Mitt Romney Hooked by Religion: Mormonism, Blacks, and the Priesthood

By R.B. Scott

Note: A condensed version of this column appearedin The Salt Lake Tribune today

Boston, MA - Here’s how to turn a gathering “love thy neighbor” Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) mean and nasty. Tell them that the former church teaching that once prevented men of African descent from obtaining the priesthood was not revealed by God. Or, vice versa. Equal numbers seem to support these opposing propositions. Passionately.  So, be prepared to duck!

However, until recently many in both camps seemed to agree about one thing: the church need not apologize now for a practice it officially abandoned in 1978. That thinking is changing as this year’s presidential docudrama turns more racial. W. Mitt Romney, the challenger, is a faithful Latter-day Saint who was once a fairly prominent regional leader of the church in Massachusetts during the time when the exclusionary practice was taught as doctrine. If his church doesn’t set the record straight soon, it could introduce another troubling gotcha to this increasingly divisive presidential election season. Such an unfortunate turn would unnecessarily tarnish the Romney family’s legacy in civil rights. Although George Romney, like his son Mitt, likely once gave tacit support to the teaching when he served as a bishop and stake president, George’s civil rights record as governor of Michigan was passionate and aggressive. He did not march with Martin Luther King, as Mitt once claimed, but he could have.  

Here’s a compressed history.

On August 17, 1949, just two years after Lenore Romney gave birth to her “miracle” youngest child-who-would-be-president, the highest governing priesthood quorum of her church – The First Presidency-- officially reaffirmed that about a hundred years earlier the Lord had specifically revealed that men of African heritage were to be excluded from the priesthood of God.  The statement proclaimed in part:

"The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: "Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to."

The rub is this: despite the fact that Mormons are obsessive record keepers, there is no record of the alleged initial “commandment” or “revelation.” Today most historians within and without the church who have researched this issue conclude the practice began under Brigham Young in Salt Lake City years after church founder Joseph Smith was murdered in Carthage, Illinois.

An abridged version of the 1949 statement was “grudgingly reaffirmed” in 1969 shortly after Mitt returned home from 30 months of full-time missionary service in France.  Strangely, the 1969 reaffirmation came long after church had begun carefully laying the groundwork for the “revelation” of 1978 that abruptly ended the 140-year-old (depending on who’s counting) controversial practice.

Mitt tells us that he was relieved and wept openly when the policy was finally terminated in 1978.  Yet, he offers no insights into where he stood personally between 1965 when he was missionary leader in France, later church leader in Massachusetts, and that “happy day” in 1978.

A formal, reasonably explicit apology from the church would obviate the need for Mitt to explain his approach prior 1978.  It would free him to correctly attribute the policy to the misguided acts of men who were the byproducts of their times. This is what many Mormons of Mitt’s generation and younger have long believed.

For years the church has been edging steadily, if haltingly, toward a formal renunciation and unambiguous apology. Bruce R. McConkie, an outspoken church apostle who once proclaimed that Negroes would not be given the priesthood in this life, seemed to dramatically backtrack after the 1978 decision advising Mormons to “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon [another prominent early Mormon leader]  or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding…” 

Yet, a few months later the updated version of his seminal treatise “Mormon Doctrine,” first published in 1958 and self-described as "the first major attempt to digest, explain, and analyze all of the important doctrines of the kingdom…the first extensive compendium of the whole gospel, the first attempt to publish an encyclopedic commentary covering the whole field of revealed religion," McConkie retained the bulk of his embarrassingly racist claims. Inexplicably, the church continued to distribute the book, its disturbingly racist comments intact, through Deseret Book, the church’s wholly owned book publishing company until 2010, as became clear Romney was his party’s leading candidate for president. 

In a 1996 free-wheeling interview with CBS 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley attributed the abandoned policy to the way early church leaders misinterpreted the scriptures. Getting word in 2006 that some recalcitrant members were still teaching that the former policy was once a “doctrine” revealed by God, Hinckley mounted the podium in the church’s semi-annual general conference and scolded recidivist male members of the church: “How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?”

While Hinckley neither claimed explicitly that the policy was man-made nor pinned responsibility for the misbegotten teaching on a single church leader, the implication of that speech and other public statements made it clear enough: mistakes had been made initially andunwittingly reinforced over the generations.

Mormon leaders are inherently reluctant to find fault with their predecessors.  Institutional apologies are always laden with collateral challenges. In this case, some faithful Mormons might conclude politics and public opinion prompted the admission of error. Others may suggest it undercuts the religion’s claim to divine revelation. 

Nevertheless, after reviewing the history of the teaching, including the intermittent, if confusing pleas from prominent church leaders, and the concerns of thoughtful Mormons, Democrats and Republicans alike, it is increasingly clear that an apology is warranted.  Not only is it long overdue, but it would be welcomed by most Latter-day Saints, perhaps Mitt Romney especially.