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1978 Revelation Celebration: What Should the Church Leaders Say?

by Caroline

(Elijah Abel, first black man ordained to the priesthood under Joseph Smith)This Sunday, for the first time ever, the Church will celebrate the anniversary of the 1978 priesthood revelation. The festivities will include music, a talk by Elder Child, and a video of black Mormons sharing some of their experiences. Monson and Packer were originally on the program, but no longer are.

Some of my friends and I are waiting with baited breath. Could this finally be the moment when a Church leader specifically and clearly repudiates the racist folk doctrines that originated to justify the priesthood exclusion? Could we finally put to rest those ideas about blacks as pre-existence fence sitters, and all the other ridiculousness about marks, curses, and tainted lineage? Dare we hope that the Church might officially apologize for its past?

I believe that for the Church to move forward, we must at least see a specific public repudiation of those old folk doctrines. While the English speaking world has access to a lot of newer doctrinal books that do not perpetuate racist folk doctrines, I understand that the non-English speaking world clings to the few books that have been translated – books like McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. IMO, it’s time for that infamous entry on race to be buried once and for all.

What about you? Do you hope for a direct repudiation of those folk doctrines? Do you think it’s enough that the priesthood has been extended and that Church leaders now emphasize the equality of the races? Why?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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20 Responses

  1. amelia says:

    yes. i hope for an explicit and direct of any and all folk doctrines that attempted to explain the past policy on blacks and the priesthood and blacks and temple covenants. and i hope for a statement that the past policy was an error, though i have little belief that such a statement will happen.

    i don’t think it’s enough for any institution to treat it’s racist or sexist past as simply past, even if that institution has changed past policies for more equitable ones. history has a way of living on and informing current attitudes and beliefs. especially when that history is believed to have been divinely inspired. so simply changing the policy and moving on is not, in my mind, an adequate resolution. i’ve said this before about other issues, but i believe it is the church’s responsibility to pro-actively correct for logical misinterpretations of its teachings (whether past or present) especially since the church presents itself as a moral authority.

  2. amelia says:

    that should say “yes. i hope for an explicit and direct repudiation of any and all folk doctrines that attempted to explain the past policy on blacks and the priesthood and blacks and temple covenants.”

  3. I consider Jeffrey R. Holland’s 2006 statement an official repudiation by a recognized authority:

    “One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. …
    It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger [apostles] to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.”

    He goes on to specifically mention the inappropriateness of blaming the priesthood ban on blacks’ decisions in premortality. Good job, Elder Holland!

  4. Caroline says:

    BOV, thanks for the link to that statement by Holland. I was looking for it, but couldn’t find it.

    I agree that that Holland statement is pretty good as a repudiation. (Though he doesn’t specifically repudiate the folk doctrines about cursed lineage, marks, or taints.) But I sure wish it was said in a more authoritative and public setting. I’m not sure a huge number of Mormons saw/read that interview, and I highly doubt non-English speakers would be able to access it.

    I also wish that he specifically shot down McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine entry on race, since I see that as one of the most authoritative places we find the racist folklore.

    Amelia, amen.

  5. Joe says:

    A specific repudiation? No way. The Church is just now (barely) starting to apologize for MMM.

  6. amelia says:

    I have to disagree, BiV. while i appreciate elder holland’s comments and what he attempts to do–and while i recognize that they come with a certain authoritative weight given his position in the quorum of the twelve–i don’t think any statement constitutes an “official” repudiation unless it comes from the church leadership, specifically the first presidency, at a church sponsored event that is broadcast to the entire population of the church and subsequently published on the church website and in its print publications. that’s how official statements and proclamations are presented. not in an interview on a PBS program.

  7. DavidH says:

    I think one of the reasons there has not been a repudiation is because the Brethren are probably not united in deciding what portions of the previous folklore can or should be repudiated. I suspect all or almost all of the Brethren would be united in repudiating the theory that members of any race were “less valiant” in the premortal existence. But I wonder if there are not a significant number who continue to believe that black Africans are black because they are descendants of Cain. And I am pretty sure some of the Brethren do not believe the past practice was a mistkae, but believe that God in fact directed Joseph or Brigham to put it into place.

    The advantage of official silence on the issue is that it permits someone like me to reject all of those thoughts, and consider myself a faithful believing member of the Church, and permits my faithful believing neighbor to believe that some aspect of the old understandings are true and some are not. Absent an entire repudiation of all of the prior explanations, I am not sure I would be at peace; on the other hand, a complete repudiation might so undermine the faith of another faithful member (who still believes in the “curse of Cain”, or that the withholding was directed by specific revelation from God) that he or she drops out of the Church.

    While I favor a complete repudiation, couched in careful terms, I can understand the reluctance of the Brethren to do so.

  8. amelia says:

    “on the other hand, a complete repudiation might so undermine the faith of another faithful member (who still believes in the “curse of Cain”, or that the withholding was directed by specific revelation from God) that he or she drops out of the Church.”

    I understand that argument. And I reject it. I’m sure the same argument was made countless times about whether or not blacks should have the priesthood and access to the temple in the first place. And it seems very clear to me that it’s more important to be ethical and good than to shield prejudice in the name of protecting people’s testimonies. Shouldn’t we make an effort to eradicate prejudice by having the moral authority in so many people’s lives officially repudiate it? In my mind, if individuals’ personal racial prejudices are more important to them than their “testimony” of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then that testimony is not worth preserving.

  9. Kristen says:

    I recently watched a documentary at the Foursite Film Festival called, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons”. In it, there is an interview with an African American religious leader who came to Utah and had a conversation with Gordon B. Hinckley. He said that President Hinckley apologized to him for the church’s racist past. It wasn’t official. It wasn’t an official apology, by any means, but it showed that the leaders of the church recognize that there were wrongdoings in the past.
    Is this good enough? Of course not. There have been several things that have happened in the history of the church that haven’t been just or fair and few of them have been officially repudiated. Yet, I do believe that when the time is right, according to God, we will see the LDS church make amends for all the injustices of the past (sexism, racism, etc.) and Christ will lead His church with justice and mercy. Until then, I guess we just choose, on an individual basis, to treat all people with respect, dignity, and equality, even if we feel that the “official” statements of our church are still catching up.

  10. Amelia, you’re right, and I join you in hoping for a more official statement. Thought I’d add this bit by Dallin Oaks which he stated back in 1988 just to show that more than one Apostle repudiates folk doctrines:

    “…It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to [the ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that…. The lesson I’ve drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.
    …I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking.
    …Let’s [not] make the mistake that’s been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies.” (Dallin H. Oaks, Interview with Associated Press, in Daily Herald, Provo, Utah, 5 June 1988)

  11. no smiley intended.

  12. mraynes says:

    I, too, wish for an official repudiation of the racist folk doctrine but I’m not very hopeful that it will happen.

    Unfortunately, even if our dreams came true and the directive came straight from the mouth of President Monson, I’m not sure it would make that much of a difference. The idea that our position in this mortal existence was predicated upon our faithfulness in the pre-mortal existence is too deeply ingrained in our culture. I have heard in my ward in Arizona that the poverty that afflicts Mexico is a result of that people’s unfaithfulness in the pre-existence and because of that, it is not required of us to help those who come into this country illegally. I realize that this is an extreme example but I believe that many people believe more moderate versions of this teaching. I don’t believe that members of the church who believe this are necessarily racist but they believe it because it gets taught in Seminary, BYU devotionals and is attributed to General Authorities.

    That being said, I still think that President Monson and the First Presidency should reject this type of folk doctrine. Even if it doesn’t change the hearts and minds of some, it would help many of our brothers and sisters navigate through our profoundly hurtful and racist history.

    Out of curiosity, does anyone know if the celebration is going to be broadcast?

  13. jeans says:

    I have heard that, sadly, it’s not. I hope they tape it for later re-broadcast.

  14. I like Elder Holland’s quote. It’s clear and to-the-point. It explicitly says that the old myths are wrong and that they shouldn’t be perpetuated. The problem is, how many of you have heard it before? Exactly! If this is the Church’s official position on the matter (and I hope it is!), then President Monson needs to say it from the pulpit of General Conference and it needs to be published in the Ensign, Liahona, Church News, whatever, until you have to be a Mormon living under a rock to not know how the leaders of our Church REALLY feel about blacks. Too many people, members like myself and non-members, have still wondered all these years how the leaders really feel about those old teachings. If there are any fence-sitters, I feel it’s the leadership of the Church who has failed to actively, and maybe even aggressively, denounce those false teachings and doctrines. Make no mistake about it, they were wrong and anyone who teaches such things in Sunday School as if it is acceptable doctrine is wrong and needs to be made aware of it.

    I was born the same year that the priesthood ban was lifted, but I grew up assuming that blacks were somehow less valiant in the pre-existence and that marrying interracially was not really a good thing. If another generation is growing up believing these things, then we as a Church need to be ashamed and put an end to it now. If I didn’t have the Internet as a source and had only Church manuals to go on alone, I would honestly think that those doctrines were still accepted by the leadership of the Church, though I would be confused by the apparent contradiction since Pres. Hinckley spoke out against racism. Still, though, I don’t think that he went far enough because some people still haven’t gotten the message.

  15. Dave says:

    The Church just posted this on Youtube for the anniversary:

  16. Caroline says:

    Thanks, Dave. That was a nice video, though they skirted some of the tricky issues of folk doctrines regarding black people. But that’s not surprising, I suppose.

  17. amelia says:

    skirted, nothing. they didn’t even get close to them.

    and here’s something that drives me crazy about this issue:

    did you notice the title of that video? “Priesthood for Mormon Men of Every Race.” it’s about men. now, i’m not making a point about women and the priesthood. i’m making a point about the fact that the church’s past policy on race not only excluded men of african descent from holding the priesthood, it also excluded anyone of african descent from entering the temple to participate in saving ordinances. this wasn’t *just* a problem of men and the priesthood. it was a problem of teaching that there are ordinances necessary for salvation and then denying those ordinances to a huge segment of the world’s population based on nothing more than race.

    that’s a problem. and it’s a problem we too often don’t even recognize because we focus so much on the issue as being one of priesthood.

  18. Caroline says:

    Kiskilli at ZD has a great post on this exact point, Amy.

    I think there’s probably a huge portion of Mormons who have no idea that black people, men and women, were denied entrance to the temple until 1978.

  19. Kiri Close says:

    Hey, repudiation of the doctrine is great.

    Now how about we view it further and change images racially, like: in the temple, General Authority, the prophet, church headquarters in South America, or Africa, or Samoa (heh heh–I’m biased to that one), have more BYU’s in many places (my friend Chelsea’s idea), more global ‘centers’ where white Americanism is no longer an issue, more interracial marriages in the Ensign…

    Can i dream on?

  20. Adalib Nunez says:

    I know that a lot of the people who’ve posted here as well as the author of this still pretty relevant article may already have received some answers from some recent efforts of the Public Relations arm of the Church, but I think the following links may be helpful to some.

    The Church has made official repudiations, including altering the footnotes in the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon.

    Publicity for these statements is where there has been an admittedly woeful negligence. In recent years an outreach organization has been formed which thoroughly addresses each of the concerns most people have with regard to the Church’s relationship with race.

    Here is the link to the African-American Outreach organization: blacksinthescriptures.com (super brilliant!!!)

    Here’s a link to the more recent PR releases on the Church’s official website: https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng#23

    Here’s a link to an entire talk given to CES teachers devoted to debunking the race myths made by Bruce R. McConkie directly after the revelation was given: https://si.lds.org/bc/seminary/content/library/talks/ces-symposium-addresses/all-are-alike-unto-god_eng.pdf

    I hope this helps!

    I think the Church can still improve in its PR efforts with regard to this topic, but it can’t be said that important efforts haven’t been made.

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