The Priesthood Ban and Homosexuality: A Comparison with Limits


This should in no way serve as an argument against recognition of gay marriage.

The comparison between the priesthood ban excluding the blacks and the Church’s opposition to gay marriage is practically begging to be made (see also here and here)–especially if you want the Mormon leadership to change their tune on gay marriage: “If the Church could change on this, then why not?

Why not, indeed?

I’m not seeking to stake out a position on what the Church will do.  The Latter-day Saints are coming around on the issue of homosexual marriage.  Fifteen years ago, talk of any form of homosexual union was taboo, but now, it has become the Church hierarchy’s mainstream position (fourth paragraph).  Further, the Church has created a site designed to reach out to the LGBT  community within the Church.   The success of this site in achieving its stated purpose of teaching members to “respond sensitively and thoughtfully” when discussing gay-related issues.

But it is important  that well-informed analogies be used to inform the discussion.  Bad analogies, like Patriarchies, hurt everybody.

A Reason Why We Should Make the Comparison
Birth Control Pill Container

Both involve changing deeply-prejudicial attitudes Mormons use to define themselves.  The Mormon do the “learn to adapt” thing fairly well.  Following the Polygamy Manifesto and the admission of Utah to the United States, the Saints transformed from collectivists to capitalists extraordinaire, all within a generation.  In the late 19th-century, the waltz (a.k.a. the round dance) was widely seen as the a fast track to adolescent promiscuity (all that spinning and touching could get a person pretty revved up).  Today, BYU students have a world-renowned Latin dance team with hip shaking that would make even the most adventuresome nineteenth-century Saint squirm.   After the Transcontinental Railroad came to Utah, the First Presidency called the unequal distribution of wealth “one of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced.”  If Mormon voting patterns are any indication, that concern has, at the very least, been sidelined.

ist2_Quizzical_Guy_202946The only things Mormon do better than change is heterosexuality. Mormons get heterosexuality.  And the more of it, then better, if child-bearing rates are any indication.  Mormon men thought it so important that they wanted more of it (Brigham Young once quipped that he could not go three weeks without physical intimacy).  So, the nice Mormon asks, you like girls? *scratches head quizzically*  “But…what’s the point of that?” In the 1970s, Harold B. Lee called birth control “a grievous sin.”  Today, BYU’s women’s services openly teach students the birth control options that are available to them.  Mormons can/do change, for a variety of reasons.

For decades, Mormons loved their whiteness.   Some Saints touted Utah as a refuge for the white population seeking to escape the racial mixing that “plagued” the South. The Mormon youth dances of the 50s exhibited Mormon physical culture at its finest, but one thing you would not see was the dreaded jitterbug–a dance everyone knew was not becoming of good, white children.   The dance instructor at BYU told one student that rock and roll was a sign of cultural degeneracy–one step closing to devolution towards “African stomp dances.”

Can’t Latter-day Saints get over their House-on-the-Prairie with nine kids mythology? Isn’t there more–much more–to being a Mormon than one’s ability to breed?

Why We Should Not Make the Comparison:

John C. Bennett

There is no tradition of actively gay people holding the same status as the early black Saints did.   The only man in Nauvoo with a known homosexual orientation was John C. Bennett, a man so infamous that he hardly needs an introduction in Mormon lore.  Within a couple of years of his baptism, Bennett was seducing a sizable lineup of Nauvoo’s eligible (and not-so-eligible) bachelorettes.  Joseph Smith himself testified in open court of his homosexual activity, a crime “too indelicate” even for the now-scandal-stained Times and Seasons.  Whatever Joseph’s motives, he was willing to use homosexuality as the ultimate indictment of one’s character.  Bennett never received enduring patronage nor support; even following his public confession, once word circulated of his philandering (including his threats to blow Joseph Smith’s plural marriage experiment wide open), Smith’s patience had been taxed.  William Smith drew freely upon the homosexuality charges when blasting Bennett in the Wasp. Even when Joseph pled on Bennett’s behalf, it was only after a public chastisement and Bennett’s confession.  After summer 1842, Joseph’s criticism of Bennett’s activities was unrelenting, his bisexuality not excluded. Though Joseph was known on occasion to speak highly of male-male emotional intimacy, context neuters his comments of sexual connotation.  Whatever one’s opinion of the Bennett scandals, the comparison between Bennett and Elijah Ables falls flat.

Elijah Ables, Black Priesthood Holder

While Joseph’s opinion of Bennett deteriorated, his opinion of black Mormons grew.  In 1836, Joseph Smith had ordained Elijah Ables, a 20-something, Maryland black to the Melchizedek Priesthood.  The debate over whether he held the priesthood or not is a settled one.  The evidence is overwhelming: a priesthood license, newspaper reports confirming his priesthood office, and correspondence describing his priesthood activities.   Joseph’s decision incurred the ire of more than one confidante: Zebedee Coltrin, Orson Hyde, among others others. Joseph sent Ables on a mission, upheld him in priesthood leadership positions, and suggested that he was “more refined” than the politicians in Washington.   “Go to Cincinnati,” he told an Orson Hyde already troubled by racial anxiety, “and find one educated who rides in his carriage.”  He has “risen by the powers of his mind to his exalted state of respectability.”  Joseph’s racial tolerance had limits, but his commitment to protecting Ables’ ordination to the priesthood was unwavering in the face of rounding criticism.In 1847, Brigham Young thought black Massachusetts Elder Walker Lewis to be one of the best in the Church.    Later events would shatter whatever fragile–albeit impressive–coalition of tolerance existed.  But  neither Ables nor his ghost really left the Church.  Even in the 1920s, people remember how beloved Elijah was of Joseph.

When Church leaders revealed Official Declaration #2, they were not declaring new doctrine.  Indeed, they were giving new life to  old doctrine.  In the Saints earliest days, they were so friendly to the black population that Missourians and New Yorkers alike took to calling them “Black Mormons.”  It was a restorative act, the culmination of a series of acts helping the Mormon people to listen to the long-stifled voices from the dust. He brought to light the account of Elijah Ables and others, one of many influences causing the Church to draw on Joseph Smith’s original, black-friendly policy.  The Official Declaration was looking backward as much as it was looking forward.

Where Do We Turn?

The issues surrounding the place of homosexuality in the Church have vexed the Saints since the beginning.  And understandably so.  Mormon culture places a high premium on children and the cultivation of strong filial bonds. It’s only fitting that Mormons ask themselves hard questions about what these filial bonds must look like. But if the Mormons’ vision of Zion is to succeed, then members both straight and homosexual must approach homosexuality using a narrative of its own.

Stay Tuned for Part Two of  The Struggle: Toward a Faithful History of Mormonism and Homosexuality. 


3 comments on “The Priesthood Ban and Homosexuality: A Comparison with Limits

  1. Thank you for writing this, Russell. The first 75% is amazingly solid and I will be sharing this blog post with my LDS friends. I see more room for “we don’t know” in regard to the early church and homosexuality. While Elijah Ables was a known entity, and all blacks were obviously known to be black, gays within the church have likely existed and lived as faithful latter-day Saints, but remained closeted.

    Gay history is challenging because so many societies have made homosexuality to be such a taboo that only the most flamboyant and defiant were recognized by their peers. It’s hard to know how many gays there have been in LDS history, and it’s hard to know what their struggles for faith and LDS living might have been like.

  2. Ignacio says:

    Thanks Russell. I think that we can elevate the conversation from one of simple polarization. As we know more about gay Saints, hopefulyl the more tolerant we become. But before we begin constructing new doctrine we need to fully understand exactly where prophets and church leaders and others have constructed as their place in the cosmos. Only then will we be able to see if their situation is similar to that of other Saints who were made “others” within the faith, or whether their situation is truly unique.

  3. The Church did not change the ban on the ordination of blacks, God did, and it was known practically right from the start of the church that the ban was a temporary. Brigham Young said the day would come when they would hold the priesthood too, which is a strange position for somebody to take if they are motivated by “deeply-prejudicial attitudes”. Since there is no such promise that some day gays will be permitted by God to marry, so the comparison falls apart on that point.

    A more serious point of failure is that there is no moral stain in being black. We can look back and see that God has in times past promised certain privileges to the decedents of righteous men. For example, God promised the Arronic priesthood to the decedents of Aaron, and promised the gospel would first go to the children of Israel. This was not a moral stain on the Gentiles or on the other 11 tribes. These, as well as the ban on blacks holding the priesthood, were organization decisions, not moral standards.

    Homosexual activities however are a very serious sexual sin. An openly gay member is denied full fellowship because they are in sin as deeply as any adulterer or fornicator is. For the church to sanction gay marriage would be no different than the church giving a green light to premarital sex or cheating on your spouse. Moral standards do not change and comparisons to the priesthood ban, or polygamy, or the way the application of various principles change over time are not valid.

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