Racism and Mormonism: An Apology

Reform Mormonism has published and maintained this apology for over a decade, since its inception in 2002.

Mormonism’s turbulent history with racism has been well documented, despite some difficulty in pinning down mandates and revelations relative to the issue. Because Reform Mormonism shares a common history with LDS and other forms of Mormonism until its formation in 2002, Reform Mormons must come to terms with this history and be prepared to extend an explanation for it.

It has been many years since the LDS church changed its policy of denying priesthood admission to African Americans and those of dark skin (they still deny it to gays and women.) Yet much of the LDS church remains unresolved on the history of this issue as well as its implications for the church. This state of non-resolution has been compounded by the arrival of better history of the issue within the church, clearly demonstrating powerful conflicts in doctrine and application of doctrine, but no explanation of these conflicts, and worse, no acknowledgement of error or attempt to repair decades of damage. This lack of resolution remains one of the reasons why the modern LDS church does not attract and retain new African American members at a rate comparable to its attraction of other races.

There are excellent titles on this subject which the reader can explore in our “Of Interest To” section. Many of them provide a comprehensive chronology of race issues within the Mormon church, including the denial of the priesthood to African Americans. We won’t take the time to recite the entire history of the issue here, but we will present a few sentences from the recent All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage, by Armand L. Mauss (2003, Univ. of Ill. Press), to set the stage for our reform Mormon discussion of this important issue. Mauss is referring to the writings of Lester E. Bush, Jr., in this quote:

“…the most important and unavoidable conclusions from Bush’s work were that

1) all or most early Mormons and their leaders accepted with little question the American and European biblical lore about the origins of the Africans from the lineage of Cain and Ham;

2) the founding prophet, Joseph Smith, did not connect that lineage to any restriction on the priesthood and did not withhold priesthood from black church members during his lifetime;

3) the restriction emerged gradually during the late 1840s and was formally introduced only in 1852 by Brigham Young, who then connected it to the lineage of Cain; and

4) the resort to the Book of Abraham to justify denial of the priesthood occurred only after that work was formally canonized late in the nineteenth century.”
In 1978 the LDS church published and canonized Official Declaration – 2 stating that, via revelation, God had decided that all worthy male members of the LDS Church would be allowed to hold the priesthood. The statement did not repudiate the practice of having denied the priesthood before this time, leaving in place the need for an explanation of why it had been aggressively defended and taught by virtually every prophet since Joseph Smith, and any number of contemporary apostles such as Mark E. Petersen, Bruce R. McConkie, J. Ruben Clark, and countless others. With no admission of error on the part of these leaders, the inference is that, until the revelation, God wanted blacks denied the priesthood. This is supported, ironically, by the Official Declaration which precedes the change in priesthood practice in the Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration – 1, in which it is asserted that “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme.” Modern apostle Ezra Taft Benson reiterated the same sentiment just before becoming President of the LDS Church in the famous 1980 speech titled Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet. If the Lord allowed every President of the Church from Brigham Young through Harold B. Lee to let this practice stand, what does that say about God’s attitude in the matter? Or, perhaps, is Official Declaration 1 wrong, that God will allow the leadership of the church to make mistakes? Which is it?

The lingering lack of resolution on this matter is compounded by recent attempts to bring the many years since the canonization of Official Declaration – 2 into perspective. What was taught over the pulpit in thousands of churches, BYU devotionals by apostles, and countless writings and speakings of apostles and prophets, is now being called “folklore” by many, as though these pronouncements were simply mindless recitation of non-applicable myth or misunderstanding. General Authority recitations continued to counsel members of the faith to accept and promulgate these attitudes until 1978. As members of a faith instructed to accept the inerrant nature of the President of the Church as truly representative of the mind of God, and required to sustain the leadership of that person as well as the apostles, the average Mormon would not be considered in harmony with “the brethren” if they had not agreed with the priesthood ban on either one of both of these propositions: either the biblical/scriptural reasoning for denying the priesthood was sound, or God wanted the ban in place. Which is it? Calling the previous teachings “folklore” doesn’t adequately answer the question.

LDS Official Declaration – 2, while clearing the way for the future, made no attempt to explain which of these propositions was being corrected or changed, something required for a rational person to eliminate cognitive dissonance on the matter. Current LDS Church leadership feels no such resolution is necessary, having stated that the Official Declaration – 2 “continues to speak for itself…I don’t see anything further that we need to do.” (President Gordon B. Hinckley, 1998.)

Reform Mormonism, not bound up by the need to prioritize PR over honest reconciliation, or the tendency of large corporations to never admit mistakes, sees plenty that needs to be done. So here’s our start:

1. We reject the idea that the leadership of any church is inerrant. All men will make errors. While we recognize that all scripture is written by men, we specifically reject the LDS Official Declaration – 1 that states that God will not let the President of the Church lead it astray; such a claim is untenable, unreasonable, uninspired, and wholly unnecessary in the Reform Mormonism approach to church and life.

2. We reject the idea that God ever felt African Americans, or anyone of dark skin, could not hold the priesthood. Denial of membership in something distinctive based upon race has been a popular human pastime for thousands of years; it is all man-made. There never was and never will be anything divine in the notion of discrimination based upon race other than what human beings freely choose to call divine. Such choice is subject to being classified a mistake.

3. Early leaders of the Mormon faith who taught this idea and institutionalized it – and contemporary leaders who echoed, defended, and promulgated it – in such a manner that modern leaders needed to receive a “revelation” in order to reverse it, were in error. Errors (choices that were mistakes) result in consequences that require personal accountability. The required personal accountability has not been adequately demonstrated by the LDS leadership.

4. We believe that modern LDS leadership failing to apologize for the errors of past leaders perpetuates and keeps alive the errors. We believe that labeling the teachings as “folklore” is inappropriate and ineffective. It fails to hold people accountable for their choices.

As Reform Mormons who share some common heritage with LDS Mormons, we must come to terms with this history, but we have an opportunity to present to the world an alternative in terms of our modern perspective of this issue. We believe that the LDS church will continue to experience discontinuity on this issue because they seem to not be willing to follow their own teachings and repent of their errors, creating an air of hypocrisy that continually taints the issue. Their leadership does not acknowledge the issue as a problem, and their past leadership as having erred on this subject; you can’t repent of something you don’t recognize as an error in the first place.

Repentance has an entirely different connotation to Reform Mormons than LDS Mormons or Christians. However, we believe strongly in honesty, rationality, taking responsibility for our actions, and accepting the consequences. Given our perspectives on the racial history of Mormonism, we must be prepared to state our position on this matter of history relative to our own tradition, and to take responsibility for it in the process. We cannot speak for our LDS brothers and sisters, but we can speak for ourselves. Therefore:

We deeply apologize to the world, and in particular African Americans and those of dark skin, for the erroneous teachings of past Presidents, Prophets, Apostles and others in leadership positions of the historical Mormon faith. They were wrong; not just uninspired, not just promulgators of “folklore;” they were wrong. Their teachings do not represent the perspectives or beliefs of Reform Mormons. We acknowledge the pain and suffering racism caused and continues to cause in the world, and we strongly condemn these practices. We make no excuse for their behaviors. We regret any pain and suffering caused by Mormon practices with regards to race, and will continue to state honestly our regret for the past and our hope for an improved future where the subject is honestly accounted for and every attempt is made to treat each other equally with respect, love, admiration, and fellowship.

Reform Mormons believe in accepting responsibility for the consequences of ones actions, not sidestepping delicate issues, not recasting history to make it fit. Whether or not an individual Reform Mormon personally held any racist beliefs in this matter or generally as part of American society’s practices in the mid-twentieth century is one of individual concern. However, let it be known that Reform Mormons generally, so far as a statement of their collective beliefs can be presented, reject the idea that God ever held or sustained this belief and practice; that past church leaders who taught this belief and current leaders who held it did so in error; and that modern attempts to reconcile the lack of an LDS apology or repentance on the matter by recasting previous teachings as “folklore” only perpetuate the problem rather than acknowledge it and accept responsibility for it.

Reform Mormons welcome everyone of any persuasion to join our religious movement. We believe that priesthood is (and always was) shared equally among all. The degree to which it manifests in your life is up to you, not up to a church.


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