Burden of the Cross – Part III

Apostle Mark E. Peterson, concerned about the negativity coming from all the attention placed on the church by the NAACP and the New York Times, sent a letter to the editor of the Times in 1966 defending the Churches’ position in response to an exposé done by Wallace Turner.  He argued that the Church while holding the ban on priesthood was valid it did not mean that the church expected blacks to end up in hell or some lesser part of a segregated heaven.[1]

Brigham Young University (BYU), a Church owned and run institution ran afoul of the NAACP and other pressure groups. BYU was starting to accept African Americans as a part of their sports teams in the later half of the sixties.  This led to situation of conflict because member universities of the National Collegiate Athletic Association lodged protests over the ban suggesting a boycott of BYU in any sporting events.  Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Stanford and California Universities had demonstrations launched against BYU as a proxy of the church.  In Colorado things got out of hand when there was a court invasion, including a Molotov cocktail thrown in the chaos several people including a reporter were injured.  Stanford University went even farther severing ties with BYU.  Although investigators from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and the University of Arizona had exonerated BYU of racism the fact remained that they were only secondary targets.[2]

After 1970 the Church received a reprieve from conflict with others over the ban.  Some of this was to do with the 1969 letter which outlined a different view on how to deal with African Americans but also the Church leadership had a change of heart on the matter.  Under the new leadership of Joseph Fielding Smith, who became President at the death of David O. McKay the church looked for ways to build bridges with the black community.  One method appeared when African American members came to the church wanting to establish a parallel branch specifically for African Americans, it would in effect segregate them as had been done in other Protestant churches in the United States a century previous.  In the aftermath of change in the Presidency one of the advocates for the liberals Hugh B. Brown was dropped from the First Presidency.   To ensure peace on all sides it appears that the most hostile conservative opponent Ezra Taft Benson was also had been muzzled by fellow conservatives who found his constant promotion of Birch Society tiresome.

 Apostles Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer met with the three African American members who had the original idea Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr and convinced them to take up leadership of the Genesis Group an outreach program for African Americans.  Under the direction of the leaders of the Church these Genesis Group three leaders started programs to publish stories of black members for the greater LDS audience as well as to work with the outside African American community to help bridge the gap between the LDS Church and the black population.[3]

This outreach worked extremely well.  It helped to reduce much of the agitation from groups like the NAACP while also helping the larger white LDS population understand and accept African Americans as members in the Church.  In examining the role of the Genesis Group it is very clear that after its foundation much of the commentary from the leadership on the Curse of Cain and Ham vanished from public discourse.  Much of the harsher language against the Civil Rights movement dissipated and the mood of LDS members, particularly in Utah, changed.[4]

To say all was in harmony would of course stretch the point to breaking.  In practice there were still points of conflict.  In 1974 the NAACP attacked the Church over a negotiation with the Boy Scouts of America allowing the Scouting program to become intermeshed with the priesthood system. With the Scouts so entwined with the church it effectively blocking African Americans from holding leadership positions in the Mormon Scouting program.  The NAACP went so far as to subpoena Spencer W. Kimball, the recently named President of the Church.[5]

Throughout these fights by groups within and without wanting to pressure the church to adapt the real factors for change were incrementally pulling the church along.  For example how does the church balance the ban versus increasing problems of identifying who is black and who was not.  The first ruling was to apply very strict regulations.  Enforcing that any family history of African decent would put you under the ban, it also applied to women who were not allowed to enter temple either.[6]

In Fiji there was a population of Polynesians who were considered “Negroid” and so ineligible for the Priesthood.  Previously members of the Negritos, a group of people from the Philippines who looked very similar to black pygmy tribes from Africa, had started joining the church in the 1940s.   They were given the priesthood against the obvious standards set by previous leaders as a special case.  McKay on the other hand started the process of changing how the church dealt with African decent.  He set the burden of proof back on the church officials. Under this policy unless there was an obvious reason to ask people would no longer be questioned on the issue.  As well the Fijians were recognized as different from the Africans.  The church now was only directly discriminating against African blacks.[7]

However there did seem to be some movement against the ban as early as 1954 the Church leadership was discussing lifting the ban partially or entirely.  It may have become obvious that the ban no longer could be easily maintained.  McKay himself was quoted as saying that the days of the ban were numbered and described it as simply a policy not a doctrine so it could be changed.  Obviously, the discussions bogged down early on because except for some mentioning of the issue the church remained silent for nearly a decade.[8] 

      In places like Brazil where there was a great deal of miscegenation and it was proving impossible to prove who was “black” and who was not.  If the church continued with a blanket ban putting the burden of proof on the member it would take away a very successful part of the world.    So the change McKay had advocated in the 1950s helped the church grow in Brazil.  The Church was so successful it was apparent that they would need to build a temple to meet the massive growth.  However, the old conflict over the miscegenation in Brazil still was an issue.  The new President Spencer W. Kimball decided that the Church needed to finally remove the ban.  As he is quoted saying to Apostle LeGrand Richards, “All those people with negro blood in them have been raising money to build the temple…and then if we don’t change, then they can’t even use it after they’ve got it.”[9]

With all this in mind and with the general concern that at some point blacks must receive the Priesthood, Kimball decided he needed to take the matter to a higher level.  He began the process apparently as early as the first year of his Presidency.  In the spring of 1978 he was consumed by this issue and prayed often about it.  He would also go to his Apostles and Councillors and gauge their opinions on reasons to keep or get rid of the ban.[10]

Finally, on June 1st 1978, President Kimball held a Solemn Assembly, a special meeting of church leaders held in the temple.   After the end of the meeting Kimball asked the Apostles and Councillors to remain behind.  According to these men there was a discussion about the ban.  At the end of the discussion Kimball lead a prayer which was to confirm the decision to end the ban.[11]

The Utah membership of the NAACP hailed the ending of the ban but raised a cautious note that racism within the State was still very much a problem.  Others stated that the end of the ban would mean conservatives in the church would fall into line.  They would agree with the stance, as the perception of non-members was that the Church seeming as all powerful so they felt they could end the problems in Utah simply because there was no difference between the Church and the State in the view some African Americans.  The outside world saw the change as revolutionary and rightly pointed out that it was not a typical revelation.  For academics and fellow citizens who were not members of the Church it was an anachronistic end for something that should have ended years previous.  For African Americans within the church there was a feeling of celebration.

The end of the ban ended the battle of liberals and conservatives over the issue.  Some historians such as Lester Bush see this change as a combination of the pull factors of Brazil and Africa working with the inside push of liberals.  However, in examining the issue it seemed whenever the liberals achieved some forward progress they ran into stiff opposition who fought back.  President McKay was notorious for agreeing with both sides often so it was hard to make progress.  The next two leaders Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee were in the conservative camp so unlikely to modify things.  Spencer Kimball who succeeded Lee had appeared to take neither side.  One can argue that the liberals and activists by going after the conservatives delayed the change, especially when it comes to the Church in Nigeria and Ghana where they would have needed to make some accommodation.

The leaders of the Church who attended the meeting called the ending of the ban a revelation and it was included into the Canon of LDS scriptures after 1981. There would still be days ahead where the question would be called about the Church and its influence on Utah and African Americans living in the State it would however be under a different category. 

The most harmful effect of the priesthood ban has been the establishment within the church of old folklore of the origins of the Africans.  The concept of the Curse of Cain remains an argument made to some extent by LDS members even if it is no longer claimed by the leadership.[12]  African Americans are still generally slow to convert to the church compared to other nationalities.  As well, in the experience of the author the issue of the ban was still one used as an argument against the church from people outside the church.  The church has maintained the burden of the cross of racism long after the vestiges of official sanction were removed.  Time and separation of nearly thirty years has lightened the burden quite a bit, but the church, like its past history with polygamy will never fully escape the questions about the ban and the delay in removing it.

[1] Mark E. Peterson, “Mormon Church.” New York Times, (February, 19 1966).[2] Walton, Brian. “A University’s Dilemma: B.Y.U. and Blacks.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring 1971), 31-32.

[3] The Genesis Group, History of Genesis, 2007, 
http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org/history.htm (site accessed November 1, 2007)

[4] Mauss, “Fading of the Pharoahs Curse, 163-165

[5] New York Times, October 24, 1974

[6]Prince, 73-75.

[7] Ibid, 77-79.

[8] Ibid, 79-81.

[9] Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley, America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984), 184.

[10] Ibid, 184 and Bringhurst, 195.

[11] Claudia Lauper Bushman, Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America, (Westport Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 97-98

[12] Smith, Darron, “These House Negros Still Think We’re Cursed: Struggling Against Racism in the Classroom,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4, (July 2005), 448-450.


8 Responses to Burden of the Cross – Part III

  1. S.Faux says:


    This is a superior paper on the history of race and priesthood in the LDS Church. It seems like you ought to think about submitting it to a professional journal for publication. (I do not say such things lightly).

    You may be interested in my essay: Racism Has No Place. My essay is about ideals and ethics, not history.

    Also, thank you for listing my site on your Blog Roll.

    — Steve

  2. Sanford Barrett says:

    Hi Jon, thanks for sharing your paper. You say a couple of things by way of introduction to the paper that I would like to weigh in on.

    You say

    The purpose of this essay is to argue that liberal members, LDS politicians and outside activists who wanted the push the church towards a removal of the ban on blacks ultimately failed and possibly prolonged the ban.
    I don’t fully agree with this.

    Can you really say their actions failed? Rather it seems they succeeded. Now I suppose you could argue that they were successful despite themselves, but the ban was lifted. They achieved their goal.

    As to prolonging the ban, I don’t know that I agree with that either. You lay out an interesting case for the abandonment of the ban as resulting from complications of administering it fairly. But I don’t think that was enough to cause the brethren to rethink and reverse such an ingrained practice. Rather, I believe that the parties agitating for change caused the decision makers at the head of the Church to inquire of the Lord as to the path to take. Rather than prolong the ban, I believe their actions speed things up. And what’s more, it troubles me that the brethren (at least some of them) needed to be prodded to take this action. I wish the Church would be at the forefront of positive change rather than at the rear getting prodded (ok, I’m starting to agitate as well).

  3. Jon W says:

    Thanks for the complement.

    I will have a look at it today sounds interesting.

  4. Jon W says:


    Let me answer your contentions as Best I can.

    Can you really say their actions failed? Rather it seems they succeeded. Now I suppose you could argue that they were successful despite themselves, but the ban was lifted. They achieved their goal.

    The contention of the original essay, (unlike my own more faith oriented contention), comes from looking at evidence and the fact that every time people on the liberal side pushed it backfired. People dug in. When they let off and the church as a whole was ready, Spencer W. Kimball was placed at the head of the church so that one who was ready to lift the ban could lead, through revelation. That is my reasoning.

    I do think that the work of people like Hugh B. Brown and others inside and outside the church embarrassed the conservative members at a time when all of America became mindful that Blacks should not be treated Seperate and not Equal. It just did not translate immediately into change which I guess is the thrust of my argument.

    My reason for concluding that Liberals within the church failed as well is because in the 1950s, and 60s there was talk about removing the ban, and each time it failed to make momentum amongst the church leadership. Some might argue that they had to die off to create the momentum needed to change. (Not sure this is true but I understand why people say that)

    I firmly believe in the end that it was Missionary work which would have continued to struggle, the Brazillian confusion which did more than social pressures. If you look at the polygamy issue it was almost the same situation. Most of the real retrenching came when the Church itself would not be able to expand rather than what happened to the individual.

    More on polygamy later.

    Thanks for the comments though I do appreciate the discussion.

  5. Sanford Barrett says:

    I can allow that liberals in the Church may have made strategic errors in how they publicly moved to have the ban reversed. But what was the alternative? To hold their tongues and let the events of the civil rights movement and changing attitudes in America set the tone and hopefully cause the Brethren to switch course?

    For the sake of argument, let’s say that the liberals within the Church had not pushed for change. Would President McKay have lifted the ban? Or Joseph Fielding Smith or President Lee? On a broader level, would the ban have been lifted if African Americans had not made gains during the Civil Rights Movement and made it an issue for the Church?

    I guess I don’t disagree that some people at the top of the Church dug in their heels when pushed, but I believe that the absence of pushing very likely could have resulted in no movement at all. Unfortunately, the Church was a follower in extending equal treatment to persons of African ancestry rather than a leader and someone had to get out front and show what was the right thing to do.

  6. Jon W says:

    I would agree with your contention Sanford.

    I think the Civil Rights movement had a big effect on decisions made later in the church. I also think it was effected by the Nigerian situation.

    I do think the ban would have been lifted anyway due to missionary pressures. But I could not really say when that would have been. In fact there was a lot of discussion ahead of the Nigerian mission in the 60s, had the NAACP not gotten involved there is no telling what would have happened.

    I am sorry if it seems like I was denegrating those pushing for the removal of the ban. I certainly do not mean to do that. I just lean heavier on other international causes.

  7. Sanford Barrett says:

    “If you look at the polygamy issue it was almost the same situation. Most of the real retrenching came when the Church itself would not be able to expand rather than what happened to the individual.”

    I will be interested to see how you deal with this. A major difference between the priesthood ban and polygamy is that the ban was (as far as I can tell) not doctrinal and was morally wrong. Polygamy on the other is doctrinal (at least for now) and is not morally wrong (that’s the libertarian in me coming out).

  8. Jon W says:

    Yes there are some very stark differences. Instead of cultural pressure it was political and legal pressure.

    The similarities is the church leadership’s attitude to change. I am still writing that one so it will have to wait a while.

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