The Bottgate Fiasco and Mormon Racism

Mitt Romney, one of the Republican presidential candidates, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His campaign has caused increased interest in the Church, and the limelight shined on our beliefs has not always been positive.

And so far, the negativity has pretty much been all our fault. We don’t need critics to muddy up the water; we do it just fine on our own.

This post will deal with racism and the Mormon church as it relates to a recent statement made by Randy Bott, a BYU religion professor. I’ll argue that:

  • Bott was not misquoted, as can be seen by similar statements in the context of his blog post. Racism unfortunately still exists within the LDS Church.
  • Racism is, and has always been, contrary to the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ
  • We don’t know to this day why the ban existed

Despite what others may think, I’m actually okay that this has happened. It gives us a chance to talk about a very serious issue, and dispel popular Mormon folklore that still plagues the Church.

To see how this folklore was depicted in the musical “The Book of Mormon”, see my post on the song “I Believe”.

Bott’s Racist Quote

Jason Horowitz from the Washington Post wrote an article entitled “The Genesis of a church’s stand on race”. Horowitz interviewed Randy Bott, a BYU religion professor, as part of his article. Bott said,

“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.

(First of all, “Keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them” is not a great answer to the question, “What is discrimination?”)

Many people were outraged by Bott’s condescending suggestion that blacks were akin to small girls asking to drive before they were ready. It sounds uncomfortably similar to the sentiment expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”. Bott’s statement was blatantly racist.

Bott said that he was misquoted, and that this was taken out of context. I can appreciate that journalists sometimes do this, and it may have even happened in this case.

Still, I can’t see how, given any context, this quote be seen as anything but racist. What’s more, you can compare this for yourself to a similar statement in a blog post on Bott’s blog, Know Your Religion (which has since been taken down). The post called “Blacks and the Priesthood” can be found below in its entirety (thank goodness for Google cache!). Some of my comments can also be found there.

The Official LDS Response

The day after the Washington Post article was published, the LDS Church released an official statement. In it they denounced the quote attributed to Bott and racism everywhere.

“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.”

In the past, the Church has said this about racism:

“The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. The Book of Mormon states, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). This is the Church’s official teaching.

“People of all races have always been welcomed and baptized into the Church since its beginning. In fact, by the end of his life in 1844 Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed slavery. During this time some black males were ordained to the priesthood. At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended. Church leaders sought divine guidance regarding the issue and more than three decades ago extended the priesthood to all worthy male members. The Church immediately began ordaining members to priesthood offices wherever they attended throughout the world.

“The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church. In 2006, then Church president Gordon B. Hinckley declared that “no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.”

“Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:

““The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.””

“Forget Everything that I have Said”

As you can see in the above Church statements, and as I repeat unequivocally, we don’t know why the ban was in place or why it was lifted when it was. In a 1970 statement, the First Presidency stated that the reasons “we believe are only known to God, and not to man”.

After the priesthood ban was lifted, Bruce R. McConkie spoke about past suppositions made by Church leaders, including himself. His statement could rightly be used to confront people like Bott. He said,

Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past 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.

Church leaders have condemned racism. President Gordon B. Hinckley has said,

“Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord. Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.

Others Weigh In

Know Your Religion’s “Blacks and the Priesthood”

I have been asked the “Black and the Priesthood” question for many years. It wasn’t until I was a mission president that the issue became much clearer. Let me begin (up front) by saying that I still don’t understand all of the ramifications on “Why God gives Priesthood to some and not to others.” However, I have explicit faith that He knows the reasons and when we eventually see as He sees, we’ll be completely satisfied that what He has done has been the wisest thing to do.

Perhaps an example is the fastest way to teach how I handle the question. I was sitting in the Mission Home one Sunday afternoon waiting to leave for another Stake Conference. The telephone rang and the woman on the other end of the line explained that she was a Stake Missionary and had a Black investigator who wanted to talk with me about the “Black and the Priesthood” issue. I invited them over.

The investigator was working on a Master’s degree and seemed to be very confident and articulate. After introductions he immediately attacked me with a barrage of questions. “Why are you prejudiced against Blacks?” he asked. “I didn’t know I was!” was my reply. He said: “Don’t play mind games with me. I understand you have a doctorate degree and I am fairly educated myself, so let’s get to the meat of the issue. Until 1978 Mormons withheld the Priesthood from the Blacks and I want to know why?” He was just assertive enough to kindle my combative spirit a little—it wasn’t like a bash session but more a spirited exchange.

I said: “You seem to be rather bold in coming into my home and attacking me. Would it be alright if I asked you some questions?” He agreed. I asked him what his definition of the Priesthood was. He replied that it was his understanding that it was “the power of God….” and then he continued on. I stopped him and said, “Can we just agree that the Priesthood is the power of God?” He agreed. I asked him if he thought the priesthood was a real power to which he responded in the negative. Then I followed with a rather incredulous question: “Why, then, are you upset with the Mormons keeping a ‘non-real thing’ away from your people?” He didn’t know what to say.

I continued. “For sake of discussion, let’s assume the Priesthood is a real thing. Who then would control it?” He answered: “Well, I guess God would since it is His power.” I asked: “Does He have to account to you on why He does what He does?” To which he recoiled and answered: “Certainly not. That would border on blasphemy!” to which I agreed.

Then I asked who held the Priesthood during Old Testament times after the Exodus. He rather proudly demonstrated his understanding that it was only the Tribe of Levi. I asked: “Would you show me in the Old Testament where the other 11 tribes, which include Judah—through whom the Savior was to be born, and Joseph—the new chosen, birthright son, picketed up and down in front of the Tabernacle demanding the Priesthood?” He admitted that he couldn’t and stated that he had never looked at it quite like that before. I suggested that God has always “discriminated” with regard to who could hold the priesthood.

(In my opinion, this is where the gospel ends and the unfortunate supposition starts.)

Then I decided to help him see discrimination from a different perspective. I said: “Since you brought it up, let’s talk discrimination for a minute. Up until June 8, 1978 a Black could be a member of the Church, have the Holy Ghost, partake of the sacrament, and serve in the Church in whatever capacity that didn’t require the Priesthood. They could be administered to, receive blessings, etc. The instant they died they could have their names submitted to the temple for temple work because there was no reference on the form as to race. Therefore, all the blessings of not only Salvation (which come from Baptism and the Holy Ghost) were available to them, but also the blessings of Exaltation (which require Priesthood for the males and temple endowments and sealings), were also available. However, they could not become “sons of perdition” because the unpardonable sin had to be committed before the dissolution of the body.” Since I had just been studying it, I knew the reference, so I excused myself and retrieved my copy of the Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith where Joseph taught:

(Now, I haven’t studied this subject, so I may be wrong, but it seems that Bott makes an inappropriate jump here that he does not back up. In relation to becoming a “son of perdition”, Joseph says nothing of the priesthood, but rather the reception of the Holy Ghost.)

“A man cannot commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, and there is a way possible for escape. Knowledge saves a man; and in the world of spirits no man can be exalted but by knowledge. So long as a man will not give heed to the commandments, he must abide without salvation. If a man has knowledge, he can be saved; although, if he has been guilty of great sins, he will be punished for them. But when he consents to obey the Gospel, whether here or in the world of spirits, he is saved.

“A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner. Hence the saying, They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone. I say, so is the torment of man.

“I know the Scriptures and understand them. I said, no man can commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, nor in this life, until he receives the Holy Ghost but they must do it in this world. Hence the salvation of Jesus Christ was wrought out for all men, in order to triumph over the devil; for if it did not catch him in one place, it would in another; for he stood up as a Savior. All will suffer until they obey Christ himself.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Six 1843–44, p.357)

I continued: “So up until June 8, 1978, only a white, Melchizedek Priesthood bearing male could be come a son of perdition. Now thanks be to the Lord, since 1978, you too can become a son of perdition.” I thought he was turning pale white in front of me.

He stammered a little and said: “I had never looked at it that way before!” I assured him that most people hadn’t. Then I turned to the Sister Stake Missionary who had brought the Black investigator, and said to her: “Up until this very day, God is still discriminating against 50% of His children in not allowing them to hold the priesthood– they are women. But (I continued), I vote that women can also hold the priesthood and they too can become sons of perdition!” By this time their entire demeanor had changed.

(So can women not be “daughters” of perdition either? That seems like a stretch to me as well, but again, I could be wrong. Hopefully it’s more than additional sexism.)

I concluded by explaining that God’s stated objective for not only mankind in general but for each individual son or daughter was to give them immortality and eternal life (see Moses 1:39), and that God assured us in 2 Nephi 26:24: “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.” As our belief in and trust of God increases, we are more content to allow Him to be God and us to be His children.

I then explained that mortality (when viewed in God’s time, which is that one day with God is equivalent to 1000 years with man—Abraham 3:4) if we lived for 72 years would only constitute a one hour 43 minute and 41 second test away from God. That we had lived with God for countless years before coming here and the God had designed our mortal existence so that, if we would take advantage of it, the time and the condition under which we were born and lived out our lives would enhance our quest for exaltation faster than any other that could possibly be. Therefore, by trying to dictate to God what should happen to us, what powers we should hold, etc. we were actually demonstrating our lack of faith in God’s plan for us and placing ourselves in a position of superiority to God—which is blasphemy.

The conversation ended on a very congenial note with the Sister Stake Missionary forcefully declining to accept the responsibility of the priesthood and gratefully being content to enjoy the blessings of the Priesthood—just as the Blacks had before 1978.

You see, it isn’t really an issue of the Black and the Priesthood or anything else. The question is, do we trust God to do the very best for us He possibly can without destroying our agency nor giving us too much too fast and thus enabling us to destroy ourselves.

(Again, here it is – it was the white man’s burden to take on the greater the responsibility, and greater risk, of priesthood ordination. Before 1978, blacks were completely unprepared for that responsibility. How can this not outrage someone?)

I hope this short explanation will give you some ideas to help all people, no matter what color to understand a little more about how God lovingly works with His children for their salvation and exaltation.

Know Your Religion’s “When did the Priesthood Ban for Blacks Begin?”

Question

Besides Abraham 1:26-27 (which I don’t really understand), I have never read anything that stated blacks being excluded from the Priesthood. The only mention of it is when it they say that men of any race could in 1978 in official declaration 2. I have often been curious when the practice of the Priesthood ban began. I’ve read on your web site that we don’t know why there was a ban, and I understand that it doesn’t really matter now anyway. I am just curious to know when it started. I’ve heard that Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Able (a black man) to the Priesthood. Did this happen before Joseph Smith revealed these verses in Abraham? This made me wonder if the Priesthood ban was revealed later by another prophet other than Joseph Smith. I briefly spoke with you after class about this and you told me that Joseph Smith had later asked Elijah Able to stop using the Priesthood. I was just wondering if you had a reference to where that is documented so I could research more.

Answer

As far as I know, there is no evidence that the ban on blacks receiving the Priesthood occurred during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Jessie L. Embry wrote the article on blacks for our Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History). She states on page 107 that “sometime in the 1840’s Church leaders announced that blacks could not hold the priesthood.” As you can see, that statement leaves a lot of leeway (I have attached a copy of that article).

Alan Cherry and Jessie Embry wrote the article on blacks for The Encyclopedia of Mormonism. They state in volume 1, pg 125-126: “Joseph Smith authorized new ordinations in the 1840s and between 1847 and 1852 Church leaders maintained that blacks should be denied the priesthood because of their lineage.” (Joseph died in 1844).

Richard Bushman, in his new biography entitled Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, states on page 289: “The exclusion of black men from the priesthood was publicly stated only after [Joseph Smith’s] death….Nothing was done during Joseph’s lifetime to withhold priesthood from black members.”

I am sorry I do not have any information about Joseph Smith’s conversation with Elijah Abel about him not using his priesthood. I hope this is helpful. Have a nice day.

Blacks and the Priesthood

For unknown reasons, the Church denied blacks priesthood and temple blessings from sometime after Joseph Smith’s death until 1978, a policy that limited missionary work and conversions throughout the world, especially in Latin America and Africa. Like other New Englanders, early Latter-day Saints generally opposed slavery. While at least two black men Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis were ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, sometime in the 1840s Church leaders announced that blacks could not hold the priesthood. Nevertheless, black Mormons were among the first pioneers to Utah in 1847. A few blacks throughout the United States and in countries such as Brazil continued to join the Church and remained faithful.

Church leaders, however, did not issue an official public statement on this priesthood denial until 1949, when they explained that the restrictions on priesthood were not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord (Bringhurst, p. 230). In 1963 the Church issued a statement that attempted to separate priesthood exclusion from the Civil Rights movement, but African Americans still publicly attacked the Church. In 1969 the First Presidency issued another statement confirming priesthood denial.

By the late 1970s most protests had died down. As a result, many Mormons were shocked when, in June 1978, Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation providing that all worthy men “may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color” (see D&C, Official Declaration 2). Before this revelation, Church leaders had advised missionaries not to teach blacks during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. For example, the first missionaries to Brazil worked mainly with German immigrants. No missionaries were sent to Africa, and in the United States they generally stayed out of African American neighborhoods and rarely taught blacks unless approached. But, as early as 1946, blacks in Nigeria had asked for missionaries, even organizing churches using the Book of Mormon. During the 1960s and 1970s the Church had experienced tremendous growth in Brazil, and determining who was black was a sensitive issue in the racially mixed country. Construction of a temple there in the mid 1970s focused attention on this delicate matter.

Following the 1978 revelation, the Church opened missions in Africa. Ten years later leaders organized the first stake in black Africa in Nigeria. Missionaries throughout the world, including the United States, started working in black neighborhoods. Because Church records do not list race or color, it is impossible to determine how many blacks have been baptized except in some parts of Africa. It is clear, however, that blacks have joined the Church in increasing numbers. They have received temple blessings and marriages and served as missionaries and ward and stake leaders. Brazilian Helvecio Martins served as a member of the Second Quorum of Seventy from 1990 to 1995.

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