As we all know, in 1978 the President Kimball and the Quorum of the Twelve (sans two members) recieved a revelation proclaiming that all worthy males — regardless of race — could now recieve the priesthood. Following the long and torturous course of the “Negro Doctrine” as it was called would, of course, require a great deal of careful discussion and research. No one in his right mind would attempt to do so in a blog post. Here goes.
The story is fairly simple and goes like this. Joseph Smith didn’t much care for slavery. He no doubt had bits and pieces of nineteenth century notions of racial inferiority, but he didn’t translate those feelings into concrete policies. Blacks got the priesthood, etc. Brigham Young was a bit different. He didn’t believe that blacks could hold the priesthood, based on reading the Cain and Abel stories, the Hamitic myth, etc. Blacks and the priesthood issues came up in an ad hoc fashion, and Brigham carved away at black access to priesthood ordinances. This was the basic modus operendi for the 19th century. Joseph F. Smith, who was in the first presidency during much of this period, initially strongly felt that blacks were entitled to priesthood blessings, etc., and opposed the efforts of Brigham and others to hack away at black priesthood. Sometime after the turn of the century, Joseph F. Smith changed his mind, adopting the Brigham Young position. The ad hoc restrictions gave way to a formalized, across the board policy.
My theory is that the shift from debate and ad hoc results to relative uniformity and a formal policy had to do with Mormons becoming white. During the anti-polygamy crusades, Mormons were repeatedly defined in anti-Mormon rhetoric as non-white. They got compared to Asians (polygamists), Turks and Arabs (polygamists), Blacks (generally thought to be sexually immoral), and Catholics (in the thrall of their priesthood). We tend to forget that Catholicisms was to a certain extent thought of in racial terms. Irish and southern Europeans were not thought to be “white” in the full WASP-ish sense of the word. Some historians have gone so far to argue that an important part of the New Deal was that it took Catholics — who had previously been thought of as belonging to a seperate “race” — and “made them white.”
Nineteenth-century Mormons intensely resented the racial slurs cast upon them. They were by and large coverts from American WASP-dom, England, Germany, or Scandanavia. They (except perhaps the Scandanavians) had an excellent pedigree as “whites.” They didn’t want to be grouped in with “uncivilized races.” After the Manifesto, and especially after the Smoot Hearings, Mormons begin to aggressively push their way into the WASP mainstream, redefining themselves in an attempt to shed the legally dangerous polygamist baggage of the nineteenth century.
As part of this retrenchment with the American mainstream, Mormons had to assert and defend their whiteness. They had to distances themselves rhetorically from all of the “uncivilized races” with which they had been grouped. Thus, it was important to repudiate any potentially missegenating tendencies within Mormonism. Establishing the racial purity of Mormon priesthood thus makes sense in this context. It is part of a broader strategy to demonstrate the “whiteness” of Mormonism, something that we tend to forget used to be violently denied.
What is interesting is that now the church is — I think — trying to shed its image. Mormonism once again needs to redefine its racial identity, but this time we are trying to prove to the world that Mormonism is not white. Given the demographics of church growth, I think that this is a transition that we can only expect to accellerate in the years to come.
So there is Nathan-Oman’s-Patented-Semi-Unified-Theory-of-Blacks-in-the-Priesthood. You won’t find it in Lester Bush, but I don’t think it is inconsistent with his research. It is also, in my humble opinion, more illuminating than the Michael Quinn position, which amounts to something like, “Mormon leaders used to be really racist but then they got over it, more or less. You still ought to keep your eyes on them. Oh! And I have a lot of footnotes to racists statements by the brethren.”
Thoughts? Objections? Heckling?