A church-produced essay, "Race and the Priesthood," ties the ban
to an 1852 speech by Brigham Young, the faith's second president,
who led the church to Utah, and distances the modern Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints from the policy.
"The justifications for restrictions echoed the widespread ideas
about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the
legalization of black 'servitude,'" reads the essay, part of a
series aimed at giving Mormons more context for understanding
various aspects of church history, practices and doctrine.
"Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and
present, in any form," the essay says.
In the past, Mormon church leaders have said history provided no
clear explanation for the prohibition that barred black men from
ordination to the lay priesthood and prevented black men and women
from participating in sacred temple rites.
No such prohibitions were in place during the tenure of Joseph
Smith, Jr., who founded the church in 1830, the church essay notes.
Smith opposed slavery and himself ordained the faith's first black
lay ministers. In the Mormon faith, only men can hold the
In 1978 then-church President Spencer W. Kimball lifted the ban,
citing what the church describes as a religious revelation, but the
faith has had trouble shaking its history, and the issue of racism
has arisen repeatedly, including during the 2012 presidential
campaign of Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.
"For me what it says is that the church is finally admitting that
(blacks) should never have been denied the priesthood," said Don
Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, an organization for black
church members. "It's overdue."
Mormon historian Newell Bringhurst applauded the essay as the most
comprehensive statement on the priesthood ban ever issued by church
leaders. Still Bringhurst, a retired professor of history and author
of multiple books on the ban, said it should be viewed with
"It's a step forward, but I don't think it's adequate enough,"
Bringhurst said in a telephone interview from his home in Visalia,
California. "They are going to have to own up to why it was
perpetuated well into the civil rights era."
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In 1852, Young said he believed full church membership, including
the priesthood, would someday be restored to black members, but
church leaders perpetuated the practice for more than 100 years,
Bringhurst said. No explanation for those actions is offered by the
essay, he said.
Bringhurst believes the essay reflects the church's shift toward
dealing more honestly with its history, a move that may be tied to
the proliferation of information about the faith from non-church
sources on the Internet.
"I don't think the LDS church has any choice but to become more
frank and forthright in admitting what happened," he said, noting
that Mormonism has been growing rapidly in some South American and
"Membership of the church is now far more non-white than white ...
it kind of makes sense" that the issue would be addressed, said
Harwell, adding that his remarks are not made on behalf of Genesis.
"You can't just bring in people of color and ignore what the church
was," he said. "But it's here. They said it and it kills a whole lot
of stuff with the past. Now we can get on to building a better
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)
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