The Mormons' Black Priesthood Ban: No Apology, Explanation

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In 1978, the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- also known as the Mormon church -- received a revelation that is now part of their scriptures, which allowed "all worthy male members" to be ordained to their priesthood and participate in their sacred temple rituals. Until that time, African American men were barred from holding the priesthood or being married for eternity to their spouses in Mormon temples. (Women and female-to-male transgendered Mormons are still barred from holding the priesthood.)

The Washington Post's Jason Horowitz recently wrote a long essay examining the history and context of the priesthood ban, in which he interviewed Randy Bott, a religion professor at Mormon church-owned Brigham Young University. Bott opined that it was due to the Biblical curse of Cain, and that black men were blessed by God in not receiving the priesthood until their race was ready for it.

The church responds

The Mormon church officially condemned Bott's remarks, and "any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church." It explained that "BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church," and called it "unfortunate" that Horowitz did not ask the church to respond before publishing his essay.

On the other hand, it did not explain why the priesthood ban was instituted or why it persisted until 1978, nor did it offer an apology for the ban. "It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began," the statement read, "but ... it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine."

Taken in context

Celebrated Mormon writer Joanna Brooks wrote in Religion Dispatches that "Professor Bott is no outlier. Especially among older Mormons, racist rationale for the priesthood ban-linking it to Old Testament pretexts, or to moral infirmity in a pre-earthly life by the souls of Africans and African-Americans, and other racist apologetic mental gymnastics exemplified in Bott's statement to the Post -persist and circulate, generally unquestioned and unchallenged."

The anonymous writer of the LDS Apostasy blog, which accuses the Mormon church of apostasy for ending the priesthood ban, has collected many of these "racist rationale[s]" in the form of teachings and quotes by 19th- and 20th-century church leaders. Today's Mormon youth are not officially taught any of these things, as Church educational materials do not address the ban in any way beyond portraying the 1978 revelation which ended it as a good thing.

They may still be taught some of the older doctrine by church leaders and teachers if they ask about the ban, however. Unlike with other old teachings, like Brigham Young's about the relationship of God to Adam (which Mormon church leaders have officially denounced and proclaimed as false doctrine), the teachings about black men bearing the curse of Cain and having been unfaithful to God in a past life have never been repudiated by the church.

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