Recent research into the history of the LDS priesthood/temple ban on blacks—which ended June 8, 1978—places the origin of the ban squarely on the shoulders of Mormonism’s iconic pioneer-prophet : Brigham Young.
The racial policy, which prohibited black men and boys from being ordained to the church’s all-male priesthood and women and girls in its temples for more than a century, has caused untold pain and suffering. end to Mormons of African descent. And it clearly contradicted LDS Universalist teachings that “all are alike unto God” as well as the doctrine that the consequences of sin are not passed down from generation to generation.
What does this suggest, then, about Young, a man loved and revered by so many in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
His ancestor was not “a racist or bigot,” says Mary Ellen Elggren, president of the Brigham Young Family Association and great-great-granddaughter of the famous Mormon leader.
There were practical reasons for the restrictions, says Elggren and other descendants, who proudly point to their ancestor’s leadership, vision and vitality.
In the age of slavery, many churches became divided over race, she says, which may have prompted Young to create racial distinctions to avoid schism and bloodshed.
“It is important for us to be aware of [social and political] climate,” says Truman Clawson, a great-grandson of Young, “and what was happening in the country.”
Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s successor had seen his people driven from their homes in Missouri and Illinois, faced assaults from the US government, and endured persecution from all quarters.
“Brigham loved Joseph, but he had a different mission,” Clawson says. “[Young’s] mission was to save the church by all means. He did whatever it took to preserve the church.
Ultimately, however, believers may never fully understand why the ban was necessary, only that, as Elggren says, “it was God’s will.”
Historians, however, have to contend with more earthly explanations.
Changing views on race
In at least four scripture passages, Smith notes that his gospel message was directed to “all creatures” – regardless of race or ethnicity.
And, although the fledgling faith was born in a 19th-century America fractured by slavery, black people were welcome in the growing church. Several men, including Elijah Abel, were even ordained to the all-male priesthood and participated in temple rituals in Kirtland, Ohio, according to the LDS Church’s official “Race and the Priesthood” essay.
During the last years of Smith’s life, his views on race evolved, says University of Utah historian Paul Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness”.
While running for president of the United States in 1844, Smith built an anti-slavery platform, advocating for “the progressive emancipation of slaves funded by the government,” Reeve says in a “Mormon Land” podcast for The Salt Lake Tribune.
The charismatic LDS leader also insisted that “any perceived inferiority of black people is solely due to their lack of opportunity,” Reeve notes. “Given equal opportunity, black people could rise to the same level or above white Americans.”
It was a “pretty dramatic notion of racial equality,” the researcher says. “It was quite atypical for 1840s America.”
At this point, Young seemed to share the founder’s vision.
In 1847, three years after Smith’s murder, Young praised Q. Walker Lewis, a black man who had been ordained to the priesthood, saying, “We have one of the best elders, an African.
In 1852, however, Young would declare that all blacks bore a “curse” and would no longer be eligible for the Mormon priesthood or temple privileges.
So what happened?
Fears of interracial marriage
After the long exodus across the country to the Rocky Mountains, Latter-day Saints had resettled in the Great Basin, where they attracted converts from everywhere, including the Deep South.
“The universal nature of Mormonism had welcomed a wide spectrum into the evangelical community,” Reeve says, “including free blacks, white slaveholders and black slaves, abolitionists and anti-abolitionists.”
It was up to Young and other leaders to determine how to govern this melting pot of believers. And the issue of interracial marriage – amid fears of “race mixing” – reared its ugly head.
In a February 1852 speech before the Utah Territorial Legislature, Young established a racial hierarchy, drawing on the biblical story of Cain killing his brother Abel, the same story Southern Christians had used to defend slavery.
“The Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the priesthood nor his seed, until the last of Abel’s seed had received the priesthood, until the redemption of the earth” , Young intoned lawmakers. “If there ever was a prophet or an apostle of Jesus Christ who ever said it before, I tell you, this people who are commonly called the Negroes are the children of old Cain. … If the children of God mingled their seed with the seed of Cain, not only would it bring upon them the curse of being deprived of priesthood power, but it would draw it upon their children after them, and they cannot not get rid of it.
Some LDS historians, however, rely on different passages to come to alternative conclusions about Young’s role.
Ronald K. Esplin, a young biographer and president of the Brigham Young Center Foundation, points to the leader’s remarks suggesting he may have had some kind of divine communication about this.
Clearly, Esplin says, Young thought the ban didn’t come from him and it wasn’t his place to change.
“A man who has African blood in him cannot hold an iota or a priestly title. Why? Because they are the true eternal principles which the Almighty Lord had ordained,” Young said in the same 1852 discourse. “Who can help him—men cannot, angels cannot, and all the powers of earth and hell cannot remove it, but thus saith the Lord, ‘I am, what I am, I remove it at my pleasure,’ and not a particle of power that Cain’s seed cannot have until the time he says he will have it taken away, and that time will come when they will have the privilege of everything that we have the privilege of and more.
The historical record is “ambiguous,” says Esplin. “Whether he learned these opinions from Joseph Smith or whether they came from his experience with [interracial marriage] or God, I don’t think we know.
The LDS Church’s own essay, however, mentions no revelation to Young to establish the ban, but rather only societal influences on the man considered by many to be the “Lion of the Lord”.
Yet Young’s descendants, including Elggren, believe their prophet prophesied a “temporary ban and could foresee the future when it was removed”.
“Brigham said the day would come when black members would receive all the blessings that were denied them,” Elggren says, “-“and more”.”
So when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball reported receiving a “revelation” on June 1, 1978, ending the ban on the priesthood (it was announced a week later), the Young’s descendants were not surprised. After all, June 1 was their ancestor’s birthday.
A new day
At least one descendant believes Young was working for Heaven’s change.
A few years ago, Marcy May Brown, great-great-granddaughter of one of Young’s wives, traveled to Africa to film a documentary on the history of black Mormons.
In Ghana, Brown met LDS converts who joined the Utah-based faith even before 1978. One of them, Billy Johnson, told the filmmaker that the pioneering leader had come to him in a vision and he said, “Courage, Billy. Help is coming.
The African Latter-day Saint even named his first son “Brigham Young Johnson.”
There are more than 10,000 young descendants, and they are hardly unanimous on the roots of the ban, explains Richard Lambert, current president of the family association.
Regardless of their view of his origin and their ancestor’s role in it, Lambert says, they share a common belief that God commanded Kimball to open the priesthood to “all worthy men.”
The legendary Young may have shared some “biases common to 19th-century American society,” he says, “but Spencer W. Kimball was able to transcend the prejudices of his time — which was necessary for complete change.
As a group, the Young family “fully rejoiced and embraced the change 40 years ago,” Lambert says, “and we are confident that our ancestor rejoiced and embraced it as well.
“We want to do everything we can to hug everyone,” he says, “regardless of color, gender or orientation, to let them know they’re welcome.”