Stare Decisis and the Priesthood Ban

Poor Wayfaring Man

Here is another example of LDS Church leaders retiring unwanted doctrine by playing with the concepts of “policy” and “doctrine” in order to avoid violating LDS stare decisis.

Despite early acceptance of black men into the LDS priesthood, the Church, beginning with Brigham Young in at least 1852 (and possibly earlier, with Joseph Smith), taught for more than 100 years that black people bore the Mark of Cain, which labeled them as a cursed and disfavored people in the eyes of God, and unable, therefore, to be part of the LDS priesthood. President Young said the following:

[A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ…

Recorded in the Diary of Wilford Woodruff, January 16, 1852

Later, in 1947, the First Presidency of the Church made the following official statement of LDS doctrine:

From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.

Statement of The First Presidency on the Negro Question, July 17 1947, quoted in Mormonism and the Negro, pp.46-7

Two years later, the First Presidency again reiterated the doctrinal, non-policy nature of the ban:

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.

The First Presidency on the Negro Question, 17 Aug. 1949

This LDS doctrine did not age well. The African-American Civil Rights Movement (which roiled the leadership of the Church1) rolled forward , and the popularity of race discrimination began to wane. In the years prior to the Brown case, the Church attempted to officially explain its reasoning with respect to the racially discriminatory doctrine. In 1951, the First Presidency published the following statement:

The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality… Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes…

[The Church believes that] Man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. If this is carried further, it would imply that the Negro is punished or allotted to a certain position on this earth, not because of Cain’s transgression, but came to earth through the loins of Cain because of his failure to achieve other stature in the spirit world.

Yes, the Church found itself in a hole created by its doctrine that got deeper and uglier over time. Finally, in 1978, about a decade after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leaders of the Church felt that it was time for the Church to retire the doctrine. They did so through a letter, read in General Conference, announcing that all “worthy” males, regardless of race could now hold the priesthood.

In the years leading up to the change, Church leaders had made what appear to be efforts to begin preparing the Church for a change, characterizing the priesthood ban as a mere policy, even more vocally and clearly than they did with polygamy. As early as 1954, President David O. McKay was teaching that the priesthood ban was not doctrinal:

There is no doctrine in this church and there never was a doctrine in this church to the effect that the Negroes are under any kind of a divine curse.

We believe that we have scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the Negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine and the practice will some day be changed. And that’s all there is to it.

Letter written by Dr. Sterling M. McMurrin, reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, January 15, 1970

In 1963, Apostle Spencer W. Kimball (who would be President of the Church at the time the ban was lifted) continued to blur the line between doctrine and policy:

The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.

Kimball, Edward L., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball. Bookcraft. p. 448–9

Today, Church leaders seem to lean more toward calling the priesthood ban a policy or practice that was changed, rather than a doctrine. Recently, Jeffrey R. Holland has said that, despite what his predecessors have said in the past, the status of the ban (as doctrine/policy/practice), and the reason(s) for the ban, are now (and perhaps have always been) unknown:2

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. …

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 [apostles] to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.

Interview for The Mormons, PBS documentary, 2006

Holland may have just been following Gordon B. Hinckley’s lead:

Helmut Nemetschek (interviewer): Until 1978 no person of color attained the priesthood in your church. Why did it take so long to overcome the racism?

Gordon B. Hinckley: I don’t know. I don’t know. I can only say that. (long pause) But it’s here now.

Interview, ZDF German Television, January 29, 2002

Unlike the retirement of the polygamy doctrine, there hasn’t been an effort among leaders of the Church to rehabilitate, or reconcile the modern Church with, the LDS prophets who originated and promoted the priesthood ban doctrine.  This is probably for the best, given the frankly dispicable things that came out of their mouths during the ban. One Apostle’s response was to make an extremely rare exception to stare decisis and explicitly invoke a Brown-like overruling of the past prophets:

Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past 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.

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, CES speech, All Are Alike Unto God, August 18, 1979

Gordon B. Hinckley’s most memorable statement on the topic seems to vaguely imply broad condemnation of his predecessors and even himself (though I don’t think the faithful heard it that way):3

Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?

General Priesthood Meeting speech, The Need for More Kindness, April 1, 2006

The LDS Priesthood ban has gone from a rock-solid, eternal doctrine of the Church, to something that may or may not be a doctrine, or a policy, or just some kind of practice of the Church. A few things are clear, however: From the current Church leaders’ perspectives, the priesthood ban was definitely a horrible thing, and they were thrilled that the Church discarded it (whatever type of rule it was), but in a big, cowardly nod to stare decisis, no leader of the Church has (1) openly repudiated the LDS prophets who were responsible for initiating and perpetuating it, or (2) claimed that the ban was not divinely mandated. And that’s where the issue stands today.4



  1. See, e.g., D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Signature Books. p. 81, describing a struggle between Apostles Ezra Taft Benson and Hugh B. Brown over whether the Civil Rights Movement was part of a communist conspiracy to destroy the United States. Benson, who eventually became President of the Church (1984-94), was insistent (and taught publicly, including in General Conference addresses) that it was a conspiracy. []
  2. Interestingly, while I basically like Holland’s approach to explaining the issue, it certainly makes him look like he is just as lost as everybody else when it comes to this important topic. Unfortunately for him, he is officially a “special witness of Christ“, and he and his colleagues at the highest levels of Church leadership not only perpetuate the idea that they receive regular instruction from the resurrected Jesus Christ, they also declare to the world, twice a year, that they are “prophets, seers, and revelators“. Jeffrey Holland’s direct line to God doesn’t allow him to be as ignorant as everybody else.
    This illustrates the difficulty of his situation–it’s lose-lose for him. He can ignore stare decisis and disavow the bigotry, but if those dead prophets can be so wrong, what does that say about his own prophetic claims? He can also honor stare decisis, but that means honoring what most of America already thinks is morally and ethically wrong, and what does that say about his prophetic moral compass? He appears to have chosen the former for himself. (What do you expect him to do, deny altogether that he is a prophet who hangs out with Jesus? Yeah, right.  The type of people who end up in the position he is in are not the type who would ever voluntarily relinquish that power.  I would love him to prove me wrong, but he won’t.) []
  3. In the last sentence of this quote, Hinckley describes the whole Church, including himself, for the entire period prior to 1978, when the ban was lifted. It seems like a subtle statement that the ban was a huge mistake, driven by arrogance. If so, I totally agree with the sentiment, though not the passive, ineffective way it was delivered. []
  4. Note that this is not where the Mark of Cain doctrine stands now, just the priesthood ban.  The Mark of Cain (or Curse of Ham) doctrine itself–the underlying basis for the priesthood ban–has never been repudiated by the Church, probably because of stare decisis too.  Yeah, I think that’s a problem.  It makes lifting the ban much less meaningful, since the underlying beliefs remain racist.  In fact, it seems almost like the bare minimum a post-Civil Rights American church has to do to avoid being a pariah.  Kind of pisses me off, actually.  But I suppose that’s a topic for another post. []

2 Responses to “Stare Decisis and the Priesthood Ban”

  • Seth R. Says:

    The First Presidency statement in 1947 is interesting because it attempts to link the ban back to Joseph Smith.

    This is simply historically false on the facts. Just Google “Elijah Abel” for the proof.

    The ban started with Brigham Young, I’ve simply been unable to find any convincing evidence linking it to Joseph Smith.

  • Poor Wayfaring Man Says:

    I haven’t found any convincing evidence linking the ban to Joseph Smith either. As you note with the 1947 First Presidency statement, claims by LDS prophets and apostles–even when they make those claims in their roles as God’s mouthpiece to the world–can be wrong. I consider their opinions and perspectives to be no more reliable or trustworthy than the average person, and often (as with the 1947 statement, or the statements of George Q. Cannon, Zebedee Coltrin, etc.) even less reliable than the average person, given the perspective-bending biases and incentives to which their judgment is subject.

    That said, I am not sure you can go so far as to say that a claim that the ban started with Joseph Smith is demonstrably false. It’s just unsupported by reliable evidence. If it was logically impossible for Joseph Smith to have enacted the ban, or at least taught or planned it, I don’t think the First Presidency would have claimed it. I could be wrong.


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