Gender and the “Priesthood Ban”: Some scattered thoughts

By August 23, 2012

Earlier this week, Max Mueller posted at Peculiar People some thoughtful reflections on non-Latter-day Saint historians of Mormonism and their role as “friendly critics” to Mormons and Mormonism. He used recent op-eds authored by Helen Radkey and John Turner on proxy baptisms and Mormonism’s history of racial exclusion, respectively, to frame his argument. It’s well worth reading and recommended to all JI readers.

I want to focus here, though, not on that question specifically, but rather on a comment Max made almost in passing in that post:

In his article, Turner makes the point that the ?priesthood ban? (the shorthand for the racial exclusion of black Mormons, though the restrictions also affected African American women too) did not begin at the founding of the church. Instead, the ban has a human history: It was an evolving practice, then policy, then doctrinal fixture, articulated and defended by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith well into the twentieth century.

While I’d heard this point made by others before—that the shorthand “priesthood ban” lends itself to a particularly gendered reading of Mormonism’s history of racial exclusion—it struck me more forcefully than before. Maybe that’s the influence of the several new additions to Juvenile Instructor in recent months whose research focuses on gender finally wearing off on me. Maybe it’s the result of my own recent attempts to be more sensitive to the experiences of (primarily black) Methodist women in the 18th and 19th centuries and the gendered assumptions I bring to my dissertation research. Regardless, I think it’s an important point that deserves further reflection.

On the one hand, using the term “priesthood ban” as a shorthand for the policy that denied priesthood ordination to Latter-day Saints of African descent seems appropriate: the policy, after all, likely had its genesis (at least in part) in response to the fears and concerns of church leaders about black men marrying white women (and the mixed-race children such relationships would and did produce) and in the selective reading of certain scriptural passages concerned mostly with restrictive priesthood ordination. As Max points out, though, the so-called priesthood ban did not affect only men. Black women were similarly denied certain blessings available to all other Latter-day Saint women through participation in temple rites and rituals. I wonder if grouping these restrictions with those placed on black men under the umbrella term “priesthood ban” only serves to further marginalize the experiences of those black women, turning our attention from the experience of African American female converts and even more toward their male counterparts. Go ahead and think of the black Saints from the 19th century you can name off the top of your head. My guess is that only one of them—Jane Manning James—is female. She was the only one I could think of.

Of course, the meaning attached to terms like priesthood has changed over the century and a half-plus of Mormonism’s existence and perhaps using a more expansive understanding of the word—one that incorporates temple ordinances for both men and women—is entirely appropriate when discussing this history. But those words do need to be properly historicized. And given the almost-entirely gendered meaning of the word in contemporary discourse (in which priesthood is equated with worthy male members of the church), I think we need to give more thought to how we use the phrase “priesthood ban” today, what specifically we mean when we do use it, and what more appropriate terms for Mormonism’s history of race-restrictive policies might be. Thoughts?*


*This, of course, is likely an issue than extends far beyond the question of race in LDS history, and while I’d like to keeps things primarily focused on that issue in particular, I’m entirely comfortable with discussion on this thread engaging other terms used when discussing Mormon history and culture that similarly assume certain gendered meanings and serve to focus attention only on the experiences of men.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Gender Miscellaneous Race


  1. Chris, interesting thoughts!

    I also think that the focus on the priesthood ban allows Mormon scholars and Mormons to act as though THAT were the only issue in the history of Mormon race relations. Race gets reduced to a black-white issue. One of the things that I have learned working on Polynesians and Native Americans is that the church has an equally problematic history and present there, but it doesn’t get as much attention because there isn’t one thing that you can point to as being emblematic of the problem.

    I think what is going on here with the priesthood ban and African American women is a problem of intersectionality. In the 1980s, a group of black, female theorists began to talk about the fact that neither feminist nor black legal theory represented the difficulties they had faced. They argued that biological and cultural categories — like race, gender, disability, sexuality, class, etc. — did not operate independently but were interrelated. They interacted on multiple levels and created a systematic social inequality. The legal system at that time required damages to have an identifiable cause that related either to race or gender. Black women had been finding that because their discrimination was reducible neither to the fact they were black nor to the fact they were women, it could not be dealt with in the legal system and their cases were often dismissed.

    These theorists also pointed out that we tend to privilege the experiences of certain people within marginalized groups. In the case of African Americans, it is African American men that become normative and in the case of women, white women get to have their experiences honored and validated.
    What this means for Mormon history is that when we think of African Americans as an abstract category, we think of men. Thus, the priesthood ban seems to be the most salient issue. When we think of women as an abstract category, we think of white women and polygamy becomes the most salient issue. As a result, the experiences of people like Jane Manning James are lost.

    Note 1: Reading Francis Wu’s Yellow was what first alerted me to move beyond the black-white dichotomy in American history. My studies have always only deepened that commitment.

    Note 2: Kimberle Crenshaw’s articles for a better explanation of this and an excellent example of early intersectional theory.

    Comment by Amanda — August 23, 2012 @ 7:22 am

  2. Chris-

    Right on. I hopefully will be publishing a lengthy piece about this very issue very soon. But you’re right that even the framing of the restriction as the “priesthood ban” made the effects on LDS women of African descent even more pernicious.

    But this question, I think, can be expanded to look at authority, inclusion, and identity beyond black Mormon women. As J Stapley and Kris have shown, the definition of the priesthood itself shifts dramatically.

    Comment by Max — August 23, 2012 @ 7:24 am

  3. A perfect example of how our gendered assumptions frame the way we approach, interpret, and reconstruct the past, and I am guilty as charged. If I could now go back and teach my class on the priesthood restriction again, I would probably do it completely different.

    Thanks, Christopher.

    Comment by Ben P — August 23, 2012 @ 9:00 am

  4. Thanks for the great comments and feedback so far!

    Amanda, yes. You’re absolutely right about the black-white binary and the problems it presents for thinking about Mormonism’s racial history. I’ve learned this lesson up close in observing and listening to my wife (Latina) and her family. And thanks for the additional thoughts on intersectionality. That helps make sense of what I’m trying to get at here.

    Max, awesome. I look forward to reading your paper, and as always am appreciative of the thoughtful work you’re doing here. And I hadn’t thought about J and Kris’s work being immediately relevant here, but I think you’re absolutely correct.

    Thanks, Ben. If you have the time, I’d love to hear more about how you taught the priesthood ban to your class and how you would do it differently. It might make for an interesting post, even. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2012 @ 9:09 am

  5. definitely. great scattered thoughts.

    Comment by g.wesley — August 23, 2012 @ 9:17 am

  6. Some folks have taken to referring to it as the “priesthood/temple ban” so as to implicitly remind people of the gendered aspects of the policy. Paul Reeve refers to it this way, as do some of the other folks at BCC, and I had a discussion specifically on that aspect of things in a podcast episode with Max Mueller. More people ought to listen to it, IM-shameless-self-promoting-O.

    Comment by BHodges — August 23, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  7. ps, I also included this as an aspect of the elder’s quorum lesson on the priesthood/temple restriction on slides 11-16.

    Comment by BHodges — August 23, 2012 @ 9:32 am

  8. Thanks, g. wesley.

    Fantastic, Blair. Thanks. I’ll be sure to listen to the podcast soon. Does Paul use the “priesthood/temple ban? phrase in his forthcoming book? Do you know?

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  9. Shouldn’t we use the term “priesthood ban” in phrases like, “the ongoing priesthood ban that continues to bar women from leadership roles within the LDS Church”?

    Comment by John Hamer — August 23, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  10. John, what keeps me from fully embracing that idea is the long and problematic history of white people adopting language like “slave” and “bondage” to describe other social issues without recognizing the privilege they enjoy within American society. What you are suggesting isn’t quite the same, but the politics of that move make me pause.

    Comment by Amanda — August 23, 2012 @ 9:57 am

  11. Christopher, thanks for your remarks. I don’t think we can be reminded too often, or enough, of the reach and consequences of the “priesthood/temple” restriction.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 23, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  12. This is an important issue, Chris, so thanks for articulating it in a post. My sense, based on no systematic research, is that “priesthood ban” is a term that scholars/intellectuals have used in an effort to replace the more ambiguous “blacks and the priesthood,” which is still current among a lot of LDS. “Priesthood ban” is a better term, since it acknowledges that it was a ban, rather than a vague “issue” that was/is somehow rooted in “deep doctrine.” But “priesthood ban,” as you note, has significant gendered limitations as well and doesn’t encompass temple restrictions for men and women. Blair’s reference to “priesthood/temple ban” is the best solution I’ve seen, although it’s a bit clunky.

    Comment by David G. — August 23, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  13. Christopher, I don’t remember if Paul uses the phrase in the new book, but I remembered seeing it in a piece he wrote back in May called “The Wrong Side of White.” There he refers to the “race-based priesthood and temple bans.”

    Comment by BHodges — August 23, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  14. pps- the original link I put above to the powerpoint presentation didn’t include the text of the lesson, so I uploaded a new version which includes text and references in the ppt. notes.

    Comment by BHodges — August 23, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  15. We’re not just talking about women of African descent barred from the temple, right? I should know this for certain, but up until this point (or one close to it) no woman can just go to the temple on her own. 1978 extends the blessings of the priesthood and temple to all.

    Comment by janiece — August 23, 2012 @ 11:53 am

  16. My phrasing has been “ban on full church membership for people of African descent.” Because the restrictions didn’t just involve “priesthood” or “temple access” but more everyday activities (certain calling etc.) Also, the 20th century black Mormon pioneers that I know (i.e. born or joined pre-1978) weren’t allowed to go on missions. So the ban involved much, much more than either the temple or the priesthood.

    I say “full church membership” because, of course, the church would argue that unlike other churches, the LDS was never “segregated” or schismatic along racial lines, that baptisms were allowed for example but that’s as far as the church would officially welcome in people of African descent.

    Comment by Max — August 23, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  17. Thanks, everyone. This is great feedback and I appreciate it all. I’m busy in the archives at the moment, but will respond to each of you when I have more time. Thanks again!

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

  18. Just as AMANDA stated, Native American and LDS relations has been problematic, as far as I know there has been no priesthood ban on Natives. After the Church was established in Utah, the earliest Natives allowed into a temple was when the St. George Temple first opened back in 1871. There could have been earlier ones allowed in out east, but not sure. The closest thing that I can think of, for many older Native LDS members, who still remember the Red Power movements of the 1970s and the calling of George P. Lee to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1975. When Lee was finally excommunicated for a number of reasons, no Native American was ever called into a position of authority until Larry Echo Hawk in 2012, for many Natives who remember these old days feel Natives were being punished for what Lee did. For many today, Echo Hawk is seen more as an Urban Native verses Lee who was more of a Rural Native. As such, it is more understandable that the Church would call someone like him.

    But CHRIS; the issue of intermarriage has been interesting. Brigham Young counseled his missionaries in select Indian missions to intermarry with select tribes. This was a practice that many throughout the world have taken part in with hopes to solidify relations between two political bodies. Richard D. Kitchen?s dissertation, ?Mormon-Indian relations in Deseret? talks a little about this, not much out there on the subject. A majority of LDS missionaries disregarded Young?s council and some flat out refused to do so. This was sometime during the 1850s-1880s. Almost a hundred years later, the Church?s policy was to discourage intermarriages between Native men and Anglo LDS women. But was more acceptable for Anglo LDS men and Native women to intermarry, but at times looked down upon. I remember during my time at BYU in 2000 being called into my Bishop?s office because he was concerned about me dating Anglo girls.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — August 23, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

  19. John (9): That’s an interesting point, though I think Amanda makes a good counterpoint. But all of this reinforces the difficulties and assumptions which with our language is loaded.

    David (12): Yes, “priesthood ban” > “blacks and the priesthood” issue. “Priesthood/temple ban? works, I think, as does Max’s “ban on full church membership for people of African descent.”

    Thanks, Blair (13,14), for the follow-up info. I plan on listening to your podcast with Max on my drive back to VA from NC tomorrow night.

    That’s a really good point, Janiece (15). I admit that I wasn’t aware of that change in policy. Fascinating. Has anyone written about that?

    Thanks, Max (16), for weighing in further. Your point is a good one, and I’d love to learn more about the everyday lived religiosity–and the limits placed on its expression by the institutional church–of black Latter-day Saints pre-1978 (and post, for that matter).

    Thanks for your thoughts, Corey (18). Your point–that the marriage of white men to native women was encouraged by some of the same leaders furious with black men marrying white women–is one I considered addressing in the post, but ultimately decided to leave out because it makes the issues at hand so much more complex. But I do appreciate you brining it up in the comments. I remember you mentioning to me before that your bishop had offered that counsel. That these issues persist to the present is both disappointing and damaging.

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  20. Also: thanks, Gary (11).

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

  21. Nice, Chris. Definitely agree that the terminology ought to change. New shorthand, though, as discussion here seems to reflect, will be hard to come by, since the prohibitions against black men and women related to the priesthood and to the temple apply unevenly. “Priesthood ban” is not relevant does not apply to black women (unless “priesthood’ is redefined); “temple ban” doesn’t quite fit either, since black Latter-day Saints were eligible for proxy baptism. Reeves’ “race-based priesthood and temple bans,” serves, but it would be nice to have something pithier.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 23, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  22. The ban affected the way Scouting was administered in the church as well: Since black YM couldn’t hold the Aaronic PH, they had a hard time meeting leadership requirements for advancement in Scouting as quorum presidencies regularly filled patrol leadership positions in Scouting. There were some lawsuits regarding that very issue.

    As for women attending the temple, my recollection is that temples were open for single women/women married to non-members in the early 1980s rather than as early as 1978 when the priesthood situation changed. (But certainly any woman marrying a black man would not have been able to go through the temple prior to the man’s ordination as an Elder.)

    Comment by LRC — August 23, 2012 @ 7:41 pm

  23. I’m sure someone will correct my memory if it’s wrong…

    Comment by LRC — August 23, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

  24. Amanda & Christopher: I see your counterpoint, but it doesn’t convince me. Women face age-old discrimination that is every bit as powerful as modern race-based discrimination. In the same way that black women do not get credit for the circumstances they faced when black men were denied priesthood, so too all women are enduring unconscionable circumstances now. Obviously, the comparison between white privilege and male privilege is not exact; but both exist and both need to be fought.

    Comment by John Hamer — August 24, 2012 @ 2:03 am

  25. So what determines gender? To say that it is determined in the pre-existence cannot explain why children are born with two sets of sex organs, one male, one female. Actually, aren’t we all female at the earliest moment of conception? If the right gene doesn’t get moved to the right chromosome, that’s what we are. The point is that there are enough troubling questions surrounding the biology and genetics of human life to make the whole question of gender-based anything somewhat suspect.

    Comment by Ray — August 24, 2012 @ 7:40 am

  26. John: True — but why adopt language that has been used to describe the discrimination black people have faced? Why not develop new language? Let’s be honest. Male privilege and white privilege interlock and are related, but they also aren’t the same. It’s the adoption of language that I object to. I’m as much of feminist as anyone else.

    Comment by Amanda — August 24, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  27. Ray, I don’t understand the relevance of your comment to this post or discussion, but am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Can you clarify what you mean and how it relates to the discussion at hand?

    I don’t disagree with your point at all, John, and think it’s an important one. Like Amanda, I’m not convinced continuing to call it the “priesthood ban” but expanding its meaning to include the continued restriction of ordination to “all worthy males” is the best approach to making that point, though. Still, I’m glad you brought up the issue.

    Comment by Christopher — August 24, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  28. This is a really interesting post– thanks for sharing, Christopher. I hadn’t thought through the issue in this way. I am really curious, however, about bans on women to the temple as well– I thought that someone commented during the conference this weekend that women married to nonmembers weren’t allowed to go through the temple until comparatively recently. When were women able to go as individuals? Was the endowment originally introduced as a couple-oriented rite? Is it the same for non-mission-serving men?

    Comment by Rachael — August 27, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

  29. Sorry to barge in late. I think you make an excellent point, Christopher. In case you’re interested, my sister Kiskilili posted about very much the same issue a while back:

    Comment by Ziff — September 11, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  30. Thanks, Ziff! I think I remember reading that now, actually. Everyone should definitely read that post (and the ensuing comments). Thanks again!

    Comment by Christopher — September 11, 2012 @ 3:17 pm


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