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.


Anonymous Dave said...

Nice to see you branching out, Gary. There seems to be some tension between President Kimball's statement ("imposed by the Lord") and the Hinckley/Holland view ("we simply do not know why that practice ... was in place"). President Uchtdorf's recent Conference talk reminding everyone that leaders do make mistakes from time to time opens additional ways for Latter-Day Saints to understand the evolution of the practice and the welcome revelation of 1978.

11/30/2013 07:44:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Dave: I don't see any tension at all between "God did it" and "we don't know why."

11/30/2013 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger Glenn Thigpen said...

The genesis theory implies a God that is not in control of His own church, or in the very lest, chooses men who will be allowed to promulgate and perpetuate an injustice for decades.

Truly a lot of "folklore" did arise as various people tried to understand and explain the policy.

I reject that implication. I just do not believe that God would do and allow such.


11/30/2013 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...

I noticed today that neither of the two most recent statements by the Church claim that the ban was imposed by the Lord (see 2013 Introduction to OD-2, and Race and the Church). You could argue that since Church leaders felt a revelation was needed to change, that as long as the revelation did not come the issue was being imposed by the Lord. But that's different from saying he directed it be instituted in the first place, which these two official statements decline to state.

Thus, a strict reading of these two recently published statements by the Lord's authorized servants leaves open the question of whether the ban was a result of cultural influence or direct command of the Lord, and would appear to put the statements to the press that you cite (to the extent that they explain the origin) in the category of explanations "made in the absence of direct revelation."

12/01/2013 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Jared*: The Church's Newsroom looks to the First Presidency and Twelve for guidance, not the other way around. I agree that statements about the origins priesthood availability made prior to June 1978 were "made in the absence of direct revelation," or in other words, in the absence of the 1978 revelation on priesthood. Statements made since then by members of the FP/12 are not in the same category. And things that were NOT said have never represented Church doctrine.

12/01/2013 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave K. said...

Gary, the new introduction to OD-2 was issued just this year. Jared's comment above links to it. The language is now part of our scriptures (though not scripture itself). From your comments, it sounds like you are suggesting that the introduction merely reflects the views of the newsroom and does not represent the views of the FP and Q12. Is that correct?

Assuming I misread you, and you agree that the introduction to OD-2 does reflect the views of the Brethren, why do you believe that the new language clearly omits any statement saying that racial priesthood ban came through revelation? The omission is glaring when compared to the new language for the introduction to OD-1. For OD-1, the introduction says that polygamy was instituted by revelation and ended by revelation. For OD-2, the introduction says that the racial priesthood ban was ended by revelation but says nothing about it beginning with revelation.

Silence speaks volumes. It is now acceptable for members to believe that the ban was not the will of God. I am one of those members. I am quite comfortable with a God who works through fallible men, even men who make mistakes of doctrine.

12/02/2013 03:55:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Dave K.: The First Presidency and Twelve approved Introduction to Official Declaration 2 linked in Jared's comment. The newsroom article, also linked in Jared's comment, does not contradict the FP/12.

Church Presidents before 1978 taught by their words and by their actions that the priesthood restriction was God's will. The text which is now canonized as OD–2, emphasizes "promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us" and testifies that "the long-promised day has come." These expressions are scripture and they run contrary to any theory that the revelation was corrective. According to our canon, it was prophecy fulfilled.

President Kimball gave further support for this view in 1979. Notice how he quoted the New Testament as evidence that this is a new revelation, again making it clear the revelation was prophecy fulfilled:

-------------- quote --------------
"Those of us today who are sustained by you as prophets, seers, and revelators came to feel in the spring of 1978 much as the early brethren did when the revelation came to the effect 'that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs ... and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel' (Eph. 3:6). This was a thing, Paul said, 'which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit' (Eph. 3:5)." (New Era, Apr. 1980; ellipsis in the original.)
-------------- end quote --------------

Two decades after the revelation on priesthood, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said he didn't know the origin of the restriction, yet did not "think it was wrong."

None of this dispensation's 97 apostles and 16 Prophets has expressed public doubt that the restriction was imposed by God. And any statement that goes beyond what has been taught by God's authorized apostles and prophets may properly be questioned by all Latter-day Saints.

12/02/2013 05:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

Your logic is very weird, if you don't mind my saying so. Because no church president has ever admitted to a restriction genesis, therefore there is no restriction genesis and those who theorize about this are in error. When I was young, there were plenty of General Authorities who claimed an exact knowledge of why the restriction was in place and they vocalized this knowledge all the time. The fact that they were all wrong tells us something about this restriction. Presidents of the church can claim "We don't know" all they want, but that does not mean there was no restriction genesis.

12/05/2013 06:35:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Elder Holland on the subject during an interview with PBS:

"We just don't know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced."

In the same conversation, the interviewer states that the ban was "not a revelation; it was a practice." If Elder Holland believed the ban to be a revelation, one would think he'd at least correct the interviewer. Not surprisingly, he didn't.

12/05/2013 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Aaron: Scripture records that in every dispensation God has made known through His prophets who should and should not receive the priesthood. Beginning with Adam, prophets in every dispensation held the priesthood, but not the people generally. Even among the tribes of Israel, only the Levites held the Aaronic Priesthood. As in previous dispensations, the latter-day priesthood restriction was imposed by God. So said Spencer W. Kimball who received the revelation to end it.

Tim: A lot of people say a lot of things that aren't true and Elder Holland is under no obligation to correct every false or misleading statement made by an interviewer. But he did answer this question, "So if you could, briefly address the concerns Mormons have about this folklore and what should be done."

To which Elder Holland responded: "One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. ... I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. ...

"It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. ... At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place."

Latter-day Saints "simply do not know" and Ardis Parshall is no exception.

12/05/2013 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get with the program,laggards.


12/06/2013 05:27:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Wow. What a welcome change from the former statement of the church on the subject. I'd been wondering when the church would get around to changing the text to be more accurate--the old text on the subject sounded pretty outdated.

12/06/2013 07:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You boys have all become strangely silent on the topic since the posting of the new article at lds.org. Cat got your tongue? Or you haven't yet figured out a way to discount this statement in a way that lets you cling to fossilized statements?

12/08/2013 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Post-1978 statements made by the Lord's authorized servants as quoted in the OP are NOT fossilized. And the article you refer to does NOT contradict those statements.

12/08/2013 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1949 First Presidency Statement, Church leaders offer up an explanation for the ban, "The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”"

In the new article on Race and Priesthood on the church website we read: "Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church."

Is it finally safe to say that the "descendants of Cain = black skin = curse" is not official doctrine, even though it was advanced in 1949 as the reason for the ban (and thus could have easily been construed as official doctrine for over half a century).

12/08/2013 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Anonymous: On March 6, 2006, Jeffrey R. Holland answered a question similar to the one you ask. He said: "I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong."

12/09/2013 09:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Dave K. said...

R. Gary, the SL Tribune quoted Richard Bushman regarding the new church statement on the priesthood ban. Bushman says the new statement "drains the ban of revelatory significance, makes it something that just grew up and, in time, had to be eliminated."

Am I correct to assume that you disagree with Bushman? I would point out that the statement indicates it was prepared with the help of historians. If Bushman had a part in drafting the statement his views would be of particular importance, no?

12/10/2013 06:56:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Dave K.: Contributing to an article that is eventually published by the Church does not make Richard Bushman (or anyone else) a Church spokesman. His private views have no more significance today than they did before the article was published.

The article does NOT say what Bushman is quoted as saying.

12/10/2013 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Dave K. said...

Thanks R. Gary. That's what I thought you would say. With all respect, if Bushman was asked for his views by the Public Affairs, then those views are far from unimportant to me.

More to the point, would you at least conceded that the church has now given significant official weight to the "restriction genesis theory," as you put it? Specifically, in the section entitled "The Church in an American Racial Culture" within the new church statement on race and the priesthood, it appears very clear that the church views the racist environment in which early church leaders lived to have impacted the development of the ban. If not, then what is the purpose of that section?

And more importantly, while neither of us may convince the other, I hope you know I wish you well. It will become increasingly common for members, such as myself, to voice the view that the ban was not inspired. I don't expect the church to expressly adopt that view (at least anytime soon), but I do expect the view will be very tolerated. As Bushman, myself, and others espouse the view, it will become the generally accepted view of most all church members. It is not easy to have the world change on you. I wish you the best in navigating this change.

12/10/2013 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Dave K.: Like you, though possibly for different reasons, I don't expect the Church to say the restriction was wrong. And I disagree that the article says pre-1978 Church presidents were wrong to adopt/uphold it.

12/10/2013 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Dave K.: I just noticed a KSL.com article titled, "LDS Church releases 'Race and the Priesthood' study topic."

The news story quotes LDS Church historian Steven E. Snow:

"We've enlisted the aid of historians, church historians, scholars, church leaders as well as others to work carefully on these matters to make certain we have the facts as right as we know them today, and then to help our members understand them in the context of the time in our history and the time in American history, what was going in the world at the time."

First, "have the facts as right as we know them today."

Second, "understand them [the facts] in the context of the time in our history and the time in American history, what was going in the world at the time."

In other words, the new topic reviews the cultural environment as context for the restriction, not as the restriction's genesis.

I believe Elder Snow's description of the new topic article is correct.

12/10/2013 10:19:00 PM  
Blogger Frozen Okie said...

Previously you said that individuals calling Joseph Fielding Smith "Apostle Smith" (and claiming his positions were only personal while ignoring that he repeated those positions in works published after he was in the first presidency)

So, if the same thing is done in relation to President Smith's explanations for the priesthood ban, is it also questioning the integrity of a prophet of God? The Race and the Church page linked above by Jared does exactly that. In fact, footnote 13 calls him Apostle Smith when referencing a 1907 statement where he acknowledges his explanation is not the Church position, but the footnote and page as a whole ignores that while he was President Smith the Answers to Gospel questions was published with that same explanation included without a disclaimer.

12/12/2013 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Frozen Okie: I suspect the object of your criticism is my 2004 article titled, "Duane E. Jeffery, 'Seers, Savants and Evolution': Undermining the Integrity of Joseph Fielding Smith," which I invite all visitors to read.

The page linked above by Jared does not have a footnote 13, but the Church's new page on the topic of "Race and the Priesthood" does. I noticed at the bottom of that page that the Church acknowledges the contribution of historians and scholars to the article.

Joseph Fielding Smith wasn't ordained an Apostle until 1910, so the suggestion in footnote 13 that he was an Apostle in 1907 is erroneous. Therefore, the answer to your question is that footnote 13 doesn't question Joseph Fielding Smith's integrity at all, rather it calls into question the scholarship of its author.

Regarding the rest of your comment, interested persons can easily find out for themselves what I actually said in my 2004 article.

12/12/2013 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger Frozen Okie said...

My apologies, I thought Jared's link was to the new page.

So, shoddy scholarship on the new page aside, is the current church attempt (here and elsewhere) to distance itself from past explanations simply PR? Were those explanations just attempts by good men to explain why God did something that wasn't easy to understand or were the explanations inspired?
If the former, why did the Church allow their publication by members of the 12 and the first presidency?

How, in your opinion, do those explanations differ from statements regarding evolution? In your 2004 article on SSE you discuss official vs. accepted doctrine. Many now, in attempting to prove the genesis argument, point to the priesthood ban as not being official doctrine. Even if we accept your arguments and conclude that the genesis arguments are bogus, what are we to conclude about the explanations for the ban?
It seems as though not everyone (not only the supporters of the genesis argument, but also the Church itself) is claiming that explanations weren't doctrine because they weren't ever official doctrine.
However, it seems as though those explanations were treated as acceptable/accepted doctrine in the past. They were generally believed. They were given by apostles, members of the first presidency, and presidents of the Church. Is the only thing differentiating them from accepted doctrine on no death before the fall that the current Church is now explicitly saying "We don't know why"?

12/12/2013 07:16:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Frozen Okie: God commanded Abraham to slay his son, Isaac. (Genesis 22:2.) But as Abraham was about to obey, the same God said: "Lay not thine hand upon the lad." (Genesis 22:12.)

What Church leaders taught 50 or 150 years ago is not relevant to me if it disagrees with the teachings of current apostles and prophets. Current Church leaders repeatedly approve publication of NDBF in LDS media. And current Church leaders repeatedly insist that the origin of the priesthood restriction is not known (the OP above contains examples).

12/12/2013 08:41:00 PM  

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