Shifting Talk on Mormon Racism Reveals Divisions within LDS Church

There was a moment earlier this spring when longtime observers of Mormonism’s racial politics felt they had reason to celebrate.

A new edition of the LDS scriptures released in March featured a new, more historically specific account of the faith’s historic ban on black ordination. New headnotes to Doctrine and Covenants Offical Declaration 2 read:

“Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” 

It was not God who authored the ban, the headnote suggests, but a successor of Joseph Smith. (Brigham Young’s anti-black racist statements to the Utah legislature in the 1850s are a fact of historical record.)

And these new March 2013 headnotes seemed to continue a trajectory away from defensive apologetics and towards greater historical responsibility and openness set when LDS Church Public Affairs officials sprung into action to denounce an overtly racist defense of the priesthood ban made by BYU professor Randy Bott to the Washington Post in February 2012. Any attempt to rationalize the racial segregation of the Mormon priesthood, the Church’s official statement said, should be “viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine.”

But that trajectory hit a wall early in April 2013, when at the Saturday afternoon session of the Church’s worldwide semi-annual General Conference, an event closely watched by the Mormon faithful around the globe, Elder John Dickson, a high-ranking Church official, delivered a talk that normalized the priesthood ban and its 1978 lifting as divinely-intended chapters in the global spread of Mormonism.

“From the time of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, the Church has moved steadily across the world from nation to nation, culture to culture, people to people, on the Lord’s calendar and in His time,” Elder Dickson said. He continued:

“In 1978, following the established pattern of revelation through the senior Apostle, President Spencer W. Kimball, came a revelation, this time on extending priesthood blessings to all worthy males across the world. This means that in our day all of Heavenly Father’s children worldwide can partake of all of the blessings of the restored gospel. How appropriate to the kingdom of God on Earth in the days approaching Christ’s Second Coming.”

Gone from Elder Dickson’s talk was the historically specific account of the LDS ban on black ordination worked into the latest edition of LDS scriptures by the Church’s professional historians.

Gone too was the implicit acknowledgment that the racist ban may have been the product of human error rather than divine will.

Sources report behind-the-scenes efforts to have the talk edited before its publication in the Ensign, the official LDS Church magazine, in its semi-annual Conference edition.

Some hoped that just as Elder Boyd K. Packer’s controversial October 2010 General Conference on homosexuality had been edited for publication, so too might Elder Dickson’s talk be edited to correlate with official scripture.

But the talk will appear in print, unchanged.

One month. Two high-placed LDS sources. Two very different takes on the faith’s historic racism. One offers no excuses for priesthood segregation. One makes it sound like part of God’s plan. 

The events of this spring reveal a Church whose hired historians and high-ranking officials seem at times to be speaking at cross-purposes. They also reveal an ongoing struggle within Mormonism to come to terms with objectionable episodes in its own history without troubling too deeply many members’ profound deference to Church leaders revered as prophets. 

And they demonstrate how deep-seated is the tradition in American religion of using God to justify historical injustice. Even so serious a theologian as Jonathan Edwards once claimed the slave trade was the will of God—regrettable but providential, Edwards believed, because it introduced so many Africans to Christianity.

For decades before and after the 1978 lifting of the black priesthood ban, LDS people developed folk doctrines to justify a segregationist ordination policy that had no foundation in canonized theology or scripture. Some Mormons held onto these folk doctrines after the end of the ban itself, and even after LDS Church officials like Bruce R. McConkie, who himself had once espoused racist apologetics, asked them to stop. 

The publication of Dickson’s talk in the Ensign, LDS anti-racist advocates worry, will provide renewed cover for Mormons who would like to avoid reckoning with the human origins and harmful consequences of the faith’s historic racism. And that, they say, is no cause for celebration.