I was thirteen years old, a Boy Scout on the way home from a 50-mile backpacking trip in the Sierras, when news came over the radio that Spencer W. Kimball, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had received a “revelation … extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church.” Previously, anyone who was a descendant of a black African could not receive the LDS priesthood if they were male and could not enter the temple and receive the “saving ordinances.”
Before that time, our family had a few tense conversations about the ban. Once, around the dinner table, my older sister, who has never been shy about expressing her opinion, demanded an explanation for the ban but got none from my parents. Over the years, church leaders had given various reasons for the ban. By cobbling together some scriptures from the Books of Moses and Abraham (which were said to have been revealed to church founder Joseph Smith, the story was that the Canaanites were cursed with a black skin and denied the priesthood at some point before the Flood (and this was vaguely tied to the seed of Cain). The cursed race was preserved from the Flood because Ham, one of Noah’s sons married a Canaanite named Egyptus; one of Ham’s daughters would then “discovered” Egypt and settle its lands. Here are the relevant verses of the Book of Abraham:
21 Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.
22 From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.
23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;
24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.
(Just an aside, but one thing you’ll notice in LDS scriptures is that there are almost never any footnotes attached to controversial verses, or at least not to the parts of them that are controversial.) So, there you have it: black Africans are supposed to have come from a single ancestor some 4,000 years ago who was a Canaanite, who of course lived in what would become Palestine, Lebanon, and Israel. I’m quite sure most history texts do not mention that these Semitic people were actually black. But I digress.
Over many years, church leaders struggled to come up with a clear doctrine and rationale for the ban, speculating that, perhaps, black people had done something in the premortal life to merit the handicap of their bodies and their denial of priesthood. The 1949 First Presidency clarified this speculation as the official church position:
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.
The 1978 revelation changed the policy, explaining that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” If nothing else, this statement makes it clear that the ban was about race and color, not lineage, despite what some people insist. But the important thing is that the ban is in the past.
Unfortunately, it keeps coming up as an issue for one simple reason: a lot of Mormon apologists cannot entertain the possibility that the ban was wrong or even that it may have been a human mistake based on limited understanding. No, these folks continue to defend the ban as doctrine, arguing that it was God’s doing, and it had nothing to do with race.
I could spend a lot of time arguing about this, but there’s no point. Those who are convinced that God restricted his priesthood to those of non-African descent are not going to change their minds. But these folks need to know that they are not helping the church’s cause by defending something that, by rights, should have been put to rest some 34 years ago. President Hinckley, when asked, said simply, “I don’t know what the reason was.” In another interview, he said stated that “the leaders of the church at that time interpreted that doctrine that way,” and insisted, “It’s behind us.”
So, my advice to Mormon apologists is to say the obvious: You don’t know why the ban was instituted, and therefore, there is no reason to justify it. By continuing to attempt a doctrinal justification for the ban, apologists are just keeping the issue alive.