[Update 2:] The Church has responded, both with respect to Dr. Bott’s statement and with a statement on the Church and race. I’m adding the text of each to the bottom of the post, but I want to highlight these two excerpts:
We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.
The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.
(In both, emphasis mine.) The first excerpt is wonderful, not pulling punches against our own. And the second, although it’s phrased in the passive voice, is pretty much as explicit a renunciation of previous thought as I’ve seen in the Church, and I know that I’ll be pulling these statements out when (or, I hope, if) I hear these repeated again.
I thought we were past this. I really did; I’d heard rumors on the internet for years of people teaching offensive racist folklore about the long-repealed priesthood ban. But I had never actually experienced anybody seriously making those arguments—I had only heard them in the context of, This is what some people claim. And I know that anecdote is not evidence, but I’ll put forward my anecdote anyway:
Once, while I was in high school, I asked my dad why black members of the church had been prevented, until 1978, from holding the priesthood. Dad’s answer? “I don’t know.” He didn’t try to make up or come up with an after-the-fact excuse. He confessed that he didn’t know, but that he nonetheless believed that the Church was true.
And then, today happened. A Washington Post article, looking at the history of the priesthood ban in the Church, cites and quotes extensively from Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, who repeats a number of the racist folkloric justifications for the priesthood ban, and provides some I hadn’t heard before.
I’m not going to respond to Dr.[fn1] Bott’s arguments. Others have done so far more thoroughly and eloquently than I, and I don’t want yet another written record of the poor thinking of our past. But if you want authoritative refutation of the folklore, you can look to our prophets, seers, and revelators (e.g., President Hinckley,[fn2] Elder Holland,[fn3] Elder McConkie[fn4]). If you want detailed explanations of why these explanations are folklore and how perpetuating the folklore is actually harmful to real people, you can look to FAIR, Edward Kimball, and especially pretty much the entire oeuvre of Margaret Blair Young.[fn5] I realize, of course, that we abhor a doctrinal vacuum, and rush to fill it with whatever justification we can think of. But these individuals and so many others have worked hard to brush this explanatory detritus out of the way. I think it’s fair to say that, if you know why God didn’t allow those of African descent to hold the priesthood, you’re wrong.[fn6]
Rather than a rebuttal, then, this is my cri de coeur. I’ll address the rest to Dr. Bott:
I’ve never met you, nor have I taken any of your classes. (I may, however, have been given one of your books before my mission, or maybe I found one on my mission.) And I know that you aren’t the only member of the Church who espouses these folkloric justifications. Moreover, I assume that you are a faithful member who wants what is best for the Church and its members.
So why am I (and so many others) so outraged at your comments? Because you are immensely influential within the Church; you are a popular teacher at BYU, you are a popular author, and people respect and believe what you say. Which means that, when you repeat these problematic statements, they get taken seriously, and they get new life. And wrong thinking that I (and others) though was behind us rears again its ugly head.
I hope, sincerely hope, that, when my daughters are in high school, they ask me why blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood. And I hope, in answering them, that I don’t have to address these same ideas that have sadly floated through the ether of Mormonism, because I hope that they haven’t been exposed to such horrific statements. But every time they are repeated, they regain new life, and there’s a greater chance that my daughters will hear them.
I know that you’re a teacher, and that you want to provide knowledge to your students. I’m a teacher, too. But when I don’t know the answer—and by “know,” I mean, know exactly where in the tax law it is cited—I tell them I don’t know. And I tell them that I will research and find the answer. And I research and find the answer. I learned as an associate at a law firm that saying, “I don’t know,” is better than giving an incorrect answer, because the incorrect answer could cost my client millions of dollars.
But that’s the thing: should I give my students the wrong answer, it may cost them or their clients money. It may cost them significant money. But my wrong answers have no salvific consequences. Yours, however, do.
Please, please, please repudiate what you said to the Washington Post. Please tell your current and former students that you were wrong. There is no shame in being wrong, as long as we can fix the problem and move ahead. And you can fix the problem and move ahead.
[fn1] I’ve agonized over whether to refer to him as “Dr.,” “Professor,” or “Brother” Bott. Ultimately, because the reporter appears to have looked to him in his role as a professor at BYU, I’ve decided to go with “Dr.”
[fn2] “I don’t know what the reason was.”
[fn3] “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.”
[fn4] “And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. 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.”
[fn5] Need more? The Juvenile Instructor also has a whole lot of links. And check out Ardis’s links in comment 4.
[fn6] Note that this isn’t meant to assume that God was behind the ban; my personal view is that fallible leaders incorporated their preexisting beliefs into their structuring of Church policies. But I realize that not everybody agrees with that; even those who denounce the racist folklore of the past can argue that we don’t have enough evidence to pin the blame on past leaders. Which is why, in the end, no matter what our beliefs and suspicions, the only completely true answer seems to be, We don’t know.
Official Church statements:
The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. The Book of Mormon states, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). This is the Church’s official teaching.
People of all races have always been welcomed and baptized into the Church since its beginning. In fact, by the end of his life in 1844 Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed slavery. During this time some black males were ordained to the priesthood. At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended. Church leaders sought divine guidance regarding the issue and more than three decades ago extended the priesthood to all worthy male members. The Church immediately began ordaining members to priesthood offices wherever they attended throughout the world.
The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church. In 2006, then Church president Gordon B. Hinckley declared 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. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.”
Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:
“The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”
The Church issued the following statement today in response to news media requests:
The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.
The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.
For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.