Ordain Women. (At Least They’re Not Black Men.)

Kate Kelly, Ordain Women Founder

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.

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34 comments

  1. Sister Kelly, I see your frustration, your pain, I see you. I also see that you are trying to draw support form people. In doing so you keep making reference to what you think is the “Black” experience and used civil right’s protest tactics to achieve your goals. This is not that way to teach or enlighten people who you say are not following The Lord’s Plan. We are taught to teach with love and humility not protest and agitation.

    Ether 6:17
    Book of Mormon
    And they were taught to walk humbly before the Lord; and they were also taught from on high.

    I have not formally met you and I want you to know that I love and pray for you and your family.

  2. Bad job! In fact despicable job! As a Black Latter-day Saint who knows, respects, and loves my sister Kate Kelly, I first off find your title insulting and horrid. Secondly know your own history you dastardly co-opter of the black experience! The ban on priesthood was and is a woman’s issue! The restrictions extended to black women. As an advocate of gender equality how can you ignore sexism and ridiculously equate race and priesthood to women’s ordination just to bolster an argument. Not only do I rebuke in the name of Jesus, but as a member of the bloggernacle I revoke your membership and place you on informal probation until you can type two meaningful sentences together in the same post!

    1. Ryan isn’t Mormon—as a non-believing, former Mormon who is still interested in the LDS Church (like myself), he’s just identifying the absurdity of the Mormon Church’s actions.

      I believe his underlying point is that the LDS Church won’t be as responsive to the Ordain Women movement. The Mormon Church only did the right thing in 1978 by allowing African Americans to receive the priesthood because the evidence of past racism and discrimination couldn’t be ignored—unlike the examples Ryan included regarding the LDS Church’s discrimination against African Americans, the LDS Church’s history of sexism and misogyny doesn’t fill the pages of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith/Brigham Young’s sexism isn’t as recent, so the LDS Church faces less pressure to remedy it.

      I can’t speak for Ryan, but I don’t think he’s trying to co-opt the African American experience as much as provide a comparison between the Mormon Church’s discrimination against African Americans and women. The Mormon Church openly discriminated against African Americans—apologist justifications notwithstanding—long after the Civil Rights Movement began shifting American thought.

      1. No J, I am not arguing that the LDS Church can never be wrong, in fact the quote I posted by McConkie, to me, is evidence of an instance where the church leaders got it drastically wrong. History tell us Joseph Smith ordained African American men and Brigham Young put a halt to ordinations. Knowing that Ryan isn’t Mormon alters the thought process a bit because it appeared to me he may be a another Mormon posting out-dated information and paralleling a struggle many believe (myself included) is not comparable- it happens all the time. I also wish I could declare intellectual bankruptcy every time I realized I was wrong about something and then demand everyone immediately forgive and forget what I perviously said.

      2. Valid point noted that he is a non-believing-former member of the LDS faith. Ryan’s underlying points will remain underlying because they are buried beneath an offensive title and a skewed comparison that co-opts the experience of Blacks and does not share the narrative as a stand alone, but climbs upon it’s shoulders for his use. Yeah, not “trying” to co-opt the African American experience, but doing it anyway is white privilege. What I’m trying to point out as a Black reader of his post, is that I don’t appreciate his comparison and I find it offensive. Why is it that white authors so often only discuss the black experience as it relates to a white experience? That is co-opting. Our Black Mormon experience is much more than just precedent and case law for a white cause, and this post does not express that. And before anyone argues that the OW is not a white cause, just don’t with me. I’ve seen how they do it. “Let Women Pray” in general conference. Oh, what they really meant was “Let White Women Pray” in general conference. Guess what? Lot’s of women of color wrote letters for their cause and once white women prayed they moved on. So if we are talking precedent, then OW stands for Ordain White-women.

      3. J–I’m not really taking a position on how responsive the church will be. I could argue either side, really. I’m just saying that at least there’s nothing in the Mormon canon about how women are cursed, indolent, and mischievous, so why not let em give the whole priesthoody thing a try?

    1. Actually that wasn’t Christlike. What I should have said was: some of the information in your article was incorrect. Please refer to the Race and the Priesthood Statement published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Dec. 2013 (link above). The Church does not stand by those statements and views of African Americas stated by previous leaders. In fact, Elder McConkie said after the 1978 “Restoration of the Priesthood” when he was getting criticized for his incorrect views on this issue that of which some you have quoted, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

      1. Ryan isn’t Mormon, so it’s not his church.

        Are you arguing that the LDS Church can never be wrong because, even if the opinion is later corrected, I’m immediately required to forget it? How does one distinguish between a current belief that may later change and a current belief that is unchangeable? I wish I could claim declare some type of intellectual bankruptcy every time I realized I was wrong about something and then demand everyone immediately forgive and forget everything I perviously said. But seriously, sounds like nonsense to me…

      2. I think, too often, modern Christianity portrays Jesus in a more “meek and mild” version than it should. We forget about his cleansing of the temple. I mean, flipping tables, chasing people with a whip? Seems pretty angry. So no worries about the non-Christlike business. Anger isn’t a sin. I don’t think expressing it in writing is either.

        To your point though, I spent a good long time reading and analyzing “Race and the Priesthood.” Much of my post above was the result of a much longer response to that document that I never posted. I’m aware the church doesn’t stand by those statements. But I agree with J on the intellectual bankruptcy bit. You can’t proclaim yourself a prophet/seer for the whole earth with a direct line to God, declare, “thus saith the Lord…” and then reneg a few decades later and expect people not to question that. More frustrating to me is that the church denounced all teachings of racial inequality but still proclaims the Book of Mormon to be the “most correct book on earth” and quotes from it to demonstrate God’s love for all His children regardless of race when the very same book teaches that white skin is beautiful, black skin is repulsive, and that black people are idle, mischievous, and subtle.

        And no matter the church’s “official position” du jour, children in Sunday School are still taught that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin because they were evil. It’s what I grew up believing. You can’t proclaim the Book of Mormon to be the word of God and ignore pellucid racism.

  3. I understand that you, along with many other people, are upset that Kate Kelly has been excommunicated. But the parallel that you have made between her position and the LDS history of not granting the priesthood to all worthy males is incorrect. Your interpretation of the curses in the Book of Mormon as being racially driven is also incorrect. The likelihood that you would believe me for saying that, I realize, is highly unlikely. So I’m sharing here some videos I hope you and your readers will find to enlightening in regards to the racial history of the Church, and what we truly believe about race in the scriptures.

    Specifically speaking to your viewpoint on race in the Book of Mormon, this video is from an African American member of the Church named Marvin Perkins. He discusses how the curses in the Book of Mormon should not be understood as curses of literal skin color, but are ancient analogies from the Mesoamerican culture which refer to spiritual blindedness. You can find his remarks here:

    These videos are from Darius Gray, a well respected African American leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is called as an official representative of the Church through the GENESIS group to speak to many of these misunderstandings on race to those inside and outside the Church. We can learn much from his insight, and I pray you will as well.

    The major difference between ordaining all worthy males regardless of race and the ordination of women is that the doctrine of the Church did not change when all men were ordained. It was a return to what the true position of the Church has always been. The priesthood rightfully belongs to all worth men, regardless of skin color. Even the very name by which we refer to the high priesthood testifies of this. We call it the Melchizedek Priesthood, and Melchizedek was black. Melchizedek was one of Canaan’s son, and one of Ham’s grandsons, which Darius Gray comments on in some detail in one of the talks I’ve posted for you.

    For women to be demanding to be ordained to the priesthood in this life is to demand something that is totally unfounded. It has never happened in the history of the Church–not the Old Testament Church, not the New Testament Church, and not the modern Church. This isn’t a case of the LDS woman being denied something she was once given, as it was for our black brothers and sisters.

    To say the Latter-day Saint woman will never be ordained to the priesthood, however, is equally false. We believe that women WILL be ordained to the priesthood AFTER this life, and only on the condition that she is totally faithful to her covenants on earth. This is something we teach openly in our temples, and most women who worship there understand. To demand with the imperative then, to Ordain Women, is the case of a movement of women who are sending the message to the Lord, “I’m not willing to wait until the time when I will be given my rights to the priesthood. I want them now, and I want you to force the leadership of your Church to give them to me now.”

    I’m not saying that women being ordained to the priesthood in this life is impossible. I can’t speak for the Lord like that. He can and will do whatever he wants in his own Church. But I doubt highly that it would happen in the way and the spirit that Kate Kelly has brought to the table. Your post is an example of the false analogies and untrue doctrinal accusations that people have come to believe and spread because of her movement. This is what the Church is trying to avoid, and the clearest way to send that message is to excommunicate Kate Kelly.

      1. I too appreciate your rebuttal and your knowledge of your church history. It also seems that your rebuttal was more palatable to the author’s sense of white privilege. While I doubt that was your intention, again thank goodness you know your history otherwise…

    1. Women were ordained via the organization of the Relief Society by Brother Joseph. The minutes of the RS gatherings speak to ordination, administration, and laying on of hands. check out the book by Dew & Pearce “The beginning of better days” for documentation.

      Your blacks in the scriptures game is tight. Up your gender game. Women were in the upper room of the temple when the 12th apostle was chosen to replace Judas. I’m pretty sure they weren’t in there giving birth to babies while men used “the priesthood.”

      Lets not keep telling folks to wait until they die for life to get equal.

      1. I don’t think it’s conclusive of much to point out that the LDS Church originally ordained Africans Americans—it definitely doesn’t prove that the church wasn’t racist the 100+ years after that. To me, it just sounds like the common justification of “I have African American friends, so I can’t be racist.”

        If a restaurant opens, serves people of all colors for one year, then subsequently excludes people of a particular race for 50 years before again serving every race, how does the fact that the restaurant originally served all races make up for its conduct in between? Was the intermediate practice any less shameful?

      2. But, I do 100% agree with what you said about telling people to wait until they die to receive equal treatment—very well stated!

    2. You’ve written at such length that I’m going to have to reply in a list. My apologies.

      1. I’m not upset that she was excommunicated. My heart goes out to her, but I don’t think anyone’s really that surprised.

      2. The idea that Noah’s curse on Ham turned his skin black (and that Melchizedek was, therefore black) is, as far as I’m aware, not actually found in the Mormon canon. McConkie said it, and so did Brigham Young, but you’ve essentially indicated that their statements on the subject were far removed from the church’s “true position,” so the Melchizedek argument is self-defeating.

      3. Your argument regarding black men having ever had the priesthood while women haven’t is a better one. LS has indicated that Joseph ordained women, but I’m not going to go there because I know nothing on the subject. It would be worth considering. I’ll say this though: if women are promised the priesthood after death, what’s the difference? Now? Later? It’s not like God doesn’t want to give it to them. And Christ taught that we should ask God for the righteous desires of our hearts. Can’t see anything terribly wrong with wanting the priesthood if it’s already promised me.

    3. I just stumbled on this thread. I have not connection to anything related to it. I simply enjoy understanding the different sides in any controversy. While I generally would not impose, I just wanted to comment that this is one of the best responses I have read to any controversial topic. Kudos.

  4. I can see how a non-black latter-day saint might be able to formulate a “courteous” rebuttal while us black folks were left reeling from jump at the audacity of a title reeking with white privilege. Yes, please let us know when we can move to the front of the stirfries bus and expect our replies. We appreciate you leaving us for last though our comments were first.

    1. Hi Zetamo. I’m really not interested in exchanging ad hominem banalities, but I’ll clarify where you seem to be misunderstanding.

      The purpose of my post was twofold. First, I wanted to demonstrate that the idea of women holding the priesthood is hardly novel or ridiculous. I support it wholeheartedly because I feel like it would go a long way toward addressing the gender inequality prevalent in the church in which I grew up. Second, I wanted to clarify the huge barrier to entry that blacks (men and women, as you’ve correctly stated) faced when asking for the priesthood and higher ordinances for many of my readers. The ban on blacks holding the priesthood was not only, as some have argued and as “Race and the Priesthood” suggests, the result of misguided men or a product of the times. Sure it was the result of the tremendous and unfortunate racial tension among the states in the Union before, during, and after the Civil War, but it was (more importantly to this argument) steeped in scriptural tradition.

      You seem to be most hung up on my title, yet you seem to be missing its sarcasm. I’ve said that “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.”’ The bit of scripture I’m quoting here (from 2 Nephi 5) is, perhaps, one of the most repugnant things I was made to read as a child in Sunday School. We were taught that those with darker skin had been cursed by God! How horrible a thing is that to teach a child!? My use of the phrase “At Least They’re Not Black Men” was a sardonic critique of the Mormon Church’s position prior to 1978, and it strikes me as odd that you’ve missed that, instead hurling epithets like hand grenades.

      And finally, I’m not attempting to equate blacks’ exclusion from the priesthood and higher ordinances with women’s current predicament in the church. They’re not equal. Never have women as a group been treated with such wonton disrespect as the church, its scriptures, and its leaders displayed for its black members.

      1. As I explained to J your use of sarcasm at the expense of the black mormon experience, I’m not digging it. I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to the white people can’t say the N-word rule. I am well aware of all of the racist justifications for the ban on black people in the LDS church, including the application of scripture to support them. “How horrible a thing is that to teach a child?” Chile please! Do you know what black men, women and children are taught everyday about our very being from churches, media, government, social media, wanton blog posts and society at large? Excuse me if I do not weep for 2nd Nephi experience. Let’s talk about what you are perpetuating with your post: That the black experience is nothing more than something I as a white man can toss around at will if I feel it strengthens my whites-only cause.

      2. Z: I definitely agree with you about one thing—members of the LDS Church should critically discuss the terrible, horrific way the LDS Church’s leaders treated people of color for decades. To me, that conduct is unjustifiable and damning—I don’t think the Church changing its mind in 1978 means that the world should just forgive and forget. This doesn’t work in real life: http://media.tumblr.com/7914e922a61b546f2de42e9d9a90b6d9/tumblr_inline_mi44xeoUqD1qz4rgp.gif

  5. Here’s what some of us black saints are trying to say, Ryan. Comparing black family struggles to white woken struggles, scriptural basis or not, is Apple’s to rib eye steak….nowhere in the same category.

    The difficulty that most of us see us that instead of using “white women ordained to the priesthood despite sexism in the 1840s, not ordained after the 1900s and asking questions now” as the basis for discussion, people keep trying to connect it to the impacts of racism on the entire black family unit by equating “black men ordained despite racism, prohibited in 1900s, and restored in 1978” to “white women wanting to be ordained in 2014.” The request, from me as a Black Saint, is please go learn your own history of gender in the Church and use that to stand on for your discussions. Don’t stand on my back to make yourself heard.

    Your post spent most of its time talking about the same limited racism quoted as doctrine that kept black families broken for the most critical time period that the Gospel could have been used to cleanse the “promised land” of the deepest sins of racism and hatred.

    What Sister Kelly and friends are experiencing is pain in its own way. It is not pain in any equal way to the doctrinal violence exacted upon black families in the LDS church by fault of anti-black sentiments.

  6. I used to use the word gypped until a friend of Gypsy decent told me that they found it offensive and explained to me that the word perpetuates the stereotype Gypsies rip people off. I was in elementary school. You know what I did? I listened, understood what they were saying and changed my behavior and educate others when the opportunity arises. You know what I didn’t do. Make justifications or roll my eyes. White privilege is a hard perk to give up, but for some reason I thought you would try. Forgive my misassumption.

  7. J: thank you! Every narrative whether in society in general or in this case the Mormon church deserves true representation. The black Mormon narrative is extremely underrepresented. Basically non-exsistant in LDS church manuals and curriculum. And as far as critical dialogue, from Mormons at large it is on a don’t ask don’t tell policy where they would prefer not to look past 78 and pretend that beyond it all is well in Zion. And Mormon progressives/progressive non Mormon allies often dialogue about the experience for the sole purpose of drawing on it in relation to their cause as this post does. The black Mormon experience is unique from every other Mormon of color experience because there was a denial of eternal salvation for ONLY black people, with a continued dogma and lived black experience that exists today. This is why a large portion of Blacks would not appreciate among other things the title of this post. If we are still living it we aren’t too keen on having white men joke about it however well meaning it may be. Thanks again J for meaningful dialogue, much appreciated.

  8. As the writer that you called the ” overzealous blogger” I would simply like to point out that supporting the Prophet is not overzealous and that I am just trying to be faithful and honest.

    Also, the black priesthood is an entirely different situation. Our Prophet and Apostles and General Authorities have reminded us time and time again (in recent general conferences etc.) the answer to the situation with Ordain Women. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I have the same view as those prophets that I sustain. I will always support them and proclaim my testimony of the witness I have received that they are called of God and in fact are leading us in the right direction.

    I also find it interesting that you mock the fact that I point out that you can pray about it. Why is it so ludicrous to suggest you ask God? I would invite anyone to do so!

    You can keep mocking people like me who are just trying to be faithful followers..it’s your prerogative.

    The so-called “ignorant” blogpost: https://codypaigeblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/what-i-would-tell-my-lil-mormon-kids-if-they-were-being-lead-astray/

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