Mormons and Race
If the world views the sacred tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through secular eyes, it is likely to see only hints of deeper doctrine. A lack of understanding then causes the world to misdefine and misjudge the doctrines of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This has never been truer than when those outside the Latter-day Saint faith accuse the Church of Jesus Christ of “racism.” Since Blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood (the God-given power and authority to act in God’s name) until 1978, some are certain that racism is the reason.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Reserving the rights of the priesthood has nothing to do with the regard that the Church of Jesus Christ has always had for their Black brothers and sisters. In fact, there has never been a segregated congregation in the history of the Church. The doctrine is clear:
- “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Latter-day Saints believe that every person is their neighbor—regardless of race, color or creed, and strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ, when he declared the equality of each soul by instructing his apostles to “go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15).
In 1978, a marvelous revelation was given to the prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, which allowed all worthy men—despite race—to be given the holy priesthood of God. It was a joyous day, not only for the Black members of the Church, but for all members who had been praying for such a revelation.
Since the beginning of time, God has ordained specific groups to hold the priesthood. From Moses until the time of Christ, only the tribes of Israel had the gospel, the tribe of Levi alone held the Aaronic Priesthood, and only a few were given the Melchizedek Priesthood and allowed to officiate in certain ordinances. During the Savior’s earthly ministry, gospel blessings were restricted to the Jews.
In much the same way as the modern-day revelation, the Apostle Peter received a powerful revelation that allowed the gospel and priesthood to be extended beyond the Jews to include the Gentiles (see Acts 10:1–33; 14:23; 15:6–8).
In 1972, six years before the priesthood revelation was given, President Kimball, speaking of racism, declared:
- "Intolerance by Church members is despicable. A special problem exists with respect to blacks because they may not now  receive the priesthood. Some members of the Church would justify their own un-Christian discrimination against blacks because of that rule with respect to the priesthood, but while this restriction has been imposed by the Lord, it is not for us to add burdens upon the shoulders of our black brethren. They who have received Christ in faith through authoritative baptism are heirs to the celestial kingdom along with men of all other races. And those who remain faithful to the end may expect that God may finally grant them all blessings they have merited through their righteousness. Such matters are in the Lord's hands. It is for us to extend our love to all" (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Desert Book, 1982).
In 2012, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released an official statement concerning the past history of blacks and priesthood:
- The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. The Book of Mormon states, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God (2 Nephi 26:33). This is the Church’s official teaching.
- People of all races have always been welcomed and baptized into the Church since its beginning. In fact, by the end of his life in 1844 Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed slavery. During this time some black males were ordained to the priesthood. At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended. Church leaders sought divine guidance regarding the issue and more than three decades ago extended the priesthood to all worthy male members. The Church immediately began ordaining members to priesthood offices wherever they attended throughout the world.
- The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church. In 2006, then Church president Gordon B. Hinckley declared 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. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children."
Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:
- “The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”
In October 2020 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson said:
- Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God. Each is equal in His eyes. The implications of this truth are profound. Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another. His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto Him, “black and white, bond and free, male and female.”
- I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments and not the color of your skin.
- I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.
- The question for each of us, regardless of race, is the same. Are you willing to let God prevail in your life? Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life? Will you allow His words, His commandments, and His covenants to influence what you do each day? Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other? Are you willing to let whatever He needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition? Are you willing to have your will swallowed up in His?
History of Latter-day Saint Priesthood in the United States
When the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored in the late 1820s, God’s priesthood authority was once again given to men on earth, first to the prophet Joseph Smith, by heavenly messengers—John the Baptist and Peter, James and John.
From that beginning, revelation was integral to the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ. Through revelations to a living prophet (Joseph) who had been given the priesthood keys, Christ’s Church was once again upon the earth. These revelations are found in the Doctrine and Covenants and are considered scripture. Whether or not black members of the Church of Jesus Christ could be given the priesthood was not addressed in those verses.
Unlike many people of the day, Joseph Smith believed that Black people had souls and equal intelligence to whites, and were capable of elevating their status without limits, if they were no longer oppressed. He was deeply disturbed by the plight of the slaves. In a letter he wrote in 1842, he stated:
- “I have just been perusing your correspondence with Doctor Dyer, on the subject of American slavery, and the students of the Quincy Mission Institute, and it makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?”
In 1843, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon formed the Mormon Reform Party—the first political party in the United States to advocate the freedom, education, and granting full civil-rights to Blacks. After he was martyred, the issue of Blacks receiving the priesthood became the subject of discussion.
Historians present differing accounts of what happened next. However, during the time that Brigham Young served as the second prophet, it became the official Church position that Blacks of African descent would be unable to hold the priesthood.
Each prophet thereafter expressed their love and acceptance to the Black population, encouraging them to join the Church of Jesus Christ with the knowledge that one day they would enjoy the blessings of the priesthood.
In 1965, 250 people demonstrated outside of Church headquarters and sports teams from Arizona, California, and Wyoming refused to compete with BYU because of the "racist policies" of the Church of Jesus Christ. But the revelations did not come until 1978. E. Dale LeBaron explained:
- Some have questioned why this revelation came when it did. Some critics of the Church suggest that it came in response to pressures upon the Church. External pressures on Church leaders regarding the blacks and the priesthood immediately before the revelation were minor compared to the 1960s, when the issue of civil rights was a major issue. As to why the revelation came when it did, Elder McConkie stated that it “was a matter of faith and righteousness and seeking on one hand, and it was a matter of the divine timetable on the other hand.” President Kimball further stated: “There are members of the Church who had brought to President David O. McKay their reasons why it should be changed. Others had gone to Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee and to all the former presidents and it had not been accepted because the time had not come for it.”
At the 148th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on September 30, 1978, President N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency, read the Official Declaration–2:
- “In early June of this year, the First Presidency announced that a revelation had been received by President Spencer W. Kimball extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church. . . . This revelation . . . came to him after extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple. . . .
- We have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren [from whom the priesthood has been withheld), spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
- He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows there from, including the blessings of the temple. . . .
- Recognizing Spencer W. Kimball as the prophet, seer, and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is proposed that we as a constituent assembly accept this revelation as the word and will of the Lord. . .”
The voting was unanimous.
What it Means to Hold the Priesthood
Because the Church of Jesus Christ has a lay clergy, holding the “priesthood” does not mean ordination to a professional clerical position. Instead, priesthood is defined (by God, through revelation to modern prophets) as the power and authority to act in God’s name. This is the same “royal priesthood” referred to in the New Testament, and the same priesthood held by the fishermen Christ ordained to be His apostles. Remember that there already was a professional priesthood at the time of Christ, the Levites and High Priests and rabbis, who received their sustenance from the people they served. Christ called none of them. When He ordained apostles who were fishermen and tax collectors, the priesthood He gave them had real power, the power to perform miracles. Yet they held no professional status, and wore no special professional costume, but preached without remuneration in their humble, everyday garb. All worthy men in the Church are able to receive the power and authority to act in the name of God, and they thus may perform ordinances, call upon this power to heal the faithful and give them blessings of knowledge and comfort, and use the priesthood to administer the organization of the gospel and auxiliaries of the Church of Jesus Christ.
A man who holds the priesthood may then be called to serve as a bishop of a ward (the same as a pastor over a congregation). Or he may be called to serve as a “stake president,” who presides and directs a group of wards. Obviously, he must be prepared for such leadership, but so must the people over whom he presides. Once Blacks received the priesthood, any congregation, even an otherwise all-white congregation, must have been prepared to be presided over by a Black bishop. Thus, not only Blacks, but the white majority of the Church would have to be ready, to have cast aside prejudice and have wiped clean any pre-conceived notions of racial differences. There is much talk of Blacks needing to be ready before qualifying as a group to hold the priesthood, but perhaps it was more a question of Whites being ready to be led by Blacks. Once all were ready, the Lord could open the gate.
The eternal significance of this modern-day revelation is a reminder of God’s wisdom and love. As we look over the years since it was manifest, we see the wonderful growth of the Black population throughout the world and recognize that through a prophet’s sensitive and loving leadership we can trust him to know and follow the divine direction given by God.
- Official Church Statement and History — Race and the Priesthood
- Black Latter-day Saints
- Church Newsroom, "Prophet Joins NAACP Leaders in Call for Racial Harmony in America"
- Church Newsroom, "President Nelson Shares Social Post about Racism and Calls for Respect for Human Dignity"