The history of Blacks and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church) is at some times difficult to discern, but is much more favorable than the history of Blacks and the United States of America. While many people in the world today continue to criticize the “Mormon Church” for its history with Blacks, particularly African Americans, today Black Mormons enjoy all the same privileges that Mormons of any other race or ethnicity enjoy.
In the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there was no policy regarding Blacks. There were certainly a few free African Americans who joined the LDS Church and who were given equal status to any other member. The first Black Mormon was a man named Elijah Abel. He was baptized in 1832 and was ordained to the priesthood. As far as records show, it was most likely Joseph Smith who ordained Elijah Abel to the priesthood. Elijah served multiple missions for the Church and was educated and had his own profession as a carpenter. He also functioned as a seventy in Church leadership. A handful of other Black males also received the priesthood in the early days of the Mormon Church. However, at some point, Black Mormons, though they could still be baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were no longer ordained to the priesthood and were not given the opportunity to participate in the Mormon endowment ceremony. People both in- and outside of the “Mormon Church” have spent years debating why this was so, but there is no clear answer to that question at this time. Many speculate that due to the racial prejudices which raged across the United States at this time, that it was the Latter-day Saints themselves who were not ready to accept Blacks fully into the Church, but there is no way to know if this was why the priesthood was withheld or not without direct answers from the Lord, and it most likely was not.
The resolution to this time in the history of the LDS Church and with Black Mormons occurred in 1978, when President Spencer W. Kimball sought and received specific revelation from God regarding this matter. From this time forward, all worthy male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be given the priesthood, regardless of race. This was a joyous day for all members of the Church, that full fellowship and blessings were granted to everyone.
There are a few things to be said about the rest of the Mormon Church’s history with Black Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always been anti-slavery, and indeed a great deal of the persecution aimed at them in the 1800s was due to their views on slavery. An editorial entitled “Free People of Color” was printed by W. W. Phelps in 1833 in Missouri, warning Black Mormons to not cross the state line due to laws which said even free Blacks could be whipped for entering the state. After quoting the law on this subject, Phelps warned Church members, “Slaves are real estate in this and other states, and wisdom would dictate great care among the branches of the Church of Christ on this subject. So long as we have no special rule in the Church, as to people of color, let prudence guide.” This statement is clear that there were no policies in place regarding Black Mormons at this time; they were treated the same as any others. Phelps recognized the volatile situation in Missouri regarding Blacks at this time, however, and warned all the Saints to exercise caution in this matter. Unfortunately, the general public took the article in exactly the opposite way, willfully misinterpreted it, and used it as fuel to add to the fire which led to an extermination order against the Saints in Missouri. The citizens of Missouri were so worried that enough Mormons would come to the state that they would get the majority vote to abolish slavery. In response, they physically forced the Saints from their homes and drove them out of the state.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never had segregated congregations. All meetings have always been open to all who wished to attend, regardless of gender or race. Mormon doctrine is clear that God is no respecter of persons, and that the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ are available to all those who are worthy and who live His commandments.
Current events have led to this issue being brought up yet again in the media. With Mitt Romney running for nomination for the presidency from his party, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been opened to a great deal of scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the issue of Blacks and the priesthood has been brought up again. A professor at Brigham Young University (a private university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) made some comments to a reporter from the Washington Post which he feels were misinterpreted and misquoted in an article. Now he has been subject to a great deal of criticism. This has led to yet another official response on the matter from the LDS News room:
The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.
The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.
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.
This is the most succinct response we need. Racism is not tolerated in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
LDS Church Condemns Past Racism in- and outside of the Church
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.