Since I joined the Church in 1972, I have been categorized by my fellow-members as cursed, less-valiant, fence sitter, Cain’s lineage, and others that would be too impolite to be repeated here, but that’s part of the legacy, if you will, or I will call it more of a burden that members of black African ancestry have had to deal with. And notice, I’m from Brazil—I’m talking about my experiences in Brazil also, not just in the United States in the last sixteen years.
This statement was related by Marcus H. Martins, the first man of black African descent to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the 1978 revelation that lifted a ban on black men holding the priesthood and black men and women attending the temple in the Church. Brother Martins has also served as chair of the Department of Religious Education at BYU-Hawaii, as a bishop, stake high councilor, a temple officiator, a translator of the Book of Mormon, and most recently as mission president of the Brazil São Paulo North Mission. Notably, he is the son of Helvécio Martins, the first Latter-day Saint of African descent to serve as an LDS Church general authority.
Marcus H. Martins’s experience is certainly not unique and his situation has been one of the struggles that Mormonism has dealt with during is history. The priesthood ban was in place for well over one hundred years with unclear reasons for its existence. Since the reasons for initiating this ban have not been clarified, there has been and still is a tendency to attempt to explain the policy, especially with the speculative suggestions garnered from American culture or developed within Mormon theology by previous Church leaders. Included in these suggestions, as Martins stated, were the beliefs that blacks had been cursed with black skin and ineligibility to hold the priesthood because of wicked ancestors or because they had been less-valiant in the pre-mortal existence—beliefs that have lingered to this day. I remember one time in my own life, as a priest, when the adult advisor for us 17-year olds got all excited to teach us a lesson about the premortal existence. He bounded up, grinning from ear to ear as usual, and said “I’ve been doing lots of reading, and I have some great stuff to share,” and he did. For the most part, it was an excellent lesson. Then, suddenly, he pulled out a quote from some obscure seventy back in the 1950s that said that we were blessed according to how we had lived in the premortal existence, and we must have been pretty awesome to have been born into the One True Church, as opposed to the blacks who were denied the priesthood because they were all less-faithful prior to being born. I was disturbed to hear that you could classify who had been good and who had been evil in a prior life based on their skin color—it smacked of racism—and I said, “That doesn’t seem right. I don’t think that’s what we believe any more.” The advisor threw up his arms and said (still smiling), “Hey, I’m just quoting the Brethren.” At that time I hadn’t been given the tools to analyze such things and still believed everything a General Authority said must be true, so I grudgingly backed off and slumped down in my seat for the rest of the lesson.
The next day, I was carpooling with another quorum member to high school and asked him why he hadn’t said anything about it as well. He responded that it just seemed like such an obviously wrong quote that it was a dead issue to him. The fact of the matter is, however, that these pseudo-doctrinal beliefs are not a dead issue, but are still something that haunts the Church today and are only slowly being resolved. Only two years ago, BYU professor Randy Bott was quoted in a national news article as stating that blacks were descendants of Cain and were barred from the priesthood because of that connection. The article also referenced the less faithful in premortality idea my priest quorum advisor passed on to us. It went on to quote Bott as saying, “God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood and blacks were like “young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car” in seeking the priesthood prior to the ban’s lifting because they “were not yet ready for the priesthood” and it would not have benefited them. In fact, the article states that, “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…. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
Most of the beliefs that Dr. Bott taught were previously taught by other members of the Church, some of them in very high positions. This has been problematic in the Church’s efforts to reach out to African Americans—one study found that an important reason for a low retention rate among African Americans was the “continuing undercurrent of racism in such LDS popular beliefs as the curse of Cain” and that “surveys of Mormons… demonstrated clearly that the religious hostility implied in those old myths played an important part in generating anti-black prejudice and discrimination.” This has not been a problem just for people of African descent, however—a 2011 survey focused on understanding Mormon disbelief found that the Church’s stance on race issues was among the top eight most important general factors in why people who previously believed in Mormonism came to stop believing in the Church. In the past, the Church seems to have chosen to let time filter these beliefs out of our culture, with mixed results. More recently, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has released a statement that summarizes what is known about the history of the ban and has disavowed the traditional explanations for the ban and posted it on LDS.org.
This statement, released at the beginning of December 2013, indicates that the Church’s belief system today does not support racism in any form, but points out that the American society that the Church was founded in was racist, and that although Joseph Smith opposed slavery and allowed blacks to be ordained, in 1852 Brigham Young publically announced a policy of not allowing men of black African descent to be ordained to the priesthood. The new Church statement went on to review institutional racism in American government and put President/Governor Young’s policy in the context of the political and social situation of the Utah Territory of the time. Included in this section was some discussion of the idea that black Africans were cursed to be slaves and to be banned from the priesthood due to descent from Cain or Ham. A brief review of the ban’s history between President Young’s leadership and the 1978 revelation that lifted it followed. The conclusion of the statement focused on a straightforward disavowing of past statements of church leaders and theologians that supported the ban, including the idea of a cursed lineage, premortal failures, racial inferiority, and the idea that mixed-race marriages are a sin.
The statement is very significant if only for the statements about the pseudo-doctrinal beliefs that once supported the policy. As stated in the new document, during President Brigham Young’s tenure:
The justifications for this [priesthood] restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah. According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God‘s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin. Black servitude was sometimes viewed as a second curse placed upon Noah‘s grandson Canaan as a result of Ham‘s indiscretion toward his father.
After the restriction was in place,
The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.
Third, many Church leaders consistently taught that interracial marriage was a sin. In one extreme example, President Brigham Young stated that, “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.” (JD 10:110.)
All these beliefs hung in the air after the ban was lifted in the late 1970s, questionably applicable but still widely believed. The press release went out from Church headquarters with instructions “to get the widest possible dissemination of the full text of the latter but to offer no explanations or commentary,” indicating that there was to be no statements about what the official position on beliefs related to the ban. The tension and confusion over whether we were to continue to believe in the teachings that had previously been given about black Africans is displayed in what is probably the most widely-published public discussion of the revelation that lifted the priesthood ban. In this address to CES instructors, Elder Bruce R. McConkie told his audience to:
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….
It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.
This statement has been celebrated and used by proponents of discarding the pseudo-doctrinal beliefs for years, but on closer examination, we see that Bruce R. McConkie was only referring to the fact that blacks could be ordained, contrary to previous policy, and not necessarily anything else. In the very same sermon, he stated that “we do not envision the whole reason and purpose behind all of it [the priesthood ban]; we can only suppose and reason that it is on the basis of our premortal devotion and faith” and referred to blacks at one point in the printed edition of his address as “the seed of Cain and Ham and Egyptus and Pharaoh,” with similar statements being published in subsequent printings of McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine after the revelation was given. This would indicate that he still continued to believe and to teach the old rationales for the ban.
At the same time, other apostles and prophets spoke differently. In 1978, Spencer W. Kimball said that, “‘Mormonism no longer holds to… a theory’ that blacks had been denied the priesthood ‘because they somehow failed God during their pre-existence.’ ” Ten years later, Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated in a news interview that:
It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We [mortals] can put reason to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do so, we’re on our own…. Some people put reasons to the one we’re talking about here [the priesthood ban], and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong….
I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon… by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking…. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent.
These statements, however, were not widely publicized, leaving a large amount of uncertainty as to what members were to believe or not to believe. Further, when President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked about the issue in the 1990s, he reportedly stated that the 1978 Revelation “continues to speak for itself” and that, “I don’t see anything further that we need to do.” He seems to have honestly felt that the issue was resolved, stating on yet another occasion that, “I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at that time [the pre-1978 period].”
Confusion continued to exist, however. As one commentator observed in the late 1990s:
I suspect most members assume that the 1978 revelation is similar to the Manifesto: it is a change in practice only, and does not affect the underlying doctrine. So just as we apparently still believe in plural marriage in heaven, we seem bound to accept the ultimate inferiority of the black race. The church’s silence on this issue loudly supports the assumption that the change has been in practice only, not theory.
I believe that, for historical, doctrinal, moral, and practical reasons, the church needs to officially and emphatically repudiate the pre-1978 rationalizations for withholding priesthood ordinations from blacks.
A few members with similar views, headed by a black Saint named A. David Jackson, set about submitting an appeal to the Church officials during the late 1990s, with the support and help of Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy. They approached the Church through legitimate channels, requested that a firm declaration that repudiated any racist statements made in the past be added to the Doctrine and Covenants, since Mormons believe that “almost anything said by a General Authority is quasi-scripture and inspired…. Hence, the absence of any official correcting statement by the Church regarding these issues will perpetuate a belief system in these unfortunate and pejorative views.” In 1998, however, Jackson told Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times about this effort in hopes of accelerating the process. Armand Mauss—a sociologist who was involved in writing the statement—had warned him that such action would simply “derail the whole campaign.” When asked by reporters about the Stammer story after it was printed, he simply stated that “Jackson and Stammer had killed any chance for such a formal statement of repudiation to occur” and noted in his autobiography that, “I turned out to be quite right about that, of course, as President Hinckley, himself badgered by the Utah press, finally declared that he had heard nothing about plans for a repudiation, and none such would be forthcoming, nor did he regard it as necessary.”
Jackson and company are not the only concerned Saints who have tried to petition the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to repudiate the doctrines taught about race. Some have even pushed for an outright apology for these doctrines and priesthood policy. Darron Smith, a black member who was released from teaching at BYU in part due to his outspokenness on this matter has written that,
Our goal is to get the Mormon Church to apologize for its racist actions and teachings, just as other faith-based traditions have apologized. This is necessary is to disprove the prevailing notion that God “had His reasons” why humans denigrated and discriminated against other human beings based on race. When the Church refuses to give an apology, it leaves its millions of members left to question whether this was really God’s will rather than human racist actions. A recent online survey revealed that the majority of Mormons no longer believe that Blacks were cursed, but most of them still continued to hear these teachings in their church. Black Mormon members in the survey overwhelmingly asked for a public, unambiguous apology.
Like most of us, I’m hoping to leave this world a better place for our children. I am not cursed. And I certainly don’t want my children growing up thinking or even hearing that they were cursed. Please join me in asking the Mormon Church to issue an official, public apology for their role in racism.
Hopefully, from the statements above, one can get a feel for why this issue has been a problem. Essentially, Mormon teachings for many years systematically taught that people with black African ancestry were denied privileges in the Church because they had evil ancestors and that their spirits were the most wicked or at least indecisive spirits in a prior existence. Further, it was taught that they were not to mix with whites in marriage and parenthood. A believe that such men and women as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Jane Manning James, or Elijah Ables were inherently less righteous than white men such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and any other wicked person of Caucasian lineage based on their ancestry and skin color is a disturbing idea to many people—particularly people who are of black African descent themselves. But, as has been argued, because of a belief in a semi-infallible leadership, it would take a statement from the Church leadership to truly undo these beliefs among the Mormons.
I was interested in finding out how true this was, and so, as part of an online survey I was administering for a study of what people believed about the priesthood ban, I asked a couple of questions about these pseudo-doctrinal beliefs. There were 106 respondents, most of whom were probably white Caucasians living in the western United States. The results were interesting, and although they are not conclusive, are at least suggestive of general beliefs among North American Mormons. Of those who were asked, “Do you think Africans were denied the priesthood because of Do you think Africans were denied the priesthood because of certain ancestors (i.e. Cain, Ham, Canaan, Egyptus)?” only a third of respondents replied yes, with another 16% were unsure. It’s understandable for this to have a decently strong following, since this belief has been the strongest rationale for the ban from day one. Yet, even before the recent statement was released, 50-66% of the people who took my survey didn’t think that this was the reason for the ban (Figure 1). The other pertinent question I asked was, “Do you think that Blacks were denied the priesthood because they were less-faithful in the premortal existence?” The results were even more dramatic: less than 7% responded “yes” or “unsure” (Figure 2). I have talked with my peers (mostly Utah Mormons in their 20s) about this belief, and generally have drawn strong reactions against it. All of this would seem to indicate that the salutary neglect of these doctrines did allow them to atrophy to some extent, though not completely. It will be interesting to see how much these statistics will shift with this new Church statement in the coming months and years.
In recent years, the Church has released a series of statements about the ban, including, significantly, an introduction to the Official Declaration 2 in the 2013 edition of the LDS scriptures. All three prior to the latest one have used similar language, admitting that, “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.” They have generally disavowed racism and stated that traditional statements about the ban’s reasons are not our current explanation, but have not gotten into specifics. This new statement, however, has gone into specifics:
Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church….
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.…
The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is ―no respecter of persons‖24 and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of race—is favored of Him.
With this being said, it is well to remember the example of President Joseph Fielding Smith, who previous to the experience that will be related below was probably the single most significant exponent of the racial doctrines now disavowed by the Church. Eugene England—a BYU professor and important figure in the more liberal Mormon circles—met with Joseph Fielding Smith to ask him about these beliefs. In Eugene England’s own words, this is what happened:
It came to my attention that Joseph Fielding Smith (then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) had published an article in the Church News about this matter and in the process had essentially contradicted one of his assumptions in his earlier discussion of the matter in The Way to Perfection, then calling blacks an ”inferior” race and now specifically saying they were not. Two of my friends who were concerned about the same matter, and, as I did, looked at President Smith as the nearly official scriptorian of the Church, made an appointment for us to see him. President Smith was not very anxious to see us since he was being baited from many sources at that time, but after some assurances of our intentions he gave us some time and was particularly gracious when one of my friends, moved I think by the prayer we offered together before going, began the interview by confessing in tears that his original motives for coming had been somewhat contentious. I told President Smith about my experiences with the issue of blacks and the priesthood and asked him whether I must believe in the pre-existence doctrine to have good standing in the Church. His answer was, “Yes, because that is the teaching of the Scriptures.” I asked President Smith if he would show me the teaching in the Scriptures (with some trepidation, because I was convinced that if anyone in the world could show me he could). He read over with me the modern scriptural sources and then, after some reflection, said something to me that fully revealed the formidable integrity which characterized his whole life: “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to to be in good standing because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”
The ability to acknowledge when we are wrong and to make room for change in belief, such as President Smith did here is important in building a more constructive future. Hopefully, we will be able to fully discard these disavowed pseudo-doctrinal beliefs and make it so that Marcus H. Martin’s experiences will no longer be repeated within the LDS community. It may take time to get there, but this new statement provides the tools necessary to achieve that condition.
 Marcus H. Martins, “A Black Man in Zion—Reflections on Race in the Restored Gospel,” 2006 FAIR Conference, Best of Fair Podcast, accessed 15 Jan 2014.
 Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), 104.
 Armand L. Mauss, “ ‘Casting off the Curse of Cain’: The Extent and Limits of Progress since 1978”, in Black and Mormon, Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, ed. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 86.
 “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” www. WhyMormons Question.org, March 2012, 8.
 “Race and the Priesthood.”
 “Race and the Priesthood.”
 Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008), 67.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” 18 August 1978, BYU Speeches.
 See Bruce R. McConkie, “The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), pp. 126-37, esp. p. 128.
 Cited in Kimball Lengthen Your Stride 238.
 Cited in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.
 Keith E. Norman, “The Mark of the Curse: Lingering Racism in Mormon Doctrine?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 32 no. 1, (1999), 124.
 Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 103-104.
 Armand Mauss, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2012), 109.
 Official Declaration 2 in Doctrine and Covenants; “Church Statement Regarding ‘Washington Post’ Article on Race and the Church,” Mormon Newsroom, February 29, 2012, accessed November 21, 2013, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article; “Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God,” Mormon Newsroom, accessed November 21, 2013, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/race-church.
 Eugene England, “The Mormon Cross,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8, no. 1, 83-84.