For the past month or so, Kate Kelly has dominated my newsfeed. Her organization, Ordain Women, takes a faith-affirming approach to addressing gender inequality in the Mormon Church and opening the male-only Mormon priesthood to women, asking church leaders to “take this matter to the Lord in prayer.”
For her audacity, an all-male ecclesiastical jury convicted her of apostasy and excommunicated her, essentially sentencing the former missionary to damnation by revoking all priesthood blessings, covenants, and ordinances, which the Mormon Church teaches are necessary for salvation.
While the excommunication seems to me unduly harsh, what irks me most is the ignorance of overzealous blogger-critics whose rambling posts ooze righteous indignation and all make the same argument: “The church leadership says women can’t have the priesthood, and if that confuses you, ask God, not the church. But do it quietly, and by the way, women will never receive the priesthood.”
What critics of Ordain Women seem to have forgotten is that, just under forty years ago, members of the church were asking the same questions about black men—and that, after a few excommunications for the loudest agitators, Mormon doctrine changed.
From about 1852 to 1978, the Mormon Church prohibited black men from holding the priesthood, participating in higher temple ordinances, and holding leadership positions within the church. In the 1970s, a wave of dissention confronted the church as more and more church members (and non-members) began to question this practice. In 1978 the church finally reversed course and announced that all worthy men could hold the priesthood, regardless of race.
The difference this time is that, considering Mormon doctrine and scripture, women have a much better case for admittance to the priesthood than black men ever did. Why? Because while women are shamefully underrepresented in all books in the Mormon canon, we are not taught that they are “an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety.” Or that they were “cursed…as pertaining to the priesthood.” The same cannot be said of black men.
In fact, the conflict of the entire Book of Mormon surrounds the rivalry between the dark-skinned Lamanites and the light-skinned Nephites and begins in 2 Nephi 5, when the righteous Nephi leaves his wicked and fratricidal brothers, taking his family members into the wilderness for their own safety. Nephi describes the experience, saying that God had “caused the cursing to come upon them [his brothers and their families]…because of their iniquity” and that “as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” Nephi continues: “thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing…And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety…”
The Book of Mormon promotes the repulsive notion that white skin is beautiful, that black skin is not, that black skin is in fact curse from God and that, because of the cursing, those with black skin became “loathsome,” “idle,” and “full of mischief and subtlety.”
Yet the Book of Mormon was not the sole basis for the ban on blacks holding the priesthood. Prior to 1978, Mormon leadership and apologists repeatedly answered the priesthood question by referencing the Pearl of Great Price, which expands the notion of the dark skin curse, explaining that Noah cursed Ham and his descendants, forbidding them the priesthood. (Abraham 1:20-27)
Bruce R. McConkie, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, extrapolated further, identifying the dark skin curse as the same curse God placed upon Cain after he murdered his brother Abel: “Cain, Ham, and the whole negro race have been cursed with a black skin, the mark of Cain, so they can be identified as a caste apart, a people with whom the other descendants of Adam should not intermarry.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 114)
References from church leadership to God’s curse on black men and women are myriad and easy to find (try perusing the Journal of Discourses, vol. 2), so suffice it to say that abundant evidence from the scriptures and from church leaders seemed to demonstrate clearly that it was not God’s will to grant the priesthood to black men. Ever. But in 1978, the church did exactly that.
Women today who desire the priesthood face an uphill battle, to be sure. But unless the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon contained a detailed description of a more severe no-priesthood cursing God placed upon women for their disobedience, I feel somewhat assured that women will hold the priesthood in the Mormon Church in the not-so-distant future.