Why not denounce Brigham Young’s racist statements?

It should come as no surprise to MSP readers that Brigham Young made racist statements. As there are 26 volumes in the Journal of Discourses, Brigham Young said a great deal about many things.

I think most current LDS (including Brigham himself) acknowledge the doctrine that sometimes an LDS prophet is speaking as a prophet (i.e., from God) and sometimes they are speaking “as a man” (their own opinion) Please see Jeff Lindsay’s essay about fallibility here. This is acknowledging that LDS prophets are products of the culture and society they live in and fallible.

The US. in the nineteenth century was in general a very racist place. Slavery – the buying and selling of human beings was still legal. I don’t think we will argue this point, I would hope that it’s just generally accepted that racism in that time period was alive and thriving in all segments of American society. Brigham Young was not unique in some of this thoughts and statements about the races, their differences and the “perils” of interracial marriage.

Brigham said some pretty damning things – quotes from the Journal of Discourses:

Examples (obviously, I’ve left out much of the original sermons. You can query for the entire text of the sermons online – just search for journal of discourses and the volume):

“..Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” – JoD: vol.10 p. 110: (March 8, 1863)


“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, un- comely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race – that they should be the “servant of servants;” and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree. How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, [p.291] and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed.When the residue of the family of Adam come up and receive their blessings, then the curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will receive blessings in like proportion. “- JoD 7:290-291 (October 9, 1859)

Many LDS would say that with the 1978 revelation giving blacks the priesthood, institutional racism within the Utah LDS church ended. There was no longer a prohibition on couples of different races getting married in the temple, for example.

But the 1978 revelation fell short (see here) of disavowing Brigham Young’s (and other leaders’) statements. It did not say “Brigham Young was wrong when he said x. He was speaking as a man, not from God.”

The reason I bring this point up, is to ask how can I explain this concept to friends of color or people of awareness? I can’t defend it. I can’t explain that my parents, for example, active LDS members are not racists and vigorously denouce those statements (but they may believe that other things that Brigham said were from God).

An example of the defense would go:

Well, Brigham Young is indeed considered to be an LDS prophet.

And yes, he did say those racist statements.

Yet, active LDS know that he was speaking as a man and not as a prophet in those instances. And they believe that he was speaking as a prophet (from God) in other instances. Members can know the difference through personal revelation.

Without an official statement/apology, it’s up to individual LDS members’ interpretation. One individual is free to believe Brigham Young was indeed speaking from God when he made the statements against interracial marriage – indeed, referring to the death of the individuals in an interracial marriage. This individual can believe this(still have an LDS temple recommend, still fulfill their callings). Whether or not the majority of LDS do not believe that. Whether or not there are many active, temple-going LDS who are interracial couples. Whether or not there are many LDS who are descended from Africans or who are Africans themselves.

Other world religions, Roman Catholics for example, have come out and clarified their positions about past statements and actions of their leaders/members. They have specifically apologized for many former actions (even unintentional ones), compliance with the holocaust; and actions of Catholics against non-Catholics.

Just last year, an LDS spokesperson for the quorum of the twelve offered an apology for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

So LDS apologies and clarifications are not out of the realm of possibility.

While there has been a clear direction to “follow living prophets”; – the term “living” is not clear. (I’ve linked to a talk given by Ezra Taft Benson in 1980 about the fourteen fundamentals in following the prophet). Living or modern could mean any LDS prophet since Joseph Smith, Jr. And I don’t think that something that Spencer W. Kimball (or Ezra Taft Benson) said would NOT be considered from a “living” prophet, as they were both alive thirty years ago. So within thirty years, it’s okay, but over one hundred years, what they said is suspect?

As I think it’s been discussed here before, when is a prophet still considered a living prophet? Does a new prophet (like Thomas S. Monson) need to go back through everything prior prophets have said and specify that LDS still believe that?

Stating that Brigham Young was NOT a modern or living prophet exposes a whole can of doctrinal worms. His life and works are still studied in LDS seminary, primary and Sunday School. So all of his sayings cannot be dismissed as not doctrinal by the Utah LDS church.

What makes more sense is to clarify specific statements, repudiate and apologize.

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75 Responses

  1. Craig says:

    What makes more sense is to clarify specific statements, repudiate and apologize.

    Indeed. They could stand to do that for a whole slough of statements, including statements from some of those currently living “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators”.

    That it took the church 150 years to even admit that Mountain Meadows happened and apologise about it seems to suggest to me that it will take a while longer for them to repudiate things like the treatment of Blacks, gays, women.

  2. Craig says:

    I meant to say that the church admitted that they might have had anything to do with the massacre by officially apoligising, not that the church didn’t admit that the massacre never happened.

  3. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    It seems that the Wall of Infailability is too tall to climb… from either direction.

    Don’t worry; It’s all Nonsense anyway.
    LDS leaders’ sayings are for PR only, they don’t allow that they might apply to leadership, Only to the rank-and-file.
    Hofmann was another example… I see they redacted a pic of him & GBH in the online Ensign (are they asking that members return their paper copies for ‘correction’?)

  4. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Pls allow me a follow-up:

    Some time ago, I sent GBH a letter outlining why the church should re-name BYU to ‘Juanita Brooks University’… I guess he didn’t have time to get back to me (we all know how busy the prophets are, receiving revelation alone must keep them busy Almost 24.7).

  5. Rod says:

    I hardly consider the statement that Henry Eyring read to be an apology. It is a carefully spun statement meant to deflect attention and blame, and to eliminate clarity. This is important because it illustrates a pattern of spin and careful deception that neither Jesus Christ nor his spokesman on earth would employ.

    The use of phrases like:
    “The truth, as we have come to know it, saddens us deeply.”

    Truth does not need to be qualified. The mention of a forthcoming book written by oxymoronic “LDS Church employee-historians” is laughable.

    Saying, “We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today, and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time,” is like saying to the person we have just punched in the nose, “I am sorry your nose hurts,” rather than saying, “I am sorry I punched you in the nose.”

  6. Steve EM says:

    We LDS have a tradition of just moving on and not commenting on past dumped teachings like BY’s bigotry. While in most cases, I have a major beef with that tradition, with BY’s bigotry, I’m not so sure it not the best approach, because such bigotry was mainstream in his day. In other words, why draw attention to it? JS was ahead of his time on race, BY wasn’t. That said, when it came to the exodus from Nauvoo, BY, warts and all, may have been the only person on the planet who could have pulled it off (rallying the Mormons to leave civilization and saving the church). In short, we are imperfect beings and the Lord uses who is faithful and available at the time. Did BY make some whopper mistakes? Of course he did, but w/o BY neither the LDS church or this blog would exist today.

    Where I place much greater blame is later church leaders who didn’t reverse BY on race much sooner, a classic case of the irony of orthodoxy always leading to apostasy. In other words, in any organization mistakes are evitable and orthodoxy prevents reform, resulting in perpetuating the error and apostasy becomes entrenched.

    Speaking of school names, I’m much more embarrassed by the BYU Law School being named after JRC, a disgusting mid twentieth century segregationist, than the university being named after BY, a great pioneer leader, particularly because there is no dearth of LDS attorneys who contributed far more to the law than JRC. Again, BY’s views were mainstream in his day; JRC’s were an anachronism in his.

    I think a balanced way to address the issue is something like: JS and BY had radically different views on race. JS was an abolitionist who ordained blacks in the church. Later, BY permitted slavery in Utah to accommodate Southern converts coming to Utah and banned blacks from the priesthood and the temple. Later leaders continued BY’s racial policies until 1978…………………. We regret our past leaders didn’t address BY’s errors on race earlier, but that unfortunate era is now more than a generation behind us……………………….

    Of course you will never hear that from an LDS authority, as our tradition is we just move on, and in this case that may actually be the best way to handle it.

  7. Ray Agostini says:

    Steve EM wrote:

    JS was ahead of his time on race, BY wasn’t.

    The following statement from Joseph Smith doesn’t justify that view:

    January 1843, Joseph Smith said:
    “At five went to Mr. Sollars’ with Elders Hyde and Richards. Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine of many of those they brush and wait on. “Elder Hyde remarked, ‘Put them on the level, and they will rise above me.’ I replied, if I raised you to be my equal, and then attempted to oppress you, would you not be indignant and try to rise above me, as did Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and many others, who said I was a fallen Prophet, and they were capable of leading the people, although I never attempted to oppress them, but had always been lifting them up? Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization.” [History of the Church, 5:217-218]

    They have souls? So do animals? Confine them to their “own species” by “strict law”? The correct word for this is “apartheid”. I wouldn’t say Joseph was “ahead of his time”.

  8. Ray Agostini says:

    This is one significant problem we have when defining when a prophet “speaks as a man”, and “speaks for God”:

    Brigham Young:

    “..Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race?

    What could make this more authoritative?

    “Thus saith the Lord”?

  9. Ray Agostini says:

    To quote Elder Mc Conkie:

    “Forget everything I have said, or what … Brigham Young … or whomsoever has said … that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” [Bruce R. McConkie, “New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood, no editor given, but presumably edited by McConkie (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 126-137, esp. 126-127.]

    Here is the problem in a nutshell: Bad revelations must be “forgotten”. Good ones extolled. “Bad revelations” aren’t wrong, just uttered with a “limited understanding”. The problem is that this “limited understanding” is “the word of God” to a specific generation. In later generations it becomes a “limited understanding”. There will be no apology, because to apologise would be admitting that the prophets got it wrong. And prophets can’t be wrong, only speaking with a “limited understanding”, “line upon line”.

    When the Catholic Church offered an apology to Galileo, it didn’t say “we spoke with a limited understanding”. Here is what Ratzinger, the current pope, said in regard to past wrongs:

    Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the congregation of the doctrine of the faith, confessed to the sins of the congregation’s predecessor, the Inquisition. “Even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel,”

    This isn’t an apology for “a limited understanding”, but “not in keeping with the Gospel”.

    Has any LDS GA ever said that Brigham Young was “not in keeping with the Gospel” when he said:

    “You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, un- comely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin.

    Bear in mind too that Mc Conkie didn’t say Brigham Young spoke with a “limited understanding”, only that they interpreted his words with a “limited understanding”.

    The quest to preserve apostolic authority shall take precedence over everything. And this is where the Church will lose respect.

  10. Hellmut says:

    Brigham Young’s views about race might have been typical but they were not mainstream. Many Americans disagreed with him. Some argued that former slaves needed to be civilized. Many others came to believe that African Americans were fully human. The sophistication of Frederick played a big role in switching opinions.

    Lets remember that Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States twice.

    It is probably more accurate to say that Americans were polarized over slavery and racism during Brigham Young’s lifetime and that Brigham Young was an ardent supporter at extremes of one pole.

  11. Hellmut says:

    Speaking of school names, I’m much more embarrassed by the BYU Law School being named after JRC, a disgusting mid twentieth century segregationist, than the university being named after BY, a great pioneer leader, particularly because there is no dearth of LDS attorneys who contributed far more to the law than JRC. Again, BY’s views were mainstream in his day; JRC’s were an anachronism in his.

    This an interesting remark, not only because it’s true but because J. Reuben Clark’s racism is, of course, a product of Brigham Young’s.

    Clark held attitudes that were no longer acceptable in polite society because he wanted to follow the prophet. When the LDS Church named the law school in Clark’s honor, it recognized his loyalty.

    Even today, there are Mormons in every American stake that will advocate the fence sitter doctrine in the presence of Africans and African Americans. Sometimes, although not always, there are other white Mormons who will contradict racist doctrine but the proponents can rarely be persuaded because they feel a duty to follow the prophet and can assert prophetic authority.

    Mainstream America and chapel Mormonism have both marginalized racism. The difference is that in Mormon chapels, racism is still not taboo.

    As a result, it is still common that our non-European brothers and sisters and their children have to suffer indignities in Mormon chapels at the hands of Saints who are convinced of their righteousness.

    The perpetrators and the victims of such language would both benefit considerably if prophetic racism were officially and explicitly denounced.

    The reason why Mormonism is uncomfortable with denouncing prophetic racism is, of course, that LDS leaders benefit when the Saints follow their own pronouncements uncritically.

    Naturally, current LDS leaders are no more perfect than Brigham Young.

    Paradoxically, the Brethren would become much more effective leaders if they were subject to criticism by a loyal opposition. Although so many members are sacrificing years of their lives, it is clear that the missionary program is moribund. Hundreds of units in Latin America are fictional. In Europe, the Church is shrinking. Lately, data have been emerging that indicate that more Saints are leaving than joining in the United States.

    The norm of not criticizing leaders is not only sustaining inhumane and offensive principles such as racism, sexism and homophobia but is also weakening the Church.

  12. aerin says:

    Thanks for all the comments so far.

    Someone, Elder (Oaks)? I believe mentioned that some statements can’t be rescinded because it hasn’t been “revealed” to them yet (from God) to rescind them. i.e., God hasn’t specifically directed the spirit to the elders to make a statement about this.

    However I may feel personally about the validity of this, from an active LDS perspective, there are governing decisions that are made all the time without direct revelation (I would assume). To take the CHI for example, is every line in there directly revealed?

    I think I could find many scriptures where it says that the membership should not constantly ask for things, but get out and work for them (i.e., make them happen).

    Steve #6 – my only concern about letting this specific issue go, with not making a definitive statement about it, is just what Hellmut was saying. That some members may still be mistaken/confused about the official positions. That confusion could lead to discrimination and pain within those families and among the membership.

    Since the lay membership are allowed to be teachers of young children, there are no checks and balances (IMO) to prevent a teacher from making these type of statements to children (and the children not understanding that they are not part of the LDS canon). After all, they come from the mouth “of a prophet”.

    And many statements have been made about polygamy. Why is addressing polygamy (and BY’s statements on it) more important than these statements on race?

    It’s a very difficult position, but one that needs to be addressed (IMO).

  13. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Rod, #5: Precisely. LDS leaders are stuck in a Conga line, and only see a bit of the person in front of them.
    Just as in our individual-personal lives, it may take an abrupt if not catastrophic event for GAs/COB to ‘wake up’ on behalf of the church; how sad.

  14. Seth R. says:

    Ray, thank you for providing that quote from Joseph Smith.

    It’s a fabulous example of a man who was far, far, beyond his time in thinking about race. I think that’s actually a statement LDS could be proud of, rather than evidence that Joseph was as racist as anyone else in his day.

    Too bad the rest of Mormon leadership didn’t follow-up on the great beginning Joseph made.

  15. Ray Agostini says:

    Seth, I plucked the quote from BlackLDS.org, though it comes from the HC, so Black LDS obviously also like it. I’m still not sure, though, what you or they think “advanced” about confining people to “their own species”.

    Do you think Obama would like this?

  16. Steve EM says:

    I agree Seth. Ray’s JS quote shows just how far ahead of his time Smith was, well over 100 years! I’ll add that some here seem to be confusing generations. The civil war and 14th amendment that ended slavery were more than a generation after Smith. The war ended slavery only in rebel territory. Slavery didn’t end in Utah (and all US states and territories) until the 14th amendment.

    I brought up slavery in Utah because I think it is directly related to the priesthood ban. (Subhumans need enslavement, can’t lead and don’t belong in the temple). That was BY’s view and the view of most folks in that generation.

    Again, IMHO, it is later leaders who conserved BY’s error that are far more culpable than BY. I judge people by their times, not mine.

  17. Steve EM says:


    I think you’re on the money regarding our leaders fear that criticism and correction of past leaders’ errors will undermine current leaders. They like enjoying an infallibility doctrine w/o actually having one.

    I also agree we are shrinking, the GAs are practically chasing members out, and the missionary program is stuck in the 1920s. What’s the activity rate for single twenty-somethings in the church now, teens or single digits? In other words most of a generation is lost, and our leaders are asleep at the switch. That’s a lot of topics for other posts.

  18. Ray Agostini says:

    I’m still not so sure Joseph was ahead of his time, Steve. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was an example of a Christian opposed to the British slave trade. The Quakers were the ones who developed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the 1780s. Wilberforce converted to Christianity in 1784, and joined this society. This is what he later said:

    “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

    Other commentary on Wilberforce:

    When it became clear that Wilberforce was not going to let the issue die, pro-slavery forces targeted him. He was vilified; opponents spoke of “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” The opposition became so fierce, one friend feared that one day he would read about Wilberforce’s being “carbonated [broiled] by Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains.”

    This was no mere ideology about what should be done, but “muscular Christianity” in action. Wilberforce was “a man ahead of his time”. Not even Lincoln held such firm views about abolition. The list of the opponents of slavery is very long, but Joseph Smith is not there. Another radical opponent of slavery was William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Lincoln, who wrote in 1853:

    The color of the prisoner’s skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath. In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man.

    Compare that to Brigham Young’s statements.

  19. Craig says:

    Steve, Hellmut:

    I think you’re on the money regarding our leaders fear that criticism and correction of past leaders’ errors will undermine current leaders. They like enjoying an infallibility doctrine w/o actually having one.

    That’s precisely the problem. What I don’t understand is why they don’t see that this is doing far, far more harm to the church than good. In the short run, it is useful to have members who will follow the will of the leadership unquestioningly, but in the long run, the very fact that the leaders are fallible men will mean that they will eventually do something so damaging that it will wake people up to the realisation that they’re not really speaking for God in all (most) things, and that will cause far, far more problems than if they were to simply be honest and up front about the past mistakes and about their own fallibility and lack of constant revelation in all things. If anything, the past actions and statements of people like Brigham Young, Bruce McConkie, Mark Peterson, and Spencer Kimball (and Boyd Packer) have shown us that they speak from themselves and their own understanding (and biases) far more often than they speak for God. This is, I think, quite obvious to anyone who looks at some of the things they have sold as “doctrine” at the time, only to have either science prove them wrong, or later church leaders contradict them. If they are all really speaking for God, then God is one confused, contradictory being – and that just makes even less sense.

  20. Seth R. says:

    Oh come on Ray. You can always, ALWAYS, find someone more progressive. What does that prove?

    I’ve read plenty of the rhetoric from the pre-Civil Was period and Joseph flat-out, hands-down, was firmly in the progressive camp. Sure, his ideas were not unique to him and other abolitionists and forward-minded people were making the same points he did. That doesn’t mean Joseph shouldn’t get credit for being on the right side of history.

    Considering Joseph’s background, upbringing, and the surrounding society, I find myself pretty darn impressed with him. In my mind, he was on the correct side of history. The fact that he hadn’t reached a 1990s level of racial enlightenment bothers me not at all.

    Is the fact that some portions of the quote are unrepeatable by politicians in our hyper-sensitized racial culture supposed to even be relevant to discussion of a guy who lived in the late 1800s? Get some perspective here.

    It’s a good quote, regardless of whether it can be used in an Obama speech.

  21. Seth R. says:

    I mean seriously, I can’t believe you are even trying to make the point that Joseph Smith was not “progressive” because he didn’t rise to the level of William Wilberforce – one of the most outstanding forces for emancipation and racial rights the world has ever known.

    Are you freaking kidding me?

  22. Steve EM says:

    I’ll add to Seth’s rebuttal to Ray that Steward was against Lincoln releasing the Emancipation Proclamation, so much for that strong abolitionist. People are far more complex than a single quote. In any event we know JS ordained blacks and allowed blacks in the temple and BY reversed JS, so I’m not sure why Ray attacks JS on this subject when it was BY that F-ed the whole thing up.

    Speaking of F-ed up, I did a post on my blog about Monson F-ed up by picking another white apostle when thirty years after lifting the ban, we are long overdue due for a Qof12 that starts to look like the church at large. The post wasn’t well received.

  23. Ray Agostini says:


    You wrote:

    I’ve read plenty of the rhetoric from the pre-Civil Was period and Joseph flat-out, hands-down, was firmly in the progressive camp. Sure, his ideas were not unique to him and other abolitionists and forward-minded people were making the same points he did. That doesn’t mean Joseph shouldn’t get credit for being on the right side of history.

    Consider this excerpt from the Elders Journal:

    [Joseph Smith Jr., Editorial, Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of
    Latter Day Saints,
    1 (Jul 1838): 42-44]
    “[p.43] Question 13th. Are the Mormons abolitionists?
    Answer. No, … we do not believe in setting the Negroes free.”

    This is the very opposite of what Wilberforce was doing. Joseph’s abolitionist stand was political. His real view is reflected in the above Journal. The point is, that no matter how one argues for Joseph’s “progressive views” on this subject, the Church adopted a policy/doctrine based on Joseph’s teachings (unless you want to disown Brigham alone on this one). No more, no less. A hundred and five years after Joseph’s death, this was a First Presidency statement:

    August 17, 1949

    The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. 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.”

    President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”

    The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes. (My source for this is Mauss and Bush, “Neither White Nor Black”.)

    In a December 1969 statement the Brethren omitted some of the more crude remarks made by BY, but still wrote:

    Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God….

    “Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s pre-existent state.”

    This belief didn’t materialise out of thin air. The official position about the “curse” now is, “we don’t know why”. The “fence sitting” doctrine is gone (though this is still believed by some), obviously because it was spoken with a “limited understanding”.

    The reality seems to be, Seth, that this was one of those revelations which Joseph characterised (as recorded by David Whitmer) as “some revelations are of God, some of men, and some of the devil’. I would think it has to fit into one of the two latter categories, given hindsight. I am not alone in my thinking, apparently. Armand Mauss (co-author of Neither White Nor Black), is quoted in a news article titled “Black Mormons Resist Apology Talk”, as saying:

    “Since the 1978 revelation granting the priesthood to all worthy males, millions of people of all races have embraced the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” the statement said. “[That] declaration continues to speak for itself.”

    But Armand L. Mauss, a sociologist from Pullman, Wash., who is president of the Mormon History Association, said in an interview that he has talked with dozens of black Mormons who believe that some Mormon leaders and laity still view blacks as inferior.

    Mauss said that some of the teachings did not originate with Mormons but with the Protestant groups from which Mormons converted. “Every major Protestant denomination in history has taught that blacks are descendants of Cain and Ham,” he said.

    Yet teachings that “died a natural death” over time among Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others, he said, have lingered in Mormonism as indicated by books published as recently as 10 years ago.

    “The only way to neutralize what’s out there is a public repudiation” of earlier doctrines, said Mauss, who is white.

    What does “public repudiation” mean? It means something that has not yet happened. And it means that until a repudiation is made, many Mormons will continue to believe that the prophets were not “really” wrong, and are now saying “we don’t know why”, when in fact the Church still “really” believes this “fence-sitter” doctrine, but is sort of doing like President Hinckley’s PR statements on polygamy and the idea that God was once a man. That is why this idea/belief lingers.

  24. Ray Agostini says:

    In reply to Steve, I quote again from Bush and Mauss, Neither White Nor Black:

    Lest anyone gain “the impression that all he said was concurred in,” [p.57]the next issue of the Messenger and Advocate was devoted largely to a rebuttal of abolitionism.18 A lengthy article was contributed by Joseph Smith, and there were others from Warren Parrish and Oliver Cowdery. Together these essays constitute the most extensive discussion of slavery to appear during the first two decades of the Restoration, and they provide an invaluable insight into the thinking of Church leaders at that time.

    At least five major objections to the abolitionist cause can be identified in Joseph Smith’s discussion:

    —First, he believed the course of abolitionism was “calculated to … set loose, upon the world a community of people who might peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society,-chastity and virtue….”

    —Second, any evil attending slavery should have been apparent to the “men of piety” of the South who had raised no objections to the institution.

    —Third, the Prophet did “not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall …”; the signing of petitions in the North was nothing more than “an array of influence, and a declaration of hostilities against the people of the South….”

    —Fourth, the sons of Canaan (or Ham) whom Joseph Smith identified with the Negro were cursed with servitude by a “decree of Jehovah,” and that curse was “not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come … and those who are determined to pursue a course which shows an opposition … against the designs of the Lord, will learn … that God can do his work without the aid of those who are not dictated by his counsel….”

    —Fifth, there were several other biblical precedents for slavery (in the histories of Abraham, Leviticus, Ephesians, Timothy).

    In concluding his article, the Prophet partially withdrew his previous stand on proselyting slaves, “It would be much better and more prudent, not to preach at all to the slaves, until after their masters are convened….”

  25. Steve EM says:


    Again, JS ordained blacks and allowed them in the temple. BY reversed JS. Why go after JS when BY was the f-up? You just come off as someone w/ an axe to grind.

  26. Ray Agostini says:

    Steve wrote:

    Again, JS ordained blacks and allowed them in the temple. BY reversed JS. Why go after JS when BY was the f-up? You just come off as someone w/ an axe to grind.

    The ordinations stopped during Joseph’s lifetime. You may need to read the book I quoted, Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Signature Books,1984)

    As far as axe-grinding, this is what I wrote in my blog:

    I’ve been accused by various parties of being an anti-Mormon (sometimes disguised) and an apologist (sometimes disguised), and I’m really not sure what to make of these directly opposing claims, except it’s perhaps less of a true reflection on me, and more so on those making such claims/charges. I’ve sometimes been told that I need to “pick a side”, and I do: I’m on the side of finding truth, from whatever source it may come, however unpleasant it may be.

    By the way, I like swearing Mormons. As C.S. Lewis once wrote: “True friendship is born when one says, ‘you too? I thought I was the only one’.” 🙂

    I’ll be back later. Got some axe-sharpening to do.

  27. Hellmut says:

    I am not an expert on Joseph Smith. My impression was that he had a hard time denying people (least of all himself). I find it plausible to assume that he recognized the humanity in people when he encountered them.

    Although I know so little that my opinion can be easily swayed, I imagine Joseph Smith to be more egalitarian with respect to race than the average European American.

    On the other hand, Wilberforce is, of course, the real prophet. He led public opinion and focussed it at great personal cost.

    The abolition movement is a useful corrective to our self-understanding. Compared to some other religions, such as the Quakers, for example, we have done very little in pursuit of Christian values such as neighborliness, peace, hope, and justice.

    Unlike Joseph Smith, Wilberforce was independently wealthy and had the means to reflect on life and to indulge into his passions for the public good. Joseph Smith would have starved had he tried to live like Wilberforce.

    Still, many people with modest backgrounds made tremendous contributions to abolition and other reform movements. Just think of Frederick Douglass or rank and file Quakers.

    Be that as it may, I think it is fair to say that Joseph Smith’s attitude about Black people was not ahead of his time. He might have been on the right side of the question but his views were neither innovative nor influential outside of Mormonism. With respect to race, the Smith quotes are friendly but there were a lot of people that were more principled and more rational a generation before Joseph Smith was born.

    I do find it, however, useful to contest Mormon heritage by contradicting Brigham Young’s language.

  28. Seth R. says:

    I’m actually aware of some of the ambiguities in Joseph’s stance.

    A good deal of anti-abolitionist stuff was said – mostly in an attempt to assure angry Missourians that the Mormons were not going to take away their slaves in the process of building up Zion. It was an incredibly charged atmosphere with the LDS in danger of losing land, homes, and even their lives.

    On occasion Joseph seems to have caved to the pressure. But viewing the overall picture, I remain of the opinion that Joseph Smith’s views were in the progressive camp.

    By the by, I agree that it’s inaccurate to call Joseph an “abolitionist.” Joseph’s presidential platform proposed to BUY slaves from the Southerners using revenue from the sale of western lands. He seems to have shared Abraham Lincoln’s view that quick emancipation would cause a lot of societal upheaval that benefited neither white nor black.

    History will judge the merit of his views I guess.

  29. Seth R. says:

    By the way, I’ve encountered Ray elsewhere, and I’ve never pictured him as particularly “anti-Mormon.”

    Perhaps Ray, you could say you are about as “anti-Mormon” as Joseph was bigoted racist? 😉

  30. Ray Agostini says:

    Seth, I don’t believe Joseph was a bigoted racist.

    (mounts soapbox)

    My own father (1905-1987) was probably more racist. I grew up in a home where I was not allowed to bring black friends home, until I defied the order in my mid-teens. I brought a black friend home, and my father asked me to ask him to leave. I said, “if he goes, I go too”. The “ban” was lifted (without revelation) 🙂 (No apology for past behaviour was offered, however)

    Joseph seems to have been the “victim” of scriptural misrepresentation and popular prejudices of the time. But, after all, he was a prophet, so in this instance I can only think he was “speaking as a man”, even if he believed this came from God (a lesson to be observed here). That doesn’t excuse the results of this misguided belief, the effects of which are still present today, if not as bad as before 1978. I’m only telling the Church what I think the continuing consequences may be if there is no formal repudiation. I don’t plan to demonstrate with a placard in Temple Square, and the plane trip is too expensive anyway. Racism exists in my country too, but fortunately no religion has ever told Aboriginals that a “flat nose and black skin” is a sign of a curse against them, or that they are descended from Cain and represent the devil on earth. The government may have believed something like that, but Australian Aboriginals probably have over-representation in Christian churches here, because they are a very spiritual people who were formerly attached to the land, like the American Indians.

    Who today can ever think of going back to the pre-1978 ideas? A formal repudiation would enhance respect for the Church beyond measure, and put in place those members who still hold to these offensive ideas, in any shape, overt or covert. As Bishop Tutu quoted, “an injustice anywhere, is an injustice everywhere”.

    (/soap box demount)

  31. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    re Repudiation:
    I’m afraid LDS leaders (think = act like) any back-peddling or renounciation of prior leaders’ sayings will call into question their credibility; they don’t seem to think that being straightforward about goofs has anything positive in it for them.
    It’s been so long since I’ve seen/heard anything ‘outside the box’ from ‘the guys’ … I just can’t remember.

  32. Hellmut says:

    Perhaps Ray, you could say you are about as “anti-Mormon” as Joseph was bigoted racist?

    Funny! . . . and classy.

  33. aerin says:

    I’m having a hard time understanding why/how Joseph Smith’s opinion plays into this argument. I understand that he restored the church, and that most of the revelations in the D&C were through/from him.

    But why should what he said or felt have any impact on what BY (acting as an LDS leader after Smith) said? Is it that we’re trying to prove BY was wrong from what JS said or implied?

  34. Seth R. says:

    While we’re at it, we Mormons may wish to consider apologizing for Mormon’s “racist views.” I’ve occasionally wondered if the “racial passages” in the Book of Mormon are little more than a reflection of ancient world prejudices and sensibilities.

  35. profxm says:

    Seth, I’m assuming you’re joking about your last comment on Mormon’s racist views. But I don’t think you should. The BofM is a racist book. And, it’s considered god’s infallible word by Mormons. If my logic doesn’t fail me here, then:

    God’s word is unchanging. The BofM is god’s word. BofM is the doctrinal basis for Mormonism. BofM says black skin is a curse. Ergo, Mormons think black skin is a curse.

    By the above logic, any Mormon who claims the BofM is god’s word is also a racist (or at least worships a racist god). I’m guessing, Seth, you aren’t really a racist (though your statement in #20 “Is the fact that some portions of the quote are unrepeatable by politicians in our hyper-sensitized racial culture supposed to even be relevant to discussion of a guy who lived in the late 1800s? Get some perspective here.” wreaks of color-blind racism: http://www.rachelstavern.com/?p=395). But the BofM is a racist book. I don’t think Mormons should repent for it, but they may want to stop believing it’s the word of god.

  36. Seth R. says:

    “BofM says black skin is a curse. Ergo, Mormons think black skin is a curse.”

    Actually, no it doesn’t.

    And if you want to call me colorblind, feel free.

  37. Steve EM says:


    I haven’t read the book you sight, but it is my understanding that there are no direct links attributing the priesthood ban to JS, but only second hand ones after JS had passed. I strongly suspect such links are bogus or a case of wishful memories in support of BY’s bigotry, just as there are people today who wrongly cite BY as the originator of the WofW being a requirement, when that is utter rubbish! HJG made the four don’ts (not the WofW) the requirement it is today, and people wrongly cite BY to give the boneheaded policy more authority. I feel it was likly that way for the priesthood ban.

  38. Ray Agostini says:


    The link is in the fourth point quoted by Mauss and Bush. See my post No. 24.

    There are others, but I’d have to search for them later. It was Joseph who originally made the Ham connection. Brigham Young merely taught what Joseph taught him.

  39. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    these things show if not prove one thing:
    LDS leaders have a tough mountain to climb to go against the grain of what had been previously said or thought…
    witness the lasting reverence for white shirts, etc.
    LDS leaders just can’t get out of the box. If they need to abandon a thought or opinion-practice, they just let it slide into oblivion (sexual practices); I can’t recall one single solitary item they’ve ever renounced.
    One more: When I went to Ricks (Yes, I’m that old), it was ‘commonly understood’ that the Idaho Falls business people talked DOM into moving the college to Idaho Falls…
    Yet, it was never done.

  40. Ray Agostini says:

    Guy wrote:

    LDS leaders have a tough mountain to climb to go against the grain of what had been previously said or thought…

    As has been noted here many times, it’s tough because it will be viewed as compromising apostolic authority, and there shall be no compromise. The “integrity” of “the Brethren” shall take precedence over a repudiation of one of the worst religious tenets ever devised.

    The “long promised day” may have arrived, but neither American Indians nor Blacks have become “white and delightsome”. In the Book of Mormon this happened overnight. So one might well ask: “What’s the difference?” Is the “curse” still “on”?

    Even more reason for a formal and unreserved repudiation. It’s simple: “We were wrong.” Not just about the timing, but about the whole mythical charade – We taught false doctrine.

  41. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    and as we all know, ‘AUTHORITY’ is the basis of the LDS church, not Christian living, NOT Christian basics, principles, values, or even concepts.

    the man behind the curtain has been exposed, and he’ naked.

  42. profxm says:

    Seth, really? I think we’ve debated this before, but come on:

    2 Nephi 5:21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

    If that isn’t calling black skin a curse, what is it?

    As for color-blind racism, it refers to the tendency today of people to say things like, “I’m not racist, but I don’t see a problem with blacks living with other blacks in neighborhoods and whites living with whites in their neighborhoods.” It’s basically not recognizing the racial prejudice and discrimination inherent in such actions. Your statement is kind of similar by saying that our culture is hyper-sensitive to race. Why shouldn’t it be hyper-sensitive to race when race is used to discriminate against people still today?

  43. Seth R. says:

    Glad the website’s working again.

    profxm, I’m not a personal fan of Affirmative Action and that stuff, but I’m also not too worked-up about it, one way or the other. But really, why derail the thread with a fruitless political debate.

    I think the Book of Mormon is far more egalitarian on the race question than you are giving it credit for. The book makes an almost clinical observation of how certain appearances were regarded by an ancient people – the Nephites. The verse you cite does not equate skin color with the curse. Skin color is cited as an incidental that easily may or may not be construed as being an inherent part of “accursedness.”

    But then you’ve got to look at the overall message of the REST of the Book of Mormon, rather than selectively citing a few juicy prooftexts.

    What about the example of the “people of Ammon?” What about Helaman’s 2000 sons? What about Samuel the Lamanite? What about Jacob’s sermon where he tells the Nephites the Lamanites are, in some sense, actually morally superior to them? And while we’re at it, combine that with Alma’s sermon to the poor who had been cast out of the synagogues.

    Racism is not a vibe I’m getting from the book, and I think there’s real objective evidence that the OVERALL message of the Book of Mormon is not racist, but rather pro-civil rights.

    That said, the racist read is distantly plausible. Certainly, many early Mormons used it as fodder for distinctly racist views. But I don’t find it convincing.

    And by the way, no, I’m not joking about Mormon’s “racist views.” I think it’s entirely possible he had a few racist views of his own. I don’t have solid evidence of that, but I don’t dismiss the possibility.

    This will always be the problem of dealing with writings of ancient peoples. You have to tackle old-world views on reality as well. We don’t dismiss Aristotle because of some of his unenlightened views (and he did have more than a couple – by the way). Why dismiss Mormon for his?

  44. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    do we (pretend to) hold Aristotle and other thinkers-philosophers to the same standard(s) are ‘Prophets of the true and Only Living God’?
    I am somewhat astounded that you make such a comparison….
    In the totality of these things (using the Black & White thinking SOOOOOOOOOOOOO Prevalent in Morland) they either get it RIGHT or WRONG, no middle ground… so as Not to mislead others, we necessarily reduce that choice to RIGHT, don’t we?

  45. Seth R. says:

    Yes Guy.

    We ARE supposed to hold them to the same standards as Aristotle.

    Especially if you no longer believe in the prophetic calling. It’s the only intellectually responsible position a non-member can afford to take.

  46. Guy Noir Private Eye says:


    Aren’t Prophets supposed to have Higher Standards … and ppl have higher expectations of them/their sayings-teachings, conduct-behavior in general?

  47. aerin says:

    Whether or not the BOM was/is racist, whether or not JS was racist, it sounds to me like both of these arguments are what is preventing the leadership in SLC from renouncing what BY said?

    Because in order to renounce BY, they’d have to address these other issues?

    I would argue that they are separate issues. I think some of these statements from BY can be easily separated and denounced. If the LDS leadership wants to get into those other issues, I’m fine with that. But I think they are a little more grey.

    What’s wrong with taking small steps?

  48. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    I like the ads for Hebrew National(?) hot dogs:
    “We answer to a HIGHER Power”….

  49. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    (oops) I just looked it up; it reads:
    ‘we answer to a Higher Authority’.
    seems appropo to-for the LDS experience, doesn’t it?

  50. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    also, the church “Could” rescind the advice they gave just after the Phood was announced as available to Blacks… that people shouldn’t marry cross-race (Yes, it Did Happen!).

    I thought it was weird if not outrageous then, and still think it was mostly ethno-centric; but my ‘elder wisdom’ does suggest that for some, cultural if not ethnic homogeniety might have some (fleeting?) positive aspects.

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