What did President Kimball think about pressure regarding the pre-1978 priesthood ban?

Posted on by

There is a school of thought among some who believe that the united voice of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve is mistaken on some point or other (e.g., gay marriage, the sinfulness of homosexual sexual acts, etc.) They then conclude that fixing this problem requires “advocacy”—i.e., public appeals, clamor, protests, or public arguments in favor of altering policy or doctrine. Or, they insist that we need to publicly discuss what “should be done” in these matters, and that such activity is both proper and helpful. (They even, as I discussed yesterday, sometimes claim that God has told them by revelation that the apostles are mistaken, and that God sanctions their public disagreement and advocacy.)

Those who make this argument generally appeal to the change made with the reversal of the pre-1978 priesthood ban. They believe that such behavior was appropriate then, and that it helped President Kimball seek and receive the revelation of 1978.

I think, however, that this fundamentally misunderstands both the history of the priesthood ban and how Church government works. I say this partly out of conviction of how such things are said to work in theory, and partly out of observation for how I’ve seen them work in practice.

President Kimball: the clear expert

But, to me the most compelling argument for that position is what President Kimball himself said about it. If anyone is situated to tell us what would promote or trigger that kind of revelation in these instances, I take it to be him.

What were his views on those who sought to push the matter through advocacy, public dialogue, or such tactics? Were these efforts helpful? Proper?

He did not think so.

Bringing revelation and authority into contempt

Here’s him to son Ed:[1]

“These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.”

Epistemologic humility and support for the Prophet

He felt that the opposite of such tactics were the appropriate ones:

“Perhaps what the prophet needs is not pressure, not goading, not demands. He needs in every city and place defenders—a million men and women to encourage patience, understanding and faith . . . saying: “President, we realize we do not know all there is to be known about this problem. We have faith and confidence in you and in the Lord that if relaxation is to come, it will come when the proper time comes. We shall stand and defend as did Peter though the whole world be against us.” . . . The very fact that he [Pres McKay] has not yielded to the public clamor sets him up in my mind as a courageous person, for it would be relatively easy to yield if it were his decision. He has an unalterable responsibility to obey only the Lord. . . . There are many letters from embarrassed people. . . . Logic, faulty logic has replaced basic faith, and definitely reflects humanism. For instance, [Sterling] McMurrin [a non-believer Mormon, who often boasted of never having read the Book of Mormon all the way through] says: “ . . . The situation . . . is unworthy of a church and unworthy of a religion . . .” He says these attitudes are “immoral in our social life.” Imagine a McMurrin postulating thusly. How can he be so sure to set up standards? . . .

The conferring of priesthood, and declining to give the priesthood is not a matter of my choice nor of President McKay’s. It is the Lord’s program. . . . When the Lord is ready to relax the restriction, it will come whether there is pressure or not. This is my faith. Until then, I shall try to fight on. . . . I have always prided myself on being about as unprejudiced as to race as any man. I think my work with the minorities would prove that, but I am so completely convinced that the prophets know what they are doing and the Lord knows what he is doing, that I am willing to rest it there.”

Opposed to pressure tactics

His son wrote:

While he was sensitive to the concerns and needs of minorities and while he showed no personal denigration of blacks, he also gave no encouragement to others who pressed for change. “I decided long ago that I would be loyal to the Brethren,” he said. He reacted especially negatively to militant protests against the Church and coercive methods, particularly when those protesting had themselves no interest in becoming priesthood holders….

Pressure tactics will, if anything, backfire and slow matters

Spencer believed that external pressures made revelation even less likely to come. “Every effort seems to be against us to force us to change the Lord’s program concerning the Negro.” Force invited resistance. [Ch 21, pp. 1-2]

Do not urge the prophet to seek a change

When his son wrote Kimball about possible change in 1963, Kimball replied:

Let me give you my own feelings in this matter. . . . I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough. The Prophets for 133 years of the existence of the Church have maintained the position of the Prophet of the Restoration that the Negro could not hold the Priesthood nor have the temple ordinances which are preparatory for exaltation. I believe in the living prophets. . . . I know the Lord could change His policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error (?) which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that He will do, I am sure. . . [Ch 21, p. 4]

Note, then, that President Kimball too wanted more revelation and more clarity. He was even  open to the possibility that the ban was in error.

Perhaps, then, the prophet should be urged by members to seek more information? His son took precisely that point of view, but President Kimball disagreed. His son was

“arguing it should still be proper for faithful church members to urge the prophet to seek God’s consent to change the policy. A week later Spencer responded again championing the Church position in a letter of eight single-spaced pages urging loyalty to the prophet.” [Ch 21, p. 4]

“He talked very little about the issue [his son notes]. He felt that people rarely wanted to learn but only to argue. “I never bring up the subject,” [he wrote], “not because I am afraid of it but because it is futile. Many cannot understand because of their limited knowledge of spiritual things; many will not understand, since they feel their superior training or brilliance entitle them to make their own independent deductions.” [Ch. 21, p. 4-5]


So, what the “public discussion or pressure” advocates want is specifically that which the very person who made the 1978 change most explicitly did not want, and most emphatically did not consider proper.

To me, these do not sound like the words of a man grateful for the public pressure and advocacy bringing such matters to his or the Brethren’s attention.

These letters and remarks were private, not for public display–and thus we can be quite confident, I think, that this is how President Kimball really saw the matter.

Those who wish to invoke the 1978 revelation as the inspiration for their current public advocacy, complaints, or pressure tactics should perhaps reconsider.

What would President Kimball say to us, if he were here?



[1] All quotes are from the CD-ROM that accompanied Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005), emphasis added in all cases.

12 thoughts on “What did President Kimball think about pressure regarding the pre-1978 priesthood ban?

  1. Rachel

    Thank you for this informative post. Being the subject of criticism, even indirectly, must have been very uncomfortable. President Kimball’s aversion to it is very understandable.

    To be honest I would be more moved by the opinions and feelings of those disenfranchised by the priesthood ban. How did they feel when others publicly criticized its origin and application?

  2. Gregory L. Smith Post author

    I think this misses the point–he wasn’t, in the case of many of these quotes, the one being criticized–it was President McKay, and President Kimball was not the next in line in the succession–the fairly young and vibrant Harold B. Lee was before him in succession.

    Thus, this is not a case of resenting being the subject of criticism. It’s that he sees such efforts as antithetical to the duties of members, their covenants, and a genuine belief in prophetic revelation.

    I expect those directly impacted by the ban had a variety of reactions to such behavior. But, in the end, does that really matter? Is our goal to simply make others feel better–even if that means we must do things that are wrong or advocate for a change that is not God’s will–or is it to keep our covenants and seek God’s will, no matter what?

    Is it a kindness to encourage sin, wink at sin, or give false hope to those who hope that they will at some point not be forced to choose between two things they value (e.g., their full Church membership and participation, or their desire to act on certain sexual inclinations)?

    One does not do a person facing bankruptcy any favors by assuring them they can keep spending money beyond their means. The true kindness is the truthful stance that they have some hard choices to make, and must choose between two competing priorities: their financial solvency, or their desire for material goods. But that message will often be resented and painted as “unkind.”

  3. Derl Sanderson

    In the 1980s I was a member of an inner-city branch in Charlotte, NC. My family was one of three or four white families in the branch — everyone else was black. My home teaching companion was a black man nearly 80 years old and as the boundaries of the branch were large, we had a fair amount of distance and travel time between our assigned families, which gave us opportunities for discussions on many gospel-related topics, including the priesthood ban and its history. My friend and companion was also a member of our branch presidency, and though falling into the category that Rachel described as one having been “disenfranchised by the priesthood ban,” he was nonetheless fiercely loyal to the Church.

    On one occasion, he told me that he would have been a young missionary in the 1920s, and that had he held the priesthood at that time and approached white people with the concept that he held God’s authority and they did not, that no matter how delicately he couched it, he would have been at real risk of physical harm from some whites given the racial attitudes of the time. He believed that had black men been priesthood-holding missionaries at that time and under those circumstances, it would have been chaos and the cause of more criticism/persecution of the Church he loved than it bore even with the ban in place.

    In his mind it wasn’t his race that was unprepared, it was mine. And enough time needed to pass until my race and its cultural attitudes had progressed sufficiently to where his people would be more fully accepted among us white folks when we were approached by black priesthood holders offering something of eternal worth that we did not have. And he said that he was proud to be a member of a race whose people could make that sacrifice for those not racially like them and sometimes still not fully accepting of them.

    Right or wrong, that was his take. I rather like it. My friend is long dead now and I don’t think he’d mind my naming him, so for the sake of my post’s credibility and my own desire to honor his memory, Brother Earnest Howard, counselor in the presidency of what was then the Charlotte 6th Branch, is a man I love and will not forget.

  4. Randy Tayler

    I think the bigger takeaway here is that the prophets were open to the idea of the priesthood ban being lifted. In contrast, I’ve heard zero words from the Brethren that imply gay marriage might be okay one day, or that we might someday ordain women. Maybe those words are out there, in personal letters like Kimball’s here, but I certainly haven’t heard anything publicly.

  5. Gregory L. Smith Post author

    That’s a good point. It was seen as a temporary restriction (to be removed either in the future, or in the millennial years).

    On the issue of sexual morality, however, numerous apostles have said that it won’t and can’t change.

  6. John

    A couple questions for you Gregory:

    1. Are you proposing that there should be no public/open discussion by members about issues that are relevant to member, if the brethren have a united voice on the matter? Such as discussion about the positive and negative aspects of correlation, policy on children of gay couples, etc…

    2. Would you propose that historical work done recently on the issue of race and the priesthood that show that racism was a factor in the policy would be improper if it were done before 1978?

    Thanks for your input!

  7. Marvin Jenkins

    If these are wise men, shouldn’t we be optimistic that they will heed reproof? According to the Bible’s wisdom literature, wise and humble men welcome reproof and critique:

    “Don’t reprove a scoffer, lest he hate you. Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8)

    “He is in the way of life who heeds correction, but he who forsakes reproof leads others astray.” (Proverbs 10:17)

    “Whoever loves correction loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” (Proverbs 12:1)

    “The ear that hears the rebukes of life Will abide among the wise. He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, But he who heeds rebuke gets understanding.” (Proverbs 15:31-32)

    “Better is open rebuke Than hidden love.” (Proverbs 27:5)

  8. Richard Wilson

    Gregory Smith thank you for your very well prepared and provided insights both today and yesterday. Yesterday, you could have added Aaron & Marion to your scriptural examples of correcting the prophet. Marion was so loved by the Lord that he gave her a very quick and obvious rebuke.
    Derl Sanderson, thank you. Your experience brought tears to my eyes, I think your friend Br Howard was right the mote was in my eye not his. Your story reminded me of Br Hamilton’s article: “The Gift of Race”.

  9. Gregory L. Smith Post author

    John–good questions.

    I preface my reply by pointing out that this is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, which discussed those who insist that God has told them that the apostles are wrong, and that they should be insisting so publicly. I think that behavior deeply problematic. As per your questions:

    1. One can certainly discuss things. But, in my experience and observation, most of what is labeled “discussion” is not really discussion at all, rooted in humility, seeking to understand and sustain. It is instead either (a) people emoting; or (b) people with a fixed opinion explaining why the Brethren are wrong, and what they ought to do to fix it. It seems to me that we can discuss how to understand and better implement such policies or doctrines without vilifying or demeaning those whose duty it is to set such policies, or appealing to our own emotions for why something is wrong. And, as I’ve indicated, I think once the united voice of the Twelve and First Presidency have said that something is based on revelation, to insist that it is not is to step into tenuous territory indeed.

    2. Such historical work is clearly not inappropriate–nor was it inappropriate prior to 1978. Lester Bush describes how he met with Boyd K. Packer prior to publishing his seminal article on the history of the priesthood ban. He offered not to publish, and then-Elder Packer did not try to dissuade him at all. That said, many (unlike Bush) use such historical analysis merely as a wedge to say, “See, they’re wrong, and this ought to be changed.”

    Neither of these actions constitutes what Pres. Kimball was speaking about–public complaints, pressure tactics, advocacy for change, etc. (Though they can–and often have–morphed into that quite easily. Those particularly tempted might construct their own hedge around the law! :->)

    President Kimball obviously saw nothing wrong with discussion, since he was discussing the matter with his son. But, he seemed to feel that discussion was rarely useful publicly, since those so involved were (in his view) set in their opinions, and were not really engaged in “discussion” at all–but instead in advocacy and a self-reinforcing echo-chamber effect. That matches my impression of the current, say, Mormon blogosphere, to pick one example.

  10. Gregory L. Smith Post author

    It’s not clear to me that there’s any scriptural warrant for us reproving prophets. That is particularly true if they declare they have had united revelation on a matter. Elder Maxwell put it well:

    Prophets need tutoring, as do we all. However, this is something the Lord seems quite able to manage without requiring a host of helpers. The Lord provides discreet but needed feedback, as He did to Peter by the shattering sound of a rooster crowing (see Luke 22:54-62), or to an undelegating Moses through a caring, observing, and wise father-in-law–without Jethro’s placing an ad in the Sinai Sentinel (See Exodus 18:13-1). [“A Brother Offended,” Ensign (May 1982): 39.]

  11. Rachel

    Gregory and Derl, thank you for your thoughtful responses. Brother Earnest Howard sounds like someone I would have enjoyed meeting, and that is a point of view I have never heard before.

    Gregory, I agree with a lot of your thoughts, if not your conclusions. I would point out that what many people are objecting to in this instance is refusing to name, baptize, or ordain the children of gay couples. The children are not the ones breaking God’s law, and as such granting them baptism or ordinances is not winking at or encouraging sin. There are other things to consider, of course, but that is not one of them.

    And of course people’s feelings matter. Jesus reached out to the least among us. He left the flock for that one lost sheep. He spared the life of a woman when the law demanded her death. Would you call that winking at sin as well? Perhaps this policy is right – I am struggling with it – but as it is hurting children and families, honest and open discussion is the least we can do.

  12. Gregory L. Smith Post author

    On the policy re: children of gay couples. I realize that that concern does not directly impact that specific case. But I am, note, speaking about a general principle far beyond this or that cause or issue of the moment.

    (The issue of sin, however, is not far from the surface in this case, even if unstated. The biggest problem, I think, is that some members were allowing themselves to hope or be persuaded that the Church was going to “come around” on same sex marriage or gay sex. These events have demonstrated that it is not likely to do so, and President Nelson’s remarks have reinforced the grounds for that conclusion. The policy is in place because the children are being raised in a family structure that is completely incongruent with the restored gospel.)

    Feelings matter, but they do not matter more than the truth. One’s feelings are not an argument. We should, of course, avoid being insensitive or gratuitously hurtful. But we cannot allow someone else’s emotions (or, sometimes, feigned emotions) to hold us hostage.

    Those who are told they are sinning often have their feelings hurt (and more). But, that’s part of a prophet’s job. People got their feelings hurt recurrently by what Jesus told them as well–hurt to the point that they repeatedly sought his death, and finally succeeded.

    Jesus did not wink at sin in the woman taken in adultery–he told her to go and sin no more. The same message is being offered to same sex couples: stop sinning, cease your cohabitation and your violation of the law of chastity. Were they to do that, their children would not be in a situation where ordinances were deferred because of circumstances beyond the child’s control.

    “Honest and open discussion is the least we can do.” — Of course–save when such discussion is really advocacy, when it turns (as it often does) to murmuring, and people are claiming they have had it revealed to them that the policy is wrong and the apostles are wrong when they say it came by revelation. That is not a discussion–or, if it is, the ground of discussion has shifted enormously. And this has implications for those who have made covenants.

    As Joseph F. Smith put it:

    The moment an individual rises up assuming the right to control and to dictate, or to sit in judgment on his brethren, especially upon those who preside, he should be promptly checked, or discord, division and confusion will be the result. Every man and woman in this Church should know better than to yield to such a spirit; the moment that such a feeling presents itself to them they should rebuke it, as it is in direct antagonism to the order of the Priesthood, and to the spirit and genius of this work. [Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, edited by John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1919), 41.]

Comments are closed.