A friend wrote to me this morning asking me about blacks the the priesthood, questions that came up in a Sunday School class that he taught last Sunday. Here is my response:
A lot of nonsense and “personal opinion” was taught before the change in 1978, some of it by apostles who did not have authority to speak for the Church on the matter. This was in the days before priesthood correlation and the Church Correlation Committee that now screens all of our Conference talks, manuals, missionary lessons, and other doctrinal material for false doctrine. As a result of the doctrinal confusion that existed before the Church got its act together with correlation, not everything that was taught was actually true. The Church has “officially” said very little about this except that before 1978 blacks could not hold the priesthood and now they can. Among those who discuss doctrine on the Internet, there is a considerable divide between those who feel as I do that the priesthood ban was from God, and those who feel that God never ordered such a ban in the first place and that it was something that bigoted and racially prejudiced Presidents of the Church did on their own.
Elder McConkie told a group of CES educators at BYU shortly after the ban was lifted in 1978, “forget everything I or anyone has ever said on the matter, and just get with the current program,” or words to that effect. Of course, no one paid any attention to him, and it is still a hotly debated subject online, one that the leaders of the Church have not seen fit to get involved in.
The fact is, there doesn’t appear to be any recorded revelation establishing the ban in the first place. And the revelation to lift the ban was never recorded either. It was just referred to by the Church PR people when they made their official announcements.
For myself, and I am not alone in this view but neither is it universally accepted, the ban was from God because the priesthood did it, and Latter-day Saints believe that the priesthood is the authority to act for God in administering his Church. Further, priesthood leaders including the Prophet and the Twelve are called by prophecy and revelation as explained in the Articles of Faith which is part of our standard works in the Pearl of Great Price. However, those who just want to point to the priesthood ban as a “mistake” or “error” committed by imperfect and fallible mortals serving as Presidents of the Church and the Twelve make a good argument too. And there has been nothing “official” from the Church to refute their view. The fact is, the priesthood ban was not ever based on a recorded and published revelation. And Joseph Smith did ordain a small number of black men who continued in the priesthood throughout their lives. The ban appears to have been first implemented by Brigham Young who was a known white racist based upon many of his remarks.
Here are some sources that you can study on the matter, but I caution you that some of these sources are not “official” Church sources. And I find it hard to believe that they are not influenced by personal bias and in some cases even a hidden agenda. So take their information with a grain of salt. The FAIR website has published quite a lot of material on the discussion, but there is no certainty that all of them are faithful either, and some of them may be deliberately over emphasizing some things and under emphasizing others that are relevant to the discussion. So keep all this in mind when you study these websites. I personally have a testimony that Brigham Young was a true prophet of God, and the Lord would never have let him lead the Church astray as he surely did if he implemented the priesthood ban without being commanded by God to do so. Many of the less faithful on the Internet feel that I am actually supporting the false position of “infallibility” for our Prophets even though I claim that I am not.
With a very large grain of salt, I recommend you study further at:
FAIR on Blacks and the Priesthood – This an “apologetics” website run by FAIR (the Foundation of Apologetics Information and Research), an organization that presumes to defend the Church position. However, they have a very limited view of what the Church position is, and reject many of the teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie as not “official Church doctrine.”
BlackLDS.org – This is a website maintained by FAIR (the Foundation of Apologetics Information and Research). It is entirely devoted to the topic of blacks and the priesthood.
Wikipedia: Blacks and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – I am not familiar with this article although it probably contains links to other sources of information. Some of those sources might be anti-Mormon because of the nature of Wikipedia.
Jeff Lindsay’s LDS FAQ – This guy is a straight arrow, a true believer, in my opinion. He supports and is not critical of the Brethren.
Black History and Latter-day Saints from About.com – This website includes links to other resources. It looks like it is primarily a “faithful” site with links to other sites that will be supportive of the Church.
The Genesis Group – This is the website of the Genesis Group which is actually an organized auxiliary led by a presidency called and set apart by the priesthood. In that sense, it is an official Church website.
All Are Alike Unto God – This is a famous talk given by Bruce R. McConkie while he was one of the Twelve. It is often used by anti-Mormons to prove that the Church once taught false doctrine on the topic of blacks and the priesthood. Those who cite this article the most often do not believe that the priesthood ban was from God and not man.
McConkie on Blacks and the Priesthood – Here is an excerpt from DOCTRINES OF THE RESTORATION with a compilation of the teachings of Bruce R. McConkie. It includes his testimony of the revelation that lifted the priesthood ban on blacks holding the priesthood.
Bottom line: Blacks may have been descended from Cain, and that may be why they could not hold the priesthood until 1978, but that is not official Church doctrine nor was it ever official Church doctrine. And nothing has been revealed by God to indicate whether or not these spirits were less valiant in the war in heaven. A lot of nonsense has been taught with the truth, and figuring out which is which is quite difficult because the Church has made very few official statements on the matter.
Perhaps the most enlightening thing published by the Church is the Official Declaration itself which is part of our Doctrine and Covenants. It reads:
To Whom It May Concern:
On September 30, 1978, at the 148th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the following was presented by President N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church:
In early June of this year, the First Presidency announced that a revelation had been received by President Spencer W. Kimball extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church. President Kimball has asked that I advise the conference that after he had received this revelation, which came to him after extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple, he presented it to his counselors, who accepted it and approved it. It was then presented to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who unanimously approved it, and was subsequently presented to all other General Authorities, who likewise approved it unanimously.
President Kimball has asked that I now read this letter:
June 8, 1978
To all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world:
As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
SPENCER W. KIMBALL
N. ELDON TANNER
MARION G. ROMNEY
The First Presidency
Recognizing Spencer W. Kimball as the prophet, seer, and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is proposed that we as a constituent assembly accept this revelation as the word and will of the Lord. All in favor please signify by raising your right hand. Any opposed by the same sign.
The vote to sustain the foregoing motion was unanimous in the affirmative.
Salt Lake City, Utah, September 30, 1978.