From 1852 until 1978 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had a policy of excluding blacks from many aspects of membership. While the policy was reversed 36 years ago, only recently did the LDS church admit that this policy was influenced by cultural racism that was widespread at the time.
The fact that church policy could be influenced by the cultural views of church leaders and members as opposed to only revelation is noteworthy. The church has also denounced commonly held beliefs as to the reason the ban was implemented and again renounced racism in all of its forms. While this acknowledgement should be applauded, it has caused many members to question long held beliefs about the role of modern revelation.
If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is really led by modern day prophets, how could a racist policy become institutionalized and exist for over century? How could a covenant people so easily accept and promote racist teachings? While this policy is certainly a stain on church history it does not have to mean that the church as a whole is void of divinity. When analyzing the progress of the church overall and the manner in which Jesus has dealt with his covenant people in the past there is still evidence of divine guidance.
The racist policy at issue is often called a priesthood ban, but it had more aspects as well. The ban also included an exclusion from entrance to temples and the higher covenants that are made there, which according to LDS theology bring higher blessings in the afterlife. The ban did not start with the founding of the LDS church, as Joseph Smith ordained blacks to the priesthood. Brigham Young announced in 1852, over 20 years after the founding of the church, that blacks would no longer be permitted to be ordained to the priesthood. Yet to place the blame solely on Brigham Young would be short sighted. Church scholars have rightly emphasized the role that members played in the ban as well as societal pressures. Despite the fact that the ban was not divinely inspired, leaders felt that a revelation was needed to overturn the ban which was received in 1978.
This ban is troubling for members for several reasons. First, is the impact it had on LDS societies and LDS views towards race. As this uninspired policy became institutionalized, many tried to justify and explain it falsely assuming that it was of divine origin. From this came many philosophies of men, mingled with scripture that were widely taught and accepted by members of the church. One widely believed misperception was that blacks were descendants of Cain and therefore were destined to suffer from the curse of Cain. Another was that blacks in the pre-earth life were less valiant and therefore not ready for the high responsibilities of priesthood service and temple covenants. Along these lines, God can choose to whom he gives the priesthood. The example of the Old Testament is given when only the tribe of Levi had access to the priesthood to show that God is discriminatory.
Recently, when a BYU professor Randy Bott expressed these same teachings in an interview with the Washington Post his comments were condemned by the church as "speculation and opinion, not doctrine." Randy Bott's fault is not that he is racist; his fault is that he believed the teachings of former church leaders. As a former student of his I can verify that he is a champion of equality, love and compassion. He has spent decades of research on church history and knows the teachings of LDS leaders from this era better than most. Discarding these remarks as opinion and folklore is great for public relations but it causes additional problems.
This is the second reason why the ban is troubling for members of the church. If the teachings and beliefs of past prophets and apostles can be disregarded as folklore, what is to say that current teachings won't be discarded in a similar manner decades from now? The main explanation the church gives for the ban against the priesthood is that society was racist and this influenced the worldview of Brigham Young and the general membership of the church. This too is problematic.
Blaming this mistaken policy on society ignores the entire anti-slavery movement. For example the Quakers and Mennonites were anti-racist and anti-slavery long before the 1800's. This type of justification is hardly an excuse for any group of people, let alone one that claims to be a covenant people lead by a prophet of God. There are difficult questions that need to be asked. How could a divine institution allow a racist policy to become institutionalized? How could 10 different church presidents allow such a ban to continue for over a century? How could a "covenant people" accept such un-Christ like views?
Church leaders, whom members consider apostles and prophets, taught false teachings. Members of the church, despite having the fullness of the gospel, were unable to separate themselves from the sins and false traditions of society. Maybe it was this topic that caused President Uchtdorf in his recent General Conference address to say "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." This being said, there are two reasons why this does not have to discredit the divinity of the LDS church as a whole. The overall progress that the LDS church has made and past traditions of how the Lord has dealt with his covenant people give hope in the face of difficult questions.
Overall, what the LDS church stands for is nothing but remarkable. Over the years it has taught its members to love their neighbor, to be kind, to help those in need, to control their tempers. It has taught them to seek education, be fiscally responsible and take seriously their civic responsibilities. It preaches a message of Christian hope that has resonated with millions around the world. While the LDS church has often mentioned that there are more members outside of the U.S. than in the U.S., a more interesting fact is that there are now more non-white members than white members including noteworthy growth in Africa. As an organization the church has developed an admirable welfare system that cares for the need of its own members. Additional services are also offered to communities such as employment and adoption support. This network of services increases social mobility and is one reason why Utah is one of the best places in the U.S. to be born poor. The church also has a humanitarian aid program that responds to disasters and other problems by those most in need throughout the world. In short, the church is answering the Savior's call to feed his sheep.
The progress of the church is also noteworthy. The church has changed policies countless times. Some changes are ones we are all familiar with such as the ban on polygamy or the reversal of the priesthood ban, but there have been many others such as the liberalizing of church policy towards birth control. For a large organization, the church has been surprisingly quick to change the tone of its message on gay rights issues.
While certain church policy and teachings in the past can be unnerving, saints everywhere can take comfort that the church is a force for good and has always moved in the right direction. To critics these changes are signs of the church bending to social pressure, to the faithful a comforting sign that the Lord is interested in his church and that he will guide it. Countless leaders and members alike will testify of instances where they felt inspiration in their church responsibilities. Leaders and members can and should be criticized for their role in the priesthood ban, but this does not mean that they did not receive guidance on other issues.
The second reason that gives assurance to members of the LDS church is the pattern in which the Lord has dealt with his covenant people in Old Testament times. This year in Sunday school members of the LDS church will study the Old Testament. It is possible that many will be utterly horrified at what they find, as I was the first time reading through the entire Old Testament. While most of these instances won't make it into the teaching curriculum, the Old Testament is filled with stories of heinous terrors. Genocide, murder, rape, incest, sacrifice, racism, and more are all present. In some situations such crimes were committed by God's covenant people and appeared to be condoned by God. Certainly God loves all of his children and would never condone such crimes. We need to remember that the Old Testament is in many ways a record of a people interacting with those who are different or "the Other." The teachings of the Old Testament reflect these views. The Old Testament is the word of God, but not necessarily God's words.
Many will find the Old Testament a book void of love with a harsher tone than the New Testament. This should be seen more so as a reflection of society at the time and less so as God's nature. In many ways this is in and of itself a demonstration of the love and patience of the Lord. Despite their imperfections, God loves his people. His patience and commitment to them is incomprehensible to us. Those trying to reconcile the racist past of the Latter Day Saints with the belief that those same saints are God's covenant people should take comfort. The Lord knew that there would come a day when his people would repent and move on from their troubled ways, that they would learn to love one another even in their interactions with "the Other."
The LDS people are not perfect and neither are their leaders. This has led in the past and most likely the future, to teachings and policies that were made with "limited understanding." In short, the LDS church's priesthood ban has taught us a very important lesson, one that Abraham Lincoln taught us long ago. We should not assume that God is with us; rather we should ask ourselves whether we are with God.