Those with a belief in Mormonism have long struggled with a series of racial doctrines that were implemented by early latter-day saint prophets. The Church canonized and promoted two separate racial doctrines – one pertaining to African Americans, the other pertaining to Native Americans and other non-white peoples. While never apologizing, admitting or denying culpability, the Church admits to not knowing why its race-based policies and doctrines were enforced.
The LDS prohibition on African American male priesthood ordination and temple admittance originated without any corroborating revelation, discussion among the First Presidency, or vote of common consent. These racially discriminatory policies also affected black women as they were likewise barred from temple admission. Despite the current propensity to discuss race-based restrictions as “policies,” they were historically promoted by LDS general authorities as doctrine.
Having conducted a private study on the topic, Prophet David O. McKay understood the ban to be mere policy as early as 1954, yet the organization faltered in making any official policy changes until 1978. Growing social pressures, global expansion, and intense personal lobbying among the LDS Presidency, combined with President Jimmy Carter’s threat to revoke the Church’s tax exempt status, finally provoked change.
Modern materials from the LDS Church tend to explain the history of racism as generational bias. Some members take comfort in the fact that the race-based priesthood and temple restrictions have ceased, while others harbor serious concerns about the church leadership and their ability to avoid repeated lapses or their slow revisions of harmful policies.
The second unavoidable race doctrine remains canonized in the Book of Mormon: the notion that dark skin originated from God’s curse upon the unrighteous ancestors of the Native Americans. As many active members hold a literal interpretation of The Book of Mormon as an actual historical record, it is troubling to see how God’s explicit curse of dark skin has been used to justify further racial discriminatory theories within the Church.. Such a notion is reflective of archaic thinking. In the modern scientific age, we can be certain that the skin color of America’s First Nations People is not the result of a two thousand year old curse.
LDS RACE DOCTRINE: AFRICAN AMERICANS
Although there is no indication that blacks were cursed pertaining to the priesthood or any other blessings in the Bible, the LDS First Presidency draws upon uniquely Mormon scriptures, such as the Books of Moses and Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price, to support justifications for its racial doctrine.
“…there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people…” (Moses 7:8).
“…they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them” (Moses 7:22).
“From Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.” …and the lineage of Cain was “cursed…as pertaining to the priesthood” (Abraham 1:24, 26-27).
Parley P. Pratt provided the first recorded priesthood ban statement in April 25, 1847, when he instructed, “…a black man with the blood of Ham in him which lineage was cursed as regards the priesthood.” The Church now suggests that Brigham Young initiated the “policy,” as he issued a public proclamation in 1852 denying blacks the priesthood. (This Is My Doctrine, 388). Under Brigham’s leadership, Utah would become the only western territory to enshrine slavery and slave sales in a territorial statute.
Statement of LDS First Presidency
“The attitude of the Church with reference to the 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, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle.
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes” (Statement of the First Presidency, August 17, 1949, LDS Church Archives).
MORMON LEADERSHIP – QUOTES ON RACE
When Prophet and Governor of Utah, Young expounded upon the Church’s race doctrine in a passionate speech delivered to a Joint Session of the Legislature, February 5, 1852.
President Brigham Young said, “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”
Brigham later instructed, “You can see men and women who are sixty or seventy years of age looking young and handsome; but let them apostatize, and they will become gray-haired, wrinkled and black, just like the Devil” (Journal of Discourses 5:332~).
“And after the flood we are told that the curst that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God” (Journal of Discourses, vol 22, 304).
“The descendants of Ham, besides a black skin which has ever been a curse that has followed an apostate of the holy priesthood, as well as a black heart, have been servants to both Shem and Jepheth, and the abolitionists are trying to make void the curse of God, but it will require more power than man possesses to counteract the decrees of eternal wisdom” (John Taylor, Times and Seasons, April 1, 1845, 6:857).
Harold B. Lee
“The privilege of obtaining a mortal body on this earth is seemingly so priceless that those in the spirit world, even though unfaithful or not valiant, were undoubtedly permitted to take mortal bodies although under penalty of racial or physical or nationalistic limitations” (Decisions for Successful Living, 165).
Mark E Peterson
“The discussion on civil rights, especially over the last twenty years has drawn some very sharp lines. It has blinded the thinking of some of our own people, I believe. They have allowed their political affiliations to color their thinking to some extent, and then, of course, they have been persuaded, by some of the arguments that have been put forth…
When He placed the mark upon Cain, He engaged in segregation. When he told Enoch not to preach the gospel to the descendants of Cain who were black, the Lord engaged in segregation. When He cursed the descendants of Cain as to the Priesthood, He engaged in segregation…
I think the Lord segregated the Negro and who is man to change that segregation? It reminds me of the scripture on marriage, ‘what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’ Only here we have the reverse of the thing—what God hath separated, let no man bring together again…
If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the Celestial Kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get celestial glory…
We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments . . . Is it not reasonable to believe that less worthy spirits would come through less favored lineage?…
Let us consider the great mercy of God for a moment. The Chinese, born in China with a dark skin, and with all the handicaps of that race seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. In spite of whatever they might have done in the pre-existence to justify being born over there as Chinamen, if they now, in this life, accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation…”
(Race Problems – As They Affect The Church, Apostle Mark E. Petersen, BYU, August 27, 1954).
The Salt Lake blood bank in 1953 separated black blood donations from white, to ‘protect the purity of the blood streams of the people of this Church.’
Ezra Taft Benson
Ezra Taft Benson directly spoke against the dual threats of communism and the civil rights movement from the pulpit in LDS General Conference. “What are we doing to fight it? Before I left for Europe I warned how the communists were using the civil rights movement to promote revolution and eventual takeover of this country. When are we going to wake up? What do you know about the dangerous civil rights agitation in Mississippi; do you fear the destruction of all vestiges of state government?
Now brethren, the Lord never promised there would not be traitors in the Church. We have the ignorant, the sleepy and the deceived who provide temptations and avenues of apostasy for the unwary and the unfaithful, but we have a prophet at our head and he has spoken. Now what are we going to do about it? ”
The Church has since removed the text from their website, and many of Benson’s original comments were redacted from the Church’s later publication in Improvement Era, June 1965.
Ezra Taft Benson wrote the forward to The Black Hammer, a racist work which argued that the civil rights movement was related to communism, and a great threat to the nation. The book is currently censured on Amazon.
“The arm of flesh may not approve nor understand why God has not bestowed the priesthood on women or the seed of Cain, but God’s ways are not man’s ways” (Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Reports, October 1967, 34).
The effects of LDS race doctrine were far-reaching. Byron Marchant, a Church janitor, was excommunicated and lost his job for casting the first non-sustaining vote in modern times, opposing the Church race policy (Star News, Salt Lake City newspaper, Oct 15, 1977).
A recent essay published by the LDS Church on the topic states: “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” It continues: “At some point the church stopped ordaining (blacks)… It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the church, but it has ended.” Interestingly, the Church suggests that it required further revelation to correct a human error in policy.
“From the standpoint of the church which survived him, the Book of Abraham was the most unfortunate thing Joseph ever wrote. By outliving the Civil War, which forever banished slavery as an issue between Mormon and gentile, its racial doctrine preserved the discrimination that is the ugliest thesis in existing Mormon theology” (Fawn Brodie).
Gordon Hinckley, brushed the race question aside in an interview with 60 Minutes, suggesting “It’s behind us. Look, that’s behind us. Don’t worry about those little flicks of history.”
White Folk Weren’t Ready
Some members of the Church have suggested that God would not allow blacks to receive the priesthood until 1978 because white members weren’t ready. To accept such reasoning, one must accept that God placed greater concern upon the reactions of a relatively small group of whites than the eternal salvation of millions of his black children. Further, one must accept that God’s own righteous designs, powers, and plans for the billions on the planet were suspended for generations to accommodate a handful of white members in the 20th Century.
The Urban League published a report in 1954 concluding that Utah, Nevada, and Arizona were almost exclusively white and as racist as the South. Could it be possible that the religion’s inherently racist belief in skin tone originating from God’s curse, consistently indoctrinated over multiple generations, fostered racism?
Joseph’s Eternal Colored Servant
Jane Elizabeth Manning, Joseph Smith’s dedicated maid for many years, requested of President Taylor throughout the 1880s and 90s to grant her temple privileges. Her requests were denied. Based on an invitation the Smith’s had made to her decades earlier, Jane requested that she be sealed to the prophet’s family. In 1894, her request was finally granted, under the condition that she be “adopted to the prophet not as his child, but as his eternal servant in exaltation.” (LDS Media Library, Men & Women of Faith, March 2012) Her sealing to Joseph Smith was performed via proxy, by a white man, because Jane’s skin color prevented her from attending her own temple sealing ceremony. Jane continued to petition to receive her endowment, but was denied. She was posthumously endowed, again by proxy, in 1979.
- Narrating Jane: Telling The Story of an Early African American Mormon Woman, Quince Newell
- Jane Manning James
INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE DISCOURAGED
Expounding upon the consistent messages of prior prophets, modern LDS revelators have cautioned faithful members to consider ethnic background and culture when selecting eternal partners. Elder Russell Nelson instructed, “The commandment to love our neighbors without discrimination is certain. But it must not be misunderstood. It applies generally. Selection of a marriage partner, on the other hand, involves specific and not general criteria. After all, one person can only be married to one individual. The probabilities of a successful marriage are known to be much greater if both the husband and wife are united in their religion, language, culture, and ethnic background” (Elder Nelson, LDS General Conference, 1995).
“We are unanimous, all of the Brethren, in feeling and recommending that Indians marry Indians, and Mexicans marry Mexicans; the Chinese marry Chinese and the Japanese marry Japanese; that the Caucasians marry the Caucasians, and the Arabs marry Arabs” (Spencer Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 303).
Boyd Packer counseled BYU members in 1977 to marry only within their own race. “We’ve always counseled in the Church for our Mexican members to marry Mexicans, our Japanese members to marry Japanese, our Caucasians to marry Caucasians, our Polynesian members to marry Polynesians. The council has been wise. You may say again, ‘Well, I know of exceptions.’ I do too, and they’ve been very successful marriages. I know some of them. You might even say, ‘I can show you local Church leaders or perhaps even general leaders who have married out of their race.’ I say, Yes–exceptions. Then I would remind you of that Relief Society woman’s near-scriptural statement, ‘We’d like to follow the rule first, and then we’ll take care of the exceptions.'”
President Harold B. Lee stated, “To impress the grave consequences and the seriousness of intermarriage as between those of different races and particularly with reference to intermarriage with the seed of Cain, President Brigham Young made this remark in an address before the legislature: ‘… Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot receive the priesthood… .’ Surely no one of you who is an heir to a body of more favored lineage would knowingly intermarry with a race that would condemn your posterity to penalties that have been placed upon the seed of Cain by the judgments of God” (Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living, 168).
Brigham Young is credited with providing the foundational LDS interracial doctrine, espousing death and dismemberment for those who violate God’s race laws.
In 1847 he exclaimed: “If they [the interracial couple and child] were far away from the Gentiles [i.e. non-Mormons] they wo[ul]d all have to be killed[.] [W]hen they mingle seed it is death to all. If a black man & white woman come to you & demand baptism can you deny them? [T]he law is their seed shall not be amalg[a]mated. Mulattoes are like mules[,] they cant have the children, but if they will be Eunuchs for the Kingdom of God’s Heaven’s sake they may have a place in the Temple” (Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, 222).
In 1852: “Were the children of God to mingle their seed with the seed of Cain [i.e. black people] it would not only bring the curse of being deprived of the power of the Priesthood upon them[selves] but they entail it upon their children after them, and they cannot get rid of it. If a man in an unguarded moment should commit such a transgression, if he would walk up and say [“]cut off my head,[“] and [one then] kill[ed the] man, woman and child, it would do a great deal towards atoning for the sin. Would this be to curse them? No, it would be a blessing to them—it would do them good, that they might be saved with their brethren. A many would shudder should they hear us talk about killing folk, but it is one of the greatest blessings to some to kill them, although the true principles of it are not understood.” (The Teachings of President Brigham Young Vol. 3 1852–1854, 44).
And in 1865 the Prophet taught: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so” (Journal of Discourses, vol 10, 110).
HOW THE RACE BAN WAS LIFTED
In 1954, President McKay formed a special investigative committee, led by Elder Adam Bennion, to explore the race-based restrictions. The committee concluded that there was no scriptural basis for the doctrine, that it was policy, but many Church members were not prepared for its reversal. While President McKay never shared his insight with The Twelve, he privately lobbied and failed to muster sufficient votes. All but three wanted to overturn the ban, but unanimity is required.
In 1968, as George Romney was running for President of the U.S., The New York Times ran an article critical of priesthood restriction, citing inactive Mormon Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall. Word had also leaked out that many in the Twelve wanted the ban lifted. By 1969, McKay still wanted to lift the restriction, as did Hugh B Brown, 1st Counselor, and several others. While Harold B Lee was traveling, McKay gathered the Quorum and voted, unanimously agreeing to lift race ban. Upon his return, realizing what had occurred, Lee argued that the ban could not be lifted with an administrative vote, as revelation would be required to change doctrine. He argued for a re-vote, lobbied his allies, like Boyd K Packer, who then voted to retain the race ban.
In 1969, Lester Bush received a tip suggesting he find Apostle Adam Bennion’s notes from Pres. McKay’s 1954 investigation of the race ban. The notes, housed at BYU, demonstrated that the prophet and others understood the race ban to be policy, not doctrine. Bennion’s papers confirmed that no revelation ever existed, nor did any secondhand references. Bush prepared an article for publication in Dialogue. Boyd K. Packer, shown the manuscript in the fall of 1972, immediately consulted the Presidency and investigated how Bush could have accessed such sensitive information.
Packer interviewed Bush over a couple of days, attempting to dissuade publication without expressly requesting such. When pressed, Packer could not provide any errors or corrections. The Church then leveraged the Vice President of BYU to dissuade publication, suggesting fallout among friends in the Church History Department. The tactics did not succeed, as Bush was from California and not under the employ of the Church. During this episode, the Apostles never consulted the Church’s own history division, who were already well aware of the origination of the racial restrictions.
Harold B. Lee became president for a short time. His daughter noted, “My daddy said that as long as he’s alive, they’ll never have the priesthood.” After President McKay’s death in 1970, Hugh B. Brown was not retained in the first presidency by Joseph Fielding Smith. Spencer W. Kimball became President in late 1973.
In 1974, the LDS doctrine of discrimination against African Americans brought the Boy Scouts into a serious confrontation with the NAACP. The Boy Scouts of America did not discriminate on the basis of religion or race, but Mormon-sponsored troops did. The NAACP filed a federal lawsuit.
By 1977, Mormons had been shut out of Pres. Jimmy Carter’s administration, as he was blackballing the Church for its ongoing racism and outdated views of women’s issues, specifically their vigorous opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. On March 11, 1977, President Carter met with Kimball and other Church leaders in the White House, directly expressing his opinion of the LDS race policy.
President Kimball investigated the practical ramifications of lifting the race ban, and how many members would abandon the Church. He lobbied extensively behind the scenes for months, meeting with each member individually before calling all Apostles and the First Quorum of Seventies to the temple for discussion. The Church finally lifted the race ban in September 1978.
- Gospel Tangents: Did Pres. McKay Try to Rescind Ban in 1955?
- See Leonard Arrington: The Writing of Mormon History, 309-325 for greater context
LDS RACE DOCTRINE: NATIVE AMERICANS
The Book of Mormon clearly elaborates on how God cursed the wicked anscestors of the American Indians, darkening their skin to make them undesirable to the righteous white Indians. There can be no doubt that the curse contained in the Book of Mormon refers specifically to skin color changing from white to dark, even loathsome; rather than some undefined form of spiritual curse. The curse of dark skin is not a passing reference; as the false notion is integral to the entire story spanning 1,000 years.
1 Nephi 12:23 – “…they became a dark and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.”
1 Nephi 13:15 – “…they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.”
2 Nephi 5:21 – “God caused the cursing to come upon them…they were white…that they might not be enticing unto my people…God did cause a skin of Blackness to come upon them.”
2 Nephi 30:6 – “…they shall be a white and delightsome people.” (Original 1830 edition, prior to edit)
3 Nephi 2:15 – “…curse was taken from them…skin became white like unto Nephites.”
Jacob 3:5, 8, 9 – “Behold the Lamanites…whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins…that their skins will be whiter than yours…revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins.”
Alma 3: 6-19 – “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression…”
3 Nephi 2:15 – “And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white…”
Mormon 5:15 – “…and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us…”
The LDS Church initiated the Indian Placement Program in the 1950’s, also known as the Lamanite Placement Program, which relocated some 50,000 Native American youth. The program operated into the 1990’s with the stated purpose of developing leadership among Native Americans while assimilating them into white-American culture. The Church clearly thought that all ethnicities with brown skin, such as Latinos and Pacific Islanders, were also Lamanites in need of enlightenment.
QUOTES ON RACE & THE LAMANITES
Canonized in LDS scripture and instructed for generations by the prophets, Mormon race doctrine remained very clear. A Church priesthood manual instructed how the LDS Gospel makes Lamanites whiter, linking white skin and blessed in the same sentence. It is little wonder how generations of Mormons continued to acquire these unique views well after mainstream society discarded such notions.
“The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos; five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.”
“At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl — sixteen — sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents — on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated” (The Day of the Lamanite, Spencer W. Kimball, General Conference, Oct. 1960).
“When the Lamanites fully repent and sincerely receive the gospel, the Lord has promised to remove the dark skin…Perhaps there are some Lamanites today who are losing the dark pigment…could readily pass as of the white race” (Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 1953, vol 3, 123).
“The Lord has never indicated that black skin came because of being less faithful. Now, the Indian; we know why he has changed, don’t we? The Book of Mormon tells us that; and he has a dark skin, but he has a promise there that through faithfulness that they all again become a white and delightsome people” (Apostle LeGrand Richards, Interview by Wesley P. Walters and Chris Vlachos, Aug. 16, 1978, Church).
“That tribe, or most its people, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those Indians, at least as many as I have observed, were white and delightsome; as white and fair as any group of citizens of our country. I know of no prophecy, ancient or modern, that has had a more literal fulfillment” (George Edward Clark, quoted in McKeever and Johnson, “Pure and Delightsome,” Mormonism Researched, Spring 1994, 5).
“The Lamanites [Native Americans], now a down-trodden people, are a remnant of the house of Israel. The curse of God has followed them as it has done the Jews, though the Jews have not been darkened in their skin as have the Lamanites” (Prophet Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, vol 22, 173).
OBSERVATIONS OF THE LDS RACE ESSAY
In its gospel topics essay, Race and The Priesthood, the Church refers to the race ban as a “policy” based on “theories.” Given the volumes of official Church statements and documents, many from standing prophets, such an approach seems disingenuous at best. LDS race doctrine was clearly taught and testified of as God’s will. While the Church has provided modern corrections and statements, the Church has never apologized for the harm they unnecessarily imposed.
The source for quote #9 in the essay – “have [all] the privilege and more” – is taken from a speech Brigham Young delivered as Governor, to the Utah Legislature on February 5, 1852. (The full speech is available by selecting the link in the essay resources) It is important to view Brigham’s comments in true context to consider if the use of this brief quote misrepresents Brigham’s actual message.
In his speech, Governor Young proclaims the infamous doctrine of Blood Atonement (execution in this case by decapitation) as the penalty for mixed-race marriages and offspring. He teaches that black skin was a curse and that slavery was part of that curse. Brigham proclaims that Cain’s posterity (African Americans) would not bear the priesthood until after the end of the restitution of the earth (Millennium) and not until after all the descendants of Abel have first received the opportunity to receive the priesthood (after the Resurrection and end of the Millennium), at which time the curse (black skin) will be wiped off the earth.
Young further instructed that blacks should not have citizenship or rights to vote, are never to hold power in the government of the Kingdom of God, and that they are subjects as eternal servants. He proclaimed to be opposed to “abuse” in slavery, despite having established Utah as a slave territory the day prior.
- LDS Race and the Priesthood Essay
- Black People and Mormonism
- List of racist LDS leadership quotes on race
- Brigham Young addresses Legislature, Feb 5, 1852
- Dialogue: Mormonism Negro Doctrine
- The Lowery Nelson Exchange provides fascinating insight into Mormon race doctrine.
- LDS Newsroom: What is Mormonism. The Church expressly lies about its race doctrine in this article.
- Science Magazine: New Gene Variants Reveal Evolution of Human Skin Color