All of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood. -LDS First Presidency
When Vincente, a hotel concierge, met the missionaries, he wanted to know more about the Church. "The first time we taught him was a glorious experience," a missionary said. "He knew the church was true." He came to church every week. Then they had to tell him that people of African lineage needed special permission to be baptized.
No issue has troubled Mormons more in the second half of the twentieth century than race. Until 1978, the Church withheld its priesthood from men of black African ancestry, long beyond the time when African Americans won national civil rights victories. Although African Americans were not denied Church membership, they were denied priesthood, a policy increasingly difficult to justify in the turbulent 1960s. Before then, the policy had drawn little attention. In 1957, Catholic sociologist Thomas O'Dea's extensive study of the Church did not mention the denial among the "strains and conflicts." But thereafter commentators considered the limitation of the priesthood as the Church's primary problem, a racist doctrine out of place in a democratic society.
How did this exclusionary policy come into being? The Book of Mormon supports universal equality. One reads there that the Lord invites all the children of men "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." The book speaks of people "cursed" with a "black" skin, but that was a temporary, reversible curse. Skin color changed with righteous living. The origin of Negro priesthood exclusion seems to be rooted in history, not doctrine.
The Church was founded in 1830, a time of growing strife over slavery. Racial issues emerged after the Saints moved to Missouri, a slave state. An 1833 editorial in the LDS paper The Evening and Morning Star, warned the Saints against bringing free blacks to the state, to avoid the wrath of local slaveholders. Missourians misunderstood this editorial as an invitation for free blacks to settle. Explanations unavailing, violent conflicts soon erupted, dividing Mormons from their neighbors.
Although this first clash may have been a misunderstanding, continued friction led to a Church statement on slavery in April 1836. At the height of anti-abolitionist sentiments when anti-slavery petitions were being stifled in Congress under the "gag rule," an editorial in the Church newspaper declared that it is "unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace" for anyone to interfere with "human beings . . . held in servitude." The Saints were not to deal with "bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men." That strong statement, possibly the product of momentary antiabolitionist sentiments, was reversed a few years later. Church attitudes returned to a forthright anti-slavery position. Joseph Smith ran for U.S. president in 1844 on a platform calling for "national equalization"-setting slaves free, educating them, and giving them civil rights. Although he may have shared the common idea that blacks were descended from Ham and so subject to the curse of Cain, he said nothing about the priesthood and ordained some blacks to priesthood offices.
The priesthood policy took a new turn under Smith's successor Brigham Young. In 1852, Young, operating under the Compromise of 1850, legalized both black and Indian slavery in an attempt to acquire Utah statehood. In a strikingly plain statement, Young said, "Any 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 I know it is true and others know it." Absorbing the racist literature of his time, Young spoke of the biological inadequacies of blacks. Though freed from slavery during the Civil War, former slaves were not granted LDS priesthood.
Over time, Church members worked out doctrinal explanations for exclusion. One justification originated in the papyrus rolls that Joseph Smith bought in 1835 and translated as the Book of Abraham. A passage links ancient Egypt's government to the cursed Ham through Pharaoh, Ham's grandson. Pharaoh, the passage says, was "of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood." Abraham 1:25, 27, Pearl of Great Price 1981. Because Smith had identified blacks as Ham's descendants, subsequent leaders went the next step to withhold the priesthood from black Africans. Although the Reorganized Church in the Midwest embraced black members, the Utah Mormons, with few blacks among them, clung to separatism, held in place by earlier Church rulings.
Another explanation looked beyond mortality. With no scriptural basis, some Mormons justified exclusion by interpreting the pre-mortal war in heaven. In this battle between the spirits, the Lord's faithful vanquished Satan's legions, who were denied human bodies. Blacks were said to be those who did not fight against Satan in the pre-mortal conflict. As fence sitters, they received a lesser earthly stature. In the twentieth century, Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith elaborated the doctrine: "Transgression in the first estate," that is, in the pre-mortal spirit world, "deprives him in this second estate," that is, in mortal existence. Smith's book The Way to Perfection, published in 1931, contained the most extensive treatment of priesthood denial. Smith summarized past Church policies, providing a theoretical foundation. His "pre-existence hypothesis" held that "those who did not stand valiantly" came to earth life with restrictions. "The negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits, few will doubt. It cannot be looked upon as just that they should be deprived of the power of the Priesthood without it being a punishment for some act, or acts, performed before they were born." Organizing the scanty evidence from the Pearl of Great Price and the teachings of Joseph Smith, Apostle Smith concluded, "But we all know it was due to [Joseph Smith's] teachings that the negro today is barred from the Priesthood." This "preexistence hypothesis" was frequently presented from 1931 until 1949.