Update: This post won a 2011 Brodie Award
Besides being a source of constant amusement (Honey Badger for example), YouTube is also a historian’s dream. There is so much archival video available to study and learn from. (I particularly love the commercials from the 1960s and school PSAs about sex and drugs.)
This particular interview clip with Barbara Walters shows Donnie and Marie floundering around like a Utah Lake carp when asked about the Mormon Church’s racist stance on blacks and the priesthood. This interview was sometime before 1978 as the Church reversed the policy (note it was a change of policy, not doctrine) in June 1978. (The stuff Marie says at the end is a whole other topic to be dealt with on another day.)
Donnie answers that he’s not an authority on the subject and one would be better to ask the General Authorities of the Church for an answer. Very evasive answer indeed. But when the General Authorities had been asked about this issue they never gave a decent answer either. It was and remains an irreconcilable racist doctrine and policy. Beginning in 1847 black men could not hold the priesthood; they were not allowed in the temple, neither were black women. Going to the temple is the pinnacle of Mormon theology because going to the temple is a necessity to get to the Celestial Kingdom after death. For decades black men and women were punished not for their own sins but for their father’s transgression.
This “Negro Doctrine” embarrassed me greatly as a child and young adult. As a believing Mormon I never knew how to answer the legitimate grievances and the pain that this policy inflicted upon people. Thankfully, I served as a missionary in Russia where few people had ever heard of Mormons and pretty much no Russian had ever heard of the Negro Doctrine, so I never had to defend the Church in that way.
Later in life when I learned that Joseph Smith himself had given the Priesthood to a black man named Elijah Abel on March 3, 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio I felt justified in my anger and embarrassment. Elijah Abel dedicated his life to the Church just as much as any white Mormon man. He served four missions: New York and Canada in the 1830s, Ohio in the 1840s, and the Eastern United States and Canada in the 1880s. He helped settle Salt Lake, and was even a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy until his death. His sons were ordained to the Priesthood beginning in 1900. I’ve been to Abel’s grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery where a monument was erected over his grave in 2002 and dedicated by Apostle M. Russell Ballard.
This begs the question: God allowed black men to have the Priesthood in the 1830s, changed his mind in 1847 by declaring black men could no longer hold the Priesthood even though Elijah Abel did and continued to serve in the Church until his death, then God changed his mind again in 1978 back to the original way? That is re-goddamned-diculous.
Active, believing Mormons need to understand their history and deal honestly with the implications.
I think it’s horrifying that so many Mormons were able to turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice and write it off by saying, “That’s the way the Lord wants it” and it’s sickening that so many today want to pretend like it never happened. As long as I have a pulse, I’ll make sure the world never forgets.