The race-based priesthood and temple ban that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had in place from the 1850s until 1978 is a heavy, but important subject to study. I’ve shared a review about W. Paul Reeve’s recently-released Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood where I stated that it was one of “the best and most important entries in a fantastic series”, and I stand by that statement. Recently, W. Paul Reeve shared some of the insights he has gained from his research on the topic of race and the priesthood in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
W. Paul Reeve describes the history of the race-based priesthood and temple ban as a three-stage arc. In the interview he stated that:
The book is divided into three phases which lay out the chronological history of the racial priesthood and temple restrictions as I have come to understand them:
Phase 1. In phase one there were no restrictions. Priesthood and temples were open to people of all races and ethnicities. In fact the First Presidency published an article in the Nauvoo newspaper in 1840 announcing their intent to welcome “persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color” into the temple that they would start to build the following spring.
Phase 2. Sadly, that open racial vision gave way in fits and starts in phase two to segregated priesthood and temples.
Phase 3. In phase three, the June 1978 revelation ushered in a return to racial inclusivity and restored the Church to its universal roots.
His description is very well-rooted in the documented history of the subject, though the idea that phase 2 is something that came because of human failures is likely to be something that many Latter-day Saints struggle with (though, as I’ve talked about before, I strongly believe that the priesthood and temple ban was an error on the part of humans).
The ban only solidified gradually as well. President Brigham Young seems to have been the key mover in implementing the ban, and he did so for a couple reasons. As W. Paul Reeve explained:
On December 3, 1847, in a meeting at Winter Quarters, Brigham Young learned of two Black Latter-day Saint men who had married white women and thereafter shifted his open racial perspective.
Brigham spoke out stridently against race mixing; he even advocated capital punishment as the penalty. By 1852 he openly articulated a racial priesthood restriction and did so in conjunction with ongoing preaching against race mixing. . . .
The curse of Cain was Brigham Young’s explanation for the racial restrictions. He suggested that because Cain killed his brother Abel, all of Abel’s children (who he presumed to be white people) would need to receive the priesthood before any of Cain’s descendants (who he presumed to be Black people) could receive the priesthood.
It was a violation of the Second Article of Faith because Brigham Young held the supposed descendants of Cain responsible for a murder in which they took no part. . . . [This and another] explanations were disavowed in 2013 by the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
Thus, based on the records we have, Brigham Young’s primary motivations seem to have centered on interracial children and an explanation created from the story of Cain. Because of this, he articulated the policy, officially beginning in 1852.
From there, subsequent presidents solidified the ban:
The restrictions were not firmly in place at Brigham Young’s first utterance. Each succeeding generation of leaders were unwilling to violate the precedent established under Brigham Young, even though Young’s precedent violated the open racial policies established under Joseph Smith.
Joseph F. Smith solidified the restrictions in place in the first decade of the twentieth century when he erased from collective Latter-day Saint memory the original Black priesthood holders.
With that erasure taking place in the early 1900s, the ban was solidified in Church policy and collective memory of the Church as being absolute.
Things eventually began to change, however. President Spencer W. Kimball, who would announce the ban’s end in 1978, sought long and hard for revelation on the subject:
President Spencer W. Kimball studied the issue out in his mind, learned the history of the restrictions for himself, and sought new sources of information. He studied the scriptures and, according to his son Edward Kimball, he concluded that the restrictions “did not come from explicit scriptures but rather from interpretations by various Church leaders.”
He fasted, prayed, sought inspiration in the temple, and laid the groundwork for consensus among senior Church leaders. The lack of consensus among leaders had prevented change in the past and President Kimball recognized the need for consensus as an important component in moving forward.
With that revelation and the resulting Official Declaration 2, the ban was lifted.
Now, one area that came up in the comments over at From the Desk was about David O. McKay’s considerations of lifting the ban. As Nathan Whilk asked: “How do the statements by President David O. McKay that were reported in his biography by Greg Prince fit into your narrative?” W. Paul Reeve doesn’t address that in the interview, but I can offer my perspective here:
A few events in church history, however, complicate the issue. Both President David O. McKay and President Harold B. Lee both sincerely prayed to know if God wanted the ban to be lifted in the decades prior to 1978. Some have brushed off David O. McKay’s seeking for a revelation as a simple failure to discern the divine will on the matter (and, frankly, Harold B. Lee was biased against an answer of lifting the ban). Others dismiss the accounts as late, second-hand recollections on an emotionally-charged subject, and therefore not reliable as historical sources. These reports of church leaders seeking to lift the ban complicate the picture of God’s involvement in the ban, though, and I’m not settled on an answer as to what they mean.
So, ways in which those statements fit into the narrative are complicated, but likely would be related to pointing out that they may not be accurate. Again, this is my perspective and not W. Paul Reeves’s.
Of course, there is always more work to do, even with the ban being lifted. As Reeve noted:
Latter-day Saints have been directed by two members of the First Presidency to “root out racism.” In my estimation it is impossible to root out racism without examining its roots. History is thus a valuable way for Latter-day Saints to learn what racism looked like in the past so we can better understand its consequences in the present and help shape a more just and equitable future.
History is valuable in allowing us to understand more completely the choices–for good and bad–of the past and how we can do better in the present and future.
For more on the race-based temple and priesthood ban, head on over for the full interview with W. Paul Reeve. It has more insights, including stories from the lives of Black Latter-day Saints, and insights that were published in the book for the first time.