First, the priesthood ban was really more than a priesthood ban. Men of African descent were denied the priesthood but another consequence of the ban was that entire families were denied entry to the temple, so until 1978 black families could not be sealed in the Mormon church. Black men and women couldn't get their endowments. There were no temple weddings for black couples.
If you haven’t, please read the church’s recent essay "Race and the Priesthood". It does a fairly good job of laying out some important historical context. It avoids some of the more racist quotes by LDS church leaders, but I’ll share and discuss some of them and why they trouble me in this post.
Of note is the following quote from the essay:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.Here are some of the quotes through history that concern me. I apologize in advance for the length, but context is important and I try to give the quotes as much context as is reasonably possible.
Bruce R. McConkie states that those of African descent were less valiant in the pre-existence:
Of the two-thirds who followed Christ, however, some were more valiant than others ....Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God and his murder of Abel being a black skin (Moses 5:16-41; 12:22). Noah's son Ham married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain, thus preserving the negro lineage through the flood (Abraham 1:20-27). Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. (Abra. 1:20-27.) The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them (Moses 7:8, 12, 22), although sometimes negroes search out the truth, join the Church, and become by righteous living heirs of the celestial kingdom of heaven. President Brigham Young and others have taught that in the future eternity worthy and qualified negroes will receive the priesthood and every gospel blessing available to any man.
The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence. Along with all races and peoples he is receiving here what he merits as a result of the long pre-mortal probation in the presence of the Lord....The negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom, but this inequality is not of man's origin. It is the Lord's doing. (Mormon Doctrine, 1966 Edition)First Presidency under George Albert Smith also states that those of African descent were less valiant in the pre-existence:
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”
President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes. (First Presidency Statement, August 17, 1949)Apostle Mark E. Petersen also states that being born of African descent is a result of actions in the pre-existence, interracial marriage is forbidden, and makes some other statements that might seem unenlightened:
Think of the Negro, cursed as to the priesthood. This Negro, who, in the pre‑existence lived the type of life which justified the Lord in sending him to the earth in their lineage of Cain with a black skin, and possibly being born in darkest Africa‑‑if that Negro is willing when he hears the gospel to accept it, he may have many of the blessings of the gospel. In spite of all he did in the pre‑existent life, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get celestial glory. (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems ‑ As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954)
Now what is our policy in regard to intermarriage? As to the Negro, of course, there is only one possible answer. We must not intermarry with the Negro... (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems ‑ As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954)
I think I have read enough to give you an idea of what the Negro is after. He is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people eat. He isn't just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. It isn't that he just desires to go to the same theater as the white people. From this, and other interviews I have read, it appears that the Negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for Negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that we used to say about sin, 'First we pity, then endure, then embrace'. (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems ‑ As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954)Brigham Young saying that the penalty for interracial marriage will always be death:
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. (Brigham Young, JoD Vol. 10 page 110)John Taylor stating that those of African descent are the devil's representatives on earth:
And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham's wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God. (John Taylor, JoD Vol. 22 page 304 (1881))As you can see, these quotes directly contradict the recently released essay linked to above and have been disavowed by the essay. I could give dozens more examples where church leaders (and by leaders I mean apostles and prophets) have said similar things. These were the beliefs of the church for over 100 years and at the highest levels of leadership.
Another big thing for me that the essay doesn't cover is the fact that in 1852, Utah was allowed to decide if slavery would be legal there. Brigham Young said the following to the territorial legislature in 1852:
“I have this section in my hand, headed "An Act in Relation to African Slavery." I have read it over and made a few alterations. I will remark with regard to slavery, inasmuch as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses, which they have in their families and their classes and in their various capacities brought upon themselves. And until the curse is removed by Him who placed it upon them, they must suffer under its consequences; I am not authorized to remove it. I am a firm believer in slavery.”Following Young's speech, the territorial legislature, which was made up mostly of LDS general authorities at that time voted and legalized slavery in Utah. In fact, for a time, the LDS church under Young actually owned a man. His name was Green Flake. Look him up. Learn about him. He has an interesting life story.
So what is the problem for me? The problem is not that these teachings were disavowed. That is a good thing. The problem is that for more than 100 years prophets and apostles taught that black skin was a sign of divine disfavor or curse, that it was a result of alleged misdeeds committed in a previous life, and that mixed race marriage was a sin, many times while explicitly declaring it unambiguously as God's will. A prophet also endorsed slavery and allowed the church to participate in it directly. I feel that if prophets can teach things that are incorrect and morally wrong as God's will, I am forced to redefine the word 'prophet' so that it means something significantly different and less extraordinary than what I thought earlier in my life. I am left to wonder if I am not better off just figuring things out on my own.
Anyway, it is nice that the essay states that these earlier teachings were not correct, but I would really like to see an apology on behalf of the institution, similar to the apologies the Catholic church has made for some of its mistakes in the past. I can’t feel good about how we just refer to nebulous mistakes of the past made by unnamed individuals. It gives the impression that they were just opinions of rogue underlings. A problem like this should be confronted directly. I think that in order to truly put this issue behind them, the LDS church needs to directly acknowledge that racist beliefs were held at the highest levels and offer a candid apology for that.
In addition, it is hard for me not to draw parallels with this and current church rhetoric. How do we know that God disapproves of gay marriage and women receiving the priesthood? Do we know the same way that we knew that blacks were born with dark skin because of mistakes they made in a life before this life, the same way we knew that slavery should be legalized in Utah?
Edit 9/1/14: It seems like the most common response from a believer's standpoint to these issues is that I need to not expect prophets of the past to be perfect. My response would be that I don't. I do expect them to provide good moral guidance and be honest and candid when they don't know something, but I certainly don't expect perfection. The problem is that nearly everybody today can agree that Brigham Young's endorsement of slavery was wrong, yet he attributed it to God. There are things that current LDS church leaders are attributing to God like we should oppose gay marriage and the ordination of women. The question is, what changed between then and now that makes it so that prophets cannot be wrong anymore? At what moment did LDS prophets cease to be vulnerable to making huge errors of judgement like Brigham Young did? If I genuinely feel that they are wrong, can I exercise my right of conscience and publicly state that? Would it have been wrong for me to publicly state that Brigham Young was wrong abut slavery had I lived during that time?
I think that wrong is wrong and nobody should feel like they have to hide what they really think when it comes to moral issues.