Blacks in Mormonism: Tough Questions & Responses with Paul Reeve (Part 1)

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

To listen to the complete episode, visit https://doctrineandcovenantscentral.org/podcast-episode/qr-tough-questions-with-paul-reeve/ 

Some people see a connection between the church’s past restrictive policy toward blacks in Mormonism and the church’s current restrictive policy towards gays in the church, specifically prohibiting gay temple marriage. In what ways are these two issues similar, and in what ways are they different? How can church members reconcile A, the teaching that the prophet won’t ever lead the church astray, with B, the fact that church presidents for over a century taught false doctrine about blacks? How might the scriptural basis of the Lamanites being cursed with a skin of blackness have influenced early church leaders’ thoughts on justifying the initial priesthood and temple restrictions, and what should we make of that curse anyway? And why didn’t God clearly communicate earlier to his prophets that it was his will that all his children would receive the blessings of the priesthood and the temple? In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we dive into all these questions and more with our special guest, Dr. Paul Reeve, a scholar on race in Latter-day Saint history. 

W. Paul Reeve is the chair of the History Department and Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah, where he teaches courses on Utah history, Mormon history, and the history of the U. S. West. His book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness received three best book awards, and that was published by Oxford 2015. He is author of Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood, published by Deseret Book in 2023, earlier this year. He’s a project manager and general editor of an award-winning digital database called Century of Black Mormons. If you haven’t checked that out, you’ve got to go check that out. It’s designed to name and identify all known black Latter-day Saints baptized into the faith between 1830, the year the church is organized, and 1930, and the database is live at centuryofblackmormons.org. A tremendous resource.

Now, let’s get into it. This is exciting. This is the end of our series on race and priesthood and temple. 

I had encountered a variety of what are called “whiteness studies” where scholars have suggested that Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants, those who come to the United States in the 19th century, weren’t necessarily accepted as white on arrival. They were racialized as not white enough, denigrated in a variety of ways, and in a labor and immigration context had to claim whiteness for themselves. And research in my previous scholarship had indicated to me that some of this same kind of racialization was happening to Latter-day Saints, but it wasn’t necessarily an immigrant and labor context. This was an insider religious group who is being racialized as somehow racially other—not white enough. By converting to the Latter-day Saint faith, somehow you are racially degenerate. And especially after the church openly acknowledges polygamy, this just touches off the imagination of outsiders in terms of ways they imagine polygamy not merely destroying the traditional family but destroying the white race.

So anyway, then I tried to situate the Mormon priesthood ban within that context and dug into that topic and situated it within this bigger framework, and I found answers—also new sources that previous scholars hadn’t used. These were speeches that were transcribed in the 19th century in Pitman shorthand, but never—they were captured, I should have said, in Pitman shorthand, but never transcribed into longhand. And those new speeches also added new information in terms of the development of the racial priesthood and temple restrictions inside the faith.

So really, I mean, you know, there’s—there’s a scholarship answer, and then there’s also sort of personal curiosity, and I was looking for, you know, answers that better satisfied my questions about the racial priesthood and temple restriction.

I am a multi-generational Latter-day Saint. I had ancestors, Levi Newton Merrick and Charles Merrick, who were both killed at Haun’s Mill. The Reeve ancestors emigrated in 1853 from England. They were sent by Brigham Young in 1861 to help establish the cotton mission in southern Utah, and my family’s been there ever since. I grew up in Hurricane. A small town just 18 miles north of the Utah-Arizona border. My dad ran beef cattle on the Arizona Strip, so I grew up riding horses and branding cattle. I served an LDS mission. Deep LDS roots in my family.

So briefly about the book, Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood, Deseret Book reached out to me when they were conceiving of the Let’s Talk About series. They explained that they were attempting to address sometimes controversial topics, give people something more substantial than the Gospel Topics essays to sink their teeth into, but still remain short and accessible. Written to a Latter-day Saint audience. And they asked me if I would consider writing the volume on Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood. And I was really intrigued by the series, and encouraged, in fact, that they were proposing this series, but I was immediately skeptical, and I said to Lisa Roper—and I had a fantastic time working with Lisa. Honestly, like the best editor, just excellent beyond belief, but I just said to her, you know, out of my skepticism, I just said, “I don’t believe that Deseret Book will be willing to publish anything that I write on this topic.” I just didn’t think that they would be willing to be as open and honest as I feel like the topic deserves, and so I think the first time we, Lisa talked to me, I just expressed that skepticism. And to her credit, she never once backed down. She said, in fact, “Well, that’s the point of this series. We want to be open and honest. We want to engage these questions in a way that holds up to scholarship but also remains faithful in the Latter-day Saint tradition.

And, you know, once again, she never backed down, and the book is the result. So, yeah, Deseret Book approached me. I didn’t approach them, because my skepticism simply said they wouldn’t be willing to tackle this topic in a way that I thought it required.  In fact, the entire Let’s Talk About series is this testament that study and faith go hand in hand, so I love it. Those are great little books, and the whole collection should be on the shelf of every Latter-day Saint home in my opinion.

 Let’s just start with one of the most challenging questions, and I will say this is one of the questions that came up most from our listeners. It was about possible LGBT correlations with the LDS priesthood ban. I’ll frame it like this: Some people, essentially they see a connection between the church’s past restrictive policy toward blacks in the church and the church’s current restrictive policy toward gays in the church, specifically prohibiting gay temple marriage. And so if church leaders got it wrong about race for so many years, the thinking goes, then what’s to say they’re not currently getting gay marriage wrong? Isn’t it just a matter of time before there’s a 1978 revelation equivalent for gay marriage, right? So that’s kind of the framework of a lot of people are coming from. Let me give you a few examples from our listeners. And a big shout out here to Steve and Austin and Brian and Nicholas and Steph and Julie and Michael and Gemma and Joseph and Ryan and—so many people asked a version of this question, so let me just do a succinct one here to kind of speak for all of them. Let’s do Steve from Saratoga Springs. Now, Steve says, “I often hear people make the argument that just like the ‘doctrine,’” air quotes, “of blacks and the priesthood changed, the church or God will eventually change the doctrine on gay marriage and allow it. What are your thoughts on how this differs or how it is similar?” That’s the question. 

I like how—I think you said Steve asked that question, because he is asking for potential parallels and potential distinctions, and I think there are both. So I’ll start with potential parallels. And I think it’s appropriate for us to ask those kind of questions. Are we talking about simply taking our cultural assumptions in the 19th century about race and in the 20th and 21st centuries about gender and sexuality, and importing them into our answers within the faith? 

And we see that taking place with racial understanding in the 19th century. Is there a potential parallel? You know, what are our cultural assumptions? And certainly cultural assumptions across the course of the 20th century about gender and sexuality have changed. And, you know, I think it’s OK to consider that, right? Is that what is going on here? And so those are potential parallels. Then I think it’s also important to understand that there are distinctions. The first distinction that I see is simply the fact that there was historical precedent for black male priesthood ordination and temple admission. That includes the First Presidency in 1840 talking about a policy of welcoming people of every color into the temple they were about to build in Nauvoo, right? 

We don’t have historical precedent for gay marriage.  There’s no Elijah Ables equivalent or no Q. Walker Lewis’s to speak of when it comes to gay marriage. So that’s an important distinction. And then the other important distinction is the fact that in the 20th and 21st century, you can be openly gay and qualify for a temple recommend. You could not be black and qualify for a temple recommend.

In other words, I think of Frida Lucretia McGee Ballou, who I include in the chapter on the 1978 Revelation. She was a Latter-day Saint for 69 years before she was allowed to enter a Latter-day Saint temple due to the restrictions for blacks in Mormonism, and all indications are, right, she could answer the temple recommend questions exactly the same as a white person, the white person be admitted and Frida excluded. So no matter how otherwise worthy they may be, right, they are excluded according to Latter-day Saint policy. 

You can be gay and qualify for a temple recommend, you know, living according to church standards, so I think that’s an important distinction to keep in mind as well. I fully acknowledge that that doesn’t include being same-sex married—not trying to suggest otherwise—but the rituals that the church suggests are necessary—you can qualify for the endowment ritual. You can qualify for washing and anointing, right? All of those were barred from black people simply because of their racial status.

And it’s also important to acknowledge that a fundamental tenet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is continuing revelation. And so, you know, our canon is open. Maybe there are unanswered questions yet to be decided. That’s a possibility as well. I’m not foreclosing that at all, simply saying there are important distinctions as well as potential parallels.  And the distinctions are, specifically, there’s no church history precedent. And I think we could also say there’s no scriptural precedent whatsoever, right? There are scriptural passages that are talking about open inclusion for blacks, specifically right? But there’s no equivalence in terms of gay marriage. Like, I’m open to, you know, possibilities. But yeah, I think that’s an important distinction.

 And then the second distinction you’re seeing is that gays can enter the temple and receive ordinances if they’re worthy, whereas blacks could not enter the temple and receive ordinances, no matter how otherwise worthy they may have been.  And it seems like another distinction is—and you make a great case for this in your book, but—the 1978 revelation to President Kimball seems to have been a corrective revelation, which effectively repairs the church’s departure from Joseph Smith’s original racially inclusive practices, right? Whereas for gay marriage, there is no sanctioned past precedence to get back to. There’s nothing to correct in terms of divergence or drifting from the more original or pristine thing, right? So a revelation authorizing gay marriage would be a major departure away from all the precedents of ancient scripture and church historical practices and teachings. And so that would have no parallels with the 1978 revelation in that sense as a divine corrective.

I mean, that’s how I’ve come to understand the racial history, right, is 1978 is a return to our universal roots. So that would be a distinction if we received a revelation about gay marriage, right? And that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible, once again, right? But we’re talking about similarities and distinctions, and the way that I see this history, that would be a distinction.  So, of course, God could eventually give a revelation to the First Presidency and Twelve authorizing gay temple marriage, if that’s in his plan, right? That’s his prerogative. We believe God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and maybe that’s one of them. Maybe it’s not. Only God knows. But although the past priesthood temple ban and current restrictions on gay marriage both grew out of the cultural assumptions of their times, there seems to be at least three important distinctions that make them different. Let me see if I can summarize these: first, precedent. Yes with blacks. None with gays.  Second, temple worthiness. Entirely possible for gays. Impossible for blacks in mormonism. And third, the 1978 revelation returned us to a past practice we’d strayed from, whereas a revelation authorizing gay marriage would be striking out into completely unprecedented territory.

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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.

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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

Our purpose at Blacks in Mormonism is to provide a factual and objective look at the history and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. With so much sanitized history, misinformation and falsehoods being put forth, we are here to provide facts and objectivity to those who are sincerely searching for truth.