Religion Today

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Revelation and Black Mormons

In 1969, during America’s Civil Rights protests, fourteen Black members of Wyoming’s football team decided to wear black arm bands during their game against Brigham Young University, protesting what they characterized as racist policies of Mormonism. Wyoming’s coach summarily dismissed them from the team.

In 2002, the BYU student body elected Robert Foster as its first black student association president.

What changed to bring about such a radical shift?

Nothing short of a divine revelation. In June of 1978, LDS President Spencer Kimball had a revelation that reversed a revelation by Brigham Young in 1848. The earlier revelation held that Black men of African descent could be admitted to the church should be not admitted to the Mormon priesthood, a position into which nearly all Mormon men enter during their teenage years.

The prophecies and their accompanying controversies are prime examples of how revelation operates in a social situation, both for those who believe and those who do not.

First, for those who believe, divine instructions delivered by prophecy must be obeyed. They cannot go against revelation, even when the beliefs of the surrounding human society change. So when the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s dramatically altered the position of Blacks in American society as a whole, it did not affect the standing of Brigham Young’s prophetic revelation.

Second, prophetic revelation is not necessarily permanent, but lasts only until another revelation concerning the same matter. The biblical prophet Jonah provides a good example, for God sent him to Nineveh to prophesy the city’s destruction. When the Ninevites repented, God sent Jonah with a new revelation saying the city would be spared. President Kimball’s revelation functioned similarly; it revealed God’s new will.

Third, prophetic revelation comes not in calm times, but at periods of social conflict and unrest. The prophet Micaiah gave a revelation to the Kings of Judah and Israel at a time of war (1 Kings 22), for example, telling them not to fight or they would be defeated. They fought, and lost their lives.

With regard to the priesthood ban, the links to social circumstances can be seen most clearly in Brigham Young’s 1848 revelation. It came at a controversial time for the USA as well as for the Mormon Church, for the nation was embroiled in a heated political debate over slavery. In the early years of Mormonism, Joseph Smith had ignored this issue. He and his followers were undergoing almost constant persecution and had to flee first from upstate New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, to Illinois (where Smith was killed in 1844), and finally to Utah.

It was not until they reached Missouri, a “slave state,” that Mormonism confronted the abolition question. The Mormons attempted to maintain a neutral position, neither anti-slavery nor pro-slavery, which the Missourians found unacceptable. The free blacks living among the Mormons, Missourians thought, gave slaves ideas about liberty, while the Mormon proselytizing, they feared, would incite rebellion. The governor expelled the Mormons from the state in 1838.

The Missouri experience produced many reactions among the Mormons. When Joseph Smith ran for President of the USA in 1843, his platform had an anti-slavery plank. Other Mormons, like many Americans, held beliefs closer to those of the Missourians.

Brigham Young’s revelation in Utah in 1848 can be seen as providing a way for Mormons to remain neutral on the question of slavery; it permitted Utah territory to have both slave-holding converts from the South and free Black converts from the North. Even in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, Young stated that he was neither for nor against slavery. Like most whites he did not believe in inter-racial marriage, but he also thought that Congress should rule “that negroes should be used like human beings, and not worse than dumb brutes. For the abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed.” Although these words may have a dogmatic tone to modern ears, they were at the time rather progressive.

It was ongoing adherence to Young’s revelation as Mormon doctrine after the triumph of the civil rights movement that has caused the LDS Church much bad press. Their once-liberal position had become quite conservative. For the Church, it was up to the 1978 revelation to set Mormonism on a different track.

The complex issue of Blacks and Mormonism cannot be broadly addressed in a short column like this. UW’s Religious Studies Program is hosting two-part program on Friday, September 26th for further exploration. At 3:00 pm, the film, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons” will be shown. At 7:00, Professor Armand Mauss will speak on “From Galatia to Ghana: The Racial Dynamic in Mormon History” in UW’s Agriculture Auditorium. For more information, go to


  • Blacks not being able to receive the Priesthood originated as an administrative policy by Brigham Young based on his interpretation of some scriptures and common mid-19th century ideas about race. He did not have any officially recognized "revelation" in 1843. Revelations that set doctrine for the LDS church are openly published in the Doctrine & Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, or as an official First Presidency declaration. Once instituted, it unfortunately took until 1976 for the revelation needed to overcome the practice.

    It is also relevent to note that a Missouri mob led by the local judge and sheriff destroyed the Mormon press in Independence, MO operated by W.W. Phelps after publishing an editorial supporting abolition.

    By Anonymous Chris C, at 9/18/2008  

  • I posted some post-1978-LDS-Church videos on
    The videos include:
    * The branch of the LDS Church in Watts (South Central LA)
    * The 6th annual "Discover Your Roots" African-american genealogy conference hosted in the Los Angeles stake center
    * The Adams Ward (Los Angeles)
    Some of my Favorite Links listed there also include videos of the Harlem 1st Ward and Darius Gray's presentation at an LDS scholar's conference on Blacks in the Bible which includes genealogies of Jesus' black ancestry.

    By Blogger manaen, at 9/28/2008  

  • There has been a large in-surge of black people into the Mormon Church since the 1978 revelation. Counting Africa, Brazil, the U.S., and the Caribbean, there are between 650k and 1.3 million Mormons worldwide who have black-African ancestry among the 13 million total LDS membership: this means that TODAY, BETWEEN 1 IN 10 AND 1 IN 20 MORMONS IS BLACK.

    By Blogger manaen, at 9/28/2008  

  • As chris c observed, I was incorrect in the column to call Young's ban on black eligibility for the priesthood a "revelation". There is a great deal of confusion about the status of the priesthood-ban, and although I worked to get matters straight, I wound up confused as well.

    What happened was that in 1852 (not 1843 or 1848), Brigham Young made the following comment at the opening of the Utah Territorial legislature, in his standing as governor of that territory. "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain, i.e., African blood] him cannot hold the priesthood, and if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now." (Quotation from All Abraham's Children by Armand L. Mauss, a book worth reading on this topic.)

    I understood Young's claim of authority as indicating a claim of revelation. Instead it is simply a claim to authority through his standing as the church's prophet.

    The "one drop of blood" measurement, as chris indicates, is a standard 19th cent. racial notion.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 9/29/2008  

  • I want to thank you for your accuracies is all I can say. Almost all non-Mormon treatments of the issue are based on the false statement that Mormons are racist and always have been. Way too often the pro-racism side of history and theology is ignored to present a mere stereotype. Such one sided treatment isn't scholarship. It is yellow journalism or blind activism.

    By Blogger Jettboy, at 9/29/2008  

  • On a related note something that never sat right with me. The 1978 revelation using the language "all worthy males" in lifting the priesthood ban.

    How was the ban on black women lifted? Where is their revelation?

    By Blogger Jacob Primo, at 9/29/2008  

  • In response to Jacob.

    The restriction lies not with "Black" women, but with all women.

    However, the restriction on women is not like the restriction on Black men, for this prevented the men from rising to an "adult" level of the faith (which all other men entered about age 12) and participating in ceremonies at the temple. Women, however, participate in those temple ceremonies through the position in the faith which is established through their marriage. To be sure, it is not a position equivalent to the men, but neither is it the exclusion applied to Black men (which also applied to their wives).

    Thus, while Mormonism has made progress in ethnic religious equality, it is still struggling with the question of gender religious equality. (Something many religious groups are still struggling with, even the most liberal.) Given the social structure of Mormonism and its beliefs about eternal "celestial" families, it is not even clear how such equality would apply.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 9/29/2008  

  • In response to Paul Flesher...

    Thanks for your response Paul. I was specifically referring to the ban that applied to all people of full or partial "black" ancestry.

    Black women were precluded from attending the temple, baptizing the dead, taking their own endowments, being sealed to their parents (black or white), or marrying their husband in the temple (black or white).

    People often refer to the "Priesthood ban" but it included all temple participation by black women.* Yet the 1978 revelation is silent on the change in their status.


    *The one exception I'm aware of is Jane M. James sealed to Joseph & Emma has their eternal servant.

    By Blogger Jacob Primo, at 9/29/2008  

  • Jake,
    I think that is a misreading of the 1978 declaration. Black Mormon women now have all the rights of white women, and gain them by the same means. They can certainly marry in the temple and have access to all the other rites to which all women have access. Check out the The Black Mormon Homepage ( or watch the documentary "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons."
    Hope this helps,
    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 9/30/2008  

  • You've explained the Brigham Young stance as one that caused the church to be "slavery neutral", but what about the LDS Church's racist positions in:

    ....and so on until 1978?

    What's the explanation for the 100 years after Emancipation?

    By Anonymous Jack, at 10/01/2008  

  • Dear Jack,

    Mormons in general were no more and no less racist than most other white American citizens. That was true during its founding decades, at the turn of the century, and up to about 1950. Most of the remarks made by Mormons during this time that we now consider racist were pretty much in line with those of most white Americans. Mormonism's theology about black skin color being the "Mark of Cain" was not particularly Mormon; the notion originated some 400 years before Joseph Smith's birth, and was widely believed until recent decades.

    It was only with the start of the Civil Rights movement that LDS theological explanations about blacks began to get out of step with the rest of America. The lifting of the priesthood ban did not automatically change the "curse of cain" beliefs in the minds of many. These views are changing among church members, but slowly. See this website for more information.
    See also Armand Mauss' book and the "Nobody Knows" video, referenced above.
    Hope this helps,
    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 10/01/2008  

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