Race, the Priesthood, and Temples

W. Paul Reeve

W. Paul Reeve, “Race, the Priesthood, and Temples,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura H. Hales (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016), 159–78.

W. Paul Reeve was Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies in the History Department at the University of Utah when this was published.

A racially expansive vision of redemption through Jesus Christ for all of God’s children marked the early decades of the Church’s existence. One early leader, William Wines Phelps, wrote in 1835 that “all the families of the earth . . . should get redemption . . . in Christ Jesus,” regardless of “whether they are descendants of Shem, Ham, or Japheth.” Another publication declared that all people were “one in Christ Jesus . . . whether it was in Africa, Asia, or Europe.” Apostle Parley P. Pratt similarly professed his intent to preach “to all people, kindred, tongues, and nations without any exception” and included “India’s and Africa’s sultry plains” in his vision of the global reach of the Latter-day Saint gospel message. More significantly, Joseph Smith Jr. received at least four revelations instructing him that “the gospel must be preached unto every creature, with signs following them that believe” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:64; see also 68:8, 84:62, 112:28). “Every creature” left no room for doubt; no one was to be excluded.[1]

This universal invitation initially included extending all of the unfolding ordinances of the Restoration to all members. To date there are no known statements made by Joseph Smith Jr. of a racial priesthood or temple restriction. In fact, there is incontrovertible evidence for the ordination of at least two Black men, Q. Walker Lewis and Elijah Able, during the Church’s first two decades. Other men of Black African descent also received ordinations, including Able’s son Moroni in 1871 and his grandson Elijah R. Ables in 1935, although the grandson passed as white to qualify.[2] However, racial restrictions developed under Brigham Young and were solidified over the course of the last half of the nineteenth century under subsequent leaders.

Brigham Young’s rationale for the restriction was taught and preached as doctrine and centered on the biblical curse and “mark” that God placed on Cain for killing his brother Abel. Over time, other justifications tied to the premortal existence and the War in Heaven attempted to validate the practice, even though they were never used by Brigham Young. Some leaders also looked to the Book of Abraham and its passages regarding a pharaoh whose lineage was “cursed . . . as pertaining to the priesthood.”[3] Even though Joseph Smith produced the Book of Abraham, he never used it to justify a priesthood restriction, and neither did Brigham Young.[4]

The curse in the Book of Mormon of a “skin of blackness” (2 Nephi 5:21) was never used as a justification for withholding the priesthood or temple ordinances from Black Saints. Latter-day Saint leaders and followers alike understood the Book of Mormon curse to apply to Native Americans and viewed it as reversible. It was a vision of Indian redemption that placed white Latter-day Saints as agents in that process. In contrast, Brigham Young claimed the biblical curse of Cain was in God’s hands only, something humankind could not influence or remove until God commanded it.[5]

Whiteness in American History and Culture

Being white in American history was considered the normal and natural condition of humankind. Anything less than white was viewed as a deterioration from normal, a situation that made such a person unfit for the blessings of democracy. Being white meant being socially respectable; it granted a person greater access to political, economic, and social power. Politicians equated whiteness with citizenship and fitness for self-rule. In 1790 Congress passed a naturalization act that limited citizenship to “free white persons,” a decision that had a significant impact on race relations in the nineteenth century. Even Abraham Lincoln, the future “great emancipator,” believed that as long as Blacks and white people coexisted, “there must be the position of superior and inferior,” and he favored the “white race” in the “superior position.” After the Civil War, as Southern whites reasserted white superiority, the Supreme Court affirmed their efforts when it ruled that separate-but-equal facilities were constitutional, a decision that legalized the segregation of most facets of American life.[6]

The founding decades of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints coincided with a period in which whiteness itself came under question. Race at the time was a word loosely used to refer to nationality as much as skin color. People spoke of an “Irish race,” for example, and began to create a hierarchy of racial identities, with Anglo-Saxons at the top. A variety of less-white “races” were further down the list. Scots, Teutons, Welsh, Latin, Caucasian, Nordic, Celt, Slav, Alpine, Hebrew, Mediterranean, Iberic, and other such identifiers emerged to additionally blur racial categories.[7]

The Church was born in this era of splintering whiteness and did not escape its consequences. The Protestant majority in America was never quite certain how or where to situate Latter-day Saints within conflicting racial schemes, but they were nonetheless convinced that members of the upstart faith represented a racial decline. Many nineteenth-century social evolutionists believed in the development theory: all societies advanced across three stages of progress, from savagery to barbarism to civilization. As societies advanced, they left behind such practices as polygamy and adherence to authoritarian rule. In the minds of such thinkers, Latter-day Saints violated the development theory in practicing polygamy and theocracy, something that no true Anglo-Saxon would do. Latter-day Saints thereby represented a fearful racial descent into barbarism and savagery. Within this charged racial context, Latter-day Saints struggled to claim whiteness for themselves despite the fact that they were overwhelmingly white.[8] As legal scholar Ariel Gross argues, whiteness in the nineteenth century was measured in distance from blackness, and Latter-day Saints spent considerable effort attempting to become securely white at the expense of their own Black converts.[9]

Racialization of Latter-day Saints

The Saints’ troubled sojourns in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois were fraught with the perception that Latter-day Saints were too open and inviting to undesirable groups—Black people and Indians in particular. In 1830, the founding year of the Church, a former enslaved man named Peter became the first known African American to join the faith. Within a year of his conversion, the fact that the Latter-day Saints had a Black man worshipping with them made news in New York and Pennsylvania.[10] Edward Strutt Abdy, a British official on tour of the United States, noted that Ohio Latter-day Saints honored “the natural equality of mankind, without excepting the native Indians or the African race.” Abdy feared, however, that it was an open attitude that may have gone too far for its time and place. He believed that the Latter-day Saint stance toward Indians and Black people was at least partly responsible for “the cruel persecution by which they have suffered.” In his mind, the Book of Mormon ideal that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white” (2 Nephi 26:33), made it unlikely that the Saints would “remain unmolested in the State of Missouri.”[11] Other outsiders tended to agree. They complained that Latter-day Saints were far too inclusive in the creation of their religious kingdom. They accepted “all nations and colours,” they welcomed “all classes and characters,” they included “aliens by birth” and people from “different parts of the world” as members of God’s earthly family. Outsiders variously suggested that Latter-day Saints had “opened an asylum for rogues and vagabonds and free blacks,” maintained “communion with the Indians,” and walked out with “colored women.” In short, Latter-day Saints were charged with creating racially and economically diverse transnational communities and congregations, a stark contrast to a national culture that favored the segregation and extermination of undesirable racial groups.[12]

Some Latter-day Saints recognized the ways in which outsiders denigrated them and called their whiteness into question. In 1840 Apostle Parley P. Pratt, for example, complained that during the Saints’ expulsion from Missouri “most of the papers of the State” described them as “Mormons, in contradistinction to the appellation of citizens, whites, &c., as if we had been some savage tribe, or some colored race of foreigners.” John Lowe Butler, another Latter-day Saint expelled from Missouri, recalled one Missourian who declared that “he did not consider the ‘Mormons’ had any more right to vote than the niggers.” In Illinois, Apostle Heber C. Kimball acknowledged that Latter-day Saints were not “considered suitable to live among ‘white folks’” and later declared, “We are not accounted as white people, and we don’t want to live among them. I had rather live with the buffalo in the wilderness.”[13]

The open announcement of polygamy in 1852 moved the concern among outsiders in a new direction, toward a growing fear of racial contamination. In the minds of outsiders, Latter-day Saint polygamy was not just destroying the traditional family—it was destroying the white race. A US Army doctor reported to Congress that polygamy was giving rise to a “new race,” filthy, sunken, and degraded. One writer argued that polygamy placed “a mark of Cain” on Latter-day Saint women, while another said that the entire religion was “as degrading as old-fashioned negro slavery.”[14] In general, outsiders conflated Latter-day Saints with Black people in a variety of ways. Their views were fluid and inconsistent, yet several themes emerged to suggest that outsiders sometimes viewed Latter-day Saints as racially suspect. Such depictions were designed to marginalize the Saints and justify discriminatory policies against them. As some outsiders described it, Latter-day Saint polygamy was a system of “white slavery,” worse than the Black slavery that “existed in the South, and far more filthy.” Latter-day Saint men were sometimes depicted as violent or indolent slave drivers and Latter-day Saint women as their “white slaves.”[15] In 1882 Alfred Trumble’s The Mysteries of Mormonism, a sensationalized dime novel, captured this national theme in pictorial form in an illustration simply labeled “wives as slaves.”[16]

More troubling to outsiders was the perception that polygamy was a system of unbridled interracial sex and marriage. One political cartoon depicted Brigham Young with two Black wives and degraded interracial offspring. A parade in Indiana similarly featured a mock version of Brigham Young’s family. It included six wives seated in Brigham Young’s wagon, “white, black and piebald better-halves,” a group of women unmistakably costumed to heighten national fears of race mixing and project them onto Latter-day Saints. The New York Times reported on two supposed “negro balls” in Salt Lake City where “negro men and women, and Mormon men and women, [were] all dancing on terms of perfect equality.” The writer called it “the most disgusting of spectacles.” Other cartoons and dime novels portrayed Latter-day Saint plural marriages as hotbeds of interracial sex, depictions deliberately designed to heighten American alarm over a perceived violation of racial boundaries and to portray Latter-day Saints as facilitators of racial contamination.[17]

Cartoons sometimes portrayed Latter-day Saint polygamous families as interracial, and unabashedly so. In September 1896, during the presidential race between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William McKinley, Judge magazine ran one such cartoon. The illustration was titled “The 16 to 1 Movement in Utah.” It used a contentious issue in the campaign that year to make fun of polygamy. Bryan advocated freeing the nation’s monetary system from the gold standard by allowing for the coinage of silver at a ratio of sixteen to one. In the Judge cartoon, however, sixteen to one took on new meaning in Utah: sixteen women to one man. The polygamist man carried a bag labeled “from Utah” and stood front and center of his sixteen wives, eight on either side. It was not merely the number of women to men, however, that made the cartoon significant. It was the interracial nature of the Latter-day Saint family it depicted. The sixteen wives were portrayed in a variety of shapes, sizes, and relative beauty, but it was the first wife holding the man’s left arm that was meant to unsettle its audience. She was a Black woman boldly at the front of the other wives, a visual depiction of the racial corruption that outsiders worried was inherent in Latter-day Saint polygamy.[18]

The Priesthood and Temple Restrictions Begin

At the same time that outsiders persistently criticized Latter-day Saints as facilitators of racial decline, Latter-day Saints moved in fits and starts across the course of the nineteenth century away from blackness toward whiteness. It is a mistake to try to pinpoint a moment, event, person, or line in the sand that divided Latter-day Saint history into a clear before and after. Rather, the policies and supporting teachings that Church leaders developed over the course of the nineteenth century increasingly solidified a rationale and gave rise to an accumulating precedent that each succeeding generation reinforced, so that by the late nineteenth century, Church leaders were unwilling to violate policies they mistakenly remembered beginning with Joseph Smith. By 1908, Joseph F. Smith solidified the priesthood and temple restrictions in place when he falsely remembered that his uncle, Joseph Smith Jr., started the racial limitations.[19] The new memory moving forward would be that of a white priesthood in place from the beginning, traceable from the founding prophet back to God, something with which no human could or should interfere.

Although Brigham Young’s two speeches to the Utah territorial legislature in 1852 mark the first recorded articulations of a priesthood restriction by a Latter-day Saint prophet-president, it is a mistake to attribute the ban soley to seemingly inherent racism in Brigham Young. His own views evolved between 1847, when he first dealt with racial matters at Winter Quarters, and 1852, when he first publicly articulated a rationale for a priesthood restriction. In 1847, in an interview with William (Warner) McCary, a Black Latter-day Saint who married Lucy Stanton, a white Latter-day Saint, Brigham Young expressed an open position on race. McCary complained to Brigham Young regarding the way he was sometimes treated among the Saints and suggested that his skin color was a factor: “I am not a President, or a leader of the people,” McCary lamented, but merely a “common brother,” a fact that he said was true “because I am a little shade darker.” In response, Brigham Young asserted that “we dont care about the color.” He went on to suggest that color did not matter in priesthood ordination: “We have to repent & regain what we have lost,” Brigham Young insisted, “we have one of the best Elders, an African in Lowell—a barber,” he reported. Brigham Young here referred to Q. Walker Lewis, a barber, abolitionist, and leader in the Black community in Lowell, Massachusetts. Apostle William Smith, younger brother to Hyrum and Joseph Smith, had ordained Lewis an elder in 1843 or 1844. Brigham Young was fully aware of Lewis’s status as a Black man and priesthood holder and favorably referred to that status in his interview with McCary. Brigham Young offered Lewis as evidence that even Black men were welcome and eligible for the priesthood in the restored Church.[20]

By December of 1847, however, Brigham Young’s perspective had changed. Following his expedition to the Salt Lake Valley that summer, he returned to Winter Quarters. There he learned of McCary’s interracial exploits in his absence. McCary had started his own splinter polygamous group predicated on white women being “sealed” to him in a sexualized ritual. When his exploits were discovered, he and his followers were excommunicated and McCary left the Church, never to return. Young was also greeted with news of the marriage of Enoch Lewis, Q. Walker Lewis’s son, to Mary Matilda Webster, a white woman in the Lowell, Massachusetts, branch. In response, Brigham Young spoke forcefully against interracial marriage, even advocating capital punishment as a consequence. Like Joseph Smith before him, Brigham Young opposed racial mixing and made some of his most pointed statements on the subject. Yet none of the surviving minutes from the meetings that Brigham Young held that year raise priesthood as an issue negatively connected to race. It would be five more years before Brigham Young articulated his position on that subject.[21]

Brigham Young most fully elaborated his views in 1852 before an all–Latter-day Saint Utah territorial legislature as it contemplated a law to govern the Black enslaved people that Latter-day Saint converts from the South brought with them as they gathered to the Great Basin. Some of the enslaved people were also baptized Latter-day Saints. In fact, the very universalism of the gospel message in its first two decades created the circumstances for the restriction. Among those gathered to the Great Basin by 1852 were abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, Black slaves, white enslavers, and free Blacks. In casting a wide net, the Latter-day Saints had avoided the splits or schisms that divided the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians over issues of race and slavery during the same period. The restored Church welcomed all comers into the gospel fold, “black and white, bond and free” (2 Nephi 26:33). These various people brought their political and racial ideologies with them when they converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ideas that initially existed independently of their faith. In 1852, however, Brigham Young prepared to order his diverse group of followers according to prevailing racial ideas, white over Black and free over bound.[22]

Brigham Young tapped into long-standing biblical interpretations to draw on Noah’s curse of Canaan, but more directly to link a racial priesthood ban to God’s purported “mark/curse” on Cain for killing his brother Abel. “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know they cannot bear rule in the priesthood.”[23] In America, as scholar David M. Goldenberg demonstrates, the idea that Black people were descendants of Cain dated back to at least 1733 and in Europe to as early as the eleventh century, long before the Church’s founding in 1830. It was an idea that infused American culture and permeated racialized understandings of who Black people were before the Church existed. In 1852 Brigham Young drew on these same centuries-old ideas to both justify Utah Territory’s law legalizing “servitude” and to argue for a race-based priesthood curse.[24]

Brigham Young insisted that because Cain killed Abel, all of Cain’s posterity would have to wait until all of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood. Brigham Young suggested that “the Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the Priesthood, nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Abel had received the Priesthood.” It was an ambiguous declaration he and other Latter-day Saint leaders returned to time and again. It suggested a future period of redemption for Black people but only after the “last” of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood. Brigham Young and other leaders failed to clarify what that meant, how one might know when the “last” of Abel’s posterity was ordained, or even who Abel’s posterity were. In Brigham Young’s mind, Cain’s murder of Abel was an effort on Cain’s part to usurp Abel’s place in the covenant chain of priesthood leading back to father Adam.[25]

Brigham Young’s position was fraught with inconsistencies and significant departures from aspects of other foundational Latter-day Saint principles. An 1830 revelation to Joseph Smith included universal male ordination and stipulated that “every man” who embraced the priesthood “with singleness of heart may be ordained and sent forth” (Doctrine and Covenants 36:7; emphasis added). The Book of Mormon unambiguously posited that “all are alike unto God,” “male and female, black and white, bond and free” (2 Nephi 26:33), and that all were invited to come unto Christ. The Book of Mormon declared a universal salvation, a gospel message for “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” It rhetorically demanded, “Hath [the Lord] commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation?” and then answered, “Nay.” It declared that “all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden” (vv. 13, 26–28). The Lord had established no limits to whom He invited to “partake of his salvation,” even as the priesthood and temple restrictions created barriers to the fullness of that “salvation.”

Brigham Young was also departing from his own earlier position on Q. Walker Lewis’s ordination to the priesthood. And when he suggested that the priesthood was taken from Black people “by their own transgressions,” he was further creating a race-based division to cloud Black redemption and make each generation after Cain responsible anew for the consequences of Cain’s murder of Abel. Although Joseph Smith rejected long-standing Christian notions of original sin to argue that “men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression,” Brigham Young held millions of Black people responsible for the consequences of Cain’s murder, something in which they obviously took no part.

By insinuation, Brigham Young’s position removed the role of individual agency in the lives of Black people, a fundamental gospel tenet. It instead gave Cain’s poor exercise of agency immitigable power over millions of his supposed descendants. To make matters worse, Brigham Young’s position failed to distinguish exactly what it was that made Cain’s murder of Abel worthy of a multigenerational curse when other biblical figures who also committed homicidal acts did not experience the same fate. As Brigham Young argued, it was the fractured human network that resulted from Cain’s effort to usurp Abel’s place in the great chain of beings that most animated his articulation of a priesthood curse.[26]

Even though Brigham Young and other nineteenth-century leaders relied on the curse of Cain as the reason for the priesthood and temple restrictions, another explanation gained ground among some Latter-day Saints in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because the curse of Cain so directly violated the role of individual agency in the lives of Black people, some Latter-day Saints turned to the premortal realm to solve the conundrum. In this rationale, Black people must have been neutral in the War in Heaven and thus were cursed with black skin and barred from the priesthood. In 1869 Brigham Young rejected the idea outright, but it did not disappear.[27] In 1907 Joseph Fielding Smith, then serving as assistant Church historian, argued that the teaching was “not the official position of the Church, merely the opinion of men.”[28] In 1944 John A. Widtsoe also argued against neutrality when he said, “All who have been permitted to come upon this earth and take upon themselves bodies, accepted the plan of salvation.” Nonetheless, he argued that because Black people themselves “did not commit Cain’s sin,” an explanation for the priesthood restriction had to involve something besides Cain’s murder of Abel. “It is very probable,” Widtsoe believed, “that in some way, unknown to us, the distinction harks back to the pre-existent state.”[29]

By the 1960s, Joseph Fielding Smith slightly altered the idea, from “neutral” to “less valiant” and offered his own explanation. In his Answers to Gospel Questions, he claimed that some premortal spirits “were not valiant” in the War in Heaven. As a result of “their lack of obedience,” Black people came to earth “under restrictions,” including a denial of the priesthood.[30] The neutral/less valiant justifications grew over time to sometimes overshadow the curse-of-Cain explanation.

Brigham Young, nonetheless, tied the ban to Cain’s murder of Abel and did not stray from that rationale throughout his life. It became the de facto position for the Church, especially as it hardened in practice and preaching across the course of the nineteenth century. Brigham Young also spoke out forcefully against interracial sex and marriage, something that marked him more American than uniquely Latter-day Saint. Although his bombast advocated capital punishment, an extreme position even in the nineteenth century, those views were never codified into Utah law but certainly shaped attitudes among Latter-day Saints regarding race mixing.[31]

Brigham Young’s two speeches to the territorial legislature were never published. Even though Black priesthood ordination officially ended under Brigham Young, it was far from a universally understood idea. In 1879, two years after Brigham Young’s death, Elijah Able, the sole remaining Black priesthood holder (Lewis had died in 1856) appealed to John Taylor for his remaining temple blessings: to receive the endowment and to be sealed to his wife. Able had received the washing and anointing ritual in the Kirtland Temple and was baptized as proxy for deceased relatives and friends at Nauvoo but was living in Cincinnati by the time the endowment and sealing rituals were introduced.

It is impossible to know what might have happened if Able had lived in Nauvoo during the introduction of temple rituals there. Surviving records, however, indicate that the Saints maintained an open racial vision to that date. At Nauvoo the Saints anticipated “people from every land and from every nation, the polished European, the degraded Hottentot, and the shivering Laplander” flowing to that city. They awaited “persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color; who shall with us worship the Lord of Hosts in his holy temple, and offer up their orisons in his sanctuary.”[32] In fact, in 1845 Sarah Ann Mode Hofheintz, the daughter of a Black man and a white women, received her anointing and endowment rituals in the Nauvoo Temple before the exodus west, although she had likely passed as white to do so.[33] By 1879, however, the space for full Black participation was no longer as expansive, and Abel’s appeal for his temple blessings prompted a further contraction.

John Taylor presided over an investigation into Able’s priesthood. Taylor’s inquiry indicates that as late as 1879, the priesthood and temple restrictions were still not unambiguously in place; otherwise, why the need to investigate? Taylor concluded that Able was ordained an elder in 1836 and then a member of the Third Quorum of Seventy that same year. Able claimed that Ambrose Palmer, presiding elder at New Portage, Ohio, had ordained him an elder on January 25, 1836, and that Joseph Smith himself sanctioned his ordination and he produced certificates to verify his claims.[34] John Taylor nonetheless concluded that Able’s ordination was something of an exception, which was left to stand because it happened before the Lord had fully made his will known on racial matters through Brigham Young. John Taylor was unwilling to violate the precedent established by Brigham Young, even though that precedent violated the open racial pattern established under Joseph Smith. John Taylor allowed Able’s priesthood to stand but denied him access to the temple. Able did not waver in his faith, though, and died in 1884 after serving a third mission for the Church. His obituary, published in the Deseret News, noted that he passed of “old age and debility, consequent upon exposure while laboring in the ministry in Ohio” and concluded that “he died in full faith of the Gospel.” It also substantiated his priesthood ordinations as an integral part of his identity.[35]

With Able dead, Jane Manning James, another faithful Black pioneer, took up the cause. She repeatedly appealed for temple privileges, including permission to receive her endowment and to be sealed to Q. Walker Lewis. She was just as repeatedly denied. The curse of Cain was used to justify her exclusion. Although Church leaders did allow her to perform baptisms for dead relatives and friends and to be “attached” via proxy as a servant to Joseph and Emma Smith, she was barred from further temple access.[36]

Between the 1879 investigation led by John Taylor and 1908, when Joseph F. Smith solidified the bans, Latter-day Saint leaders adopted an increasingly conservative stance on Black priesthood and temple admission. They responded to incoming inquiries by relying on distant memories and accumulating historical precedent. Sometimes they attributed the bans to Brigham Young and other times they mistakenly remembered them beginning with Joseph Smith.[37] George Q. Cannon also began to refer to the Book of Abraham as a justification for the bans. As finally articulated sometime before early 1907, leaders put a firm “one drop” rule in place: “The descendants of Ham may receive baptism and confirmation but no one known to have in his veins negro blood, (it matters not how remote a degree) can either have the Priesthood in any degree or the blessings of the Temple of God; no matter how otherwise worthy he may be.”[38] Race, not personal worthiness, thus became the basis for the restrictions.

Then in 1908, President Joseph F. Smith solidified this decision when he recalled that Elijah Able was ordained to the priesthood “in the days of the Prophet Joseph” but suggested that his “ordination was declared null and void by the Prophet himself.” Four years earlier, Joseph F. Smith had implied that Able’s ordination was a mistake that “was never corrected,” but now he claimed that the Church’s founder had in fact corrected that mistake although he offered no evidence to substantiate his claim. Adding to the discrepancy, in 1879 and 1895 he had defended Able’s priesthood as valid, even reminding leaders that Able was ordained to the priesthood “at Kirtland under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” Now, in 1908, Joseph F. Smith insisted otherwise and then recalled that Able applied for his endowment and asked to be sealed to his wife and children, but “notwithstanding the fact that he was a staunch member of the Church, Presidents Young, Taylor, and Woodruff all denied him the blessings of the House of the Lord.” Joseph F. Smith also deliberately curtailed missionary efforts among Black people, a decision that ensured a white identity for the Church moving forward.[39]

This new memory became so entrenched among leaders in the twentieth century that by 1949 the First Presidency declared that the restriction was “always” in place: “The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord.” The “doctrine of the Church” on priesthood and race was in place “from the days of its organization,” it professed. The First Presidency said nothing of the original Black priesthood holders, an indication of how thoroughly reconstructed memory had come to replace verifiable facts.[40]

Even though President David O. McKay pushed for reform on racial matters, he was convinced that it would take a revelation to overturn the ban. Hugh B. Brown, his counselor in the First Presidency, believed otherwise. Brown reasoned that because there was no revelation that began the bans, no revelation was needed to end them. McKay’s position held sway, especially as McKay claimed he did not receive a divine mandate to move forward.[41] As early as 1963, however, Apostle Spencer W. Kimball signaled an open attitude for change: “The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory,” Kimball acknowledged. “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.”[42] That forgiveness ultimately came with Kimball at the helm in 1978.[43]

Understanding the Priesthood and Temple Bans

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, a man responsible for some of the Church’s justifications for a racial ban, denounced his own statements within months of the 1978 revelation. He asked a Latter-day Saint audience at Brigham Young University to “forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon, or whomsoever [sic] 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.”[44] It was a statement that suggested that prior teachings on race were devoid of the “light and knowledge” that revelation represents to Latter-day Saints.

Even still, it is a difficult question with which some Saints continue to grapple: How could race-based priesthood and temple restrictions creep into the Church and last for so long? Was Brigham Young speaking for himself in 1852 when he announced the priesthood ban to the territorial legislature or for God? If for himself, why would God permit him to do so? If for God, why implement a restriction that violated scriptural notions of equality? Some have suggested that while the explanations for the bans are invalid, the bans themselves were inspired for purposes known only to God. In an American culture that so thoroughly privileged whiteness, the priesthood and temple restrictions brought Latter-day Saints into conformity with the national mainstream. In this explanation, Brigham Young’s and later leaders’ implementation of the restrictions over time were bound by surrounding cultural norms, a violation of which may have produced significant disdain and additional turmoil for the nineteenth-century Church. This interpretation is problematic because if God or his prophets were somehow bound by cultural norms, the introduction of polygamy into an American society that so thoroughly abhorred it would have never taken place. Joseph Smith claimed, “No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing,”[45] yet this explanation suggests that treating Black people equally could have done so.

Others view the priesthood and temple restrictions as perhaps a trial for both white and Black Latter-day Saints, or a way in which they were forced to confront the prejudices of their day, be it the 1850s or the 1950s. In this version, race becomes a calling, not a curse. Perhaps it was and is a test that forces Latter-day Saints to search their hearts to see if they might summon the courage and strength to rise above differences and embrace commonalities centered on the worship of Jesus Christ. Could white Latter-day Saints transcend cultural norms and the privileges of being white in America, both before and after 1978, to welcome Black people into the gospel fold, into the priesthood, into the temple, and into their hearts? Could Black Latter-day Saints embrace a gospel message, both before and after 1978, that views them as children of God but that historically was burdened with teachings that they were cursed, less valiant, or neutral children of that same God? If God stands at the helm of his Church and directs his kingdom, what were his purposes and how does one square them with scriptural messages of universal salvation?

Ezra Taft Benson, speaking as an Apostle in 1975, offered an overarching principle that is broadly applicable to the historical development of the priesthood and temple bans. Benson was not speaking specifically about race, but his guiding philosophy might be useful in approaching the issue.

If you see some individuals in the Church doing things that disturb you, or you feel the Church is not doing things the way you think they could or should be done, the following principles might be helpful: God has to work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the “Samuel principle.” The children of Israel wanted a king like all the other nations. The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to the Lord about it. The Lord responded by saying, Samuel, “they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning. But they still insisted on their king. So God gave them a king and let them suffer. They learned the hard way. God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds he grants unto men according to their desires.[46]

President Benson’s Samuel principle suggests a viable way of looking at the race question in the Church, but first let us consider other examples. This concept applies to the lost 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon as well. God let Joseph Smith give those pages to Martin Harris and then let him learn from “his own sad experience.” The Lord called Joseph Smith to repentance in Doctrine and Covenants 3:6–7: “And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.”

Even the Prophet is susceptible to “the persuasions of men.” Later, Joseph Smith organized the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Institution. He and other leaders did so after being denied a bank charter by the state of Ohio. They inserted the prefix anti- before the word banking and opened the doors for business. Many Saints at the time believed the Prophet gave them assurances of the bank’s success. Instead, the bank failed within a few months. Some Latter-day Saints lost their money and their faith. It was a factor in the disillusionment of many Saints, so much so that by June of 1837, Heber C. Kimball claimed that not twenty men in Kirtland believed Joseph Smith was a prophet. Parley and Orson Pratt, David Patten, Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, David Whitmer, and Lyman Johnson all dissented. Why did God not stop Joseph Smith from founding the bank? God knew it would fail before it was founded. Why not simply tell Joseph Smith not to start the bank and save the Church from all of the turmoil that followed?[47]

Again, it seems that God let Joseph Smith and the Saints learn from their sad experiences. Perhaps the same principle is applicable to the development of the priesthood and temple bans. Were Church leaders susceptible to the “persuasions of men”? Did they borrow from then-current political and “scientific” ideas about race that dominated nineteenth-century American thought? In what ways did the racialization of Latter-day Saints at the hands of outsiders have an impact on events on the inside?

While I don’t believe that God instigated the priesthood and temple restrictions, I do believe he let them happen, just as he let the children of Israel have a king, let Joseph Smith give Martin Harris the 116 pages of manuscript, and let Joseph Smith open an “anti-banking institution.” As President Benson said, “Sometimes [God] temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences.”[48] In the end it makes me wonder what we are to learn from our racial history, and have we learned it? It should force us to stare the myth of a micromanager God squarely in the face and allow ample room for women and men with divine callings to fall short of the divine. My work as a historian has habituated me to messy history, something I expect just as much of religious people reaching toward heaven as I do of American history in general. As the American Historical Association puts it, “Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history.”[49]

As a twenty-first-century Latter-day Saint, I am not bound by Church leaders’ past teachings on race any more than I am bound as an American by Thomas Jefferson’s views on race. Past Church leaders speak for me on matters of race only as far as they point me toward a universal redemption through Christ. For all of the emphasis that outsiders place on a perceived blind obedience to authority among Latter-day Saints, they fail to give equal weight to the democratizing impact of personal revelation, a central tenet of the faith from its beginnings. Even Brigham Young, sometimes depicted as an extreme authoritarian, counseled Latter-day Saints to avoid blind faith: “Let every man and woman know by the whispering of the spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”[50]

While one may indeed find Latter-day Saints today who hold racists views, they do so in direct violation of Church standards, specifically a 2006 call to repentance by Church President Gordon B. Hinckley: “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?” Speaking to the men of the Church, he further admonished, “Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.”[51]

The 1978 Official Declaration is the only revelation in the Latter-day Saint canon on priesthood and race. It returned the Church to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples. It confirmed the biblical standard that God is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). and the Book of Mormon principle that “all are alike unto God.” The Church in the twenty-first century no longer teaches that black skin is a curse, that Black people are descendants of Cain or Ham, that Blacks were less valiant or neutral or rejected the priesthood in the premortal existence, that mixed-race marriages are a sin or culturally undesirable, that Black people or any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to white people, or that the priesthood and temple restrictions were revelations from God. It does. however, emphatically endorse the admonition of President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.”[52]


[1] See “The Gospel, No. 5,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, February 1835; “The Ancient Order of Things,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, September 1835; Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, Containing a Declaration of the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Commonly Called Mormons (New York: W. Sandford, 1837), 140; and Parley P. Pratt, The Millennium and Other Poems: To Which Is Annexed a Treatise on the Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter (New York: W. Molineux, 1840), 58.

[2] An online database, http://centuryofblackmormons.org, documents all known people of Black African descent baptized into the faith between 1830 and 1930 and includes evidence of those ordained to the priesthood. Joseph T. Ball was another person of Black African ancestry who was ordained to the priesthood but who passed as white. The database will include additional examples and thus demonstrate the impossibility of policing racial boundaries.

[3] Abraham 1:26.

[4] For explanations on the Book of Abraham and race, see Alma Allred, “The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings,” in Black and Mormon, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 34–49; Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 285–89; Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 2010), 162; and Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, ed. Gary P. Gillum (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 360–61, 428, 528.

[5] For a thorough exploration of these events, see W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), chaps. 4–7 and conclusion.

[6] “An Act to Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalization,” 1st Cong., March 26, 1790, Sess. II, chap. 3, 1 stat 103; Congressional Globe, 30th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington, DC: Blair and Rives, 1848), 53–56, 96–100; Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, in the Celebrated Campaign of 1858, in Illinois (Columbus, OH: Follett, Foster and Company, 1860), 136; and Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), 407.

[7] See Matthew Frye Jacobsen, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 37–38, 41; Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876–1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 140–49; and Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (2010; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 132–50.

[8] See David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 12; and Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, introduction and chap. 1.

[9] See Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Patricia J. Williams, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (New York: Noonday Press, 1997); Ariela J. Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 138–39; and Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, chaps. 4–7.

[10] See “Fanaticism,” Albany Evening Journal (Albany, NY), February 16, 1831, 3; “Mormonites,” The Sun (Philadelphia, PA), August 18, 1831, 1; “Mormonism,” Boston Recorder, October 10, 1832, 161; and Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 64–65. See also Matthew McBride, “Peter,” https://exhibits.lib.utah.edu/s/century-of-black-mormons/page/peter.

[11] E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, From April, 1833, to October, 1834, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1835), 1:324–25; 3:40–42, 54–59.

[12] Simon G. Whitten (La Harpe, Illinois) to Mary B. Whitten (Parsonsfield, Maine), June 22, 1844, Mormon File, HM 31520, box 13, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; Captain Frederick Marryat, Monsieur Violet: His Travels and Adventures among the Snake Indians and Wild Tribes of the Great Western Prairies (London: Thomas Hodgson, 1849), 275; “To His Excellency, Daniel Dunklin, Governor of the State of Missouri,” Evening and the Morning Star (Kirtland, OH), December 1833, 114; To the Citizens of Howard County, October 7, 1838, in Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &C. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence Given Before The Hon. Austin A. King (Fayette, MO: Office of the Boon’s Lick Democrat, 1841), 40; and Abraham Owen Smoot, diary, May 28, 1836, MSS 896, vol. 1, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. I am indebted to Jonathan Stapley for this reference.

[13] Parley P. Pratt, Late Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ten Thousand American Citizens Robbed, Plundered, and Banished; Others Imprisoned, and Others Martyred for their Religion. With a Sketch of their Rise, Progress and Doctrine (New York: J. W. Harrison, 1840), 59; William G. Hartley, My Best for the Kingdom: History and Autobiography of John Lowe Butler, a Mormon Frontiersman (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1993), 389; “Speech Delivered by Heber C. Kimball,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1845, 969–71; and “Conference Minutes,” Times and Seasons, November 1, 1845, 1012.

[14] Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, chap. 1; US Senate, “Statistical Report on the Sickness and Morality in the Army of the United States, compiled from the Records of the Surgeon General’s Office; Embracing a Period of Five Years from January 1, 1855, to January, 1860,” Senate Executive Document 52, 36th Congress, 1st session, 301–2; Jennie Anderson Froiseth, ed., The Women of Mormonism; or the Story of Polygamy as Told by the Victims Themselves (Chicago: A. G. Nettleton & Co., 1881), iv, 25; and “The Old Mormons Likely to Give Way,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 10, 1873, 7.

[15] William Jarman, U. S. A. Uncle Sam’s Abscess, or Hell Upon Earth for U. S. Uncle Sam (Exeter, England: H. Leduc’s Steam Printing Works, 1884), 6; emphasis in original.

[16] Alfred Trumble, The Mysteries of Mormonism (New York: Police Gazette, 1882).

[17] Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, chap. 6; Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fun (New York, NY), January 1872, 16; “Immense Meeting in Indianapolis,” New York Times, July 21, 1856, 2; and “Later From Utah,” New York Times, February 7, 1859, 1.

[18] See Zim, “The 16 to 1 Movement in Utah,” The Judge, September 12, 1896, 176; and Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, chap. 6.

[19] See George A. Smith Family Papers, MS 36, box 78, folder 7, August 26, 1908, Manuscripts Division, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

[20] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, chaps. 4 and 5; Church Historian’s Office, General Church Minutes, 1839–1877, CR 100 318, box 1, folder 52, March 26, 1847, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter CHL); spelling standardized.

[21] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 128–39; William W. Major (Elk Horn), to Brigham Young, June 16, 1847, Brigham Young Collection, CR1234/1, box 21, folder 8, reel 30, CHL; Nelson W. Whipple, autobiography and journal, microfilm, manuscript, MS 9995, 30–31, CHL; General Church Minutes, CR100–318, box 1, folder 59, 3 December 1847, 6–7, CHL; William I. Appleby, autobiography and journal, MS 1401, folder 1, May 19, 1847, 170–71; December 3, 1847, 203–4, CHL; William I. Appleby, Batavia, New York, letter to Brigham Young, June 2, 1847, Brigham Young Collection, CR1234/1, box 21, folder 5, reel 30, CHL.

[22] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 122–23, chap. 5.

[23] Brigham Young, February 5, 1852, a speech before a Joint Session of the Territorial Legislature, Papers of George D. Watt, MS 4534, box 1, folder 3, CHL, transcribed by LaJean Purcell Carruth; and Richard S. Van Wagoner, The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2009), 1:468–72.

[24] See David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 178–82; see, for example, David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829 (Boston: David Walker, 1830), 68.

[25] Young, February 5, 1852; Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 145–46, 152–61.

[26] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 155–57; “Church History,” Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842; and Royal Skousen, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 137.

[27] See Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984), 6:511 (December 25, 1869). For Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts’s use of the idea, see “The Pre-Existence of Man,” The Seer (Washington, DC), April 1853; and B. H. Roberts, “To the Youth of Israel,” Contributor, May 1885.

[28] Joseph F. Smith Jr. letter to Alfred M. Nelson, January 13, 1907, microfilm, MS 14591, CHL.

[29] John A. Widtsoe, “Were Negroes Neutrals in Heaven?,” Improvement Era, June 1944, 385.

[30] See Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 5:163–64.

[31] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 158–59; and Young, February 5, 1852.

[32] Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 195–201 The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, 1:152; and “Report from the Presidency,” Times and Seasons, October 1840, 188.

[33] See W. Paul Reeve, “Sarah Ann Mode Hofheintz,” https://exhibits.lib.utah.edu/s/century-of-black-mormons/page/hofheintz-sarah-ann-mode.

[34] Joseph F. Smith, Notes on Elijah Able, undated [likely ca. 1879], CHL.

[35] Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 195–200; L. John Nuttall, diary, vol. 1 (December 1876–March 1884), typescript, 290–93, L. Tom Perry Collection; Council Meeting, June 4, 1879, Lester E. Bush Papers, MS 685, box 10, folder 3, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library; and “Deaths,” Deseret News, December 31, 1884, 800.

[36] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 200–10.

[37] See George A. Smith Family Papers, MS 36, box 78, folder 7; December 15, 1897; March 11, 1900; August 18, 1900; January 2, 1902; and August 16, 1908, Manuscripts Division, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library.

[38] George A. Smith Family Papers, extract from George F. Richards record of decisions by the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles (no date given, but the next decision in order is dated February 8, 1907), J. Willard Marriott Library.

[39] See Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 208–10; Joseph F. Smith, Notes on Elijah Able, undated [likely ca. 1879], CHL; George A. Smith Family Papers, Council Minutes, August 22, 1895; August 26, 1908, J. Willard Marriott Library; for the “never corrected” instance, see David McKay, Huntsville, UT, letter to John R. Winder, Salt Lake City, March 14, 1904, Joseph F. Smith, Stake Correspondence, CR 1/191, box 12, folder 17, CHL.

[40] Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 255–56; and First Presidency Statement, August 17, 1949, in Lester E. Bush Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984), 221.

[41] See Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 21–22, 27; Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), chap. 4; D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 13–14; and Matthew L. Harris, “Mormonism’s Problematic Racial Past and the Evolution of the Divine-Curse Doctrine,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 33 (Spring/Summer 2013), 106–7; and Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 259–60.

[42] Edward L. Kimball, ed., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball: Twelfth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 448–49.

[43] See Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.”

[44] See Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” August 18, 1978, Second Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

[45] Joseph Smith, “Church History,” in Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, IL), 1 March 1842, vol. 3, no. 9 (whole no. 45), pp. 706–710; and The Joseph Smith Papers, http://josephsmithpapers.org/.

[46] Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” New Era, May 1975, 16. See also 1 Samuel 8 .

[47] See Larry T. Wimmer, “Kirtland Economy,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 792–93; and Staker, Hearken, O Ye People, 391–548.

[48] Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” New Era, May 1975, 16.

[49] American Historical Association, “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct,” http://historians.org/pubs/Free/ProfessionalStandards.cfm.

[50] Brigham Young, “Remarks,” Deseret News, February 12, 1862, 257.

[51] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” Ensign, May 2006, 58–61.

[52] Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” 58.