Friday, November 29, 2013

The genesis of the priesthood restriction

Questions about the priesthood restriction began for me during the 1950s, when my boyhood friends included members of a black family who lived next door. As I neared the age of 12, I learned that they would not be deacons and I never really understood why.

Later, as a missionary in Europe during the 1960s, I struggled with questions from investigators about the priesthood restriction. When it was lifted in 1978, I felt relief and joy.

Prior to 1978, attempts were made to explain the priesthood restriction using Church teachings and scripture. I remember discussing some of those theories with fellow missionaries. But there didn't seem to be an official answer, and today those theories are called folklore.

Ardis Parshall, who specializes in Mormon history, correctly points out on her blog that this folklore, "no matter how authoritatively taught once upon a time, [has] been repudiated" by today's apostles and prophets.


In the same blog article, she introduces a restriction genesis theory which states that the priesthood restriction emerged from "the religious culture and political mindset brought into the Church by the first generations of members."

These early converts, it is explained, brought into the Church "beliefs about race prevalent in the Christian and American culture of the early 19th century [which] gradually hardened with the force of tradition and the assumption that earlier generations knew something that later generations had forgotten."

"Folklore," according to Oxford Dictionaries, is found in "the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth." And that is exactly what the restriction genesis theory proposes, namely that the priesthood restriction was introduced into Mormonism by way of the traditional beliefs and customs of early converts and then passed down through the generations that followed.

But the Church has never taught such a genesis view.


Spencer W. Kimball was speaking as a true prophet at a press conference held Dec. 31, 1973, on the occasion of his becoming Church President, when he said:

"Blacks and the priesthood: I am not sure that there will be a change, although there could be. We are under the dictates of our Heavenly Father, and this is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it, and I know of no change, although we are subject to revelations of the Lord in case he should ever wish to make a change." (Ensign Feb. 1974, 2.)

On another occasion, he said: "This restriction has been imposed by the Lord." (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.237.)

Note that according to the genesis theory, the restriction grew out of cultural traditions solidified through generations and, contrary to President Kimball's words, was NOT established or imposed by the Lord.


In September 2002 in Salt Lake City, M. Russell Ballard dedicated a monument to Elijah Abel, a black member who received the priesthood in the early days of the Church. In his remarks, Elder Ballard addressed the priesthood restriction and said: "We don't know all the reasons why the Lord does what he does.... It's difficult to know why all things happen."

He also said. "I'm perfectly content to believe the Lord is in control."

According to Elder Ballard, the Lord did it and we don't know why. But the restriction genesis theory holds that Lord didn't do it, that it was an unintentional cultural assimilation.


The topic came up when Gordon B. Hinckley was interviewed in 1997 by ABC Television in Australia:

ABCTV: Now up until 1978 I understand Blacks were not allowed to be priests in your Church?

Hinckley: That is correct. Although we have Black members of the Church. They felt that they would gain more in this Church than any other with which they were acquainted and they were members of the Church. In 1978 we (the president of the Church) received a revelation under which all worthy men would receive all the blessings of the Church available to them as well as to any others. So across the world now we are teaching the Gospel to Blacks, Whites, everyone else who will listen.

ABCTV: So in retrospect was the Church wrong in that?

Hinckley: No I don’t think it was wrong. It things, various things happened in different periods. There’s a reason for them.

ABCTV: What was the reason for that?

Hinckley: I don’t know what the reason was.

Again, the genesis theory holds that the restriction was not from God, but was an unfortunate cultural tradition brought into the Church by converts. If that is true, the restriction was wrong in spite of what President Hinckley said.


In a 2007 PBS interview, Jeffrey R. Holland responded to a question about the former priesthood restriction:

"We simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place."

Note that the restriction genesis theory explains what, according to Elder Holland, today's Latter-day Saints "simply do not know."


When the Lord's authorized servants repeatedly declare we don't know something, I think we should be skeptical of those who claim we do.

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