In writing the above statement on June 8th in a commemorative post on the Priesthood Revelation, Tom was curious and decided to ask me why I felt that "God wasn't behind the policy in the first place". I asked if he wanted the short version or the long version. He said long, so out of convenience, I'm simply dedicating a whole new post to the subject. I hope it's worth every penny he's paying. :)
There’s a very informative chapter in “David O. Mckay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” that discusses the policy entitled “Blacks, Civil Rights, and the Priesthood”. It's quite an "eye opener" and it helped me to become more informed about the background concerning the ban. The more informed I was about the history, the easier it was to see that prophets are not infallible and that God doesn't micromanage every aspect of Church administration. (Of course you also see this quite clearly in "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling".)
Although it’s clear that many of our past Church leaders were a product of their times (ie: somewhat racist) it is also clear that the policy was not really even well known about by the general membership of the Church up through the 1950’s. It’s no surprise that the “why” behind the ban is not very well understood now, because it really wasn’t understood well then. Even some of the Brethren in the middle of the 20th century weren’t aware that Joseph Smith (who was actually quite progressive) ordained several black men to the Priesthood and that the evolution of the ban actually began with Brigham Young.
One thing is sure: Hugh B. Brown, counselor to David O. Mckay in the First Presidency, was definitely in favor of reversing the policy. However he met with some resistance/pressure by other top leaders in the Twelve.
David O. McKay himself said multiple times that it was not a doctrine, but a policy, and that it would eventually be reversed. He started making modifications to the policy that laid the groundwork for the 1978 Revelation by President Kimball. I think President McKay didn’t feel it was quite time to act yet because he wanted unanimity among the brethren, and some of them, including Elder Harold B. Lee, had strong feelings to keep the ban in place. Unanimity was also extremely important to President Kimball as he sought the revelation to end that policy. It’s an insightful read and it definitely gave me a more realistic picture of how everything actually played out.
But how did the ban actually begin, and why? It’s not completely clear, so the official answer is “we don’t know”. However, it's pretty clear that it didn’t begin as a “revelation”. Rather, the policy seems to have begun officially in 1852 with an announcement by Brigham Young. I doubt that God had anything to do with it, but rather I believe He simply honored the agency of Brigham Young who was a product of his times and was reacting to something culturally at the time, believing it to be the right thing to do. Now I'm not throwing Brigham under the bus here. I'm simply recognizing that although he was a prophet who did a lot of amazing things, he was also a flawed human being, as all prophets are. As we know, when the Lord calls a man to be a prophet, he doesn't unmake the man. Brigham, like so many other Christians of the time, believed the "curse of Cain" justified the subordination of black people. And over time, many leaders just assumed that’s the way it was supposed to be and didn’t really understand that the ban hadn't always been in place.
Over time people looked for scriptural justifications for it and began teaching their interpretations and some of those interpretations became accepted by many—not all—as a quasi-official “doctrine”. In my opinion, the folklore that was perpetuated to try to explain the “why” behind the ban became even more offensive and painful than the ban itself. So it’s almost doubly offensive and ridiculous that many still teach these rationales today (such as that blacks were less faithful in the pre-mortal existence), even though that has been repudiated time and again by apostles and prophets. For example, here is Elder Holland’s wonderful denunciation of the folklore surrounding the ban from his PBS interview:
"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 ones to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place… [when asked to specify the folklore] Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …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."
I’m very grateful to live in a day and age in which wrongs have been corrected, and I especially appreciate quotes such as Elder Holland’s. Unfortunately, some haven’t got the memo. Significantly, President Hinckley spoke out in General Conference in 2006:
“Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord. Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you 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 of Christ. 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?” ("The Need For Greater Kindness", April 2006 General Conference.)
There are many other relevant quotes assembled on my post: Endorsing the Call: Repudiate Racist Justifications for the Priesthood Ban. In making sense of all of our past, as well as our present, I also strongly recommend an important FAIR article by Armand L. Mauss: "The LDS Church and the Race Issue: A Study in Misplaced Apologetics". It should be required reading for anyone trying to become informed on the subject.
Now the hard part is that some otherwise informed members of the Church can't quite bring themselves to accept that past prophets could have been “wrong” on this. But we have to be honest with ourselves, and "wrong" is the word Elder Holland himself used. Some say, "Surly God would not have allowed them to get something this big so wrong for so long, right?" Well, in my view that’s a faulty fundamentalist view of prophetic perfection. It's also unrealistic and a bit ignorant of how God works through mortals through time.
Marvin Perkins was recently interviewed by Times and Seasons. At the end of the first of four segments, he said something that resonated with me and struck me as very important and I wish all members would come to understand this:
"Then you have those who are not familiar enough with the scriptures or the Plan of Salvation to understand that all prophets and apostles make mistakes. They mistakenly believe that all prophets are to be perfect in the administration of the things of God and because of this, their testimony of the truthfulness of the Church suffers a major blow and they begin to doubt and struggle. After we show them D&C 1:24-28 …
24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
… and a list of prophets who’ve made errors from the Old Testament to the Doctrine and Covenants they begin to see that their testimonies were weighted too much on the Brethren who are imperfect and not enough on Christ who is perfect, and His restored gospel. With this realization, the shift is made and they become stronger, more productive Saints, now able to help their brother."
So that's kind of the framework I'm working with concerning the Church and the Restoration. Furthermore, there is so much more of greatness and goodness in the work that these prophets accomplished overall that focusing on their mistakes doesn't really give the true picture. Nevertheless, you can't just ignore the fact that mistakes were made--many of them acknowledged.
For example, after the revelation in 1978 Elder McConkie said: "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. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more." ("All Are Alike unto God", BYU Speeches).
Still though, how do I personally make sense of the evolution of the ban, historically speaking? My personal understanding follows along the same lines as Papa D/Ray, who’s shared some of his thoughts. I’ll quote him now because it’s basically exactly what I currently believe. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind should I be influenced to think differently:
1) Joseph ordained black men to the Priesthood. That is indisputable in any intelligent way.
2) Brigham Young and many of the early Saints were steeped in racism growing up. “The incorrect traditions of our fathers” are hard to shake, especially when they are so commonly shared.
3) The single most fundamental prejudice of the time was inter-racial marriage – even without the possibility of it being eternal.
4) Brigham seems to have supported the ordination of those few black men who received the Priesthood.
5) When a black Priesthood holder appeared to be about to marry a white woman in the temple, Brigham (and most members) couldn’t take it. It was too much for them to consider it as a legitimate possibility. Brigham, particularly, was irate and vowed it wouldn’t happen.
6) They constructed a quasi-scriptural justification (based on the common and widespread Protestant beliefs of their upbringing and the current time) to put a ban in place, and a few people spoke of hearing Joseph make statements that would support it – his previous actions in ordaining black men notwithstanding. (BY never claimed direct, personal revelation on the subject; rather, he said, “The Lord has spoken” – and used the scriptural justifications.) NOTE: I’m NOT saying this was done intentionally, knowing that it wasn’t inspired. I’m saying I think they never considered seeking revelation, since it seemed obvious and apparent to them given the assumptions of their upbringing.
7) Other apostles over the years tweaked and added to the original justification, bringing, for example, the uniquely Mormon concept of the pre-existence into it by claiming black people had been less valiant in the pre-existence and, therefore, were unworthy of the Priesthood in this life.
8 ) The membership, by and large, bought into the justifications – even as some of the apostles and members never did. In many people’s eyes, it became “doctrine”; for those like Pres. McKay who recognized it didn’t originate through revelation, it was viewed merely as “policy”. Those who saw it as doctrine outnumbered those who saw it as policy.
9) By the 1940’s and 1950’s, many people’s attitudes in the country had started to change, and Pres. McKay thought it might be time to change the policy. He prayed fervently about it, but the Lord told him it wasn’t the proper time yet. Importantly, Pres. McKay never said the Lord told him the ban was “His will” or “correct” or anything like that. He simply said it wasn’t the proper time yet to lift the ban.
10) By the late 1970’s the Church was in a situation where it simply couldn’t grow and produce future leaders in Brazil and other Western Hemisphere countries (and Africa) without ordaining black men to the Priesthood. This reality weighed heavily on the minds of the First Presidency and the 12, as they were well aware of the growth limitations AND potential in those areas and as they were faced with abundant evidence of very faithful black members who didn’t appear to be cursed by God in any reasonable way – much like Paul’s dilemma with circumcision among the Gentiles of his missions. It also reinforced the beliefs of the “younger generation” who were not predisposed to accept the folklore and more disposed to see it as Pres. McKay had seen it – and as Pres. Kimball saw it.
My own speculation:
A) The decision had been made without seeking direct, personal revelation, so the Lord waited until (practical) unanimity could be reached before stopping the policy. (Kind of like the people of Limhi needing to suffer more than the people of Alma before each group was delivered from their respective captors.)
B) Those who had been the most steeped in hardcore racism (not just the justifications for the ban) had to die before the ban was lifted – much like the people of Israel who built the golden calf needing to pass away before the group could enter the Promised Land. (Hence, my use of the Jacob 5 allegory – pruning the bitter fruit according to the strength of the roots.)
C) Elder McConkie gets a bad rap, even unthinkingly by me sometimes when I’m not careful with my wording. He wasn’t racist in one important way – in that he didn’t dislike or disapprove of black people in general; he simply was a forceful proponent of the folklore. I know that is splitting hairs to a degree, but I believe he was being “loyal” to the leadership, especially since his father-in-law was a Prophet and someone he revered – a great influence in his life. Perhaps he never fully “repented” (meaning simply “changed fully”), since he never removed the folklore from Mormon Doctrine, but he was able to rejoice in the revelation – since he really wasn’t a hardcore racist at heart. That left only Mark E. Peterson as the champion of the ban and its fundamental racism, and he was only six years from passing away by 1978. (I’ll equate him with the fact that handful of adults at the time of the golden calf were allowed to enter the Promised Land. It’s a stretch, but it’ll do – since the actual balance in 1978 would have been 14-1 in the FP and the 12 when you put McConkie in the approving category.)
Ray called that the concise version. :) He then goes on to summarize the following ideas: 1) God works with prophets in their own limitations all throughout history; 2) the Restoration is a process not an event; 3) that the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times refers to the condition at the end of the dispensation--that the Jacob 5 concept of pruning will be accomplished fully only at the end. ("There will be “bitter fruit” in the Church even after the Restoration – fruit that could be pruned only according to the strength of the root. I don’t think that bitter fruit has been purged completely yet").
Personally, I'm at peace with that understanding. Furthermore, our "labor in the vineyard" is a part of something much grander than some local pruning here and some pruning there. I'm just grateful to be a part of the whole process!