Mormania: The December 1969 Statement on Blacks and the LDS Priesthood

In December 1969, the LDS Church First Presidency issued a statement stating that, while a revelation had not yet been given authorizing the priesthood to be given to black males, it is yet important to uphold the Constitutional and civil rights of all citizens regardless of skin color. Ironically, in light of the failure of the United States and other nations of that time to uphold the civil rights of all citizens, many people chose instead to focus on the supposed racism and hypocrisy of the LDS Church.

On December 15, 1969, the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement, which said in part that
From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the church have taught that negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.

The letter also stated that “Sometime in God's eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood.”

At the time the statement was issued, an estimated “several thousand blacks” had joined and were faithful in the Church, serving in a variety of non-priesthood “auxiliary” callings.

On January 23, 1970, the Victoria Advocate printed an article by Roy Wilkins (an article that appeared in several other newspapers at that time), reacting to the December 1969 statement by the Church, which reported that
The highest levels of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) have reaffirmed the church’s policy of barring Negroes from the priesthood—that is, from first-class membership. The letter from the church places the responsibility for the Negro’s lower echelon position on God, not the Mormon church. The church, said the letter, is awaiting a “revelation” from God. Until that arrives and declares that Negroes may become priests, the church will continue its present policy.

The article went on to clarify that
This is called a matter of conscience [and] religious belief, having no bearing on the church’s position that as a citizen, the Negro should be accorded full constitutional equality.

But then, Wilkins points out, politically, it didn’t seem like the LDS Church really supported equality of the races, based on the voting patterns of one of its United States senators.
The paragraphs [from the Church’s letter] on Negro equality are among the best on the subject. The letter contains telling references to the mob persecutions suffered by the Mormons. One could wish that Senator Wallace Bennett of Utah, one of the Mormons high in government, would heed these words. Senator Bennett votes 96(?) per cent of the time against civil rights bills.

“[O]ne is struck by the fact that only males barred from the Priesthood are black,” the Wilkins article continued. The Advocate went on to say that the Mormon Church has every right to ban blacks from holding its priesthood, but stated that the policy appeared “absurd to some people”. It is likely that the position of the Church appeared absurd to members of the general leadership of the LDS Church, who were perhaps frustrated that a revelation from God had not yet cleared up the matter.

Wilkins’ article in The Advocate pointed out that
…the fact that the [LDS Church] statement was made means that opinion against the official policy has become widespread enough to warrant attention from the leaders of the Church.

It then went on to note that some black athletes—and even entire universities—had refused to play against sports teams from the LDS Church’s flagship school, Brigham Young University, because of the Church’s position on not allowing black males to hold its priesthood. The article specifically cited “Stanford University’s severing of athletic relationships with Brigham Young [University].” Citing “dissent within the church”, the author of the article opined that “The Mormon walls on race will come tumbling down.”
One cannot believe in Jesus Christ and believe at the same time in a second-class place for Negroes.

It seems clear in retrospect that the leaders of the LDS Church were troubled by the same thoughts and feelings.

The Washington Afro-American, on January 24, 1970, however, minced no words in calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “White Supremacy Religion”. “The…Mormons,” wrote the Afro-American, “no longer dodge or becloud the issue of whether the religion is based in part on a white supremacy theory.”
The 139-year-old church on December 15 [1969] issued a statement in which it let the truth hang out clearly for all to see. In short, it said black people are not good enough to be priests in the racist religion but outside the church, blacks are as good as anyone else and deserve full civil rights. What that statement by church president David O. McKay and his elders means to this newspaper is that they are hypocrites.

It is high time that other Americans, especially through religious groups, should take a stand against the un-Christian, undemocratic, and un-American tenets of the Mormon Church.

Interestingly, and I suspect much more accurately, the Afro-American reported in an adjacent article on the same page of its January 24, 1970 issue that
The nation’s foreign policy experts are concentrating on Vietnam and southeast Asia, but all the while a potentially explosive situation in Southern Africa is neglected.

The article, entitled “U.S. On Wrong Side As African Time Bomb Ticks Away”, penned by Whitney M. Young, Jr. explained that
The black population of much of southern Africa is oppressed by a handful of whites. In South Africa, less than four million whites, led by former Nazi sympathizers, deny over 13 million blacks the most elementary democratic rights.

It is interesting to note, in light of world history in early 1970, what portion of the LDS Church’s First Presidency’s letter the Afro-American did not comment on. The Church wrote in its December 1969 statement:
We believe that the Constitution of the United States was divinely inspired, that it was produced by "wise men" whom God raised up for this "very purpose," and that the principles embodied in the Constitution are so fundamental and important that, if possible, they should be extended "for the rights and protection" of all mankind.

In revelations received by the first prophet of the Church in this dispensation, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Lord made it clear that it is "not right that any man should be in bondage one to another."

It follows, therefore, that we believe the Negro, as well as those of other races, should have his full Constitutional privileges as a member of society, and we hope that members of the Church everywhere will do their part as citizens to see that these rights are held inviolate. Each citizen must have equal opportunities and protection under the law with reference to civil rights.

Comments

  1. Nice article. Could you reprint that 1969 statement in its entirety? I have never read it.

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  2. Phoenix: To the best of my knowledge, this web site accurately reproduces both the 1969 and the 1949 statements by the First Presidency: http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/neither/neitherappx.htm#Appendix

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  3. As a black member of the Church. You have documented something so noteworthy. Thank you!

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  4. Being a little younger than other people, I didn't live through this era and need to learn more about it. Thanks for the little bit of history, Frank.

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  5. The part of that statement that I find myself using most often is the line clarifying that blacks were not to receive the priesthood "for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man." I suppose people can theorize, but when a Latter-day Saint seems to think that we know all the reasons, I share that statement with them. Plainly said, we don't know exactly why the Lord required this of the saints, and it's important to recognize the limits of our knowledge.

    As Elder Oaks says, it's not the Lord's habit to give us the reasons behind every revelation; once we start positing reasons for a commandment, we're usually on our own.

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