We entertained a friend from our new ward, White Chapel, this last Sunday. She is African, and shared a unique perspective on blacks and the priesthood I thought compelling. With her permission, I share it here.
A bit of historical background first. Joseph Smith who founded the restored Church in 1830 did so in a political climate already fraught with tension over the slavery issue. Although he stopped at inter-racial marriage, he taught that one man should not be in bondage to another. He once said that blacks "come into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the white and they would be like them. They have souls and are subjects of salvation." (Rough Stone Rolling, p. 289) Further, one of the elements of his presidential platform was compensated emancipation.
During Joseph's lifetime, african Americans were admitted for baptism (if slaves, with masters' consent), a handful were ordained to the priesthood and at least one or two were later permitted the blessings of the temple. It seems that through the restoration, even though there was anti-Mormon sentiment roused by the pro-black position, blessings of the gospel were dispensed to all who had faith and repented of their sins.
After emigration to the Salt Lake Basin and settlement of surrounding, non-slave states, a policy was adopted that blacks could be baptized but not ordained to the priesthood nor receive the blessings of the temple (for men, priesthood is a necessary pre-requisite for temple ordinances). It should be noted that the policy was not part of any revelation.
This resulted in creative church structures in Africa, where worthy and faithful Saints gathered, sometimes under female leadership, in loosely-configured organizations (as the church is run by lay priesthood officers, without the officers, official church structures such as wards, branches, and stakes could not be established).
The policy was reversed in a dramatic 1978 Official Declaration.
Although nothing of the sort was mentioned in the early days, history and even a scriptural mandate was proffered to explain this policy. A PBS interview with living-day Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland in 2006 is illuminating:
I've talked to many blacks and many whites as well about the lingering folklore [about why blacks couldn't have the priesthood]. These are faithful Mormons who are delighted about this revelation, and yet who feel something more should be said about the folklore and even possibly about the mysterious reasons for the ban itself, which was not a revelation; it was a practice. So if you could, briefly address the concerns Mormons have about this folklore and what should be done.
One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. ... I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. ...
It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. ... At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.
Although I am relieved to know current leaders do not condone past racial explanations created for the policy, to say nothing of why the non-revelatory policy was adopted and maintained for so long is not exactly helpful for many members of the Church. Especially those of African descent, seeking to grapple with a clearly racist policy.
In reading the biography of David O. McKay, prophet to the Church from 1951-1970, I learned of his personal struggle with the policy, and his pleadings with the Lord to reverse it. I was left with the distinct impression that the policy had nothing to do with the worthiness or lineage of blacks, but with the readiness of bigoted whites to embrace their brethren and sisters fully in the gospel. In short, the Lord withheld the blessing because the [bulk of the] Church was not ready to receive it.
Last Sunday, I heard an different explanation from my faithful and thoughtful black female friend: in a climate of bigotry and racial tensions, the policy was a practical measure to ensure the growth of the church. Once America actually guaranteed civil rights and began to offer real equal protection, reversal of the policy would not hinder the growth of the church.
This explanation was not mutually exclusive with mine, but fitted nicely: the Lord knew the hearts of his people and those who would later join His Church. Neither were ready for full black integration. The white population was thus deprived of the benefit of black fellowship, and the Church's progress was stinted. The Lord waited for man's views to catch up with His, who "denieth none who come unto Him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."
I am exceptionally grateful for the lifting of this policy--every Sunday in fact, as I am blessed with the fellowship of exceptionally faithful, wise, and stalwart members of African descent, including my thoughtful friend.