This evening the LDS Church will host a “Be One” Celebration, commemorating 40 years of lift of the priesthood ban for those of African Descent.
With respect to that endeavor, I offer my heart in this matter. I do not speak for the church. I speak only for myself and to my experience. I hope to contribute to the dialogue concerning my Black Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who deserve our contributions in righting the wrongs of the past. I hope to do that with grace, humility and courage, because what I am about to share may strike at the very core of who we are as humans, and who we should be as Christians.
First, I think it’s important to note that I did not know about the priesthood ban when I joined the church. This might surprise you, but it’s not in the brochure. The purpose of the missionaries is simply to teach the basic tenants of the gospel. God, Jesus, eternal families. In my experience to date, very few in my generation (and the ones that follow me) have any real knowledge of these past teachings.
When the missionaries came into my life twenty years ago, I was very much in love with an African American young man. Although my family had very little to do with raising me, from the moment they heard I was dating a person of color, some went out of their way to very cruelly, state their opinions. Ones that had nothing to do with his character. The things that were said to me during those years were unforgivable. In an effort to spare him, I never shared what was said. I just walked away from my family. By the time the missionaries entered the scene, we had two children together.
If the missionaries would have presented me with the history of the priesthood ban during that season of my life, I never would have joined the church. There is no way I could have seen past it. I made no room for grace in this arena.
After a year of study in Mormonism, and with the death of my son – the promise of eternal families beckoned a great change in me. I joined the church and built my entire world around the gospel. I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted that decision. I don’t know if I could have designed a better framework to get out of the multigenerational abuse and poverty on my own. I wouldn’t be where I am without it.
There’s something very beautiful that happens when you join the church. All of the sudden, you find a common bond in people and it creates a huge sense of community and connection. As alone as I had felt for so much of my life, it filled the holes in my heart in a lot of ways.
However, my time in the church has also been quite messy. It’s not an easy life, because we are also a community riddled with pride, judgement, weakness, doubts, fear, jealousy and a severe lack of intimacy. In so many ways, we do a lot of harm to one another. A lot of tears have fallen in those pews at the hands of each other. Some of the first I had shed were in learning of the priesthood ban.
I had been a member for a little over a decade by this time, and was sitting in a Relief Society lesson. It was a lesson on the priesthood. During the course of the lesson, the 1978 revelation was mentioned. My ears perked up. What is this? People started going back and forth on who, what, when and where. I was trying to process this information, but my head was spinning. What just happened?
The teacher tried to move on, it being very evident she opened a can of worms that she couldn’t get away from quick enough.
I raised my hand, “Ok, wait a minute. I’m sorry, I need to go back for a second. You mean to tell me at some point in our church’s history, my son couldn’t hold the priesthood? Why is that exactly? Where did this teaching come from?”
The room fell silent. No one knew what to say. When it was first introduced everyone was all sorts of talkative, and had no problems sharing their opinions as fact. However, my questions made everyone realize that my first time hearing about this was from them, and all of the sudden no one wanted the responsibility to fill in the gaps.
I looked around the room, and for the first time – I noticed every person I worshipped with was white. Up until that point, it always just felt like church. Now, I felt completely alienated.
The lady teaching the lesson very curtly, asked me to move on. I was asked to “Put this spice back on the shelf.”
I just had my world rocked. I can’t put this spice back. I needed to open the jar and eat this crap raw, no matter how bad it tasted. I needed to know.
With an impending sense of doom, I was able to muster up the courage to say,
“Sisters, I know this is uncomfortable for you. I promise, it is even more uncomfortable for me. But the difference between you and I is that you do not need this answer. All of your children are white. You have the luxury of not having this talk with your children. I do not. I have a beautiful child with a brown face that is going to ask me why at the wrong time in church history, the blessings of the gospel couldn’t be his. I need to be ready with an answer.”
After some back and forth dialogue, I was eventually silenced with the words, “Sister, this is not an appropriate time or place for this discussion, and I ask that you take your questions elsewhere. Your questioning of this ordained law begs me to ask, Where is your faith?”
The sting of her words felt like a sucker punch to my soul. This wasn’t the place for this discussion?!!!! YOU BROUGHT IT UP!! You cut me with these words and now you want to leave me here bleeding.
I got up in tears and left the room. I felt angry, hurt, and most of all, ashamed.
I grabbed my son from his class and headed home. As I clung to his little brown hand, I was in a world of hurt. I never wanted to go back to that building again.
I told Craig what happened, he explained what he was taught growing up, which was very little. That it just wasn’t “their” time. That back in biblical times only a select few had the priesthood and it wasn’t given the everyone, and this was a similar situation. Then what was the big secret at church? and what’s the deal with the “curse”?
That afternoon I watched my children play on the swing set. Two white babies, one black. If God loves his children like I love mine, how could he ever hold one in less value than another? When I put that belief to my heart, I refused to believe that could ever be the nature of God. Plus, Jesus was a Jew. In the scriptures he was described as dark skinned and hair like wool. Call me naïve, but I always figured Jesus probably looked a lot like Anthony. What did this even mean? Nothing made sense and there was a great conflict in my heart.
A few weeks later, I met with my bishop. We talked at length and he apologized for how things were handled. He told me that there was no “curse on black people”, and that everything I heard that day was opinion and that people tend to speculate when they shouldn’t. He encouraged me to do what he did, to correct these false teachings whenever it came up and that the truth is, we don’t know all of the whys. I told him it sounded to me like there was prejudice that existed in the church back then. He told me that he honestly didn’t know, but it would be easy to draw the conclusion. We just know that now, there is nothing withheld from any worthy member of the church. That Anthony was a blessing to the ward, and so was our family.
I took to the scriptures, and tried to find more resources to the origins of this belief. That was when I discovered that this whole “curse” idea was the handy work of theologians dating all the way back to the slave trade. The curse was a common belief in the 19th & 20th centuries, initially started by some Protestants and then adopted by some Catholic sects, and Baptists. The curse was used to justify slavery in the mind and hearts of Christians.
Being a newer religion, I found very little on Mormon theology at the time. I just figured that all of our converts came from these other religions, and probably carried these beliefs into Mormonism. I made it my mission to correct people that spoke out of turn in regards to this subject.
Over the years, I would endure many things that caused me to question where the heck people got some of these crazy ideas. I honestly chalked it up to ignorance. That people weren’t aware of their own church history or of their own bias. Through those experiences, I came up with the gospel according to Dawn Armstrong, and that’s what I taught my kids.
When I taught my children about the priesthood ban, I told them many will say that “we don’t know why.” However, my belief at the time was that if our leaders were constantly petitioning the Lord to have this ban lifted, and God didn’t see fit to lift the band until 1978, then it had to be that he withheld the priesthood until the white members of the church grew up enough to honor the space of a black man holding it. That although God’s love for us is perfect, before 1978 – man’s love for one another was not. He knows our hearts, and most likely, the white people of the church weren’t there yet.
So God let us suffer and learn from our ignorance. Our choices are not benign. They always affect others, and because of the great bias that existed during that era, we kept the priesthood from blacks and as a church, we suffered greatly for it. That I believed if anyone was being “punished” it was the white members. God must have waited until they came to repentance, and were on their knees begging for forgiveness and for things to change.
Seemed like it was the only thing that made sense to me. And for years, that explanation was enough. Until about a month before Anthony went on his mission to South Africa.
An article from the Washington post featuring an interview from religious professor Randy Bott, had surfaced.
It about knocked me out of my seat. What the heck is this? The article covered a lot of church history, and again – I was blindsided. I went to BYU’s website, and looked this Randy Bott up.
Under his name I read the following:
“Areas of Expertise: Doctrine of the Church, missionary preparation, application of doctrine to life”
I felt queasy. He was a very seasoned gentleman, who’d been teaching for an extremely long time. I worried about how many times he had this discussion in his classroom with missionaries or students. If he was an expert on doctrine of the church, then is this all true? Where did he find all of this information? Up until that point, I hadn’t really found anything that could remotely bring me to these conclusions.
Very shortly after the release of the article, the church released their own statement, denouncing what he said in the interview.
“His comments absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
It went on to say that “the church’s position is clear — we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in his eyes and in the church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.”
As to the question of the now-discarded ban on blacks in the priesthood, the church said: “It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began but what is clear is that it ended decades ago.”
At the time, we were knee deep in a project with people who worked directly for the church. We had a candid discussion in my living room about the article and the church’s stance. It put me at ease. Ok, back to where I was before, even though worry lingered in the back of my mind – who else was getting this so wrong? Was the churches statement enough to squash these teachings as a whole?
Leading up to Anthony’s departure, he had some experiences that shook him, but it didn’t change his desire to go. We moved forward with faith.
When Anthony left the Johannesburg Missionary Training Center, his first area was Phoenix, South Africa. It was a predominately Indian area. He forgot himself and went to work. To paint the political landscape of South Africa at that time, I would say it was like America 40-50 years ago in regards to race relations. Apartheid had only ended in 1994. 20 years hadn’t changed much for blacks, natives and Indians. (You can learn more about apartheid here. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apartheid)
Some of the things Anthony started to experience as a mixed race person in Africa, it was mind blowing. So many he worked with hadn’t evolved past their own bias. He took it in stride, but you have to know…I was PRAYIN!
His first Sunday out of the MTC, he went to church so excited to be a missionary.
After the meetings, an Indian member pulled him aside and said, “Hey what are you?” Anthony, very naively said, “I’m a missionary!”
The guy, insistent, asked again, “No what ARE YOU? Like what are you mixed with?” Anthony responded, “Oh, I am half black and half white.”
Guy – “So you are a braino?”
Anthony, thinking he meant “mullato” responded, “Yes, yes! Wait, what does that mean?”
To which the guy responded, “Oh, well if you were totally black, we’d know you had no brain, but because your half white, we know you’re really smart.”
Anthony didn’t even know what to say. He sat with his mouth open, probably thinking this is going to be the longest 2 years of my life. I will say,.a tribute to Anthony’s character, that by the end of his time in the area, Anthony had made this guy and his family some of his best friends. Love bridges a lot of understanding. They still have a friendship to this day. Anthony has a gift like that…to love people, and to see beyond human frailties.
When he was transferred out of Phoenix and started teaching predominately blacks, that was when he hit the wall. Anthony started to write home heartbroken. With every conversation, he was blindsided with new “doctrine”, or confronted with things former leaders of the church had supposedly said. He would confront these teachings as false, because he had never heard any of this before.
By the nature of being a missionary, he was forced to try to explain to his black brothers and sisters the status of blacks in the church prior to 1978, while also trying to reconcile a past that was starting to not add up.
I was researching as fast as I could, trying to refute these statements – convinced I was going to “arm him with the truth”. Only being able to email once a week, I couldn’t get back to him fast enough before he was blindsided by something else. I felt helpless. There was no way to ease his suffering. I was failing him.
At the same time, all of this seemed like dejavu. Here we go again. Where are all of these teachings coming from? How could a nation ten years behind in technology have knowledge dating back to the origins of the church? Where are they looking that I’m not?
I think rock bottom for Anthony was when he was sitting in the living room of a member of the church, and was told that “his mother was going to hell because I gave him life.” That race mixing was a sin punishable by death. That I was an abomination and by virtue of him being my son, so was he. It took every amount of self-control to sit there while he was raging inside.
Yet, I had to tell him that those were the words of Brigham Young. It was actually called the “blood atonement.” I found his quote and as I read his words and felt sick to my stomach. This was not the Brigham Young that I learned about in church for the whole of my life.
You know, the fact that we are a record keeping people – yeah, that’s not always a good thing. You think you want the truth, until you find it, and it breaks your heart.
Once I found one thing, it just opened up the flood gates to all the others.
The Journal of Discourses. The Joseph Smith Papers. The Improvement Era. The Way to Perfection. Doctrines of Salvation. The Glory of Mormonism. Mormon Doctrine. Essentially the church history library ya’ll.
So many talks, and journals and books, all that I had hoped would refute these statements, instead it just confirmed them. Yes, I had taught my children that I thought that prejudice had existed in the church. It was naive to think that it didn’t. However, I thought it was from the rank and file, but it had come from the top. For a long season in our church’s history – from everything I could find – there was no way I could refute that this was taught as doctrine. Everything I read, blew my mind.
This was not just a priesthood ban. It was a gospel of Jesus Christ ban. The priesthood ban prevented men from serving missions. It withheld the promise of eternal families, which would keep them from the highest degree of glory. Young men couldn’t bless and pass the sacrament. There was no temple work they could participate in. No leadership positions. So every fundamental right of passage, and eternal promise was denied. Even more sad, was the only person who held less power in the church than a black man prior to 1978, was a black woman. Because a black woman’s power in the church was inexplicably linked to a black mans. Every blessing denied to males, was also denied to females by proxy. Why couldn’t black women serve missions? They didn’t need the priesthood to do that. From everything I had read, other than worship services, blacks truly had no home in the church.
Now, I was in the fetal position. I went from anger, to rage, to tears, to a great sadness, over and over and over again. I thought back to all of those conversation, where I had thought I was schooling people on church history. And after all of this time, It was me that didn’t know. I was mad at the church. I felt so betrayed. I was mad at myself, because my ignorance had left my son extremely vulnerable. I didn’t push hard enough for answers when I should have. I had failed him. The church had failed him.
It’s the worst thing in the world to have your child in his greatest depths of despair, while being half a world away.
So, what had originally started out as letters to refute these statements, and in defense of the church, eventually became letters that were just honest about the past. He deserved the truth. Little did I know, he was beating me to the punch every time. He had found the truth – all on his own.
Eventually, Anthony- through the help of his mission president, reading books, his missionary service, and a lot of prayer – he was able to make peace with the leaders of the past. He admitted to me, that he didn’t read most of what I sent. He just needed to find his own way. Faith is a very personal journey. Anthony didn’t need me, he needed God. Only God could mend his broken heart.
For me, I kept writing the letters. Most I never even sent – he didn’t need them anymore, but I did. Writing has always been healing for me. One day, I sat there wondering how I could ever reconcile the teachings of the past.
I started to look up pictures of each leader starting with the one who hurt my heart the most. I needed to see their faces. It helped me realize that they were just people. Subject to the same fallibilities as me. Born into a world where they were taught wrong when it came to race.
I pictured what it must have been like for these men to cross over to the next world, and have all the of weaknesses of the flesh be liberated from their bodies. I pictured the flood of knowledge that permeated their minds in an instant. I pictured a just God, who would let them feel the pain they had inflicted on others from the perspective of the wounded. The agony they must have felt for what the mistakes that were made. I pictured them begging God to let them go back and fix it. To let them have just a moment to say they were sorry and right all of the wrongs.
I pictured the tears that were wept by the souls that scattered around them. The souls of those who had lived and died with these policies. Both people’s eyes finally open, seeing each other for the first time, as equals. The wounded feeling the agony of their oppressors, and granting them mercy and forgiveness.
I realized that someday, I too will sit in that judgement seat. I will pass on to the next life and feel the weight of my mistakes, and those whom I have hurt deeply. I will beg for grace. I will beg for mercy. I will long to right the wrongs in my own life. Each of us will.
Then I realized, every generation since the beginning of man, has had and will have a plague of their time. Racism was theirs. It existed all throughout the world, and touched every faith. Christianity didn’t save anyone from it, and our church was not immune from this plague. Just like it’s not immune from pornography or the long list of ailments we humans carry today.
We can always look to the past and judge harshly, wondering how the people that came before us could have ever treated another human being with such cruelty. I have never been able to wrap my head around slavery, or Hitler or racism, or the host of awful things we’ve done since the human race began. The answer is simple, when we know better – we do better. That’s why our history is so important. It’s how we learn from the sins of the past.
Some may ask, how could leaders of the past pray to God and get the wrong answer so many times? The gospel according to Dawn – every single one of us go to our knees with an agenda, with the answer that we really want. I think for the most part its subconscious, and we don’t even realize. We get up from our knees, feeling good, like the Lord is in the details, only to later realize that it wasn’t his answer, it was ours. God will never take our agency by force. God’s been meeting us where we are since the beginning of time.
Learning to get out of God’s way will be a lifetime pursuit for each of us, as we learn to lean into his agenda and trust his timing. None of us are immune to pride, as we are all here to overcome the natural man. There have been times I have gotten on my knees and not felt satisfied with an answer. I’ve felt uneasy. Sometimes, when it’s God’s answer and not our answer, it will make us feel uneasy. Cause he asks us to do hard things. Things we aren’t ready for and will challenge us to the very core of who we are. That IS God’s agenda. Not to force his will, but to force growth. He will shape us, and if our hearts aren’t willing fast enough, he will shape the circumstances around us until one day – we are forced to see.
We often times look to our leaders, whether in the church or outside it, and we demand perfection. This is especially true of our church leaders. We look to them as deity’s and constantly expect a flawless performance. Some of them will spend the whole of their lives serving. A lifetime of perfection? Come on. None of us can do that.
The gospel wasn’t designed to at some point, outgrow the need for God, or the need for grace. There’s no calling that can give anyone that, no matter how far “up the ladder” we go. They are giving their lives to this work, and it’s gonna be messy sometimes. We are going to get things wrong.
For the hurt that still remained, one day not too far from then, I turned on general conference and there was Elder Uchtdorf, beginning a talk called “Come, Join with Us.”
As I sat there, wondering if I was wrong to doubt and have questions for so long –
Elder Uchtdorf stated, “In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”
Then I wondered if I could ever make peace with all of the unanswered questions, to which Uchtdorf replied:
“Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.
Sometimes questions arise because we simply don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction.
Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the “facts” really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others.”
And then when I wondered if the church would ever fully acknowledge that there were mistakes made, and seriously ten seconds later, Uchtdorf brings it home with,
“And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”
By this time, I was impressed by Elder Uchtdorf’s ability to read my mind and then plan
his talk accordingly. I’m almost positive, he wrote that talk for me.
Whenever I am approached by others on this subject, I’m always asked the same questions. These are my answers. I hope they bring peace to your heart. (Again, gospel according to Dawn.)
Why hasn’t more been said about the teachings of the past?
I think at the time, the leaders thought it was enough to say, “Forget everything that’s ever been said before now.” It may feel likeit is when you aren’t the one that it directly effects. You cannot right over one hundred forty years of wrongs in one sentence. One sentence also cannot reshape an entire churches character, when racism has been a fundamental part of our theology. Sadly, too many church members have not forgotten these teachings, and continue to carry them forward, or have not clearly understood that the church has disavowed any teachings that diminished in any way, the children of God in every shade and circumstance.
Why haven’t current church leaders done more to denounce these teachings?
Frankly, It’s hard to speak for the dead. We were not in those prayer rooms, nor were we in the mind of the ones on their knees. I think it’s important to remember, that former church leaders do not only have a legacy of mistakes. They got a lot right too. There was also a lifetime of beauty, service, love and compassion. They spent their life in service to their fellow man. Yes, there were things they got wrong, but none of us are ever only one thing. Sometimes, it’s hard to honor the Christian part of the legacy, while at the same time finding a way to condemn the mistakes. That’s tricky. Imagine if people took turns standing at your funeral, remembering the worst acts of your human experience. None of us want to be remembered by the worst things we’ve ever done.
My family, the ones who held those deeply engrained prejudices that I had to walk away from for a season. Well, it was through me loving them in their weaknesses, they had a mighty change of heart. When I sat at the body of my grandmother and grandfather – The “unforgiveable comments” weren’t at the forefront of my mind. It was the sweetness of their last moments. The times when they showed great kindness and charity. As they moved to the other side, I didn’t want my lack of forgiveness to plague their hearts. I longed for them to be free. It’s a grace that I will hope for myself.
I think current church leaders are trying. Part of my healing came when the church came out with the Race and the Priesthood essay. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng Is this enough? No, but it’s a really good start. In the last year, I’ve seen more about race than I have in my entire membership of the church. More and more talks are being written that further enforces the churches stance.
How many times do we have to acknowledge and talk about the priesthood ban?
Well, how many years did we teach it? (mid 1800’s to 1978)
I think we have to unsay it about as many times as we’ve said it.
Most people I talk with have never heard of the “Race and the Priesthood essay”
That’s a problem for two different reasons. First, there are still three generations above me that grew up in this era. A lot of these people aren’t online and it’s never been read from the pulpit, so unfortunately some still cling on to those teachings and promote them as doctrine, thus spreading a message that the church has denounced.
For my generation and below, it’s a history that most of us don’t know, and need a resolution to. If you take the time to ask our black brothers and sisters their experiences in the church, I think you’d be shocked to find there’s a lot of hurt.
Similar to the struggle in American culture, racism still exists. Bias still remains.
Why can’t black people and people in general, just get over it?
There is a lot of hurt in these teachings. They still touch us today. Some, like me – had no idea about them and get shook to the core when we find out. Some people are finding out for the first time through this post.
With all due respect, we don’t get to “command that ye be healed”. Only Christ can do that. People will find healing in their own time, and in their own way, but no one has the right to diminish or judge the process.
I do know that healing always begins with the acknowledgement of suffering. So, I say to you my black brothers and sisters. I’m so sorry. For all of it. For all the times we held you back. For all of the hurt we have caused. For all of the things we taught. For all of the ways we diminished you in our buildings and in our history. I’m sorry that we robbed ourselves of your gifts and your contributions to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m sorry we robbed ourselves of your leadership and your insight. I’m sorry that we withheld the blessings of forever, which were rightfully yours. I’m sorry for all the names, and for the exclusion, and for the deep loneliness you may have felt.
And I as walk into that building tonight and celebrate every single thing about you that we have missed out on, may we finally and wholly lift you up to where you have always belonged. I love you. I honor you, and treasure you.