The first prophet and founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr., 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 would later run for president and anti-slavery stood as one of his platforms. Any inequality between whites and blacks, he saw as the sole fault of slavery. To this effect, he said, “[Blacks] came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them.” 2
From the beginning, the Church would not treat blacks as property. A slave owner who joined the Church would be asked to give their slaves a choice to go free. And after the Church fled to Utah, the words “free,” “white,” and “male” were taken from the voting requirements of their Constitution. 3 Black Mormons could vote before the blacks in the rest of the United States (and women had a headstart as well). Unfortunately, when Utah joined the United States, these rights had to be receded.
But if blacks were members of the Church from the start and regarded as equal, why couldn’t they hold the priesthood or receive the fullness of Mormon temple ordinances until 1978? There is a good, clear answer to this, but we just don’t know what it is. All we know is that “in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things–Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof–Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34).
The Lord never banned black members from the priesthood, although he did not command the priesthood be given to them when it wasn’t. Care is suggested when trying to determine the “whys” of the matter. Many have held theories. For example, some believe that the priesthood wasn’t given to blacks because of the United States’ then-racist atmosphere and that white members may not have been ready. But no one actually knows and, without the word of the Lord, it isn’t given for us to know—but to accept with joy and celebration that the priesthood is given now. Some may feel similarly about women not holding the priesthood, even today, but this has never been a mark of inferiority—women are a powerful presence in the Church and blessed by the priesthood.
Further, in 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, then President of the Church, had thought a great deal about the blacks and the priesthood and he turned to the Lord, asking Him if the black members of the Church might be given the priesthood and the full blessings of the temple. The Lord’s answer follows: “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” 4 Today, black Mormons hold the priesthood and participate in ordinances in Mormon temples.
As an institution, the Church is not racist. But, like all organizations, all churches, the Church is populated by human beings, who are fallible. That the Church itself is not racist doesn’t mean that no member, or no leader, has ever had a racist idea or said a racist thing. We are all, to some extent, products of when and where we live and we are not immune to believing what other people of out time period believe. The world of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century was rawly racist and we must remember that the Mormon religion holds within it imperfect people, and that the Church never officially professed these racist ideas. In fact, they profess the very opposite today.
Three Mormon temples have been build in Africa and hundreds of thousands of black members are in the Church. Former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley emphasizes that we are ever to love all people, regardless of race or difference. “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.” 5
(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) Gordon B. Hinckley, “Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign, June 2004, 3