It’s true that black Mormons couldn’t receive the priesthood until 1978, but it is not true that the Mormon Church (properly called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is a racist institution. In fact, from the beginning, the Church supported equal rights, regardless of race. The founder and first prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, said this about slavery, “It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?”1 Joseph Smith later ran for president and one of his platforms was anti-slavery. He believed that any inequality between blacks and whites was purely the fault of slavery. He said, “[Blacks] came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them.” 2
The Church treated blacks as people, not property, from the beginning. Those members who joined with slaves were asked to give their slaves a choice to take their freedom. And after the Mormons fled to Salt Lake City, they amended their Constitution to remove the words “free, white, male” 3 from the voting requirements. Indeed, black Mormons could vote at a time when the blacks in the United States were unable to. Unfortunately, this right was removed when Utah also became part of the United States.
However, although blacks could be members of the Church, they were not allowed the priesthood or to partake in the fullness of Mormon temple ordinances until 1978. The reason for this is unclear. The Lord did not actually ban blacks from the priesthood, but He did not command they be given the priesthood when it was not given. We should be hesitant about deciding why this was, although theories have shown up now and again. Some think that blacks could not hold the priesthood because of the heavy racism in the United States at the time, and the Church members were not yet ready, but there is no way to know if this, or other theories, are correct without the word of the Lord.
Then Church President Spencer W. Kimball thought often about black Mormons and the priesthood. He asked the Lord if it was time, if black Mormons could be given all the blessings that other members received. On 8 June 1978, the Lord gave Spencer W. Kimball the following, “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” 4 Today, black Mormons are able to hold the priesthood and participate in ordinances in Mormon temples.
This all is not to say that no leader in the Church has never made a racist comment, or had racist ideas. The Mormon Church is made up of human beings, all of whom make mistakes, or believe things that other people believed at the time. The world of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th was rawly racist and members of the Church, as with many, many people of the time, were not immune to saying or believing offensive and racist things. But we must remember, again, the imperfection of all people. And we must remember that the Church never officially professed these ideas, and profess the opposite today. About any such comments, in relation to black Mormons and the new revelation, Bruce R. McConkie said, “Forget everything I have said, or what … Brigham Young … or whomsoever has said … 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.”5
Three Mormon temples stand today in Africa and hundreds of thousands of black Mormons are among the members of the Church. President Gordon B. Hinckley reiterates that we are to love all people equally, despite our differences, “Let there be no animosity among you but only love, regardless of race, regardless of circumstances. Let us love one another as the Lord would have us do.” 6
(1) Joseph Smith. History of the Church. 5:217-218
(2) Joseph Smith. Letter of the Prophet to John C. Bennett–On Bennett’s Correspondence Anent Slavery. History of the Church, 4:544.
(3) Times and Seasons, Vol. 1 No. 12 October, 1840.
(4) Doctrine & Covenants. Official Declaration 2
(5) Bruce R. McConkie, “New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, 126-127.
(6) Gordon B. Hinckley, “Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign, June 2004, 3