Recently, there was a news article stating that the church “disavows” all racism in the history of the church. Here is the link on which I read it: Race and Priesthood: LDS Church Statement Reaction | KUTV.com. I personally feel like this is a change that should not be happening. I have read many scriptures relating to the separation of races, the curse of Cain’s seed, and teachings of the early prophets regarding it. Throughout history, it has not changed until recently. What are your insights to this? Thank You.
Thank you very much for your question and concerns which are shared by many. It is true that the early prophets taught the separation of the races, the curse of Cain, less valiant in the preexistence etc., and used certain passages of scripture to support those teachings. And it also may appear to some that this has been the case throughout history and only recently changed. Just as the Church launched this new reference page “Race and Priesthood” under the Gospel Topics section on lds.org on December 6, 2013, without any announcement or press release, I think you will find it interesting that many other changes have taken place in relative silence through the years on this particular issue.
To help set the stage on which I’ll place these developments, I’ll add that first, this is a church of continuing revelation. This means that there will be change, as we the members and the leadership grow in understanding of and willingness to do all that the Lord has commanded. And second, D&C 1:24-28 tells us that the Lord is aware, and the Lord wants us to be aware that the prophets and apostles will come to understand what has been commanded them, signifying that they will not understand all things at once, that they will make mistakes, sometimes seek the Lord and will even sin. We have seen the same with prophets in every dispensation as laid out in the scriptures.
So with this in mind, let’s look at some of the changes:
1. When the church was restored, Joseph Smith was commanded at least 12 times in the Doctrine & Covenants to give all men the priesthood, and so he did. Men of African descent were ordained to the priesthood. A few of their names – Elijah Abel, Joseph T. Ball, William McCary, Black Pete, Walker Lewis and Enoch Lovejoy Lewis.
2. For the first 18-22 years of the restored gospel all men were ordained to the priesthood and that stopped unofficially around 1848 and officially in 1852.
3. Even though there was a new restriction in place, at least two known men of record were ordained to the priesthood after the restriction began. Enoch Abel was ordained in 1900 and his son, Elijah Able, grandson to the Elijah Abel ordained by the Prophet Joseph Smith, was ordained in 1934 as a priest and 1935 as an elder.
4. In 1954 President David O. McKay stated that the restriction was policy and not doctrine, even though it had been taught as doctrine. He declared that one day the policy would be changed. (See David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Wm. Robert Wright and Gregory Prince)
5. In 1971 the Genesis Group, an official branch of the church was formed by then Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, Boyd K. Packer and 3 African American members, Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray and Eugene Orr, under the direction of President Joseph Fielding Smith. This branch was designed to aid the transition of African Americans into the church population. (See www.ldsgenesisgroup.org)
6. In June of 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the Twelve had confirmed the revelation and received their own witness of the Lord’s will to extend all of the blessings of the gospel to all those who live worthily within the commandments, regardless of race or lineage. This revelation was read at the 148th Semiannual General Conference where it was unanimously sustained by the membership of the Church. It has been canonized in our scriptures as Official Declaration 2.
7. In 1978, Bruce R. McConkie, teaching CES employees what to teach on this issue, told them to forget all that they were taught by leaders or whomever on this issue. They’d spoken with a limited understanding and now had new light and knowledge on the issue. “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles.”
8. In 1981 the church published a new edition of the scriptures with new footnotes to help clarify new understanding of what a curse actually is, what was meant by skin, blackness, white etc.
9. On April 11, 2006, President Hinckley gave very clear direction on this issue during is Conference address in the Priesthood session. A quote from the talk attempted to leave a message: “How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?”
10. In 2010 when the Church launched the new LDS.org site, many of the chapter headings were changed, helping to give readers additional clarification and reinforcement of the 1981 footnote additions and changes.
11. On March 1, 2013, a new chapter heading was added to Official Declaration 2 admitting that some men of African descent were ordained to the priesthood in the early days and church records were not clear on why it stopped. This was a clear departure from the teachings that the ban was instituted because of revelation. These changes are now incorporated within the digital edition of the LDS scriptures as well as the new 2013 printed editions now widely available through Church Distribution and other authorized LDS bookstores.
12. In October, 2013 General Conference, Pres. Uchtdorf gave one of many Conference talks delivered over the years to help members understand the prophets and apostles make errors and that we are a church of continuing revelation.
13. And finally, on December 12, the lds.org webpage under Gospel Topics “Race and Priesthood” was launched with these admissions that the Church has been trying to prepare the members to receive for many years now.
Was the priesthood ban on those with African lineage an error? Were we as a people, and as a church just ‘not ready’? We do not know. With this timeline of events and progress towards extending the blessings of the gospel to all, we could easily make that conclusion, particularly when considering D&C 1:24-28. We can read about various Presidents of the Church and their previous efforts to ask the Lord to lift these restrictions, and they were denied. For what reason? We do not know. We can speculate with the doctrine of the “Law of Common Consent” that the leadership of the Church weren’t yet united for the desire to share the gospel with all of God’s Children. However, I believe that is a speculation that just happens to fit the historical narrative. We cannot know the mind and will of the Lord in all things. What we do know, that it is the will and mind of the Lord, through revelation to our Church leaders, that all of God’s children, who have faith, repent, and receive the ordinances of the Gospel are welcome in the Lord’s Church and are entitled to receive all the blessings of the Gospel.
So there are many among us that have to try to find a way to reconcile what is now being taught, with what had been taught for so many years. Many find comfort in learning that all men were holding the priesthood for the first 18-22 years of the restoration. To them this change represents a shift back to what was originally in place and intended. No one, after becoming aware of it, can argue the change of direction that church has had in place for quite a number of years now. It seems as though they were aware of how difficult a shift this would be for many members and thus gave it in gradual manageable bites over the last several decades. The ultimate questions we must ask ourselves are:
Is this a church of continuing revelation?
Does truth or tradition have greater weight in our worship?
Can I obtain a witness of what is true through the Holy Ghost through prayer?
This is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” Let me ask you a question to consider: What if ‘true’ was a verb? That the church was continuously ‘truing’ itself towards the Lord’s will? It’s an accurate description that we should be doing for ourselves, let alone the Church as a whole.
I would encourage you to take a look at the references of the recent changes in the study help in the scriptures, and compare them to your current edition of the scriptures. Ask yourself “What is it that the Lord and the Brethren want me to know and learn?”