The enactment of the priesthood-temple ban affected African American members both physically and theologically; it acted as a form of spiritual exclusion and a barrier to inclusion in Church administration and certain ceremonies. Mormon theology teaches that special rituals conducted during one’s life determine one’s proximity to God. The ban reserved the spaces closest to God for white people and others who were not of black African descent.
While Brigham Young explicitly argued that African American men should be excluded from the male-only priesthood, it was less clear how these changes affected African American women. Yet, it mattered: Anti-interracial marriage laws and theologically justified attitudes about mixing races prohibited whites from marrying blacks. Although the function of the priesthood has shifted over time, white women have historically had access to the priesthood and temple rituals in ways African American women did not through their marriages and on their own.
In 1884, Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a convert to the LDS Church, sent a series of letters to LDS leaders in Salt Lake City petitioning for her right to perform special religious ceremonies. One of these was the sealing ceremony, in which a person is spiritually tied to another person for eternity. The sealing can be done between spouses or between parents and their children. Years prior, Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, asked James if she wanted to join the Smith family as their adopted child. She refused. It was a decision she would later regret.
“Is there no blessing for me?” James wrote. Despite her requests, she was denied. She was eventually sealed to Joseph Smith as a servant. Because of her black African lineage, she was not even part of the sealing ceremony—it was performed on a white woman, Bathsheba Smith, in James’s place. James remained a member until her death in 1908.
In the 20th century, questions loomed over the restrictions and their effect on African Americans. A 1959 report by the Utah State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that “the Negro is the minority citizen who experiences the most widespread inequality in Utah. The exact extent of his mistreatment is almost impossible to ascertain.” It suggested that the priesthood-temple restrictions were part of the discrimination taking place in Utah. “Mormon interpretation attributes birth into any race other than the white race as a result of inferior performance in a pre-earth life and teaches that by righteous living, the dark-skinned races may again become ‘white and delightsome,’” the committee wrote.
LDS Church leaders have taken various stances on civil rights, interracial marriage, and racial integration. In response to a proposed civil-rights demonstration headed by the NAACP in 1963, Hugh B. Brown, a high-ranking church official, issued a statement in support of civil rights and “upholding the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States.” Yet, a year later, in a letter addressed to George Romney, the civil-rights supporter and father of the future Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then-Church apostle Delbert L. Stapley recommended that African Americans should not enjoy “full social benefits nor inter-marriage privilege with the Whites, nor should the Whites be forced to accept them into restricted White areas.” Although it was not the official position of the LDS Church, his statement seemed to come from a place of authority. Just a few years later, faced with growing concerns over the priesthood-temple ban, the growth of the LDS Church in countries with large mixed-race populations, and boycotts of Brigham Young University sports teams by black athletes, then-Church president Spencer W. Kimball lifted the restrictions by way of revelation, which the Church teaches is communication directly from God.