There have been black Mormons since the 1830s. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the true name of the church commonly called the Mormon Church) accepted black people as members and did not segregate their congregations. They were officially opposed to slavery, which upset Missouri when they lived there. The newspapers published complaints that Mormons had a plan to convert and bring to Missouri free blacks at a time Missouri was trying to enter the United States as a slave state. Missouri, which beat free blacks entering the state, saw the Mormon plan to increase the black population as justification for increased persecution of Mormons.
The Mormon Church was organized in 1830 and the first black Mormon was baptized in 1832. His name was Elijah Abel. He would also receive the priesthood and become a seventy, a high-ranking church leader. Abel is believed to have escaped slavery through the underground railroad. He would help to build the temple in Salt Lake Temple and served several missions.
Elizabeth Jane Manning was another early black Mormon. She converted in the late 1830s and, as a teenager, led a group of black Mormons to Illinois, where the Mormons then lived in a city called Nauvoo. Upon arrival, she and her family and friends were taken into Joseph Smith’s home to stay until they found jobs and homes of their own. Joseph Smith was the first prophet and president of the Mormon Church. When everyone but Jane found a job and a home, Joseph Smith and his wife offered her a job working for them. She continued to live with them until Joseph was murdered by a mob, at which time she went to work for Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet. In Utah, she and her brother had reserved seats at the front of the tabernacle for important meetings because of their high level of service to the church.
In 1833, God gave Joseph Smith a specific revelation that slavery was immoral: Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. (See Doctrine and Covenants 101:79.) In 1842, Joseph Smith wrote in his journal that he believed the slaves should be freed, educated, and given equal rights. The next year, he contradicted the popular belief of the time that blacks did not have souls. He said that they were merely products of their environments and that given the same opportunities as white people, they would have the same level of accomplishment. When Joseph Smith ran for president, he proposed that public lands be sold to purchase the freedom of all slaves, and that slavery should be abolished by 1850.
It has long been a matter of controversy that at some point in Mormon history, black Mormons were denied the priesthood and access to the temples. The first record of this occurred in 1853, when Elijah Abel was denied permission to receive his endownments (special ordinances) in the Mormon temple by Brigham Young. The following year, Young secured the freedom of a Mormon slave, Green Flake.
We do not know what led to the change in policy. Many efforts have been made, beginning very early in church history, to trace the procedural change in order to understand whether it was a revelation or a policy, but without success. The change was never canonized as official doctrine.
In order to understand this, there are several principles of Mormonism that must be understood. The first is that of agency. Mormons believe that agency is absolutely critical to our lives on earth. We are here to make choices and to be held accountable for those choices. God will not interfere with our agency, although others might interfere with it. If a person makes a poor choice, everyone affected lives with the consequences of those choices. In reverse, we often benefit from the good choices of others.
Second, a prophet is also a person. He is a product of his own time, culture, and circumstances. As you read the Old Testament, you’ll see that the prophets were ordinary people. They spoke according to whatever wisdom they had at the time. This is why we sometimes see prophets making scientifically inaccurate statements—those weren’t prophecy; they were opinion or knowledge based on the beliefs of the time. Prophets have agency, just as we do. When an official doctrine doesn’t exist, prophets, like the rest of us, are free to make our own choices.
Third, as we study the Bible, we learn God never gave his priesthood to all people. The Aaronic priesthood initially went only to men of one family and they couldn’t have a blemish or disability. Jesus did not even allow the gospel to be preached to certain groups of people. Why? We don’t know. God never said why. We do know He acts in wisdom for His own purposes and does not owe us an explanation for everything he does.
Fourth, there is a difference between practices and doctrine. Practices change. Truth doesn’t. As an example, the name of the women’s auxiliary has changed a few times over the years and the nature of some of the meetings has altered. The specific classes taught by the auxiliary on Sunday sometimes changes. These are practices and change to meet the practical needs of the church at that time. However, the essential roles of women have not changed because those are based on eternal truths. Because nothing was ever put in writing at the time of the change, we do not know if the changes were practice or truth.
Finally, Mormons believe that we are never punished for things that are beyond our control. No black Mormon is denied eternal blessings or the ability to return to God or to be saved because of the ban. In the eternities, God makes up for the deficiencies of earth life. Therefore, while the ban created a temporal trial, it would not have a negative eternal impact on black Mormons. In fact, where there are greater challenges, there are greater blessings, so those who chose to join the church despite the ban will most likely receive greater blessings for having done so.
Mormons do not know whether or not God instituted the priesthood ban. They do know He allowed it to continue. Why? He didn’t feel we needed to know that. There have been many theories, but they are only theories, even when spoken by Mormon leaders. Remember, Mormon leaders are also people and they are allowed to have opinions, just as the early prophets of the Bible were. They did not canonize those statements, so they were not doctrine, nor were they official policy. They were opinions. Some people took them as doctrine, but that did not make it so. Scriptures show us many times when God allowed people to make choices that weren’t necessarily wise, but which recognized their agency and which allowed them to learn from their choices.
Despite this ban, there have always been black Mormons in the church. Each one had to pray and receive his or her own confirmation that the church was true. Most also prayed to understand the ban and each received a personal confirmation that everything would be okay in the eternal scheme of things and that they need not worry about it.
Bruce R. McConkie, a source of some of the opinions about the priesthood ban that were taken as fact, spoke openly of this when the ban was lifted in the 1970s. He wrote,
“People write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” All I can say is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever 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.
We get our truth and light line upon line and precept upon precept…. We have now added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter anymore” (Bruce R. McConkie, “New Revelation on Priesthood,” Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 126-137).
McConkie’s statement makes clear another critical Mormon belief. We believe in continuous revelation. In t he Bible, there was not just one prophet. There were many prophets, one after another. They did not all teach exactly the same things. Noah was taught to build an ark. Moses was commanded to take the people into the wilderness. The Law of Moses was enacted, even though earlier Jews were not required to live it and Jesus taught that it did not need to be lived after his mission ended. This didn’t make Moses a false prophet. He was simply doing what prophets do—they teach eternal truths to the extent the people are ready to receive them. The people of Moses’ time needed a different type of law than did the early Christians. Just as Jesus didn’t repudiate Moses’ calling as a prophet, Mormons believe God will reveal truth as we are prepared to receive them or as they meet the Lord’s needs for that time. He doesn’t always explain, but we can pray for our own reassurance that everything is under control. We needn’t take any human’s word for it.
Today, there are black Mormons throughout the world and who are serving in high level church positions. Some, like Gladys Knight, are famous. Most are just ordinary people living a life of faith and service.