Millennial Press has a new series of short books on controversial topics. The volume on the priesthood ban was written by Marcus H. Martins, a Brazilian who joined the church in 1972 and would later be the first post-1978 full-time missionary of African descent. He speaks with a faithful voice; he’s the chair of the Department of Religious Education at BYU-Hawaii.
The best parts of the book are his personal experiences with living the gospel as a man of African descent both before and after 1978. He related that he is often asked why his family joined a church that didn’t allow them to take part in the priesthood. His heartbreaking but perfect response, based on John 6:67-69: “We had nowhere else to go.”
But most of the book is, as the back cover puts it, “deeply doctrinal” and not personal. This causes a problem as all one can say with surety about the priesthood ban is this:
(1) We don’t know the reason for the ban.
(2) Everything you’ve ever heard justifying the ban was Mormon folklore and should be ignored; see statements from Elder McConkie and, more recently, Elder Oaks to support this idea.
So Martins says those things. But that isn’t enough to make a book, not even one that’s a slim 83 pages. What Martins adds often feels like filler and in some cases detracts from his overall message. For example, at one point he makes the argument that the ban wasn’t an eternal law, but a custom. He uses a system of classifying laws in order to make this point. Unfortunately, this leads him into unnecessary and bizarre conjecture (“We may assume that electromagnetism and perhaps even the weak and strong nuclear forces might also be controlled by the Holy Ghost.”)
He spends some time logically (and scripturally) debunking the more common folk doctrine. And his arguments are pretty good, but they miss the main point: the purveyors of the folklore he is disputing were people sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. So logical arguments are all well and good, but the real issue is the authority with which the person spoke when making the statement. But Martins doesn’t address how problematic it is when he is saying (in effect, because he doesn’t name names): “This argument, made by Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie, is incorrect because it is not scriptural.” This, of course, leads to a larger question (that Martins doesn’t address): If previous church leaders were guilty of promulgating folklore to explain practice, then could current leaders be doing the same? How does this knowledge of the past affect how we view the present? These may be some of the most troubling questions related to the priesthood ban for twenty-first century Mormons and so it is disappointing not to see them addressed here.
While I’m no expert on the history of the priesthood ban, there were a few statements Martins made that caught me short. In one case, he referred to “the Prophet Joseph Smith’s opposition to the ordination of Blacks.” But my understanding is that there is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the ban and that many scholars locate it in the time of Brigham Young, especially since Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Abel, a black man. Martins also seems unaware of the material in the recent biography of President McKay, which contains statements that contradict his assertions that “the Lord appears to have been mostly silent about the issue until June 1, 1978” and that “the leaders of the past had already discussed the matter, and that because they had no ideas of their own to add, they didn’t see any need for further discussion.” (This latter statement is also contradicted by the efforts of J. Reuben Clark as described in Quinn’s biography of Clark.) It is also unfortunate that Martins uses Acts 10:15 to sum up the section where he argues that the Lord only revealed the end of the ban when Church leaders showed interest in it, since the scripture from Acts shows the Lord ending a similar ban (i.e., on eating with Gentiles) that was most certainly not requested by the prophet at the time.
Despite these flaws, I am pleased that Millennial Press has issued this series of books and pleased with Martins’ presentation of the issue in general.