A friend at work is invstigating the LDS Church. He is African American and asked about early church policy regarding denying priesthood to African Americans. We had a good discussion on the issue and I wanted to post some of the points of our discussion as well as some commentary.
It seems that jealousy and prejudice have been associated with the priesthood since the beginning. Genesis records that Abel's sacrifice was accepted by the Lord while Cain's was not. Instead of accepting the judgements of God, the Bible says that Cain's countenance fell. Then, because of jealousy, Cain murdered his brother Abel. As priestood is traced throughout the Bible from Noah to Shem; then from Melchesidek to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the theme of jealousy is repeated again and again. The Bible recounts the story of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. Many current conflicts can be traced back to similar ancient quarrels. In fact, Isaiah forsaw the conflict between the Jews (Judah) and the Samaritans (Ephraim) and prophecied in the last days, "Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim" (Isa. 11: 13).
The theme of jealousy is central to the story of the Book of Mormon. After the arrival of Lehi's family in the Americas, the elder brothers Laman and Lemuel attempted to murder Nephi who they saw as a threat to their "right to the government." Many years later wars were waged between the Nephites and Lamanites under the pretense that Nephi "did wrong their brethren, insomuch that [he] did rob them of their right to the government when it rightly belonged unto them" (Alma 54: 17, 24).
It stands to reason that if the LDS church were Christ's church, that it would be above prejudice and jealousy. However, the Bible and Book of Mormon clearly show God reserving his authority for some and denying it to others. Is the LDS church prejudice? That all depends on if the church is lead by a prophet who receives direct revelation from God who has a perfect "foreknowledge of all things" (Alma 13: 3,7-9).
1. The official church stance on why God denied priesthood authority and temple blessings to African Americans until 1978 is---We don't know why, except that God commanded it by revelation through a living prophet.
(Moses 5: 6) And he gave unto them commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord. And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.
(Isa. 55: 9) For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
2. The LDS church condemned slavery and segregation. Because of its policy on slavery, among other issues, the LDS church was percecuted and mobbed. The Book of Mormon as well as the Bible teaches that "God is no respector of persons" (2 Chr. 19: 7)(Acts 10: 34)(Rom. 2: 11).
(2 Ne. 26: 33) For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
3. The Bible gives many examples of priesthood authority being given to some and not others.
(Ex. 29: 4-44) And Aaron and his sons thou shalt bring unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shalt wash them with water. . . Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour it upon his head, and anoint him. . . and thou shalt consecrate Aaron and his sons. . . I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest’s office.
(Matt. 15: 27) And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, . . . But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
(John 15: 16) Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.
(1 Cor. 14: 34-35) Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to [preside]; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.
4. Because Christ's church is lead by a prophet, Peter receives a revelation that the gospel can finally be taught to the Gentiles. This foreshadows the events in the latter-days that, after a period of time, the Lord's prophet would once again receive a revelation that the priesthood and temple blessings would be made available to all worthy males.
(Acts 10: 28) And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
5. Through latter-day temple work, performed on behalf of the deceased by vicarious proxy, all spiritual blessings are made availible to every son and daugter of Adam irrespective to race, color, or ethnicity.
(1 Cor. 15: 29) Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
6. The revelation received by President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 was not driven by pressure from the civil rights movement in the 1950's and 60's. The revelation came over 10 years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If LDS policy were based on prejudice and bigotry, then I think it more likely that the church would have reversed its policy years earlier.
7. Despite the chuch's history, African American's are joining the LDS church in record numbers. Before the revelation in 1978, there were independent, congregations of believers in Nigeria and Ghana. During the 60's-70's the requests from Africa for information on the LDS church exceeded the rest of the world combined (http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=1779). Everyone who joins the church learns that God has called living prophets today and that God has given us additional scripture in the Book of Mormon. I invite anyone with concerns regarding blacks and the priesthood to talk to an African American Latter-day Saint. They, like me, have read and prayed about the Book of Mormon and have been told by God by way of the Holy Spirit that it is the word of God.
9. Had the Mormon faith began baptizing and ordaining African Americans clergy in 1830, the church would have insighted even more persecution than it already did. As it was, in a country established on the ideals of freedom of religion, with the mardyrdom of Joseph Smith and the mobbings of the LDS church members from New York, to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and then to Utah; the chruch narrowly escaped intact. However, I do not consider this point as important as the following.
8. Athough, the revelations on the priestood themselves were not inspired by bigotry and racism. I believe they were given for exactly that purpose. Let me explain. I heard a story of an early LDS missionary Matthew Cowley who served among the Maori people in New Zealand. The Mormon Church had amazing success with the Maori as well as other Polynesian peoples. Later, as missionaries attempted to share the LDS faith with the more affluent European settlers, they would say, "we are so grateful for the work you do with the Maori, but we are not at all interested in learning about their church." The Europeans identified the church with the Maori, and their prejudice against them prevented them from any consideration of the Mormon message.
How does that apply to the Bible and to the early LDS church? In Christ's day, there were no more prejudice, racist, and bigoted people than the Jews (generally speaking). Partly due to their captivity and state of apostasy, the Jewish culture dispised the Samaritians, they scorned the Gentiles, and held disdain for all other heathen cultures. In the 1830's my european ancestors were equally prideful. I don't necessarily condemn them. Racism and bigotry is transmitted from generation to generation like a plague. I believe that had the Mormon faith been first preached to the humble African-, Native-, and Hispanic- Americans that they would have immediately embrassed it, and my ancestors, like the Europeans in New Zealand, would have never considered it.
So, yes we were and still are prejudice in some ways, but according to the perfect foreknowledge of God, he has provided a way for the Gentiles to repent of our pride, come unto Christ, and be saved. And now all are invited to come unto him, "And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles; and after he has manifested himself unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles, then he shall manifest himself unto the Gentiles and also unto the Jews, and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" (1 Ne. 13: 42)(Mark 10: 31)(Luke 13: 30)(read Parable of the Laborers: Matt. 20).