Marcus H. Martins on Race in the Church

A Black Man in Zion: Reflections on Race in the Restored Gospel” is a good read from the first black man to serve a mission after the 1978 revelation that opened up opportunities in the priesthood. Among other things, he calls for Latter-day Saints to make sure that racism truly is removed from our attitudes and thinking. Some old false doctrines may still taint the thinking of some, in spite of the official teachings of the Church. Here’s an excerpt:

In my mind the priesthood ban was never part of the everlasting gospel, and I have found peace in the idea that the Lord allowed the ban to remain in his Church in order to fulfill his inscrutable purposes whatever they are. That belief leads me to conclude that the ban never jeopardized my eternal salvation. There were a few significant privileges of membership in the Church that I could not enjoy before June of 1978; a few very significant things, but not very many. I was able to receive the ordinance of baptism, I received the Holy Ghost, I could pay my tithing, I could read the scriptures, I could pray, I could partake of the sacrament, I could hold many callings as my parents and I did all those years between 1972-78, and also keep the commandments of the Lord and be blessed for doing so. None of these privileges of membership was denied me. I simply could not officiate in priesthood ordinances like my peers, nor enter a temple and receive my own endowment, nor be sealed to my parents, but other than that all other privileges of membership were available to me.

Actually, I would argue that the ban afforded me and other Black Latter-day Saints an still ongoing opportunity to display the depth of our commitment to the Lord and his kingdom in a specific way that our fellow Latter-day Saints of other races will never be able to experience.

Let me illustrate what I mean by the expression “ongoing opportunity.” During the three years it took me to complete my Ph.D. at Brigham Young University, I was a part-time lecturer for both the Sociology and the Church History & Doctrine Departments. I remember that every semester at least one African American student would come to my office with a major question because of he or she would have heard somebody saying that since they were from the “cursed lineage” they would not enter the celestial kingdom. Often I would respond half-jokingly that this was a very well known false doctrine because it could not be found in the scriptures and had never been accepted officially by the Church. And then I would ask those students: Why were you baptized? What do we call baptism? Invariably they would respond that baptism is the gate to the celestial kingdom, to which I would reply, if baptism is the gate to the celestial kingdom how come after living faithfully your whole life you would not be allowed to go there? And those students would see that that idea–that Blacks would not enter the celestial kingdom–was inconsistent with the true doctrines of the restored gospel.

Although they had been baptized long after the priesthood ban had disappeared, these young people still had to exercise the same faith as the early (i.e. pre-1978) Black converts in order to remain active in the Church. That’s what I meant by an ongoing opportunity to display the depth of one’s commitment to the restored gospel.

In my mind, the priesthood ban and its associated rationales were never part of the restored gospel. I would argue that they constituted educated responses to the social environment in which the Church existed in the late 19th and most of the 20th century.

I tend to agree with his view.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

21 thoughts on “Marcus H. Martins on Race in the Church

  1. I think he’s right on. Thanks for drawing our attention to this. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Read similar works of his before and he is an amazing man. Good job focusing on one of the major problems I’ve seen with the church here in Las Vegas.

  3. I’m with this particular view. Whether we agree with it or not, that was just the way “things were” back in those days, given the social climate, and the Church just took a little longer than most organizations to catch up.

  4. One thing is for sure, whether the ban was ever the Lord’s will or not, the revelation to end it was.

  5. I apologize if this crosses the line on any rules you have here, Dave, but this topic is something that all Latter-day Saints need to know more about. I recently attended an excellent fireside on this very topic that put to rest alot of questions in my mind. If you’re interested, they produce a DVD of their presentations. It can be found at:

  6. “One thing is for sure, whether the ban was ever the Lord’s will or not, the revelation to end it was.”

    I never thought of it that way…interesting.

  7. As you may imagine, this is a common point of criticism of the Church here in Mississippi as well as an obstacle to many of our African-American brothers and sisters as they investigate the Gospel here in the “Deep South.”

    Just wondering, why does the Church take so much heat on this topic, while the Baptist denominations seem to get a free pass in spite of having a similar history here in the South? …to the point of having exclusively “black” and “white” congregations as late as the 80s. And this mindset still exists in some areas of the American Southeast. Maybe it is also a case of the social climate and the “way things were,” but it is not exactly Christian behavior from members of a denomination that routinely and emphatically question our Christianity. Any insight?

  8. I also recently attended a fireside by one of the authors of Blacks in the scriptures, Marvin Perkins. I also bought the DVD’S afterward. I have to agree that this is not only something that all LDS should see, but all blacks outside of the LDS church as well. It was really powerful and very well done. The Church itself should point the members to this or teach the scriptures from it regularly.

    It’s great to be able, like bro. Martins to know that it’s not of God. But to know it enough to point to it in the scriptures can help many into the church and keep them from leaving.

    I’m on Marvin’s email list and for any of you in the L.A. area he has 2 firesides coming up. See the Miller-Eccles Study Group site for details.


  9. MS Saint,

    There are some significant differences. 1) The other churches just separated, but never restricted Blacks from becoming priests. 2) We claim to have prophets who speak the will of God and those prophets were saying that Blacks were cursed, less valiant in the preexistence and gave what they thought was doctrinal support for prejudice. 3) We claim to be the one true church 4) We were actually ahead of the curve, but waited too long to correct the problem, even when we knew it was wrong. The church didn’t want to appear to give in to political pressure (civil rights movement) so we wait 14 years after and stood out like AZ being the only state not to recognize Martin Luther King day as a holiday. But AZ corrected it a lot faster than we did. But we still haven’t apologized and corrected all that we taught that was wrong. Just left it hanging and our critics have noticed.

  10. James I’m born and bres as well and its not so much with the older members that i’ve noticed racism but growing up as a youth and viewing the youth in the wards I’ve been to it is unfortunately very prominent. Most the adults don’t see it because the youth hide it while they are at church. I have personally had to chastise several friends when my brother became engaged and then married his African-American wife. I think its an issue many are to ashamed to notice and not just here in Las Vegas.

  11. One thing is for sure, whether the ban was ever the Lord’s will or not, the revelation to end it was.

    What makes you say that? I mean, why assume one policy is correct and make no assumption about the other? Just curious.

  12. “One thing is for sure, whether the ban was ever the Lord’s will or not, the revelation to end it was.”

    I have to strongly disagree. If the revelation to end it was true, as I know it is from God, then it would have been given sooner. Do you think that the president in 1978 was the first to pray to have this decision changed.

  13. “In my mind the priesthood ban was never part of the everlasting gospel, and I have found peace in the idea that the Lord allowed the ban to remain in his Church in order to fulfill his inscrutable purposes whatever they are.”

    So let me get this straight. God allowed such a bad idea to be part of His restoration but God did not give it as a revelation to a prophet of the LDS church. Do I have this right?

    I think God did install the ban but many have gotten the reason wrong. I have know idea why but the spirit that filled me that day was not just to correct some wrong headed idea by some LDS man at the head of the church. I ban was from God and the revelation to recend the ban was from God. I am just glad it is over.

  14. Anon:

    Incidentally, Hugh B. Brown’s grandson argues that his grandfather accepted the theory that it was a wrongheaded idea espoused by some LDS man at the top (the MIssouri theory about LDS proabolitionist statements, incidentally).

    Of course, even this approach is not irreconcilable to inspiration. It might be a good to nuance our idea of what it means for something to be inspired. Elder Maxwell taught a concept called “tactical morality.” Now while this concept does not relate that much to the priesthood ban, it does suggest that inspiration might not always (or even mostly) deal with some truth that is etched in the heavens. It could deal with social constructs, with the social dynamics of the Church.

    How ready were the AFrican-Americans for the priesthood? More poignantly, how ready were Caucasians for the African-Americans to have the priesthood? We don’t have answers to these questions. But as long as we stay broad-minded about the revelatory process, it’ll be alright.

  15. Incidentally, Hugh B. Brown’s grandson argues that his grandfather accepted the theory that it was a wrongheaded idea espoused by some LDS man at the top (the Missouri theory about LDS proabolitionist statements, incidentally).

    Well I am a nobody convert and I disagree. When I was told that the priesthood was to be given to all worthy male members I was given one of the most powerful spiritual witnesses that it was true. Now everyone is trying to tell me that it was in place for over 200 years because of a bunch of bigots. I understand about all the Mormon Myths as to why the ban was there, but the decision was from God and none of you Mormons are going to take my testimony away based on some speculation.

  16. Dear Mississippi Saint,

    In response to your question, I think what you’re seeing in terms of “black” and “white” denominations in the Baptist Church in the south, is more a remnant of segregation and slavery than it is an active discrimination on the part of the church. I’m not saying it doesn’t and hasn’t happened, I’m just saying that its more likely a leftover, negative consequence of racial bigotry in the south, than it is an active doctrine on the part of the baptist church.

    An example of what I mean is the church I attended as a child. I didn’t grow up in the deep south, but did grow up in a former slave state south of the Mason Dixon Line. The church I attended there was built in 1789. At that time, 1789, the church was segregated. That segregation took the form of the slaves sitting upstairs in the balcony of the church, on the hard oak pughs, while the slave owners sat downstairs on the nice cushy seats. This wasn’t a doctrine from the pulpit as far as I know, although that far back it could have been. Move forward a few hundred years to the 1980’s and 1990’s. At that point in time, the church was still segregated. Not by law, or church doctrine, but by habit and choice on the parts of whites and blacks alike. It never made much sense, but, it was something that just became indoctrinated into the culture of the church because of some archaic rules from the 18th century. To the best of my knowledge, this practise is still occuring today, although I haven’t been back there in about 10 years.

    In terms of answering or adding insight on the rest of your comment, I think Joseph’s comments pretty much reiterate what I’d say. I think your church left itself wide open for the criticism. But, knowing the climate out there, your church would’ve gotten the criticism regardless of when you changed the doctrine.

    Catholic Defender

  17. I am amazed at how many people actually think they know something and easily write off previous leaders of the church as “prejudiced, uninformed,” etc. For all the people that claim they know that it was a mistake, that it wasn’t of God, etc., I would ask, “How do you know?” Unless you have received a revelation telling you such, it’s pure speculation based on your 21st century sensitivities.

    Projecting further back in time, it was prejudice that didn’t allow anyone but the Levites to officiate in the temple (note, another group of folks excluded from temple and ordinance service), and prejudice of the early church with Christ at the head to exclude the Gentiles from receiving the message. Why were races excluded? Is there really a good reason why Christ could not go to the Gentiles? The answer is, yes, because Christ said so. It was not their time. What constitutes their time? We don’t know!

    The problem is our arrogance. God does not always explain Himself to us. We simply do not know. We do know, as members, that Brigham Young was a prophet. We know that other Prophets later on prayed about this and the Lord did not see fit to lift that ban. President Kimball was not the first one to make it an issue of prayer. We also know from multiple accounts of this present that it was a sublime revelation that lifted the ban. So those that say, “the church took too long, etc.”, I ask you, by what authority do you make that statement? Are you prophet?

    Second guessing prophets has been the pastime of the masses and even the followers from the beginning of time. The accounts are clear of the 1978 revelation being very much a revelation. If you don’t like the timing, basically you’re saying you know better than God. Well, good luck to you. Every generation in the past that has tried that has come to naught. The arrogance in such statements that I see from supposed members of the church is a dead giveaway that this person does not have the Spirit and is not inspired when taking pot shots at the leaders.

  18. I'm currently taking a religion class with Mr. Martins. He is a very jovial and humorous man. Beyond that though, he is very wise.

    Might I recommend his recently published book entitled "Blacks & the Mormon Priesthood: Setting the Record Straight." The first chapter is especially good. Some of the principles which he applies to the topic of Blacks and the priesthood ban are equally applicable to many other things.

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