On September 16, 2012 the Salt Lake Tribune published an editorial by R. B. Scott, a Massachusetts journalist and author of “Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics.” In his editorial, Scott argues that the LDS Church has recently been “edging toward a formal apology” of the practice of barring African Americans from the Priesthood prior to 1978. Scott realizes that such an apology would help Romney in the current campaign, despite the fact that it would look like it was prompted by public opinion and would cast doubt on the revelatory base of Mormonism. Despite all of that, Scott argues that such an apology is warranted and overdue, and is therefore worth it.
I would offer my reasons in support for such an apology, and when and how such an apology might be offered. My perspective on the topic is shaped by my experience with Blacks and the priesthood on my mission in Brazil. In Brazil, I saw first hand the personal pain that this policy caused and why such an apology would be healthy. I served my mission in Northern Brazil in the late 1960’s. My mission headquarters were in Rio de Janeiro, and its borders extended north to the Caribbean countries. The land mass of my mission was 2/3 the size of the United States.
Brazil is a true melting pot— many races and nationalities have been intermarrying for hundreds of years in Brazil. I estimate that nine tenths of the people in my mission had some African ancestry. But according to church policy, anyone with any amount of Black ancestry was barred from the priesthood at that time. Unless persons of African ancestry persistently pursued us, we were instructed not to teach or baptize them. Bahia, the fourth most populous state in Brazil, was historically the center of the African slave trade in the country. (See map below.) It’s capital, Salvador, had millions of inhabitants when I was on my mission. But because interracial marriages had historically been occurring in Bahia for so long, a larger proportion of its people had African ancestors. We did not have a single missionary in Bahia, although we had missionaries in the surrounding states.
Each new missionary was trained how to spot signs of racial identity in the face, hands and feet, looking at family pictures, and asking family racial origins when meeting new investigators. As far as I can tell, this was practiced uniformly throughout the Brazil North Mission. And these were unusually intelligent, compassionate and hard working missionaries.
As missionaries, we had soul-searching discussions about this policy of Blacks and the priesthood. Our mission president instructed us on it. He provided us with written statements from General Authorities about it. General Authorities of the Church visited us and interviewed us. We asked questions about the policy. There were times that I felt uncomfortable about the policy on Blacks and the priesthood. I had a companion that was ready to revolt because of it. There were times that many of us were genuinely embarrassed, and annoyed at the theological and practical gymnastics that this created. But, we somehow made peace with the policy and moved on to our hard and hectic lives of teaching.
I recall being deeply saddened when a group of young, enthusiastic Blacks came up to me and my companion and wanted to know about the church. I instantly loved them and their enthusiasm. I wanted to teach them the lessons. But instead, I followed mission instructions and gave them a card with the chapel address. I never saw them again. We could have revolted. We did not. It never occurred to me to do so. I saw the gospel through the simple lens of total obedience to God and his infallible servants, the prophets. God had a loving plan for all of his children. Who was I to question it?
After teaching investigators the 6 standard lessons (word for word), before an investigator could be baptized, we were required by mission policy to give them a special lesson on the “Lineage of Cain.” It was essentially a lesson about why Blacks, as possessors of the curse of Cain, couldn’t hold the priesthood. We essentially defended the ban on Blacks holding the priesthood on the sole basis that a loving God had commanded it.
The logic of that official, written lesson was that God loves all of his children equally, but that his gospel was delivered to different groups of people based on their spiritual preparation. So, as the logic of the lesson went, the Jews received the priesthood first, then the Gentiles. Someday Blacks will be given the priesthood as well, as part of God’s plan. The lesson then had us directly question if the prospective member had any Black ancestry. If they did, they were told that they could be baptized, but could not hold the preisthood.
It was only after I returned from my mission that I threw out this doctrine from my personal beliefs. After reading about how the church excommunicated an outspoken critic of the policy, I visited Lowell Bennion (a liberal Mormon educator) at his home in Millcreek, Utah. I asked if he thought it best to publically condemn the policy of Blacks and the priesthood. For him it was a political question. He hated the policy, but advised against public opposition. “If you are excommunicated, you will lose all influence with the church. It is best to keep a low profile and work for change from within.”
I remember the genuine surprise and joy when hearing about the priesthood being granted to Blacks in 1978. I also remember that I even had greater surprise over a member of my ward who refused to go to church after the revelation was announced. He certainly represented a the small minority. But his actions made it clear that the policy banning Blacks from the priesthood was, at least for some, a shield for their own racism.
So we get back to the question at hand. Should the church apologize for its ban on the priesthood for Blacks? Absolutely!!! This is a policy that created enormous confusion, and pain for members of the church in Brazil. I saw the unease of missionaries who were trained to act against their natural moral instincts. It is a barrier to true compassion. An official apology would help.
But the apology is going to be more difficult than Scott anticipates. Scott thinks that the ban against Blacks holding the priesthood would be easy to renounce, because it began with Brigham Young. In a way, it was only made uniform and formalized by Young. Joseph Smith ordained Blacks to the priesthood. But he also set the stage for the ban by providing a canon of scripture stating that a dark skin is the sign of a curse from God.
In the Book of Mormon, the curse is the dark skin of Native Americans. 2 Nephi 5:21 in the Book of Mormon states that the dark skin of Native Americans is a divine curse to discourage intermarriage with white skinned races. In the Pearl of Great Price it is the African Americans who possess the curse of a dark skin. The policy of priesthood denial is therefore founded on Mormon scripture . The standard missionary lesson in Brazil on the Blacks and the priesthood cited Abraham 1 in the Pearl of Great Price. Here is a slightly different section of the verse than was quoted in the missionary lesson:
“Pharaoh, being a righteous man . . .Noah, his father, . . blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him pertaining to the priesthood. Now Pharaoh, being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of the priesthood . . . through Ham. . .”
What we have here is the canonization of typical 19th century racial bigotry. By canonizing its worst racial setting, Mormons forfeited its progressive teachings on the elimination of poverty and destruction of class privilege. It now seeks to elect one of class privilege as president of the United States.
So should Mormonism offer its apology NOW to help Mitt Romney, as Scott proposes? Absolutely not. If the church were to apologize now, it will appear to be what it really is—-a political tactic to help Romney get elected. Apologize, yes, but only after the election. Apologize for this policy. But even then, this apology for the priesthood ban is not enough. By putting the whole blame on Brigham Young, we only hack at the branches of racism. It must also be accompanied by a denunciation of the racist words of the Nephites when condemning a dark skin as a curse of God, and of the pejorative remarks about Blacks and the priesthood by the narrator, Abraham, in the Pearl of Great Price. Only then will the root of evil be cut through. The teachings on skin color and race in Mormon scriptures are scientifically and morally untenable. This does not require a rejection of scripture, just a revisioning of its meaning. Scripture is not so much the almighty word of God to humans, as it is the frail word of humans about God, with all our highest inspiration and our meanest human failings. A priesthood apology is insufficient. Mormonism cannot be a universal religion, cannot be a truly compassionate religion, cannot be a truly great religion until it condemns the racism within its own scriptures.
I cannot control the Mormon Church and what it does. I cannot control Mitt Romney. But whether or not Mormon Church leaders apologize, I would like apologize to them for not standing up for people of color, for not sufficiently defending my neighbor as I was taught as a young Latter-day Saint. I deeply regret that I did not stand up for a principle higher than obedience to authority. It is a necessary, but by itself, a shallow moral principle. I apologize to the people of Brazil. Blacks and Native Americans deserve something better than this. Mormonism deserves something better than this. That is why an apology must come, along with a rejection of its basis in the canon.