Latter-day Saint History

Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood

It is heavy history that raises a variety of challenging questions.

The history of the race-based priesthood and temple ban in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is complex. In the early days of the Church, Joseph Smith and other leaders of the Church ordained Black men to the priesthood. A ban took hold by the 1850s—and wasn’t reversed until 1978. This interview with W. Paul Reeve discusses the history of the race and priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Read more about race and priesthood in Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood by W. Paul Reeve.

Table of Contents

Why is it important to learn about the history of race and the priesthood?

Latter-day Saints have been directed by two members of the First Presidency to “root out racism.” In my estimation it is impossible to root out racism without examining its roots. History is thus a valuable way for Latter-day Saints to learn what racism looked like in the past so we can better understand its consequences in the present and help shape a more just and equitable future.

Listen to President Dallin H. Oaks call for Latter-day Saints to root out racism.

What has been W. Paul Reeve’s experience in studying the history of race in the Church?

It has been both exciting and challenging. It has been exciting to uncover new sources, especially the anti-slavery speeches of Orson Pratt and to understand that he and Brigham Young were engaged in a vigorous debate. It has been challenging because of the depth of the racism the sources reveal.

It is heavy history and it raises a variety of challenging questions. I attempt to grapple with those questions in the book and share the ways that I have sorted through them for myself.

The curse of Cain was Brigham Young’s explanation.

What is the three-part narrative of race and the priesthood?

The book is divided into three phases which lay out the chronological history of the racial priesthood and temple restrictions as I have come to understand them:

  • Phase 1. In phase one there were no restrictions. Priesthood and temples were open to people of all races and ethnicities. In fact the First Presidency published an article in the Nauvoo newspaper in 1840 announcing their intent to welcome “persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color” into the temple that they would start to build the following spring.
  • Phase 2. Sadly, that open racial vision gave way in fits and starts in phase two to segregated priesthood and temples.
  • Phase 3. In phase three, the June 1978 revelation ushered in a return to racial inclusivity and restored the Church to its universal roots.

Who are some of the early Black converts to the Church?

There have been Black Latter-day Saints from 1830 to the present.

Some of the most well known include Elijah Able and his wife Mary Ann Adams Able, who presided over a multi-generational family of Latter-day Saints. Elijah Able is significant because he is the most well-documented Black priesthood holder in the nineteenth century. His son Moroni was also ordained to the priesthood in 1871 and his grandson, Elijah R. Ables, was ordained an elder in 1935 after passing as white.

Q. Walker Lewis was another Black priesthood holder; he worshiped in the Lowell, Massachusetts Branch and was a prominent abolitionist and a barber by trade. Brigham Young called Lewis “one of the best elders” and referred to him as a person of African descent.

The lack of consensus among leaders had prevented change.

Jane Elizabeth Manning along with six additional family members converted in Connecticut in 1842. She and her husband Isaac James and her son Sylvester and their son Silas were 1847 pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley.

In the U.S. South, at least 26 enslaved people also joined the upstart faith before the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery. Enslaved Latter-day Saints included John Burton, Green Flake, and Samuel Chambers. Chambers became an unordained deacon in the Salt Lake Eighth Ward after he and his wife Amanda migrated to Utah following their emancipation at the end of the Civil War.

Elijah Able, Q. Walker Lewis, and Jane Manning James are three Black Latter-day Saint pioneers who figure into the history of race and the priesthood.

How common was priesthood ordination during the 19th century?

As I note in the book:

In the nineteenth century the purpose of ordination was to provide each congregation leadership, not to ensure that all men held priesthood office. In 1842, the branch in Brandywine, Pennsylvania, for example reported 124 total members, which included seven elders, two priests, three teachers, and two deacons, while the branch in Salem, Massachusetts, counted 66 members, with one elder and one priest. Not until the early decades of the twentieth century did the Church systematically ordain young men to priesthood offices. The fact that a few Black men were ordained to the priesthood when white men were not universally ordained makes it that much more remarkable.

Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood, page 14

How were early prophets accurate in stating that God “hath made of one blood” all of humankind?

DNA evidence reveals that the entire human family is related through common ancient ancestry. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both quoted Acts 17:26 to teach that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”

They were thus both religiously and scientifically correct when doing so.

How did Brigham Young’s experiences in Winter Quarters seem to shape his views?

On December 3, 1847, in a meeting at Winter Quarters, Brigham Young learned of two Black Latter-day Saint men who had married white women and thereafter shifted his open racial perspective.

Both explanations were disavowed.

Brigham spoke out stridently against race mixing; he even advocated capital punishment as the penalty. By 1852 he openly articulated a racial priesthood restriction and did so in conjunction with ongoing preaching against race mixing.

What were the two competing explanations for the priesthood and temple ban?

Curse of Cain

The curse of Cain was Brigham Young’s explanation for the racial restrictions. He suggested that because Cain killed his brother Abel, all of Abel’s children (who he presumed to be white people) would need to receive the priesthood before any of Cain’s descendants (who he presumed to be Black people) could receive the priesthood.

It was a violation of the Second Article of Faith because Brigham Young held the supposed descendants of Cain responsible for a murder in which they took no part.

Less valiant in premortality

The second explanation suggested that Black people must have been neutral, less valiant, or fence sitters in a premortal war in heaven and were thus born into a lineage that was barred from the priesthood.

Both explanations were disavowed in 2013 by the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles.

How did the priesthood and temple ban solidify over time?

The restrictions were not firmly in place at Brigham Young’s first utterance. Each succeeding generation of leaders were unwilling to violate the precedent established under Brigham Young, even though Young’s precedent violated the open racial policies established under Joseph Smith.

Joseph F. Smith solidified the restrictions in place in the first decade of the twentieth century when he erased from collective Latter-day Saint memory the original Black priesthood holders.

What are some examples of how the priesthood and temple ban was enforced unevenly?

Elijah Able’s son, Moroni, was ordained an elder in 1871 and Able’s grandson Elijah R. Ables was ordained an elder in 1935, after passing as white.

Russell Dewey Ritchie, the son of a formerly enslaved father was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 and his sisters received temple rituals long before 1978 even though their parents were denied a temple sealing in 1909. Descendants of the Ritchie family continue to exhibit African ancestry in their DNA to the present.

Spencer W. Kimball studied the issue.

One formerly enslaved woman, Rebecca Henrientta Foscue Bentley Meads, received full temple rituals and was sealed to her husband in 1863.

DNA evidence today reveals the impossibility of policing racial boundaries. If the “one drop” policy was the standard, then there has never been a period of Latter-day Saint history without Black priesthood holders and temple attenders. I discuss the Church’s “one drop” policy in chapter 13 in the book and explore its impossibilities.

How did Spencer W. Kimball exemplify his belief that revelation only comes to those who are “reaching as high as he can”?

President Spencer W. Kimball studied the issue out in his mind, learned the history of the restrictions for himself, and sought new sources of information. He studied the scriptures and, according to his son Edward Kimball, he concluded that the restrictions “did not come from explicit scriptures but rather from interpretations by various Church leaders.”

He fasted, prayed, sought inspiration in the temple, and laid the groundwork for consensus among senior Church leaders. The lack of consensus among leaders had prevented change in the past and President Kimball recognized the need for consensus as an important component in moving forward.

Spencer W. Kimball presided over the Church when the 1978 priesthood revelation was received.

What is some previously unpublished information in the book?

The book includes quotes from the Pitman shorthand version of Brigham Young and Orson Pratt speeches, some of which had never been transcribed before. Orson Pratt gave two strident anti-slavery speeches. In one of those speeches he stated that there is no evidence that Black people are descendants of Cain, which was Brigham Young’s only explanation for the priesthood restriction.

The book also includes evidence from Joseph F. Smith’s 1879 notes when he interviewed Black priesthood holder Elijah Able. It includes the fact that Joseph F. Smith set apart Elijah Able for his third mission in 1883.

It includes a variety of Black Latter-day Saints from the Century of Black Mormons database hosted at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. Most readers of the book will likely have never heard of many of these Black pioneers before. Their stories offer evidence of the ways that the racial restrictions played out in the lives of Black Latter-day Saints and personalize the policies in new ways.

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About the interview participant

W. Paul Reeve is the Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies in the History Department at the University of Utah where he teaches courses on Utah history, Mormon history, and the history of the U.S. West. He is Project Manager and General Editor of a digital database, Century of Black Mormons, designed to name and identify all known Black Mormons baptized into the faith between 1830 and 1930.

Further Reading

Race and Priesthood Resources

Interviews from the Let’s Talk About series

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

5 replies on “Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood”

How do the statements by President David O. McKay that were reported in his biography by Greg Prince fit into your narrative?

I can’t speak for W. Paul Reeve, but I can share my thoughts on those statements:
“A few events in church history, however, complicate the issue. Both President David O. McKay and President Harold B. Lee both sincerely prayed to know if God wanted the ban to be lifted in the decades prior to 1978. Some have brushed off David O. McKay’s seeking for a revelation as a simple failure to discern the divine will on the matter (and, frankly, Harold B. Lee was biased against an answer of lifting the ban). Others dismiss the accounts as late, second-hand recollections on an emotionally-charged subject, and therefore not reliable as historical sources. These reports of church leaders seeking to lift the ban complicate the picture of God’s involvement in the ban, though, and I’m not settled on an answer as to what they mean.”

Thanks for posting this overview of Paul Reeves book.

One of the things that seems to be missing in these discussions is an acknowledgement of how different the world truly was–especially prior to World War II. While most folks will acknowledge that Brigham Young was a man of his time, and so forth, what we fail to do is wrestle with the literal impossibility, not only on the part of the church, but on the part of the entire West of fully integrated fellowship with our black brothers and sisters. And so, in my humble opinion, it wasn’t just a matter of church leaders not petitioning the Lord with enough faith and unity that prevented the ban from being lifted sooner than 1978. The fact is that through most of the decades leading up to WWII church leaders did not feel impelled to seek the Lord’s counsel on the subject–at least not to the same degree that leaders would feel after WWII. And not simply because there weren’t enough external pressures to bring them to their knees–but because of the nature of the prevailing culture at the time. The entire West needed to be cleansed (along with the church) before we could take those steps that would bring our black brothers and sisters into full fellowship.

Re: Pres. McKay receiving a “no, not now” answer to his prayer. What do you think of the answer given by one of your subtitles here — “The lack of consensus among leaders had prevented change?” One explanation I see frequently given is that before ’78, during Pres. McKay’s presidency, many of the apostles (and broader church membership) would be adamantly opposed to full integration. Since our current methods of revelation require unanimity among the top quorums (at least), any change requires that the most conservative among those top quorums become convinced of the need for change. Status quo rules in the absence of unanimity.

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