To note: between the time I wrote this post and the time I scheduled it to go live, Bro. Wilcox apologized for his statement. And that’s a real kind of apology, not a spongy excuse to avoid blame; in fact, it’s a model for a stage of what I was hoping for precisely. I will continue to post for two reasons. First, although an apology is an essential part of repentance, it is not the only step. And second, I don’t think it was primarily an individual issue — there’s an underlying institutional issue that his comments highlighted that his apology didn’t and couldn’t change. But I’m making a few changes to what I wrote earlier in light of his apology.
Last weekend, Bradley Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men General Presidency and associate professor of teaching ancient scriptures at BYU-Provo, gave a youth fireside in Alpine, UT. Somewhere by the fireside, he asked, rhetorically, why black members of the church had not obtained the priesthood until 1978. (To be clear, his formulation of the question is incorrect: in the early decades of the church, a number of black men received priesthood; it was not until 1852 that Brigham Young imposed the prohibition of the priesthood and the temple on black members.)
He answered the question like that:
What? Brigham Young was a jerk? The members of the church had prejudices? Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps instead of asking, “Why do black people [sic] should we wait until 1978? perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Why did white people (and other races) have to wait until 1829?” Eighteen hundred and twenty-nine years they waited.
This statement is, well, not good. As in, it’s terribly, terribly bad and reflects fundamentally racist ideas. Which he has, to his credit, acknowledged, owned and excused.
But even if he does apologize – and even if he meant no harm – it still matters. Because he is a church authority. And his statement about banning the priesthood and the temple reflects both a bad history and a racism that we have yet to root out of the church.
Watch, to answer him directly: the church’s denial of the priesthood and temple blessing to black members between 1852 and 1978 has been racist. The esteemed Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “racist” means:
Prejudice, antagonistic or discriminatory towards a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, usually a minority or marginalized group; expressing or characterized by racism. Also (especially at the beginning of use): prejudice, antagonistic or discriminatory towards a person or people of another nationality.
Black members were not allowed to hold the priesthood or attend the temple for those 126 years because of being a racially marginalized group.
And the fact that the priesthood had been taken from the earth for Everybody for nearly two millennia is not a convincing analogy to the prohibition of the priesthood and the temple. Exclusion from the priesthood during those two thousand years was not based on the individuals’ race (or nationality or sex or sexuality or any other personal characteristic). It was denied to everyone.
In 1829, that changed. The priesthood has been restored. And in 1829, there was only one restriction on holding the priesthood: sex. In 1852, as I said above, Brigham Young added another: race (or rather his 19th century conception of race). Suddenly, the priesthood was theoretically available, but because of race and gender, some people were still excluded.
Add to that the fact that Wilcox’s statement downplays harm to black individuals and instead focuses on (non-)harm to white individuals.
But honestly, in the scheme of things, a church member trying to downplay past racism is bad, but wouldn’t warrant a blog post. There are, unfortunately but undeniably, full-fledged racists among us.
But Wilcox is different: he’s a general officer of the church. And more than that: As a member of the Young Men general presidency, he is directly responsible for what our teens learn and do in church. And yet, he instinctively falls back on racist ideas to protect a certain vision of prophetic infallibility.
So what should the church do? I wrote first, “He must absolutely, without a doubt, and must immediately apologize for his remarks and make it clear that these are not the beliefs of the church. Wilcox, too, must apologize and repudiate what he said.
And it looks like Wilcox did! (And honestly, it’s not easy to publicly apologize; look at how many of those apologies go like this: “I’m sorry if you took me the wrong way.” These apologies don’t even hint at that direction. )
But here’s the thing: a sincere apology is a start, but it’s not enough. On a personal level, Wilcox is “committed to doing better.” And I believe he will. But his statement wasn’t just a personal thing; it reflects and serves the institution it represents. 1978 was 44 years ago, and while we have abandoned the racial ban on priesthood and temple, we very clearly have not abandoned the mythology of white superiority. And we haven’t grown used to hearing McConkie’s acknowledgment that church leaders have, in fact, been wrong about black people before and we should reject what they said. Just a decade ago, the church had to condemn racism in response to BYU professor Randy Bott unearthing racist justifications for the same priesthood and temple ban.
And it is apparently not enough for general authorities to denounce racism. Hinckley did. Brother Cook did. President Nelson did. And yet, even high-ranking church leaders still fall short.
I suspect we can trace this failure to two sources. The first is that while the church denounces present and future racism, it neither acknowledges nor repents of its past racism. And I honestly don’t know why; rhetorically, we admit that our leaders are fallible. But church leaders are loath to acknowledge the actual fallibility of past leaders.
And that leads to the second source: I think a lot of members don’t understand what racism is. Because we don’t actively exclude black people, because we don’t throw epithets at them, because we don’t physically attack them (or, at least, because most of us don’t), we reason, we can’t be racist. And because Brigham Young and John Taylor and all the prophets down to Harold B. Lee were good people, and because racists are bad people, they couldn’t be racist.
And this failure to recognize racism, both individually and institutionally, means we can’t even begin to root it out, to repent of the wrongs we’ve done.
This is a problem we can and must solve. But it’s the one we really have to face. Periodic declarations by church leaders that racism is wrong are insufficient. The Gospel Topics essay “Race and Priesthood” is great, but it’s not enough. Wilcox’s fireside statements make it clear that we need more, top to bottom.
So what would I suggest? Two things: First, the church must actively and deliberately teach church leaders (up to bishops, I would say, but at least anyone qualified to speak at the conference) how to recognize racism and avoid it. Not just in others, but in themselves. After that, the church could provide leaders with anti-racist tools unique to our theology; he can teach them to read the Book of Mormon as an anti-racist text. He can assign them to give a lecture using these tools. It can otherwise help them understand the practice and theology of anti-racism.
However, he can’t do any of these things effectively if he doesn’t first teach them to recognize racism, even in its most devious and plausible form. It won’t help to understand our additional, critical anti-racism theology if they assume that racism is just physical (and possibly verbal) violence perpetrated by objectively evil people.
What about general membership? In 2023, rather than talking about conference talks, the church should develop a “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” manual. We fail in the second great commandment. And we shouldn’t be. The year should not be dedicated solely to eradicating racism, but confronting the past and current institutional racism of the Church and eliminating it both from our church culture and from ourselves should be an important part of it. . (Turns out I’ve had this idea before. And where it was pressing then and it’s even more pressing now.)
Inasmuch as we claim to be the only true and living church of God, to ensure that he is pleased with us, we must do better as a people and as an institution. We must have faith that our members can handle the truth and can remain faithful in light of personal and institutional repentance. But above all, we must repent. And to do this, we must confront our past and our present and learn from it.
Back to Wilcox’s statement: Was Brigham Young a fool? In the end, it doesn’t matter in this context. You can be stupid but not racist. Likewise, one can be a thoroughly agreeable person and an outspoken racist. But his second question is important: Were church members, including Young, prejudiced? Without a doubt. Did they do racist things? Absoutely.
Nor do I doubt that Brigham Young has now repented of his racism. And he needs the institutional church to allow that repentance to happen, to let him get rid of it, rather than excuse it and deny it and prolong the process. I have no doubt that he has regrets, and I have no doubt that the banning of the temple and the priesthood is one of those regrets. So let’s follow Bro. Wilcox’s example and stated goal is to overcome the racism of our past and present (both individually and collectively) by acknowledging it, repenting and leaving it behind.
And while it would have been better if Bro. Wilcox had chosen in advance not to make the statement he did, I am truly grateful that he is setting a public example of both the need to repent of racism and how to approach that repentance .
Photo by Liz Falconer on Unsplash