LDS Church Acknowledges Past Racism, Repudiates Racist Remarks

LDS Church and BYU officials moved quickly Wednesday to reject racist statements made by BYU religion professor Randy Bott to the Washington Post.

After convening a Wednesday morning meeting in Salt Lake City between high-ranking Church leaders and BYU faculty representatives, the LDS Church issued through its newsroom the following statement:

The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.

The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.

The statement officially abandons as “speculation” or “opinion” a number of rationale for the ban propounded as doctrine by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mormon leaders.

The statement is also significant, say observers of Mormon history, because it may be the first time the Church has acknowledged that the priesthood ban did not originate with LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. Finally, the statement acknowledges past and present racism within the Church.

Professor Bott, in emails sent early Wednesday morning to Mormons who privately challenged him on his statements, initially claimed that he had been misrepresented by the Washington Post. By the end of the day, however, Bott responded to inquiries by endorsing and sharing the Church’s official response to the controversy. His personal blog, “Know Your Religion,” which had included some content mirroring his statements to the Post, was also dismantled Wednesday.

Statements made by BYU officials suggest that Bott violated institutional policy by independently speaking to the press and advancing his own archaic views justifying the Church’s historic ban as doctrine.

The Church’s statement has sparked dialogue, self-examination, self-education, and argument across the Mormon twittersphere and bloggernacle.

At By Common Consent, blogger Brad Kramer urged LDS people to recognize that any defense of the historic ban is also an expression of racism and forestalls a collective process of “repentance”:

“An unwillingness to call the former policy racist and, therefore, wrong, unjustified, harmful, un-Christian, and indefensibly regrettable is, however subtly, still fundamentally racist. The priesthood/temple ban is, at present, not just a symptom of a racist past. It is a thorn in the side, an unhealed open wound on the body of a still racist present. And the sooner we can collectively realize that our unwillingness to fully condemn the racism of our past preserves a deep nucleus of that past racism in our present, the sooner we can actually experience the full power of repentance.”

By Common Consent also republished a definitive 1973 article by historian Lester Bush chronicling early ordinations of African-American Mormons and tracking the uneven historical emergence of the anti-Black-ordination policy and various racist theological rationale.

Studying Mormon history “takes a little more work than the stinking pile of worn-out racist speculations a popular BYU professor has been peddling,” wrote Dialogue editor and By Common Consent contributor Kristine Haglund. “Do the work… If you only ever read one Mormon history paper in your life, this should be it.”

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.