In December 2013, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) published a statement on its website, entitled Race and the Priesthood, explicitly disavowing doctrines taught by Mormons in the past, that people of black ancestry were under a curse.
Although the statement was clearly intended to improve the LDS Church’s image, it has had the opposite effect, calling into question its central religious claims.
This ET article provides a brief summary of the issues raised by the new Mormon statement. For a full analysis, and a wealth of pages of documentation and other resources, see ‘Mormonism and Race’, on the Institute for Religious Research’s website (web address below).
Racist doctrines were part of the Mormon religion from the very beginning. The Book of Mormon, written in 1829 and published in 1830 just before the LDS Church was founded, teaches that the dark skin of the Lamanites — supposed ancestors of the American Indians — was a curse on them for their wickedness.
The Book of Moses, Joseph Smith’s revision of the early chapters of Genesis, teaches that Cain’s descendants are the people of black skin, the mark of God’s curse on them for Cain’s wickedness (Moses, 7:6-8, 20-22).
The Book of Abraham, supposedly translated from a papyrus written by Abraham’s own hand almost 4000 years ago, states that the lineage from Noah’s son Ham was cursed and prohibited from receiving the priesthood (Abraham, 1:21-28).
It also teaches that all human beings lived as spirits in heaven prior to their mortal lives, but that some spirits were more noble and would receive greater glory (Abraham, 3:22-26).
For most of Mormon history this doctrine of pre-existent spirits of varying nobility was cited by the LDS prophets as explaining why certain spirits came to the earth as blacks: these were the less worthy spirits.
The new statement ignores all of these Mormon scriptures and claims that these ideas were mere uninspired ‘theories’ that did not carry the authority of revealed doctrine.
After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Brigham Young became the second LDS president in 1847. He was soon teaching that blacks could not hold the priesthood because they were under the curse of Cain, an idea he clearly derived from the Mormon scriptures.
There is evidence of him holding this view by at least 1849, and he taught it publicly on more than one occasion in 1852.
The new Mormon statement on race effectively blames the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood on Brigham Young, suggesting that Young introduced this exclusion as a temporary policy, in response to cultural and political pressures, and that it might be rescinded at any time.
However, this explanation not only ignores the origins of the exclusion in the teachings of the Mormon scriptures; it misrepresents Young’s own explanation of the exclusion.
According to Young, blacks could not hold the priesthood by divine order, and they would not be permitted to receive it until after everyone else of the other races had availed themselves of its blessings.
The new statement does admit that Young and other Mormon leaders cited the curse of Cain as a rationale for the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood, but indicates that they picked up that belief from the prevailing white racist culture of early modern America.
This argument implicitly admits that the idea of black skin as the mark of the curse of Cain was a modern notion, not an ancient one. That admission undermines the authenticity of the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham, which contain that modern idea as ‘inspired’ translations of ancient scriptures.
Following World War II, the LDS Church came under increasing pressure to allow blacks to receive the priesthood. In 1949, and again in 1969, the First Presidency of the LDS Church (its leading prophet and two additional leaders) issued official statements, affirming that God had commanded them to exclude blacks from the priesthood and insisting that the exclusion was based on divine revelation.
The recent Mormon article ignores those official statements. Instead it claims, based solely on secondhand accounts from men outside the inner circle of LDS leadership, that those leaders regarded the exclusion as merely a temporary policy and (the article implies) not revealed doctrine.
The article also claims that President David O. McKay, who led the church as its living prophet from 1951 until 1970, earnestly sought a revelation from God to permit the exclusion to be rescinded, but received no answer.
Again, McKay himself never said anything about this, but if it were true, it would raise troubling questions about his claim to be a prophet of God. After all, the LDS Church now says that the exclusion was wrong and that the rationale on which it was based was also wrong.
If McKay was really a prophet to whom God spoke, it is hard to understand why God didn’t tell McKay to end the exclusion.
In 1978, the First Presidency, then led by Spencer W. Kimball, announced that they had received a revelation authorising them to end the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.
This announcement was added to the Mormon scriptures as ‘Official Declaration 2’ at the end of ‘Doctrine & Covenants’.
While the decision to end the racist exclusion was commendable, the evidence does not support the claim that it was made on the basis of a revelation. By their own accounts, Kimball and his associates had already decided they needed to make that decision; they were simply seeking confirmation, and that confirmation consisted of a feeling that came over them during their meeting.
More significant still, they received no revelation telling them that the racist doctrines on which the exclusion had been based were also wrong. It took another 35 years for the LDS Church to admit that those doctrines of the curse of Cain and the unworthiness of blacks, in the spirit pre-existence, were wrong.
When it finally made that admission in late 2013, it was made through an anonymous web article evidently written by a Mormon scholar, not through a public announcement of new revelation through the living prophet Thomas Monson.
The implications of the new Mormon statement on race and the priesthood are staggering:
- The ‘living prophets’ of the LDS Church led them astray, contrary to the claim made by President Woodruff in ‘Official Declaration 1’ that such could never happen.
- The Mormon prophet cannot reliably receive revelations from God, since supposedly President McKay sought a revelation to rescind the exclusion but heard nothing.
- The Mormon scriptures supposedly translated from ancient prophetic writings are not authentic and teach false doctrines, since their teachings about race have now been repudiated as ‘theories’, man-made beliefs reflecting the racist ideologies of early white Americans.
- Evidently Joseph Smith was not the seer and revelator he claimed to be, since the texts he claimed to translate from ancient scriptures were laced with modern, white racist myths.
The true God revealed in the Bible is dependable and his Word never proves false, in contrast to the teachings of the Mormon scriptures and prophets.
Our hope is that this issue will not discourage Mormons from having faith in God, but will move them to rest their faith on the solid foundation of the biblical gospel (Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 3:28).
Robert M. Bowman Jr
The author is research director of the Institute for Religious Research (IRR), a nondenominational, evangelical Christian ministry of apologetics and discernment (http://irr.org).