Did Mormons Ban Black People from their Church?

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Daniel Mallia is an HNN intern and an undergraduate at Fordham University.

The faith of presidential candidates is the subject of much scrutiny, and this is particularly so for the Mormon Mitt Romney. He has been frequently confronted with issues regarding Mormon doctrine and his personal stance, and one prominent issue has been that of Mormonism’s views of black people. That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has had a less than positive view towards black people in the past is common knowledge, but the popular view that black people were forbidden from joining the Mormon church until 1978 is not entirely correct. Persons of black African descent could join the church, but black men could not become priests nor could they participate in temple ceremonies.

In June of 1978 the LDS church, under the guidance of President Spencer W. Kimball, officially lifted the ban that had prohibited blacks from being ordained into the priesthood for well over a hundred years. The official explanation for the sudden shift was that Kimball, who, like many Mormon leaders, had been troubled over the issue for quite some time, received a revelation that prompted him to end the ban. Aside from this rather vague explanation, there was no further discussion as to why the change was made, but the controversy lies with the fact there was no comment on, or refutation, of any belief that had justified the ban in the first place.

Indeed it is not known exactly when or why the ban was initially implemented, as no documentation which provides that information has ever been found, though it is known that it dates back well over a hundred years, originating at some point during Brigham Young’s administration. As for a cause, many look to the statement issued by the First Presidency, the top level of the LDS hierarchy, in 1949, which explained that the ban was a “direct commandment from the Lord” and cited “the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence” of black people. But in the absence of more than this, some blame the well-known and controversial “mark of Cain” or “curse of Ham” theology, which, for the record, was first used by Protestants to help justify slavery. (Early Protestant converts are possibly the ones who helped import these ideas into the Mormon church.) This, of course, refers to beliefs that the dark skin of Africans was the sign of descent from the line of Cain, the first biblical murderer, and Ham, Noah’s cursed son. These beliefs were sometimes cited by various Mormon members to help justify the priesthood ban—and no doubt some still subscribe to this belief today.

To fully understand the controversy, it’s important to remember that great importance is attributed to priesthood in Mormonism. Priesthood is a major experience and feature of life for many Mormon men (Mitt Romney himself is a church elder), and can serve as the first step to other leadership roles in the Church; denying this to black converts was certainly significant. In addition to this, there have also been other cases of discrimination against black men and women, including denial of certain ceremonies, but the priesthood ban was the most noticeable element of discrimination. And while today the Mormon Church is making a vigorous effort to promote a reputation of diversity and toleration, the historical stigma nevertheless remains strong. 

Further Reading

HNN Hot Topics: Mormonism
Daniel Burke: Will Mormons' racial history be a problem for Mitt Romney? (USA Today)
Gordon Hinckley: Priesthood Restoration (Ensign Magazine)
Priesthood Ordination before 1978 (LDS)
Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood (FAIRMormon.org)
Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood/The “curse of Cain” and “curse of Ham” (FAIRMormon.org)

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