Why were Blacks denied the Priesthood from the early days of the church until 1978? Of course, the official (and only really undisputable) answer is, “we don’t know.” But what are the options, really? Let’s go over the list of conceptually coherent potential reasons for the Priesthood ban. For each potential rationale, I’ll list some pros (potential reasons this rationale might be viewed as the most sensible explanation) and cons (potential problems with the rationale).
1. Conscious racism.
Perhaps the ban was created because Joseph Smith and/or Brigham Young, and later apostles, were actively racist. They viewed Blacks as inferior, and actively chose to exclude them from church leadership. (Various possible methods would exist for this: Either they simply instituted man-made racist policies; or they were unable to distinguish between God’s revelations and their own racist ideas.)
Pros: This dovetails with some negative racial statements made by some church leaders.
Cons: This doesn’t mesh with statements made late in Joseph Smith’s life. It also doesn’t mesh with efforts of some church leaders (Clark, McKay) to undermine the ban.
This approach is also unlikely to be accepted by mainstream church members. Conscious racism is typically viewed as a very negative trait in today’s society.
(Counter-con: Are we imposing modern standards too much? Historically, racism was not viewed as a negative trait.)
2. Unconscious racism.
Perhaps Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and others were not actively racist. On the other hand, they lived in a very racist society. Perhaps they unconsciously internalized some ideas about the status of Blacks, and these ideas made their way into the Priesthood ban. They may have genuinely believed that their impression came from God, but it actually came from their own socialization. (Or, perhaps they followed what were then viewed as “scientific” ideas about race, which have since been discredited.)
Pros: This meshes with the historical record relatively well. A number of statements by early church leaders seem devoid of malice, but also seem to assume inferiority of Blacks.
Cons: For active Mormons, this explanation opens cans of worms. It raises the question of how to tell when a church leader is speaking for God.
Perhaps the initial ban was put in place for reasons of racism. However, it was maintained by virtue of inertia. Later church leaders were not racist, but simply didn’t think to question a longstanding practice.
Pros: May be more comfortable for church members to accept. Early leaders can be viewed in historical context, as racists when that was more socially normal. Later leaders are not viewed as racist.
Cons: Raises questions about church leadership, the role of revelation, and to what degree God is guiding the church. Is it really better for modern leaders to be asleep at the wheel, than to be racist?
3. Fitting in (decision made by man).
Church members lived in a racially segregated society. Perhaps leaders established the ban as a pragmatic measure, to prevent antagonism with segregationists around them.
Pros: This provides a non-racist explanation. It fits some of the historical evidence as well. After the Phelps letter upset slaveowners, church members tried to distance themselves from anti-slavery sentiment and appease slaveowner opponents.
Cons: You’re telling me that the polygamy-supporting, United Order-following, modern revelation-believing church leaders were interested in fitting in?
Counter-con: If the ban was established by Joseph Smith, then it may have predated some of the other measures — certainly public polygamy, and maybe public United Order.
Counter-counter-con: But what about Elijah Abel? The evidence seems to suggest that Brigham Young was most important in establishing the ban. And by that time, we were already known as a very peculiar people.
Counter-con: Maybe they had enough battles to fight, and chose to fit in on this issue.
Counter-counter-con: Why this one, though?
The first three explanations share one major feature: They suggest that the ban was instituted by men, not by God.
4. Fitting in (decision made by God).
Perhaps a decision was made to fit in, but not by Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. Perhaps the decision was God’s. In this sense, it may be like Abraham telling Pharaoh — at God’s direction — that his wife was his sister.
Pros: God sometimes acts this way (Abraham story). This explanation also places the ultimate responsibility on God, which is probably more comfortable for most church members.
Cons: As before: We didn’t try to fit in other ways. Why this way?
5. Abrahamic test.
Perhaps this commandment was like Abraham sacrificing his son. It was truly an unreasonable commandment. But it was only given to test our faithfulness. Not necessarily because God believed the commandment was good.
Pros: It fits the modern psyche. I think about being asked to join a church that bans Blacks, and it seems repugnant. Today, it would be an Abrahamic test for many members.
Cons: This doesn’t really work historically. Today, it looks like an Abrahamic test. But historically, it was considered normal to be racist. The ban was in place during a time that racism was accepted as normal. Utah legalized slavery, and later had Jim crow laws. It’s unlikely that early church leaders or very many members viewed the ban as repugnant. So if it’s an Abrahamic test, it’s a really strange one. It tested the conviction of J. Reuben Clark, and of Jane Manning James and her family. For the cost imposed (on church missionary work, for instance), that’s a really pricey test. Also, it lasted over 100 years — the knife _didn’t_ get stopped before people were actually hurt.
Counter-con: Maybe it’s to provide an Abrahamic test for converts today. Will you join a church with a racist past?
Counter-counter-con: What, our polygamist past isn’t enough of a hurdle?
Another con: What about Elijah Abel? Did God, or Joseph Smith, forget about the Abrahamic test when ordaining him?
Counter-con: Our evidence on Elijah Abel is decent, but not overwhelming. Maybe we’re wrong about him?
6. Cursed lineage.
This is an explanation often suggested by church leaders. Blacks derive from the lineage of Cain. This lineage is cursed.
Pros: Very often, strongly endorsed by church leaders. It’s in Mormon Doctrine.
Also, it meshes with our understanding of Old Testament Priesthood rules, which were largely concerned with lineage. So there’s evidence that God has operated this way, before.
Cons: This is the 21st century. Do we still believe in cursed lineage?
Counter-con: Angels and gold plates are okay, but cursed lineage isn’t? When you accept the possibility of the supernatural, you take the good and the bad.
Another con: Lineage is a joke anyway. All sorts of studies have established that racial categories are not firm. Some light-skinned Blacks pass as white, and are eventually assimilated as white. Something like 30% of white Americans have distinct genetic markers associated with Black ethnic groups.
Maybe you can run a cursed-lineage rule in ancient Israel, dealing with specific descendants of a named person, who we can all count. But today? Really, if Cain existed, it’s likely that upwards of 90% of white Americans today are in his lineage.
Counter-con: The ban was established a century ago, at a time when racial intermingling was much less common. It’s almost certain that there were fewer whites of Black lineage then.
Counter-counter-con: True, but really. America? A mongrel nation, even then. And don’t tell me the new converts were all racially pure Europeans. England? Invaded by Normans, Romans, Vikings, and pretty much everyone else. Germany? Don’t make me laugh.
So even at the time the ban was instituted, a significant number of “white” Americans are likely to have had one or more Black ancestors somewhere along the line.
Last con for this one: Wasn’t this idea repudiated by the McConkie “forget everything” talk? He espoused this idea. Was his talk a repudiation?
Counter-con: The talk doesn’t exactly repudiate the logic, though. And he’s never removed many of the statements from Mormon Doctrine, even in later printings.
Counter-counter-con: But it’s not really doctrine, is it? It says all sorts of wacky speculation about the Catholic Church and whatnot.
Counter-counter-counter-con: And yet it still sits on many LDS hearths, doesn’t it?
7. Black inferiority: Less valiant in the pre-existence.
This idea was also frequently suggested by church leaders during the time of the ban: Because Blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence, they will be kept from the Priesthood in this life.
Pros: Strongly supported in numerous statements by church leaders.
Possibly more acceptable to white members, especially liberal members. Blacks aren’t excluded due to their own failing, or to racism. It’s due to an established, past fact.
Cons: Seems kind of icky. Implies Black inferiority, but due to an empirical claim that can never be tested or proven. Also, suggests the possibility that Blacks will be less valiant in this life.
Also, fits strangely into our seriously underdeveloped ideas of the pre-existence. How much of this life _is_ based on our choices in the pre-existence? We’ve never really established that. How far does this principle go?
Another con: How do you explain the 1978 revelation? We ran out of less valiant Blacks, and we’re all good, now? If this explanation held for pre-1978, does it hold now? Are we ordaining less-valiant-in-the-Pre-ex folks now? Why the change?
Reasons #6 and #7 are the rationales most often cited (by a wide margin) by church leaders at the time the ban was in place.
These statements may have been implicitly repudiated by Elder McConkie’s “forget everything” talk. On the other hand, the actual effect of that talk on prior doctrinal statements is really not clear.
8. Black inferiority: Less worthy in mortal life.
I separate this from explanation #1 (human racism). Another conceptually coherent explanation is that God himself believes that Blacks are less worthy, as mortals, to receive the Priesthood.
Pros: This would place the onus for the ban on God.
Cons: Do we really want to worship a racist God? Why would God create people in his image if they were less worthy?
Counter-con: Isn’t the Old Testament basically a long brief for the idea that some ethnic groups of people _are_ less worthy, less important to God, and so on?
Counter-counter-con: Wasn’t that supplanted by the New Testament?
Another con: Why not just continue to put the hurdle at the bishop’s interview? Unworthy applicants (including unworthy Blacks) would be filtered out; worthy applicants (including worthy Blacks) would receive the Priesthood.