Narrating the Priesthood Ban and Constructing Selves

By December 19, 2007

This is cross-posted at Times and Seasons.

The way we see and define who we are is usually closely related to how we understand the past. Most of us have overlapping identities that require us to negotiate compromises between them and these compromises shape our narratives of history. African American members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have two dominant identities, black and Mormon, and as such, they have the burden of negotiating a compromise between these identities in relation to their understandings of the priesthood ban. As sociologists O. Kendall White, Jr. and Daryl White argue, “The explanations LDS African Americans offer for the priesthood ban enable us to examine the relationship between racial and religious identity” (295). In their 1995 article, the Whites presented an analysis of over two hundred interviews with black Mormons conducted from 1984 to 1988 by black Mormon Alan Cherry for the Charles Redd Center for Western History at BYU.[1] The interviewees were selected from most demographic categories, although there was a bias toward active and middle class black Latter-day Saints. The Whites outlined five distinct narratives or categories presented by the interviewees, concluding that “[t]he five categories constitute a continuum ranging from the acceptance of traditional Mormon racial ideology at one end to a complete rejection and replacement with a different ideology, in ways that reverse culpability for the priesthood ban, at the other” (295). Here are the five categories or narratives, with the authors’ summaries.

1) Acceptance of the traditional (white) ideology. 

Embracing the most extreme version of traditional Mormon racial ideology, this position generates the widest gap between religious and racial identity. Dissonance is reduced by minimizing the importance of priesthood or by discrediting blacks while exonerating white Mormons who are identified with both the priesthood and the ban. (300-301)

2) Belief that the ban was the result of revelation, without knowing the reason for it.

Since the specific cause of the ban is not identified, this position assumes a less explicit judgment on black culpability. Even so, blacks are denied opportunities and privileges enjoyed by others because of divine will, which implies some degree of inferiority. Thus defining oneself as Mormon, given this position on the ban, requires subordination of racial identity to religious identity. (301)

3) Relegation of the ban to the past while focusing on the present and the future.

While these explanations for the priesthood ban range from divine will to human action, the common thread of relegating it to history while concentrating on the present enables adherents of this position to balance their racial and religious identities. However, those who attribute the priesthood taboo to divine factors, though choosing to leave it behind, achieve balance with somewhat greater emphasis on their religious rather than racial identity. In contrast, those attributing the ban to human factors place somewhat greater emphasis on racial identity. Even so, both groups reduce the dissonance between their religious and social identities by ignoring troublesome features of Mormon history which enables them to achieve a relatively symmetrical balance between their Mormon and African American identities. (303)

4) Construction of historical and sociological accounts linking the prohibition to prejudice and discrimination.

By identifying the policy with historical forces and/or associating it with institutional failures, these African American Mormons celebrate their racial identity, demanding that their religious identity accommodate their racial identity. Neither Mormon racial history nor their own experience as African Americans can be separated from or subordinated to their identity as Mormons. Since the church, not God or black people, was responsible for Mormon racial policy, this perspective affirms racial identity and achieves an integrated self by demanding that religious identity acknowledge the integrity of African American experience. Not surprisingly, a challenge for the church to recover and celebrate African Americans from its own past often appears among individuals adopting this position. (305-306)

5) Construction of a new ideology by reversing the culpability of whites and blacks.

Like those who attribute the priesthood taboo to historical factors or institutional failure, these new theologians celebrate their racial identity and demand its affirmation in their religious identity. A benevolent God withheld the priesthood to protect both blacks and His church from white racism. Explanations attributing the priesthood ban to the moral failure of whites preserve the dignity of blacks. Thus, an integrated self, for the new theologians, demands a conception of being Mormon that embraces black dignity. Accordingly, those who find divine purpose in the priesthood ban by reversing the roles of whites and blacks necessarily reject any meaning of being Mormon that falls short of this affirmation. Whatever dissonance is created between conflicts in their religious and racial identities is reduced by modifying the former to meet demands of the latter.
Consequently, the new theologians, like those offering naturalistic explanations, encourage the church to discover and celebrate the role played by African Americans in Mormon history. (308)

I find this analysis by White and White to be a fascinating window into the world of many black Mormons and the strategies used to negotiate compromises between their identities and their understandings of the priesthood ban. It would be intriguing to see a similar study of interviews conducted today to see if time and the availability of historical literature on the origins of the priesthood ban have shifted and shaped explanations. I don’t know many African American Mormons, but my guess is that the majority today would find options four and five the most appealing.

Where do most white Mormons fall in this continuum? Are there additional categories and narratives that whites use to explain the priesthood ban? An admittedly unscientific poll was conducted a few weeks ago at the Juvenile Instructor, and the majority of ‘nacle voters split White and White’s fourth option by 1) seeing the ban as the understandable results of Brigham Young’s racial environment and 2) an inexcusable and racist policy, even given the conditions of the time. Neither seem to acknowledge a direct role for God in the ban’s origins. My sense is that most ordinary Mormons (those that are not inclined to read books on the subject) fall between White and White’s first and third categories. If possible, I’d like to keep this discussion within the realm of examining these narratives not in terms of whether they are right or wrong, but rather within the bounds established by White and White, asking what these narratives can tell us about contemporary Mormon identities. Discussing other narratives that you’ve heard is acceptable. A fine analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various narratives can be found here.


[1] O. Kendall White, Jr. and Daryl White, “Integrating Religious and Racial Identities: An Analysis of LDS African American Explanations of the Priesthood Ban,” Review of Religious Research 36, no. 3. (March 1995):295-311.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Memory Race


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