LDS blacks, scholars cheer church's essay on priesthood

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 3:15 p.m. MDT

The gratitude in the black LDS community for the essay merged with cheers from members of the Mormon Studies community for the essay's history of the origin of the restriction in the early church. The page, which showed the ban was rooted in the racism of the mid-1800s, included new milestones in the use of scholarship in official church history materials.

Persistent folklore

"We've never heard from church leadership an express disavowal of all the mythology that had built up around the ban," said Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, "so that is extremely welcome, I think."

"It's by far the best statement and most responsible and forthcoming statement we have from the official church about the past," said Philip Barlow, the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Church leaders have repeatedly condemned racism but in recent decades had said the origins of the ban were not clear. The ban predates membership for most Mormons. There were 4 million Latter-day Saints in 1978. Today there are 15 million Mormons — more than half of whom live outside the United States. So the majority are either unaware of the old "folklore" surrounding the ban, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called it during an interview with PBS in 2006, or they had rejected the theories in 1978.

One month after the 1978 revelation, another member of the Twelve, the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, urged church religion professors and seminary teachers to do just that, dismiss everything he and other past leaders had said about those teachings.

But as recently as 2012, a religion professor at church-operated Brigham Young University restated some of those theories to a reporter at the Washington Post. Randy Bott said the reporter misquoted his attempts to describe the former teachings.

Still, the theories persisted in some corners of the faith.

"In 1978, among my friends and associates it was almost universal jubilation" over the revelation that extended the priesthood to black men, said Bob Rees, who last fall taught the first class on Mormonism at the University of California at Berkeley. "I think a lot of people have not known that the misinformation and mythology have continued in the church. You have a few people at BYU, people in seminary and institutes and people in Sunday School who have over the years, some of them, continued to talk about the curse of Cain and talk about less valiancy in the pre-existence."

The new Web page on race and the priesthood clears that away for good, Rees added.

"That clear, certain statement in a paragraph erases a century and a half of mythology, misinformation and misuse of scripture."

The history

Claremont's Mason believes the statement is welcomed by members concerned about outside charges of racism in the church.

"Of course there are few social and cultural sins in modern America as serious as racism," he said. "Lots of people said, 'OK, finally now when people ask me about it, I can show the church has repudiated that past and now we've moved on.' So I think there's a kind of collective sigh of relief that we can now move on from that troubled part of our legacy."

The church's essay says the church was established in 1830 during an era of great racial division in the United States. Church founder Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery and allowed the ordination of a few black men, one of whom participated in temple ceremonies.

In 1852, President Smith's successor, President Brigham Young, "publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood." He also said that year that in the future black church members would "have (all) the privilege and more" enjoyed by other members.

Those statements were made in speeches President Young gave before the Utah Territorial Legislature, a key finding in a 1973 article by historian Lester E. Bush.

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