“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know”

The Church has recently released some excellent resources on Church history and doctrine. There is a good summary of various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, as well as the common canard from sectarian anti-Mormons claiming that we aren’t Christians.

The most recent release deals with the pre-1978 priesthood ban, which restricted blacks of African descent from holding the Church’s lay priesthood.[1]

The most unfortunate thing about the priesthood ban was the reasons which some leaders and members offered for the ban’s existence. This new resource repudiates these ideas:

Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church….

The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings….

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 repudiation is not new—various Church leaders have said the same over the years, but it is wonderful to have it on an official webpage approved by the First Presidency.[2]

A slight downside

Nothing good ever seems to be without its potential for abuse, however. Some have recently used this web page to declare that “the Church has admitted that the priesthood ban was a mistake due to racism.” That is, they insist that God had nothing to do with the ban’s beginnings, and fallible mortals had to finally decide to get rid of it.

But, this is precisely what the page does not do. And, it seems to me, it is quite careful not to do it:

In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.

The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.

Note the careful separation of two issues:

  1. The origin of the policy of the restriction;
  2. The justifications offered for that policy.

This distinction is made repeatedly in the Church’s on-line materials. For example, a Church newsroom article labeled as an “Official statement” writes:

At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended….

Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:

The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.” (emphasis added)

Note again the separation between the “origin of” and “some explanations” for the priesthood ban. An earlier official statement said:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that 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. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.[3]

When the Church says that “it is not known precisely why…this restriction began,” that would seem to disprove the claims of some, who say that the Church has admitted that the ban originated because of Church members’ racism and was thus “a mistake.” If we knew that, then the Church would not say that the origins are “not known” and “not entirely clear.”

If it was racism, does this mean God was not involved?

For a moment, however, let us presume that those enthusiastic to blame racism for the ban’s origins (rather than the explanations, which were clearly rooted in racism) are correct.

Does this mean that God was not involved in the process? I do not think we can draw this conclusion too readily, though those who offer it are often keen that we do so.

For the sake of argument, let us presume that the ban had its origins in Brigham Young’s and his contemporaries’ racism. (We are here engaging in speculation, just as those who engaged in the racist speculation of the nineteenth century did. So, tread cautiously!)

Even if the ban had its origins in leaders’ racism, it does not follow that God was not involved in the process. If Brigham and other nineteenth century Mormons were racists, certainly most of American and European society was as well. The dynamics of race relations (which would contribute to America’s bloodiest war within a decade of the ban) in the United States must be borne in mind.

The Church’s progress could have been affected by the innate racism of western society. And thus, while God may not have wanted the ban to be necessary, and would have been happy to have it lifted at any time, He may well have recognized that the weaknesses of mortals in and out of the Church made it necessary—or, at least, a viable option among many.

Simply put, it may have been that a Church with a lay ministry, which did not segregate its congregations, would have had even more difficulties in the racially polarized American 19th century if blacks exercised spiritual authority over whites. My experience with some in the American South even today—and what others have told me of their experiences from a generation or two ago—suggest that this potential difficulty persisted well into the twentieth century.

It is thus possible that God commanded the ban as a type of “lesser of two evils,” in the racist 19th century. Or, alternatively, God could have used a ban that he did not initiate as a means of managing the racism which instigated it.

Evidence from later in Church history suggests that one of these scenarios is correct.

Later evidence

President David O. McKay was inclined to dispense with the ban, and prayed about the matter. He told church architect Richard Jackson:

I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.[4]

This evidence account leads us to one of four conclusions:

  1. President McKay lied about revelation to silence critics on the issue of the ban;
  2. President McKay projected his own racism onto God, perhaps subconsciously, thus allowing him to keep the ban in place;
  3. President McKay was mistaken about his revelation;
  4. The ban persisted not entirely (and perhaps not at all) because of past or present leaders’ racism, since God here has a leader willing and even anxious to dispense with the ban, but he is told not to.

Most members, I think, would reject options #1, #2, and #3. That leaves us, however, with option #4—whatever the origins of the ban, God seems to have been using it for some purpose. And, in 1968–70, that purpose had yet to be accomplished, because he forbade the ban from being rescinded and told the prophet to quit asking about it.

There is a similar account from President Harold B. Lee, though it is less well documented.[5] We know for certain, however, that he had a similar view:

For those who don’t believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks….It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.[6]

Previous leaders’ statements

This same distinction between the ban’s origins and the faulty explanations for it has been made previously by LDS leaders.

For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley was interviewed as follows in 1998:

Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?

A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don’t think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There’s a reason for them.

Q: What was the reason for that?

A: I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.[7]

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said in 1988, and republished in 2011:

If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, ‘Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,’ you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to [the priesthood ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that….

The lesson I’ve drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it….

I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking….

Let’s [not] make the mistake that’s been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies (emphasis added).[8]

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in 2006:

One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated….

I have to concede to my earlier colleagues….

They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the priesthood ban policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong….

It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years….

At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along,…we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.[9]

Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy, when asked about the ban’s origins in 1998, replied:

We do not know.[10]

It would be strange indeed if the Church and its leaders were intending to repudiate these recent statements, as the claims of some would require.

An additional perspective

Interestingly, President Boyd K. Packer recently discussed how his perspective regarding the ban has changed in the present as the work flourishes in Africa:

We have had puzzling things. We had the matter of the priesthood being withheld from a part of the human family. That seemed so inconsistent with the rest of human life and humanity and the doctrines and tolerance. We couldn’t figure that out. That’s gone now, but why was it there? I’m not sure, but I do know this: it had the effect of keeping us out of [most of Africa] until we were ready and mature enough, and they were ready and mature enough. Looking back it is easy to see things that you don’t see looking forward.[11]

We see again how the ban’s existence is “puzzling,” “we couldn’t figure that out,” and even now he’s “not sure” why it was in place.

Yet, the ban’s existence also kept the Church from extensive missionary work in Africa until recently. There are significant economic and cultural challenges to working in Africa—a premature enthusiasm for work there might have resulted, for example, in many converts but an unsustainable infrastructure. I have had private discussions with those involved who describe the economic obstacles as something the Church could not have coped with even a few years ago—and they challenge us even today.

Thus, even a ban that was rooted in the difficulties of 19th century racism could ultimately serve God’s purposes, and so be either tolerated or implemented by Him.

God is, after all, the ultimate multi-tasker.


What I am suggesting, then, is that even if one insists or concedes that racism was the origin of the priesthood ban (a concession the Church has not made, and has been at pains not to make), this does not mean that its continuation and its cessation were not firmly in God’s control.

It was necessary to respond to the racism of members and leaders of the Church, as well as potential members of the Church, and the often-hostile societies which surrounded them. The ban is one potential option—though whether God instigated it directly, or whether he simply allowed it and declined to remove it when asked by President McKay, we cannot say.

“I do not know the meaning of all things,” wrote Nephi, but “I know that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).

It is easy—too easy, for some—to simply decide that this entire episode is all simply fallible mortal power plays or administration, with God lurking in the background (if he exists at all).[12]

One can draw that conclusion if one wishes. Many have and will. But, they ought not to be allowed to claim that the Church has admitted as much.

“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know.”

But, we do know God calls prophets, and that there is safety with them, notwithstanding the twists and turns of telestial complexity and mortal fallibility.

[1] The ban was rescinded by revelation in 1978. See Official Declaration 2.

[2] “The church’s First Presidency approves each of the enhanced topic pages….’ The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve both have been very supportive of this process,’ Elder Snow said.” – See Tad Walch, “LDS Church enhances web pages on its history, doctrine,” Deseret News (9 December 2013).

[3] See also Joseph Walker, “LDS Church condemns past racism ‘inside and outside the church’,” Deseret News (29 February 2012).

[4] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 183.

[5] Church historian Leonard Arrington, “asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord’s will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during’three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,…but the only answer he received was “not yet.” Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee’s son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.” – Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.

[6] Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published 16 November 1972.

[7] “On the Record: ‘We Stand For Something’ President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia],” Sunstone 21/4 (Issue #112) (December 1998): 71.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.

[9] Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.

[10] Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 24, page 4 (CD version); citing Alexander Morrison, Salt Lake City local news station KTVX, channel 4, 8 June 1998.

[11] Boyd K. Packer, “Lessons from Gospel Experiences,” new mission presidents’ seminar, 25 June 2008, disc 4, track 12, 0:00–0:54. I first cited this information in “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,”  Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011), footnote 72.

[12] As I will detail later, such a conclusion also provides the Church’s critics and complainers with definite rhetorical advantages in the here and now, so their enthusiasm should not surprise us.