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LDS Church condemns past racism ‘inside and outside the church’

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In this file photo taken Dec. 8, 2008, Professor Randy Bott, whose students can report on personal events, applauds an announcement about receiving an LDS mission call.

In this file photo taken Dec. 8, 2008, Professor Randy Bott, whose students can report on personal events, applauds an announcement about receiving an LDS mission call.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News archives

PROVO — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a forceful statement Wednesday condemning racism, "including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church."

The statement came in response to a Washington Post political story about Mitt Romney's run for the presidency and his faith's former ban on giving black men the priesthood. The story included reported comments from a popular BYU religion professor that included personal speculation about the former ban. Many Mormons were upset by Professor Randy Bott's reported comments and some considered them racist.

"The church's position is clear," LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy said. "We believe all people are God's children and are equal in His eyes and in the church. We do not tolerate racism in any form."

"For a time in the church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent," Purdy said. "It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding."

Purdy referred specifically to the positions attributed to Bott in the Post article and said those positions "absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

"BYU faculty members do not speak for the church," Purdy said. "It is unfortunate that the church was not given a chance to respond to what others said."

The controversy

Bott said in a class Wednesday that he was misquoted, according to students, but he could not be reached for comment.

The Post article said that Bott explained a "possible theological underpinning of the (priesthood) ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, 'were black.' One of Cain's descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood."

At one point in the Post story it notes that "Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father's car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood."

The story quoted Bott as saying, "What is discrimination? I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn't have been a benefit to them?" The story continued, "Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. 'You couldn't fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren't on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.'"

Purdy disavowed the comments attributed to Bott and such thinking, the Post reported, is "vile" to Don Harwell, president of Genesis, an LDS Church-sponsored group for Mormon blacks in Salt Lake City.

Harwell told the Deseret News on Wednesday he is comfortable with the church's statement condemning "any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church."

"I get angry and frustrated when people point at the LDS Church as if it was the only organization in the world that had any people in it who ever made a racist statement," he said Wednesday. "I graduated from high school in California in 1963 — there was a lot of racism back then, everywhere. The LDS Church was way down the list for racism, as far as I was concerned. And that was before I even joined the church."

So in the context of the times, Harwell said, you can understand some of the things LDS leaders said.

"It doesn't excuse it," he said, "but you understand it."

'We don't know'

Bott, a popular religion professor at BYU and the highest-rated professor in America in 2008 according to ratemyprofessor.com, told students in his missionary preparation class Wednesday that he gave the interview to the Post because he was under the impression that the reporter had permission from the church to talk to him.

"He said he had been misquoted," said Katie Cutler, a junior in linguistics from Yorktown, Va. "He said he just shared the scriptures with the reporter and told them that the church hasn't given an official reason for the priesthood ban."

Stephen Whitaker, a BYU graduate who now lives in New Haven, Conn., wrote a concerned email to Professor Bott after reading the story in the Washington Post. Whitaker said that in a "very kind" return email Bott indicated to him that he felt he had been misrepresented in the Post, and that he regretted that the reporter had not given him an opportunity to review his quotes before the story was published.

"He said that if he had been able to read his quotes in advance he would have made significant changes," Whitaker said.

"I feel sorry for him," said Daniel C. Peterson, who is also a BYU religion professor but who says he has never met Bott. "I'm confident, though I don't know him, that he's a good, well-intentioned man."

Writing in his own blog, however, Peterson said he disagrees profoundly with what Bott said to the Post.

"Our speculations as to the reason(s) (for the priesthood ban) have been essentially worthless, and sometimes harmful," Peterson wrote. "God has not seen fit to explain why he commanded or at least permitted the denial of priesthood to blacks.

"We certainly don't know that God withheld the priesthood from blacks in order to protect them, or because they weren't 'ready' for it, or because it 'benefited' them to be denied access to the temple or opportunities to serve missions, and the like," he continued. "We just don't know. And if we ever learn the reason, that knowledge will come through the Lord's chosen prophets and apostles, not through BYU professors like me."

Peterson's position is in line with statements made by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve in a March 2006 interview with Helen Whitney of PBS. During the interview, Elder Holland referred to speculations — including those by early church leaders — about the reasons why blacks could not hold the LDS priesthood for a period of time as "folklore" that "must never be perpetuated."

"All I can say is, however well-intentioned the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong," Elder Holland said. "It would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, (as) with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time ... We simply don't know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place."

One of the most often-quoted church leaders on the subject was Elder Bruce R. McConkie, whose book, "Mormon Doctrine," was seen by several generations as the ultimate reference book on Mormon theology. In a speech given to LDS educators two months after the 1978 revelation in which President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the blessings of the priesthood would be extended to all worthy male members of the church, Elder McConkie said, "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."

'Inside and outside'

In a statement published on the LDS Church’s Newsroom website, church officials noted that "people of all races have always been welcomed and baptized into the church since its beginning."

In fact, the statement pointed out that Joseph Smith, the church's founding prophet, was opposed to slavery, and that during Joseph Smith's time "some black males were ordained to the priesthood."

"At some point the church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions," Wednesday's statement continued. "It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the church, but it has ended. Church leaders sought divine guidance regarding the issue and more than three decades ago extended the priesthood to all worthy male members. The Church immediately began ordaining members to priesthood offices wherever they attended throughout the world."

The statement stated further that "the church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church." It referenced a 2006 statement by then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who said that "no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children."

Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject: "The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com