Brigham Young and the LDS Priesthood Ban
And so I think all of this speaks to the question that naturally comes up in one way or another from students and friends and family members who wrestle with this issue. The question is essentially, “Was Brigham Young inspired by God to institute the priesthood ban, or is this an example of an uninspired error?”
In fact, one of my teenage nephews called me the other day and he said, “Uncle Scott, I’ve got this kid at my high school who’s black, and he says that my church is lame because we’re racist, and when I asked him what he means by that, he said, ‘Well, you guys didn’t ordain black members to your priesthood.’” And my nephew was pretty struck by that. And so he was calling to see if there was any truth in this statement. And this is always a hard question to answer quickly, right? Like, what’s the five-minute version of what you and I have been talking about for hours in our last few episodes?
So before I even tried launching into an answer, I said, “How about this? How about you and your parents read together the church’s essay on race and priesthood, and then let’s get back together and talk about it? How’s that sound?” And he said, “OK, but before we hang up, I just need you to answer one thing.” I said, “OK, what’s that?” He said, “My biggest question is, ‘Did God tell Brigham Young to ban blacks from the priesthood?’ I really just need to know if it was God who did it.” See, that’s at the heart of it for a lot of people, right?
And that’s a really important question we need to think very carefully about, and as you and I have examined the evidence, I think it’s safe to say that our answer to that question is no. In the details of the historical record, we can find no evidence that God inspired the priesthood ban on Blacks in Mormonism. In fact, we find evidence to the contrary. And let me review this evidence concisely here, just to be crystal clear, I think there’s about five points we want to make here.
First, Brigham Young never claimed that God inspired him to institute the ban. So again, we probably want to avoid claiming a certain status for Brigham Young’s words on this issue, which he didn’t claim for himself.
Second, Brigham Young acknowledged he was only giving his views on the subject, and he recognized that no other apostle or prophet had ever taught such a thing about blacks as he was then claiming. And having reviewed Joseph Smith’s views on blacks in our last episode, I think we can affirm that Brigham is right, right? Joseph had never taught such things.
Third, Brigham Young only ever gave one theological rationale for the priesthood ban, namely the Cain-Ham rationale, which was the well-worn Protestant justification for slavery, but with his own priesthood ban spin on it. And we know that this rationale has been firmly disavowed by the leadership of our church today.
Fourth, his fellow apostle Orson Pratt adamantly opposed Brigham Young’s proposal for black African slavery in the Utah territory because, he said, church leaders couldn’t presumptively impose a curse upon Black Mormons “without the voice of the Lord speaking to us” and “without receiving any authority from heaven to do so.” So here we have at least one apostle on record outright saying that the Lord had given the apostles of that day no revelation on imposing the curse of slavery. And what was true of slavery in that context was certainly true of priesthood ordination. I believe that same logic holds.
And fifth, Brigham Young adopted erroneous views about race mixing from supposed experts of his day, showing that he was clearly influenced by his culture on racial issues, right?
Elder Quentin L․ Cook acknowledged this in that quote we shared earlier about how some of Brigham Young’s “beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time” and “fall short of our standards today.” That’s Elder Cook. And we see clear evidence of this in his rhetoric as he publicly articulates this ban in these legislative sessions of 1852.
He said at that February 5 meeting, for instance, that if church leaders ever authorized intermarriage between blacks and whites and allowed blacks to partake with whites in “all the blessings God has given to us,” then, he said, on that very day and hour, the priesthood would be taken from this church, and God would leave us to our fate, and the church would go to destruction.” Wow. Well, of course that never happened post 1978, but we see that his words reflect the fear-based “science” of the culture of his day, which it’s clear that Brigham Young believed and then gave them an LDS twist.
And we might add, as a bonus, a sixth reason, which is Elder Bruce R․ McConkie’s disavowal in 1978, just after the correcting revelation had been received, where he said, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation.” And then he boldly but humbly acknowledged, “We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that has now come into the world.” So there you go. Those are at least six pieces of evidence that lead us to conclude that God was not behind the priesthood ban, but rather that it grew instead out of Brigham Young’s sincere beliefs embedded in the cultural context of his day about Cain and the dangers of race mixing, et cetera.
And it’s common for members of the church to sometimes make the assumption that God directs everything that happens in the church, including everything having to do with Blacks in Mormonism. That’s clearly not the case in the ancient or the modern church, that God gives directives and guidance, but then the leaders of the church are often left to fill in the blanks.
For instance, a parallel is in the book of Acts. Peter doesn’t know if they’re supposed to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He has a dream that indicates to him he should. But then the question comes up of “Do the Gentiles have to submit to all Jewish ceremonies, like circumcision?” And in that case, there’s no place in the book of Acts where it says, “and God spoke to Peter and gave him the answer.” Instead, in Acts 15, it talks about them bringing all the apostles to Jerusalem. They all sit down. They have a discussion. They come to the conclusion, “No, it’s not necessary.” But boy, if we had the minutes of that meeting in Jerusalem, would it have been as lockstep as we assume it was?
Would there have been voices for or against? Paul hints that he and Peter still have arguments about it later on, years later. And that it’s not all set in stone. And there’s also places in the scriptures where an apostle or a prophet will just flat out say, “I don’t have a revelation concerning this.” I can think of one instance in the writings of Paul where he essentially says, ”I don’t have any revelation on this, but here’s what I think.
It’s in 1 Corinthians 7 where he says, “I don’t have any revelation from God, but here’s what I think. And that happens a lot, actually, where the Lord, for whatever reason, chooses to speak or not speak on specific subjects, but most of the time allows prophets and apostles to make their way forward and then tries to gently correct them.
And again, they’re creatures of the environment that they live in. I had a kid in one of my classes say, “Were Mormons Racist?” I said, “That’s a difficult question to answer.” He followed-up with, “Was Brigham Young racist?” I said, “By our standards today, these things are very racially insensitive.”
Was it racially insensitive when John asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven and kill a village full of Samaritans? Samaritans were half-breeds. That was a very racist statement, right? So imperfect people are all God ever had to work with, and we’ve got to recognize that Brigham Young isn’t claiming to receive a revelation here. He’s saying, “Based on my view, this is what I think is best.”
And the leaders of the church subsequently have disavowed the line of reasoning he used, but that’s part of the complexity in understanding how prophets and apostles work with God. And errors are to be expected, right. If God’s calling fallible humans to be his servants, then you can almost count on some fumbles along the way, right?
In fact, Brigham Young himself affirmed this only six years later when he said, “Can a prophet or an apostle be mistaken? Do not ask me any such question,” he said, “for I will acknowledge that all the time. But,” now, listen to this: “But I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breath from the truth. And I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs.” So did Brigham Young ever intentionally try to mess things up? Did he ever purposefully try to go against God’s will? Sounds like absolutely not. But did Brigham Young think that Brigham Young could make mistakes? Absolutely. And articulating this priesthood ban by pulling in these cultural threads of the curse of Cain doctrine and this fear of race mixing is just a really clear example of that in action.
So to finish the story and give you the aftermath of those 1852 legislative meetings, Brigham Young won the debate, and Utah becomes a slave territory for the next 10 years, until in 1862 the U. S. Congress passes a law freeing slaves in all U. S. territories. And so that was a pretty short-lived law in Utah. However, while slavery in Utah only lasts 10 years, the discriminatory theology articulated in those 1852 debates eventually becomes so entrenched in the church that it’s going to take a revelation from God to overturn it 126 years later.
And let me just end by saying this: I still think Brigham Young’s a prophet.
I still think all the people that led the church back then were inspired. I don’t have to agree with everything that they said to believe that they’re inspired, and I can still feel love for them, in spite of the weaknesses that they have. In fact, I’m grateful that they had the courage to address these issues and talk about them, even if they may have ended up in an incorrect place. And it’s OK. Like I said, this is, like we brought up at the first of the episode, a real test of, “Do we really believe in infallibility or not?” We’ve never claimed prophets are perfect.
The scriptures clearly don’t depict them as perfect, but we do believe in an overall providence that where God is leading us out of the kind of bad environments and misguided beliefs that we have to a better place, but it takes a long time to do that, and a bigger timeframe than maybe we can see as mortals here on Earth.
I firmly believe that Brigham Young was a true prophet of God and the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. I believe he held the keys of the kingdom. He was a true apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. And at the same time, I also firmly believe that Brigham Young made an uninspired mistake in excluding blacks from the priesthood, which had repercussions for over a hundred years and affected a lot of lives. And I hold both of these beliefs together at the same time. And I guess that would be my hope, that we could hold both of these truths together in tension at the same time: that prophets of God are fallible and that God works through them in spite of their flaws to bring about His marvelous work.
And this is all couched in the understanding the Lord began the Doctrine and Covenants with, in Doctrine and Covenants 1, right, where he calls his servants weak and simple and error-prone and sinful, and yet says that through them he’s going to prepare the world for the Second Coming. And then you just skip section 2 over to section 3, and you’ve got your first very clear example of a weak and simple and error-prone prophet who sinned in caving to peer pressure from Martin Harris to get the 116 pages, the book of Lehi, lost. Right? Like, that’s a big gaff.
That was a huge error. That was a mistake that Joseph Smith made. But remember what the Lord said at the very beginning of his revelation to Joseph Smith about this: Doctrine and Covenants 3:1, he said, “The works and the designs and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught.” So Joseph Smith cannot frustrate the purposes of God. He cannot cause them to come to naught. The same is true of Brigham Young or anyone else.
The designs and purposes of God cannot be frustrated by humans. They can make errors. Those errors can have real-world consequences in the lives of real people, as illustrated by Blacks in Mormonism, but ultimately those will not frustrate the purposes of God. And I believe that’s absolutely true, both of Joseph Smith and the loss of the 116 pages and of Brigham Young and the problematic theology he introduced in 1852 at those legislative meetings. Both of those have real-world consequences, but neither of them can ultimately frustrate the designs and purposes of God. The Lord will intervene and ultimately will set this right, but it’s just going to take some time.
To listen to the complete Church History Matters podcast episode, visit https://doctrineandcovenantscentral.org/podcast-episode/1852-and-the-beginnings-of-the-priesthood-temple-ban-in-the-church/.
By Dr. Scott Woodward, Source Expert
Dr. Scott Woodward has dedicated his professional career to educating within the Church Education System for almost twenty years. Currently, he serves as an esteemed faculty member in the BYU Idaho Religion department. He also holds the role of a managing director and content producer at Doctrine and Covenants Central, an affiliate of Book of Mormon Central. He shares his knowledge his Youtube channel titled “D&C Stories with Scott Woodward“. Dr. Woodward earned his PhD in Instructional Psychology and Technology from Brigham Young University.
Dr. Casey Paul Griffiths received a B.A. in History from Brigham Young University and went on to complete an M.A. in Religious Education and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Foundations at BYU. Before joining the faculty in the Department of Religious Education at BYU, Brother Griffiths spent eleven years at Seminaries and Institutes, serving as both an instructor and curriculum developer. He is joyfully married to Elizabeth Ottley Griffiths, and together, they reside in Saratoga Springs with their three delightful children.
Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert
Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and YouTube host of the Gospel Learning YouTube Channel. His channel currently has over 41,000 subscribers with over 4.5 million views. Mr Prince also developed the Gospel Learning App, a trusted source where truth-seeking individuals can easily find trusted answers to religious questions from the best teachers in the world.
ABOUT BLACKS IN MORMONISM
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