I’m throwing this note in a bottle out into digital ocean hoping it will reach my Black brothers and sisters. The note contains my personal apology for the decades of racism you and your families endured because of an uninspired policy by the institution I love – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m doing this as an individual member because the institutional church hasn’t seen fit yet to use the word “apology” in any official pronouncements regarding the discredited and discarded practice of denying black men the priesthood. The 1978 revelation ending this odious practice was one of the greatest moments of my spiritual life, but it didn’t erase the damage of a century of institutional racism.
I’m sorry I have to use Facebook to communicate with you, but one of the disappointments of my life is to live in an unintended apartheid environment, where the only Blacks I see are in movies, TV sitcoms and sports arenas. Sad. I invite anyone who also wishes to apologize as a symbol of a contrite spirit to add a comment and “Like” this post. That way our apologies in a bottle will find their way to the people who were so wronged for so long.
I like to think the following individuals would apologize if they could:
1) Brigham Young, for succumbing to the political pressures and racial attitudes of the 1850s in instituting the priesthood prohibition. I believe he was a prophet of God, but neither he nor his successors are infallible. No doubt President Young didn’t want to subject the already highly persecuted church to further recriminations by bucking the racist attitudes of his day, but the prohibition was a mistake. Maybe he recognized his error in warning that he feared the Saints would follow a prophet blindly without seeking spiritual confirmation for his policies and pronouncements. When we hear the oft-quoted statement that the Lord “would never allow a prophet to lead us astray,” I believe it’s referring to doctrines, not practices. No question, President Young led us astray with this practice.
2) Generations of members and church leaders, I believe, would want to apologize for allowing an expedient practice to become institutionalized. Even though we live in a church that espouses common consent, it’s very difficult to raise concerns about questionable practices even as abhorrent as the priesthood prohibition. It still goes on today – like the recently abandoned practice of not allowing women to pray in sacrament meeting. My understanding is that the leaders conducted an internal survey to root out sexist practices in our culture and discovered the prohibition against female prayers. No one knew its provenance – it had just infiltrated our culture and people went along with it for decades! I believe that prohibiting women from holding the priesthood is a changeable practice and not a doctrine, but that’s a debate for another day.
3) Now it comes to me and the sins of omission for which I must repent and make apology. From an early age growing up in Los Angeles, I couldn’t understand the priesthood prohibition. My parents told me that it was “just the way it is” and that I should “follow the brethren.” I stood on the sidelines in the 1960s and 70s as courageous and inspired brothers and sisters began to question the practice – and sometimes were punished. I’m ashamed of my cowardice and beg your forgiveness.
These days, whenever I hear someone in Church repeating myths about the basis for the prohibition, such as Blacks being less-valiant in pre-mortality, I always speak up. I’m glad the Church’s recent statement made specific reference to these myths. The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie said everything ever said or written about the priesthood prohibition by Church leaders prior to the revelation “was wrong”; the brethren were working with “limited understanding,” to use his words.
There is another myth the Church’s statement did not address, and it may be the most blasphemous. It’s that the Lord himself determined the timing of the priesthood revelation based on some pre-ordained timetable, like when Blacks supposedly were “ready” to receive the priesthood. That myth shifts the responsibility for continuing the discriminatory practice to the Savior, which I find profoundly offensive. The Book of Mormon says that “all are alike unto God” – male and female, black and white, bond and free, everyone.
The timing of the revelation, I believe, had far more to do with the leaders’ and members’ prayers for a change and their readiness to receive new light. By the early 70s, so many members of the Church were increasingly uncomfortable with the practice, especially with the worldwide criticism the Church was receiving. I believe, however, the majority of Saints were motivated by love for their brothers and sisters. The President at the time, Spencer W. Kimball, decided he would ask the Lord about the restrictions and – this is pure conjecture, of course – the Lord said: “Spencer, what took you so long to recognize that this practice is not of me? I’ve just been waiting for members to more fully obey the Second Great Commandment – to love their neighbor as themselves – and to love their black brothers and sisters enough to ask for a change. My prophets could have instituted the change at any time over the last 100 years, but it took you to desire to do it. I did not command the leaders to make the change before because you and the Church needed to choose to do the right thing.”
I want to close by stating how grateful I am that so many people of every color continued to embrace the gospel and retained their faith despite the prohibition. I hope you all will accept our apologies and we can put this sad chapter behind us and build the Kingdom of God together, standing shoulder to shoulder in full equality before the Lord.
Your loving brother.