The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) recently made a historic announcement: "Today, the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."
This is a major statement, not only for what it says, but that it says it so openly and honestly. Fortunately and helpfully, the announcement provides a full and accurate historical account of how the doctrine of denying the priesthood to blacks of African descent emerged, especially in the period after the founding Prophet Joseph Smith's death in 1844.
Up until that time, Smith not only ordained black men but allowed some blacks to participate in temple ordinances. In addition, he proposed using government funds to free all of the slaves.
As the new announcement makes clear, the origin of the ban on priesthood ordination began with Brigham Young in 1852 after the Mormons had migrated to Utah Territory.
The conversion of Southern slave owners, aversion to miscegenation, and the Compromise of 1850 (which allowed new states and territories the choice between freedom and slavery), led to Young's decision.
That decision, defended by mythology, scripture, and an entrenched racism in American culture, became solidified as doctrine for more than 100 years. It was defended at the highest levels even after the civil rights movement and the shift in American society toward equal rights for all citizens. For many modern Mormons, it became a source of embarrassment.
Although considerable pressure was put on the church to change this practice, it wasn't until 1978 when Mormon President Spencer W. Kimball announced that after long and anguished prayer, God "has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."
That was a day of rejoicing for many Mormons, especially black members who had stayed faithful to the church on the promise that they would one day enjoy the blessings of the priesthood.
The revelation did not end racism in the church, however, because church leaders did not take the next, necessary step of disavowing its racist past.
Many Mormons continued to believe and some even to teach the false doctrines that had become so deeply ingrained in Mormon consciousness over the generations, including that blacks were inheritors of the curse of Cain and that they were not valiant in the preexistence, both of which are explicitly disavowed in the church's latest statement.
The honesty and candor of the church's new statement are refreshing. It follows on the heels of President Dieter Uchtdorf's October conference address, "Come, Join with Us," in which he stated, "And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine."
We may never know what precipitated the new and very welcome statement on "Race and the Priesthood," but I suspect there are several key factors.
Among these is that, as recent studies have shown, past and present racist attitudes are one of the reasons many contemporary Latter-day Saints are experiencing a crisis of faith. Also relevant is the difficulty of retaining black converts in the United States.
Another factor is the church's expanding mission in Africa, where most members are not even aware of the prior priesthood ban.
Sometimes in human affairs, there is a dramatic alignment of events. Such was the case with the coincidence of the church's acknowledging its past mistakes in the week that saw the passing of Nelson Mandela, the moral conscience of the civilized world on race for the past half century. Church leaders honored Mandela last week for his "courage, kindness and extraordinary moral leadership [which] have been an example to all people."
There were many Mormons over the past century who also exemplified moral courage in working to end racism and affirm the Book of Mormon scripture that "All are alike unto God." Rejoice!
Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., is visiting professor of Mormonism at Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley.