More than a Shadow: Black Saints and the Priesthood Restriction

Recently the Church posted a statement on its website in the Topics section, a statement I was pleasantly surprised to see. It is called Race and the Priesthood, and it's the most direct official statement I've ever seen from the Church on this topic. But that could also be because it's the only statement I've ever seen, aside from Official Declaration 2.

To succinctly state the reality I want to address today, I'll borrow from the newly-published statement:
"Church members of different races and ethnicities regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Such practices make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a thoroughly integrated faith. 
Despite this modern reality, for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances."

If you're unfamiliar with the history of this issue, I highly recommend you read their statement first. It provides a foundation for the rest of my post. Also realize that having read it, you will have received more information in regards to the priesthood restriction than I did in my 6 years as a member of the Church.

My Experience: A Gradual Discovery

The issue of the priesthood restriction didn't catch my attention until my mission to Brazil. My Brazilian companions asked me about it. People we spoke to in the streets, many of them from other churches, would ask us about it. I spoke to active members who remember when the ban was lifted and they received the priesthood. We found someone who was baptized as a young woman in the 70's, fell away when she discovered the restriction, and hadn't been back to Church in more than 30 years.
Jane Manning James
First African American to settle
in the Utah Territory

All I could say to them is racism existed all throughout the world, not just in the Church, and 1978 was the time appointed for the entire world to change. Extending the priesthood to all worthy males was an invitation for the world to change, not just the Church. Many false things were taught as doctrine--the curse of Cain, the "less valiant" in the pre-existence--and we maintain today that these theories are false.

But it's hard to convince someone (in a foreign language) that you're telling the truth when those same theories are still being parroted around as doctrine by active native members of the Church.

Theories as to why the ban existed, including many views full of false doctrine, continue to be circulated throughout the Church in Brazil. The more I saw of the restriction's impact, and genuinely grew to love the Brazilian people, the more I wanted to help them understand one undeniable reality:

The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church
-Public Church statement, 2012

But it wasn't until I came home and discovered my grandmother's heritage that the priesthood ban took on a personal meaning to me.

The Priesthood Ban Affects All of Us

Whether you realize it or not, the priesthood ban affects all of us. The wonderful children of God who won't join the Church because they're black and they see no or few black faces in our congregations. The members who are inactive because they witnessed all of this history, or learned about it after the fact. You may even be closer to it than you think: you may have family members or ancestors that were directly impacted by the priesthood ban because they were black.

And you may not even know it.

That munchkin in the baby picture is me, but I'm a lot darker than that today.
The older couple to my left are my grandparents.

My grandmother's heritage has always been a mystery to us. Looking at her, you can tell she isn't white... but you can't tell what she is. Growing up, her ethnicity was never discussed. And it wasn't until I came home from my mission that I knew for sure that she is black. She comes from a long line of black Canadians from Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as sailors from Barbados and Jamaica.

I have loved discovering my black heritage. I feel like a missing part of who I am has been filled in at last. And it was only once I was preparing their names for the temple that I finally clued into what was really taking place there. Race just isn't something that I immediately notice about people.

My black family members were alive when the priesthood ban was still in force. Even though all races were still allowed to join the Church and be baptized, they never would have received the priesthood or ordinances of the temple during their lifetime. I'd be surprised if missionaries ever set foot in that part of Halifax because the area surrounding the harbor where they lived was predominantly black.

By extension, whether I would have been allowed to enter the temple would have been in question because of my heritage. I learned while I was in Brazil that I would have had to submit a genealogy to show if the restriction applied to me or not. I don't know how far removed that heritage had to be. But for all intents and purposes my husband and I could have been considered a biracial couple in the eyes of the restriction, and I may not have been allowed to be sealed to him.

That, more than anything else, is what disturbs me about trying to imagine myself in that position.

So What Does all of this mean to Me?

Now that I can imagine how it feels to be excluded from what means so much to me, what insight does that give me into why this history matters? And how does this change my perception of the issue, and my relationship with the Church?

First, it doesn't change my relationship with the Church at all. I don't blame my Church or its leaders today for the shortcomings and weaknesses of previous generations. I decided a long time ago I would never do that. I don't think it's Christ-like. I have no right to judge others, or to read malice into their motives. But I have a responsibility to forgive, and to strive to see the hand of God even when it appears invisible. I trust God enough to allow Him to correct the failures of mankind in His own time.

I'm grateful I can be the change for the members of my family. I feel more than ever how much my ancestors depend on me to do their temple ordinances. I feel their eagerness to be received into the kingdom of God, and that eliminates all doubts I might have had on this issue. If they can find it within themselves to let go of past hurts and wrongs, so can I. And I feel privileged to be the one to offer the temple blessings to them. I feel responsible to know their stories, and to take learning black history more seriously because it's also my history.

First black Elder and Seventy
Ordained in 1836 by Joseph Smith

I have a more intense interest to learn the history of black pioneers in my church. I want to learn their stories, and share them more in my lessons and in my talks at church. I never realized how much I was ignoring the black history of my Church, for fear that it would lead to explaining the priesthood ban. But now I see we lose so many valuable stories by doing that. Hiding from our past doesn't allow many members to heal.

Our white church history comes with all sorts of baggage, but we sing praises to it all day long. It never occurred to me that the black history of the Church should be no different. To see them publishing this statement makes me feel like they're owning this part of our history. I pray this will lead to greater knowledge of the black Saints of our past; stories of their valiant faith and sacrifices to build Zion.

More than anything else however, I feel the great love of my ancestors, and their gratitude that I'm not ashamed of them. Some in my family have been ashamed that they exist, as if being black was something to be embarrassed about. But I'm not embarrassed. And no matter how messy their stories become, I know I can hold onto two irrefutable facts:

  1. All the unfair things in life are healed and made right by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
  2. The wisdom and strength we gain by surviving terrible things is worth more than any innocence we had before.
I'm using this new section of the Church's website to build up my testimony of the Church stronger than it was before. I know I have the responsibility to do this. All that will come after this now will be better than anything else before it--which is not only the definition of true learning, but also of continuing revelation.

I know that God lives. I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ's restored Church. It was brought back to the earth through a living prophet, Joseph Smith. The power and authority he received continued to his successors throughout the history of the Church. They were men called of God, and even in their imperfections God was able to use them to do His work. We have a prophet today, Thomas S. Monson. The priesthood power he holds is exactly the same as it was in Christ's day.

The priesthood is available to all worthy men who will receive it, and women are free partakers of those blessings, regardless of the color of their skin. We enjoy blessings for which we did not work, and we must all remember that we drink from wells we did not build. Jesus Christ has established true order and equality in His Church today. Let us go on rejoicing, inviting everyone to come and see his miracles and partake of His restored gospel.

This is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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