Teaching About Racism (Including the Priesthood Ban) in Sacrament Meeting

By May 6, 2008

This is not one of my normal posts, which are usually pretty detached and scholarly. Rather, I’m going to share a personal experience about bringing in academic history to the ward setting. Sunday before last I gave a talk in sacrament meeting, with the assigned topic being scriptures and their value in my life. Initially, the second counselor in my bishopric asked me to address the FLDS situation and continuing revelation, a topic that I was initially excited about but with further reflection I realized that it would be altogether too difficult to do justice in a 10 minute presentation that is supposed to be faith promoting. So I backed off, opting instead to tackle a slightly less controversial topic, but one that I felt needed to be addressed. I decided to talk about what the scriptures teach me concerning my relationship with the “other,” and how racism should not be tolerated in the church.

I realize that, for most people, racism is not the first thing that they think of, given the assignment to discuss the value of the scriptures. But after Obama’s race speech, where he challenged the country to begin a discussion on race, I began to wonder how such a conversation could ever be started in my own BYU ward. The wide open nature of the scriptures provided me with that opportunity, and I took it.

I began my comments by preparing my audience a bit, since racism is not a topic that is frequently addressed from the pulpit. I told them that I would not be reading verses about the importance of record keeping or personal stories about reading scriptures with my family as a child (things that the two previous speakers had already ably addressed), but I would instead be taking on a difficult topic, one that would perhaps make some uncomfortable, but one that was crucially important. I told them I would be speaking on racism.

I first read from Deuteronomy 24:17-18, which addresses the importance of remembering God’s deliverance from Egypt in interactions with strangers, orphans, and widows:

Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow’s raiment to pledge: 18 But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.

The King James language is a bit tricky here, so I also read from an alternate translation:

Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak from the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. This is why I give you this command.

I normally try to avoid quoting directly from non-Mormon sources in church settings, not because I personally have any qualms with doing so, but out of respect for my co-religionists who are uncomfortable with such sources. But in this case I couldn’t resist and read from Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World:

Their model was the redeeming God, not the oppressing Egyptians. Emulating the Egyptians was to return to Egypt even while dwelling in the Land of Promise. Emulating God was to enact the deliverance God had accomplished for them…But the significance of emulating God went deeper than a relationship simply defined by example and imitation, for the Exodus was the founding story of Israel as a people. Acting toward slaves and aliens as God did toward Israel expressed what lay at the origin of Israel’s national existence and the very heart of Israel’s identity: their deliverance from slavery as an act of God’s grace. For the nation to fail to imitate God would not simply be to disregard wise counsel or disobey a moral command but, in a sense, to betray themselves, no less than the redeeming God, by living in contradiction to their true identity…It is not the memory of past suffering by the memory of God’s deliverance from past suffering that underwrites the command to be just and generous toward the weak and needy. (105-106)

At this point I read Nephi’s wonderful description of God’s love toward all his children, that “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33). Although I know that the Book of Mormon is not always consistent on racial matters, I love this verse for what it teaches us about God’s love.

Sensing that some in my audience were by this point beginning to wonder what relevance these verses had on them in today’s church, I then read from Pres. Hinckley’s April 2006 Priesthood talk, where he strongly condemned racism within the church.

Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord. Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?

Aside from decrying racism in our midst, Pres. Hinckley’s quote also provided a good segue for me to briefly address the history of priesthood ban. I believe that the majority of church members do not know this history, and our hesitancy in the church to discuss problems in our past perpetuates ignorance, in my opinion. I told the ward members that Joseph Smith was fairly progressive on race, having said on one occasion that if blacks had the same opportunities as whites they would achieve a similar status. I also told my ward members that at least two black men received the Melchizedek Priesthood during JS’s lifetime, something I knew most had not heard before. It’s still not clear why, but after JS’s death Brigham Young began denying the priesthood to those of African descent, a policy that remained in place (for the most part) until 1978.

I then read from Elder Holland’s wonderful denunciation of the folklore surrounding the ban from his PBS interview:

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…o [when asked to specify the folklore] Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic. …

I was a missionary in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2000, and at least in my mission, this folklore was alive and well. An old Alvin R. Dyer talk was passed around (in a Spanish version, strangely), and described in hushed tones as “deep doctrine.” I wish now that I had had Elder Holland’s words then, so I could have done some small part to stop the perpetuation of that heinous teaching.

I concluded by reading Margaret Young’s most recent post in toto. I said in the comments of that post that one thing we can do to right past wrongs was to repeat such stories, own them, and never allow ourselves to forget. I’m normally not an emotional person, but I had to stop half way through reading Margaret’s words to compose myself. I think it was a touching way to conclude my remarks, and I hope that those in my ward felt so as well.

My talk was rendered especially meaningful because the same day that I gave it a new convert in our ward was given the Aaronic Priesthood. He is from Haiti. I honestly did not know how he would respond to my comments, but I spoke with the girl sitting next to him in sacrament meeting and she told me he enjoyed my remarks. When I spoke about two black men receiving the priesthood during JS’s life, he turned to her with a surprised and exciting look and said, “Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to two black men? I didn’t know that. I thought that no one had it until 1978. That’s really cool.” That alone made my time in preparation and the anxiety leading up to my talk worth it.

I think most people responded well to my talk. To my knowledge no one has gone to my bishop to complain about my remarks or to express doubts about the priesthood ban. I know at least one ward member got lost as I read from the long block quotes, something that I would go back and change if I had the chance. I know I could have presented things differently, more concisely, and more clearly. But I feel grateful that I was able do a small thing to start a conversation on race in my congregation, even if I’m not the most perfect of presenters.

Article filed under Race Scholarship at Church


  1. That sounds like a completely awesome talk. (And it’s a great post, too!) Makes me quite nostalgic for my halcyon days in a BYU Ward. One time DH was assigned a talk on Mother in Heaven.

    Can’t help but wonder, though–what points would you cover on the FLDS and continuing revelation if you weren’t limited to “a 10 minute presentation that is supposed to be faith promoting?”

    Also wondering–how did the 2nd Counselor take your change of topic? Did you discuss it with him first? Do most members feel this much freedom to stretch the topic?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 6, 2008 @ 3:01 am

  2. I have a problem with calling a talk by Alvin R. Dyer “folklore.” It’s not folklore, it’s a discourse by a general authority. Calling it “folklore” is a lame attempt to shift responsibility away from where it belongs. The top church leaders are the ones that created the priesthood ban and most of the teachings supporting it, not some unidentifiable “folk.” Blaming the members for believing to these teachings, while at the same time refusing to apologize or give any alternate explanation, is contemptible.

    Comment by kodos — May 6, 2008 @ 4:17 am

  3. David,
    Bravo, sir.

    Comment by Ronan — May 6, 2008 @ 5:35 am

  4. Very nice David.

    Kodos (#2):
    I don’t think David can fairly be accused of shifting blame away from where it belongs–with church leaders and members (he did, after all “name names” when it came to the Dyer talk). That said, I understand your problem with the use of the term “folklore” to describe the defense of racist policy in the church. Very often that is used as a way of marginalizing teachings that were presented as doctrine by church leaders such as Joseph Fielding Smith in church publications and other prominent venues. I don’t see David engaging in that particular rhetorical gambit, however.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 6, 2008 @ 6:58 am

  5. BiV:

    Can?t help but wonder, though?what points would you cover on the FLDS and continuing revelation

    In brief, I would want to proceed in three parts. First, I would try to dispel misconceptions concerning the practice of polygamy prior to the Manifesto. Second, I would discuss post-Manifesto polygamy and how that created a context for the rise of fundamentalism. Third, I would describe the origins of the fundamentalist movement. While I think it is possible to present this history in a way that makes the actions of our leaders understandable, this narrative also raises important questions that would be difficult to address adequately in a church setting. In addition, I would need to address the differences between my understanding of history and the narratives being put out by church leaders today about our (non) relationship with the FLDS, narratives that I do not personally agree with fully.

    Also wondering?how did the 2nd Counselor take your change of topic? Did you discuss it with him first? Do most members feel this much freedom to stretch the topic?

    Ok, now for the rest of the story. My bishop was out of town when the topic was assigned to me. When he heard about it, he was as uncomfortable as I was about it. I sent him an email laying out the problems with the topic, and he replied that he agreed with me. So he took care of things with his counselor. I sat down with my bishop before sacrament meeting, not to ask permission to talk about race, but to give him fair warning about the contents of my talk. He was fine with it, as long as my intent was to edify and not to attack the church.

    Kodos: I agree that calling it folklore is problematic on several levels. It is however the word used by such scholars as Armand Mauss and such leaders as Elder Holland to discuss those teachings. When addressing such a sensitive issue in a context that does not normally allow for such a candid discussion, I did not feel like I had the leeway to explore a more accurate terminology. I was just happy to get the chance to tell my ward to stop perpetuating that stuff.

    Ronan and Steve: Muchas gracias.

    Comment by David G. — May 6, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  6. Sounds like a great talk. Nice work.

    Comment by BHodges — May 6, 2008 @ 10:11 am

  7. Thank’s for sharing that. Great talk; great post.

    Comment by Clean Cut — May 6, 2008 @ 10:46 am

  8. David,

    I’ve been anxious to read this ever since you first mentioned the content of your talk and the reception it received. This is excellent stuff, and personally hope that more Latter-day Saints might address such difficult issues from their collective past and present in similar settings in the future.

    Comment by Christopher — May 6, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  9. Great talk, good shift in my opinion David. We do need to address this more often.

    Comment by JonW — May 6, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  10. It’s interesting that you begin the discussion by referring to Egypt. It is in connection with Egypt that a few pre-1978 Latter-Day Saints made a crucial mistake. Back then, some would use Abraham 1:26-27 as justification for the ban on the priesthood. But as Karl Sandberg has pointed out, it is more likely that these verses are showing the superiority of the true priesthood to the Egyptian religion that was being practiced because of the ban. To further show that the ban was not due to black skin, Sandberg points out that Pharoah, as depicted in Fac. #3 is light-skinned (as opposed to Olimah in the same facsimile).

    Comment by larryco_ — May 6, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  11. I think most academics would have trouble pulling off what it sounds like you may have done — an informative talk drawing from your scholarly work that was used in the service of the gospel (as opposed, say, to drawing personal attention to you as the scholar, or making scholarship the star of the hour). That doesn’t quite say what I’m trying to put into words, though.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 6, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  12. Blair, Clean Cut, and Jon, thank you.

    Christopher: That’s my hope too. Educating the Saints in an informed yet sensitive manner is something that I want to see more of.

    larryco_: That is interesting. I hadn’t made that connection.

    Ardis: That certainly is my hope. I didn’t want to draw attention to me or to the scholarship, but rather discuss an important topic with the added insight from scholarship.

    Comment by David G. — May 6, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  13. BEAUTIFUL, David! I forwarded the link to Darius Gray.
    I love this quote from Pres. Lorenzo Snow, which has some application here:

    President Lorenzo Snow stated: “Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a ?lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.” [Lorenzo Snow, 6 April, 1900, Conference Report (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1900), 1-2.]

    Comment by Margaret Young — May 6, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  14. David,

    Great post. I’ve been wondering about the upcoming 30th anniversary of the reversal of the ban, and what note will be taken of it. I unfortunately still hear some of the old explanations discussed from time to time. It is much more rare these days, but some of it is still out there.

    I’ll be sharing some of these thoughts with the rest of my family.

    Comment by kevinf — May 6, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  15. Margeret, great quote!

    Comment by kevinf — May 6, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  16. Thanks for this, David. I hope especially Elder Holland’s sentiments are widely read and recieved.

    Comment by Jared T. — May 6, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  17. Margaret, thank you for sending the link to Darius. Incidently, my bishop, Richard Heaps, told me that he served in a Sunday School Presidency with Darius back in the seventies. I think that helped when I explained to my bishop what I was going to be doing. Also, thank you for the quote. It is wonderful.

    kevinf: I too have been wondering how the anniversary will be handled. I’d love to see it dealt with head on, but I’m not holding my breath. I do think that as individuals we can encourage our ward leadership to do something on that week.

    Jared: Agreed.

    Comment by David G. — May 6, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  18. David,

    I’ve been thinking about this all day, and the only drawback I see of situating the problem of racism in the church today against the backdrop of the priesthood ban is that it limits the discussion to a black/white paradigm, thus further marginalizing other “others,” including the ever-expanding Latino and Asian populations in the church, who also regularly are at the receiving end of white racism within the church. Any insight on how to best approach similar discussions that include those groups?

    Comment by Christopher — May 6, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  19. There will be a SIGNIFICANT marking of the 30th anniversary of the priesthood revelation on June 8th.

    Christopher–I taught Spanish Institute for seven years, and my students were intensely, personally concerned about race issues and the priesthood restriction. I opened one Institute class with, “So, does anyone have any questions?” One of my students, one who rarely attended, raised his hand. “I’ve heard the scripture ‘God is no respecter of persons’ but I’ve heard lots of explanations. Could you help me understand? What does it mean?” From there, other students started volunteering some of the racism they had encountered. I would not have been prepared to really teach them if I hadn’t been working on the books about Black pioneers. We had a great discussion that night.

    Btw, many in the congregation when Pres. Hinckley gave the quote David includes in his post heard it as standing up for Latinos.

    Comment by Margaret Young — May 6, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  20. I enjoyed reading your talk, David. Thanks.

    Comment by Justin — May 6, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  21. Take this for what it’s worth, as well.

    Parley Pratt once speculated that the shepherds must have wondered about the declarations of the angels who heralded the birth of Christ saying good tidings would be to “all people” (Luke 2:10):

    The shepherds were astonished, and well they might be, and they brought every body to this text throughout the whole of Judea. Still those angels were honest enough to sing the whole truth, notwithstanding the Jews looked upon all Gentiles as dogs, and I think I hear the shepherds saying, that brought glad tidings to every body-“To these dogs?”

    Still the angels-a choir of them-were bold enough to sing, “We bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people!” What a big saying for Jewish shepherds! Why they must have enlarged their hearts, and wondered at this very strange news!

    Why Peter had hardly got his heart sufficiently enlarged to believe these glad tidings, many years after they were proclaimed, although he had preached so much. It swelled by degrees, and contracted again, I suppose, and at last he had to have a vision, and a sheet let down from heaven, and things shown him, and explained to him over and over again, to get him to realize the truth of the glad tidings sung by angels at the birth of the Savior [see Acts 10]. It was showing so much, it was too broad a platform, such a boundless ocean of mercy! It was making such a provision for the human family that Peter could not comprehend it.

    If the angel had said it was for the Jews, for the peculiar people of God, those that could receive the new revelation, why then it might have done; but to throw off their traditions, they who were the peculiar few, as they considered themselves, to believe that the glad tidings of the Savior’s birth was for those Gentile dogs, they could not endure this for a moment. They were of the house of Israel, the seed of promise (Parley P. Pratt, JD 3:183-184).

    On a different note, sadly I still do not know why certain blacks were restricted from the priesthood for so long.

    Comment by BHodges — May 6, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  22. Chris: That certainly was an issue that I considered in preparing the talk. In the ten minutes I had, I didn’t know how to transcend the binary, so I decided to work within those confines. We have to deal with the ban when discussing race relations in the church; I don’t have much doubt about that. We do have some tools to work with when doing so, as I show in the initial post. But when discussing how we as Mormons racialize Latinos and Native Americans specifically, it becomes a bit trickier because we have fewer tools with which to work.

    Margaret, that’s good to hear about the commemoration. I’m excited for that.

    Thanks Justin and Blair.

    Comment by David G. — May 6, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

  23. Beautiful talk, David. I posted about my feelings last month:


    Let me just add that looking at how the word “blackness” is used in the Bible sheds some interesting light on 2 Nephi 5:21. Two simple examples are:

    Job 3:5 – “Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.”

    Joel 2:6 – “Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness.”

    Comment by Ray — May 6, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

  24. My talk was rendered especially meaningful because the same day that I gave it a new convert in our ward was given the Aaronic Priesthood. He is from Haiti.

    As someone who received the Aaronic Priesthood under the hands of my father and our Haitian hometeacher, this touched me. Thank you for taking on a difficult subject that I wish we felt more comfortable discussing openly as a Church.

    Comment by Dave T — May 6, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  25. David,

    I agree with Ardis that the powerful thing about the talk was that the it wasn’t just about the scholarship, but instead it used the scholarship to teach about the unconditional love of God. Also, I think the verse from 2 Nephi appropriately expands the focus beyond the black white binary–though it also leaves you an opportunity for future discussion. Thanks for sharing your experience. I also think you are right about addressing the FLDS situation. That sounds like a train wreck of a topic for a Sacrament Meeting if I’ve ever heard one.

    Comment by Joel — May 7, 2008 @ 7:09 am

  26. in response to kodos, comment 2:

    folk=people, aka, human beings.
    Prophets and General Authorities are people, human beings, folk. Beings with some authority, yes, but nonetheless, people, folk.

    I know some people don’t seem to think so, but, so far as I know, most (probably all) of them are aware of it. Bruce R. McConkie was, and even though it irks me to identify folklore by it’s popular usage, as bunk-lore, he fessed up to promoting some of that, along with others, in what I consider one of the best summations of the lore: “?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 [I think President Hinckley’s views quoted above fit well here], and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.?

    Comment by stan — May 7, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

  27. I’m glad Elder McConkie said “forget” what they’ve said before; but I still thirst for a reason the ban existed in the first place.

    Comment by BHodges — May 7, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  28. BHodges comment (27) taken together with stan’s 26 makes me realize that perhaps such explanation is not to be found in the statements of those who lived, or even implemented, the ban. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in period statements, but perhaps not.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — May 7, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

  29. Stan,
    Can you site or give some kind of reference to the BRM quote? I would love to read it in it’s entirety.

    Comment by Hollis — May 7, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

  30. Hollis,

    Here it is:

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 7, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  31. I was talking with my 22 yo RM son about this topic and he was suprised to learn the JS had ordained a black man. He came home today from institute and said that they had discussed the ban in class today. He asked the teacher about Elijah Able and was told that when BY started the ban, he said that it had been JS instructions – that he shouldn’t have ordained a black man. He didn’t get a reference on that. That doesn’t sound correct – has anyone heard anything to that effect? I was suprised at the teacher’s response.

    Comment by Sally — May 8, 2008 @ 1:26 am

  32. Also, is there a reference to when BY first instituted that ban?

    Comment by Sally — May 8, 2008 @ 1:30 am

  33. I’d love more info on the beginning. Did Bush cover it in his old Dialogue article? Mauss?

    Comment by BHodges — May 8, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  34. David, in a sacrament talk last year I also referred to the priesthood ban and quoted the McConkie reference referred to here. I also got positive response for having treated the subject albeit briefly. Elder Holland’s quote was there also. Funny, huh?

    Comment by Jared T — May 8, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  35. There’s Bush’s “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine” and “Whence the Negro Doctrine? A Review of Ten Years of Answers.”

    Neither White nor Black

    Comment by Justin — May 8, 2008 @ 10:03 am

  36. Another relevant article is “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism” in the same book linked above.

    Comment by Justin — May 8, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  37. Sally,

    All good questions. The link provided by Justin is a great resource on the history of the ban. In addition, the best research to date on the question comes from Connell O’Donovan (all quotes below come from his paper). As late as March 1847, we have Brigham Young saying that “Its nothing to do with the blood for [from] one blood has God made all flesh, we have to repent [to] regain what we av lost ? we av one of the best Elders an African in Lowell.” The elder referred to was Walker Lewis, who was ordained by William Smith (JS’s brother) in 1842. However, several factors combined in the next month or so that shifted BY’s thinking. First, problems with a man named William McCary, half-black and half-Native American, who claimed to be a prophet in Winter Quarters, infuriated BY. Second, Walker Lewis’ nephew married a white woman, which was illegal at the time (and also, in BY’s opinion, a sin punishable by death), also contributed to the shift. There were probably other factors as well. The earliest known statement that we have concerning the ban comes from Parley P. Pratt in April 1847, where he described William McCary as “a black man with the blood of Ham in him which linege was cursed as regards the priesthood.”

    I suspect that the institute teacher’s remarks were a well-intentioned but misguided effort to protect your son’s faith. I can sympathize with the teacher’s intentions but not with his means. Obscuring or falsifying the historical record to deal with a sensitive issue ultimately ends up doing more harm than good. There is not a lot of evidence for the teacher’s position. Elijah Able continued to hold the priesthood and go on missions for the church for the remainder of his life.

    Comment by David G. — May 8, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  38. Jared, that is funny.

    Comment by David G. — May 8, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  39. There is also O’Donovan’s JWHAJ article on Walker Lewis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 8, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  40. …and David says more and better than I.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 8, 2008 @ 10:43 am

  41. There’s an very informative chapter that discusses the policy in “David O. Mckay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” entitled “Blacks, Civil Rights, and the Priesthood” which I recently read. Although it’s clear that many of our past Church leaders were a product of their times (ie: somewhat racist) it is also clear that the policy was not really even well known about by the general membership of the Church up through the 1950’s. It’s no surprise that the “why” is not very well understood now, because it really wasn’t understood well then. Even some of the Brethren in the middle of the 20th century weren’t aware that Joseph Smith ordained several black men to the Priesthood and that the evolution of the ban actually began with Brigham Young. One thing is sure: Hugh B. Brown, counselor to David O. Mckay in the First Presidency, was definitely in favor of reversing the policy. However he met with some resistence/pressure by other top leaders in the Twelve.

    David O. McKay himself said multiple times that it was not a doctrine, but a policy, and that it would eventually be reversed. He started making modifications to the policy that laid the groundwork for the 1978 Revelation by President Kimball. It’s an insightful read and it definitely gave me a more realistic picture of how everything actually played out.

    I’m just very grateful to live in a day and age in which wrongs have been corrected and especially appreciate recent quotes by Elder Holland and President Hinckley, among many others.

    Comment by Clean Cut — May 8, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  42. Clean Cut, agreed. That McKay bio is really a huge contribution to our understanding of how 20th century brethren have seen the ban.

    Comment by David G. — May 8, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

  43. Along with McKay, the newest biography of Spencer W. Kimball also has a number of informative chapters about the priesthood ban and how Pres. Kimball dealt with it leading up to the 1978 revelation. But you have to read it on the cd as the printed text hardly has any source notes.

    Comment by Jared T — May 8, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  44. Alright. I served in South Africa, where about half the missionaries were black Africans. Many of them may have heard the of the priesthood ban, but almost all ran into the ‘explanations’ behind the priesthood ban while on their mission. Some struggled with it, while most either ignored it or embraced/believed it. Sure, it’s troubling, because of this statement by Elder Holland:

    We just don?t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. ? That?s my principal [concern], is that we don?t perpetuate explanations about things we don?t know.

    We shouldn’t perpetuate things like the Alvin Dyer talk (although I find it worthy to read), because we just don’t know WHY it was practiced, and that talk is an attempt to explain WHY. Therefore, since we don’t KNOW, we don’t know whether it is TRUE or HEINOUS.

    That’s my only problem with your above post: you said the Alvin Dyer talk taught a heinous teaching, which some may intrepret says Brigham Young taught a heinous doctrine. I loved the above post, except where you said Alvin Dyer’s talk taught a heinous teaching. Again, as Elder Holland said, we shouldn’t perpetuate those explanations of the priesthood ban because we don’t KNOW the explanations. I believe going around saying it is heinous is just as wrong as going around saying it’s true doctrine.

    Comment by se7en — May 10, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  45. se7en, Brigham Young was a bigot and he taught some deplorable things regarding race. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a prophet. And Dyer’s talk is simply false doctrine. Period.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 10, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  46. I agree that it is problematic to make assumptions about the premortal valiance of individuals or entire groups of people based on current earth circumstances. Perhaps the most valiant were willing to endure second estates in the poorest soils/ circumstances. For example, premortal valiance has also been used as an explanation for people stuck in really crappy situations (like individuals born into abusive families as just one example). Yeah, I don’t buy that one either.

    I guess I’m pointing out that the idea of pre-earth valiance affecting earth-life placement is more wide-spread than just an explanation of the priesthood ban. It is certainly doctrinal insofar as Christ and his mission is concerned. I would say it is also doctrinal insofar as prophets and other leaders are concerned. We also hear talk about the most valiant spirits being reserved for these wickedest last days. But if we were all so valiant, who is doing all this wickedness?

    One thing I do know is that the scriptures repeatedly emphasize that ALL are invited to come unto Christ, and that through Him, we can overcome whatever degree of unvaliance we initially express in the premortal world AND this one.

    Comment by Lisa B — May 10, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

  47. se7en, thanks for expressing your opinion. I have mine, and I believe that teaching is heinous. Elder Holland also said that “however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.” So perhaps using the word “heinous” is a bit strong, but it still conveys the notion that the teachings were wrong and they should not be perpetuated.

    Comment by David G. — May 10, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

  48. I guess I missed where this discussed the value of scriptures in your life.

    Comment by Rubin Farr — May 15, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  49. Not to sound mean, but the talk was a nice scholarly topic, one I even can agree with, but really is that what sacrament meeting is for? Did it really cover the assigned topic? Did the Blacks and the Priesthood issue really cover how scriptures influence your life and did it really edify others? I don’t want to sound mean, but I wonder if the topic, however well meaning, was appropriate.

    Comment by Rubin Farr — May 15, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  50. Rubin, I think if you read the entire post, you’ll see how it covers the assigned topic. I spoke on how the scriptures teach me how to treat other people, regardless of the color of the skin. I felt like I had to deal with the priesthood ban (dancing around it would have done no good), but it was only a part of the whole.

    In terms of whether or not my talk edified others, I guess we’ll have to defer to my ward members. All of the feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive.

    Comment by David G. — May 15, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  51. re #44
    Just as a matter of logic, I don’t necessarily see the categories of “heinous” and “true” as mutually exclusive.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 15, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  52. […] I hinted above that my guess is that Latter-day Saints have chosen historically to represent themselves using discourses that emphasize whiteness over racial compassion, which has resulted (likely unintentionally) in the erection of racial boundaries, boundaries that can and should be eliminated. […]

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