The Long Promised Day: Why the LDS Church Priesthood Ban is NOT a Hammer for Your Liberal Wedge Issue

Those who disagree with the the LDS Church on certain policies and positions, especially its stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, but also on various other policies that clash with current liberal cultural trends, often cite the Church’s former Priesthood Restriction as a precedent for the church to make further changes to accommodate their views.

In fact, for many of them the Priesthood Ban has become a useful hammer that they employ to drive their agenda. It has become a kind of folklore for heretical members of the church that is used to prop up and justify their agitation for change and rejection of prophetic authority.

The folklore goes something like this:

“Brigham Young, the second prophet and president of the church, was a terrible racist and instituted a church policy that banned black members from being ordained to the priesthood. Many doctrinal and scriptural justifications were given for the ban during the subsequent decades, but it was really only based on the racist notions common to the culture and religions of the time. In the years leading up to 1978 when the ban was finally ended, many good members of the church, including general authorities, were troubled by the restriction and questioned its origins, and some righteous souls even publicly agitated for it to end. In response to the growing challenge from members and the success of the Civil Rights movement the church lifted the ban and admitted that the scriptural and doctrinal justifications for it were wrong.”

Much of the time this narrative is taken for granted and the argument is simply made by referring to it, like this: “Just like the Brethren were wrong about the priesthood ban, they are wrong about homosexuality, and will eventually change and disavow the previous doctrines.”

This appeal to the priesthood ban as a precedent for additional changes leaves out a couple of key details that undermine the parallelism to these modern trends.

From the very beginning of the priesthood restriction, Brigham Young himself prophesied that the “time will come when [black members] will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more.” (February 5th, 1852 Speech before the Territorial Legislature). Subsequent prophets reiterated this prophecy that eventually the Lord would lift the ban and the priesthood would be bequeathed to all. Many of them didn’t believe it would happen until the Millennium, after Jesus returned.

In addition to the prophecies, we have very solid historical examples of black men being ordained to priesthood offices by the prophet Joseph Smith himself before the priesthood restriction was declared by President Young.

These are essential details. The disagreement in the decades culminating in ending the restriction was about the the validity of the reasons that had been suggested for the restriction, or whether or not blacks really were descended from Cain or Canaan, the proper time frame for lifting the ban, and whether it could be ended without an explicit revelation. But the idea that the priesthood could be and would be extended to blacks at the proper time was not in dispute. That is why in Official Declaration 2, in which the end of the restriction was announced, President Kimball specifically refers to these prophecies when he says they are “Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us…” and says “the long-promised day has come…”

It is this concept of an explicitly “long-promised day” that is missing from the appeals for additional changes in the church to accommodate modern sensibilities. Putting  aside controversies about whether or not the priesthood restriction was a mistake or an inexplicable decree from the Lord, the priesthood was always supposed to be extended to black members eventually.

A similar example of a “long promised day” is the extension of the gospel to the gentiles by the prophet Peter. Jesus himself had prophesied that the gospel would eventually go to the gentiles, both before His crucifixion and then again after His resurrection. So when Peter received his vision and then extended the gospel to Cornelius the Centurion and his household, upon whom the Holy Spirit had fallen, it fulfilled the earlier prophecy. Putting aside controversies over whether gentile converts needed to be circumcised, the gospel was supposed to be extended to the gentiles eventually.

There is no “long-promised day” prophesied by latter-day prophets and presidents that preceded us to which one might appeal for same-sex marriage. Neither are their solid historical examples of Joseph Smith approving of or sanctioning homosexual relationships in the way that there are of extending the priesthood to black members.

For these reasons lifting the priesthood ban is not really comparable and cannot be legitimately cited as a good precedent for new changes through agitation and public pressure by liberal members of the church.

For an excellent, faithful perspective on the priesthood ban, check out Thirty Years After the Long Promised Day: Reflections and Expectations (PDF) by brother Marcus H. Martins, who was the first black LDS member to serve a full-time mission after the restriction was ended.

UPDATE 4/2014: Since this was written, some wonderful additional materials about the Priesthood Ban have been published. Please see my more more recent post:

Faithful LDS Perspectives on Race and the Priesthood


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6 Responses to The Long Promised Day: Why the LDS Church Priesthood Ban is NOT a Hammer for Your Liberal Wedge Issue

  1. Thanks Jonathan, I really appreciate this concise presentation.

  2. nathan000000

    Great post, Jonathan. You do a good job of showing the errors in the attempted analogy. When I was going to do a post on this several years ago, I tried to articulate the differences between the two issues in discrete points to show the accumulation of evidence. All of the following can be said of the priesthood restriction; none can be said of homosexual actions:

    1. The priesthood restriction was always foreseen as temporary.

    2. Priesthood restrictions have been changed and/or rescinded in past dispensations.

    3. Exceptions to priesthood restrictions have happened in past dispensations, as well as earlier in the current dispensation. (You mentioned this.)

    4. Race has never been described as an essential, eternal individual characteristic.

  3. Thanks for this article; very interesting and seems accurate. Just one question: what would you say to someone who argues that same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage have been relatively unknown historically and, therefore, were not significant enough for the Brethren to address? Is it possible that the issue now is becoming one to address and the church’s approach to it could change, or is the fact that it is now becoming an issue evidence that it’s a “man made” issue and, therefore, a far different issue from race and likely to be addressed in a different manner? Sorry, that’s a pretty long, complex question.

  4. J. A few questions:

    What do you do with other quotes from Apostles that say that blacks will not have the priesthood in this life?

    What do you do with polygamy – another common hammer? The overwhelming view of JS, BY, John Taylor and others was that polygamy would never end. In my view a much more potent hammer than the priesthood ban.

    Also, a comment: specifically concerning homosexuality, the official view of the Church actually has changed dramatically over time. That fact, I think is the real hammer the Church needs to address. As it stands today, official literature accepts the idea that people may not “overcome” their sexual orientation in this life and are not encouraged to “get married and figure it out.” Also, having homosexual desires is not considered a sin anymore. That’s a radical change. So, people who promote change, don’t need the priesthood ban, there are so many other examples to choose from.

  5. Kyeudo

    Christian John,

    You’ve got some points, but you don’t seem to grasp how they anchor to LDS theology.

    With those Apostle quotes, I’d first check to see if reading the quote in context changes the meaning of the words – often removing a quote from its surrounding text alters how the quote is read. If it still claims as you say, though, I’d hold that what they are saying is merely them answering to the best of their knowledge and understanding. It does not disturb my mind at all that they were wrong, as we have never held the Brethren to be infallible.

    As for polygamy, you are aware that the LDS Church still holds that polygamy is still a true principle when practiced at the Lord’s command, correct? We simply hold that the Lord has rescinded the command to practice polygamy and that until he commands such again that practicing polygamy is sinful. In other words, polygamy hasn’t ended, it is merely not currently practiced.

    On the subject of homosexuality, yes, the Church has adapted as the scientific understanding of homosexuality has improved. However, you will find that the two principles that together prohibit homosexual practice have been with the church since the beginning, not just since the Restoration but also since the Creation. Those two principles are thus: Marriage is between a man and a woman and sex outside of marriage is a grave sin. Because two men or two women cannot marry, any sex they have with each other will necessarily be outside of marriage, therefore it is a grave sin.

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