the errors that he made.

    I do no injustice to President Young, President McConkie, or any other when I say that they were influenced by the prejudices of the day, for President McConkie himself says that “they spoke with limited understanding” and Elder Holland affirms that almost all of their explanations “were inadequate or wrong,” as you pointed out. It does not take away from their divine calling or the many truths they taught. The entire crux of my article is that prophets are called of and inspired of God, who corrects them on the rare occasion that it is necessary (and it is not our place to do so). I showed this in the biblical examples of Nathan and Peter. As Richard Bushman’s excellent book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” demonstrates, there is no problem in acknowledging that our leaders are imperfect. They themselves would say so. The problem comes when we try to fester doubt or assume that we know better. I hope that I did neither. I certainly tried not to.

    Where you and I can definitely see eye to eye is in our value that racism is wrong and in our testimony that the Church is led by prophets and apostles of the living God. You are trying to protect their good name by reconciling past teachings as “difficult doctrines and strong words,” I am trying to protect their good name by helping members reconcile their testimonies with past teachings that don’t align with the doctrines of the modern church. I’ve tried to do this by outlining the pattern I see in the scriptures and teachings of the prophets and apostles of this dispensation. If I’ve made any mistakes (and I may have), then I’m open to other points of view. You made some good points that I will reflect on.

  2. Brother Decker:

    I considered making reference to your “however, it’s also possible” comments toward the end of your piece. But since I included a link to your piece so that readers could read the entirety of it, I felt that anyone interested could read it and judge for themselves what you said. To be honest, I considered your “is not for me to say” qualification at the end of your piece to be too little, too late. The damage was already done earlier in the piece. And it was the damage you did that I felt cried out for a reply.

    To me, the enduring message I took from your piece is contained in the line “as a church we have an unfortunate history of racism…” I think that charge is influenced by the prejudices of our own day.

    You went to great pains to build the case that prophets can be wrong, that therefore the withholding of the priesthood was possibly a prophetic error, implied that it was rooted in racism, and tried to make the case that President Kimball was open to such a notion when, clearly, he was not.

    As to President Kimball’s words, when I went to his book to see for myself the quote you cited, I was struck by the fact that the next paragraph contained a refutation of the whole premise of your interpretation of what he said. I find that to be very disturbing. Having read that next paragraph yourself, how could you entertain even for a brief moment the idea that President Kimball was “open to the notion that the priesthood ban was a mistake”? It seems to me that you saw what you wanted to see and disregarded the rest. This is one of several aspects of your piece that really bothers me.

    You cite Brigham Young’s characterization of blacks, whom he saw as “uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable, and low in their habits, wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of human intelligence.” You are certain that those words are evidence of being “influenced by the prejudices of the day.” Moreover, you say his statement “contradicts the Book of Mormon doctrine that ‘all are alike unto God.’ ” Really? Let me counter with a Book of Mormon quote from Nephi as he was shown in vision the descendants of Lehi down through the ages:

    “And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations” (1 Nephi 12:23).

    Is there any substantive difference between the words of Nephi and those of Brigham Young? Will you charge Nephi with being influenced by the prejudices of his day? Will you charge Nephi’s characterization of the Lamanites as racist? Did the Nephites, as a people, have an “unfortunate history of racism”? Should the Church refute the teachings of Nephi? Why is it that we can read the harsh words of an ancient prophet such as Nephi from the pulpit and the idea of prejudice and racism never crosses anyone’s mind? But if a modern prophet uses similar words in a more contemporary context, his motives, his decency, and his moral rectitude are impugned?

    You insist that the incorrect teachings of earlier church leaders which have been refuted by the Church and by Elder Holland were racist. But I think it is very important to note that neither the Church nor Elder Holland has characterized those statements as racist. You have. But they haven’t. The Church’s statement on racism is:

    “We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”

    They do not say that the incorrect explanations of any past leader were racist. Nor did Elder Holland make that charge. Nor, in my opinion, should we.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the statement of the Church. I am angered by racism. But I am also angered by the promiscuous use of the charge of racism which is so widespread today, and I hate to see it raising its ugly head in the Church. I don’t know what was in the hearts of those men, but neither do you. Is it not possible that you and others who are making similar charges are influenced by the prejudices of our own day? I lamented in my article that, for some, the charge of racism rolls off the tongue very easily. I know this because I am a constitutional conservative. I believe deeply in the sanctity of the agency of man. Because of my convictions, which I believe are rooted in the doctrines of Christ, I am routinely smeared as a racist by many. I am not a racist. But because of the prejudices of our own day, I must endure the sting of that false charge. Those who judge me a racist because they don’t understand and don’t like my views judge me rashly, wrongly, unjustly. We ought not be guilty of such error, especially with regard to one another.

    I quoted in my piece the warning of the Lord to those who judge rashly. If you believe that earlier church leaders would have better served all concerned had they just said with regard to the priesthood ban “we don’t know why,” should you not take that same advice to heart? Rather than imputing racism to men whose hearts you don’t know, wouldn’t we all be better served when commenting on their attempts to “give shape…, context…, [or] even history to it” to say of them “we don’t know why”?

  3. Ted Suhaka says:


    You and I think alike; I’m sure we’d get on quite well. Your article is excellent. Especially appreciate your use of 2 Nephi 4:2 to bring context, clarity and insight to this difficult issue. There is a point I’d like to make:

    To my brothers and sisters in the Church who are intellectually inclined, who may be tempted to play the role of “ark steadier” from time to time (I was one of you, but I’ve changed my ways). To those still so inclined I say this: The scriptures — all of them — are replete with hundreds of prophecys attesting to the fact that the restored Kingdom of God of the latter days is going to gloriously triumph over all its foes. I cite just one of these prophecys. This one is found in 1 Nephi 22:14 — therein we read, “And every nation which shall war against thee, O house of Israel, shall be turned one against another, and they shall fall into the pit which they digged to ensnare the people of the Lord. And all that fight against Zion shall be destroyed, and that great whore, who hath perverted the right ways of the Lord, yea, that great and abominable church, shall tumble to the dust and great shall be the fall of it.”

    Here’s my point: Try putting away all the angst and emotional torment you experience when you see the Church, at least from your point of view, as sadly lacking in some ways — seemingly failing in the mission to live up to the lofty standards you believe it should exemplify.

    Challenge yourself by onducting a personal experiment. An experiment in which you will put aside, for a time, all the negative thinking that encumbers your mind and heart. Rather, exercise faith in the well-attested scriptural fact that the Lord has assured us his Church is going to succeed, big time. Instead of focusing on great, controversial “social” issues, focus instead on your own stewardship and callings. Diligently study the scriptures daily; pray with the Spirit often each day; be a holy, sacrificial companion to your wife or husband; be a patriarch or matriarch of love and understanding to your children; do your home teaching or visiting teaching and love the families to whom you’re assigned; magnify your priesthood; magnify your church calling, no matter how humble it may be; have faith that the Lord knows what he’s doing; focus on the positive in people and things; sustain the Church leaders both local and general.

    The Lord is going to build Zion one lone converted heart at a time. He knows what he’s doing. Rather than attempting to “steady the ark,” have faith in the promises of God. He cannot lie, and we have every reason to have an unshakable hope and faith that Zion, and it’s stakes, will be a refuge from the storms of tribulation that will shake the earth in these the latter days. Sure there will be mistakes and imperfections, but try hard not to focus unwarrented attention on these things. Rather, be the shinning example of the holiness and rectitude you may see lacking in others — do so and many, even leaders, will be humbled by your example and want to walk in your footsteps.

    The Lord and his people are going to win! The Lord and his people are going to marvelously succeed!. Let’s put aside faithlessness and negativity and trust in the Lord that he knows what he’s doing. Trust in the Lord that he’s sent the right spirits at the right time to lead and guide the Church of Christ. He’ll test our faith from time to time by commanding his servants to teach or do things that seem to be at odds with the wisdom of the world. But for a wise purpose in him he will do it. And at the judgement seat of Christ, his wisdom will ultimately be vindicated and comprehended with humble gratitude by those who once doubted the prophets, seers and revelators of God.

    God knew that the “large and spacious building” of our day would be occupied by those who would confidently judge, taunt and mock the Latter Day Saints with charges of lust and racism. Let’s not be found among the number of those who turn aside in shame from the tree of life, because of those rash judges who know not the well-attested scriptural fact that God often works in mysterious ways.

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