Earlier this week, Max Mueller posted at Peculiar People some thoughtful reflections on non-Latter-day Saint historians of Mormonism and their role as “friendly critics” to Mormons and Mormonism. He used recent op-eds authored by Helen Radkey and John Turner on proxy baptisms and Mormonism’s history of racial exclusion, respectively, to frame his argument. It’s well worth reading and recommended to all JI readers.
I want to focus here, though, not on that question specifically, but rather on a comment Max made almost in passing in that post:
In his article, Turner makes the point that the “priesthood ban” (the shorthand for the racial exclusion of black Mormons, though the restrictions also affected African American women too) did not begin at the founding of the church. Instead, the ban has a human history: It was an evolving practice, then policy, then doctrinal fixture, articulated and defended by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith well into the twentieth century.
While I’d heard this point made by others before—that the shorthand “priesthood ban” lends itself to a particularly gendered reading of Mormonism’s history of racial exclusion—it struck me more forcefully than before. Maybe that’s the influence of the several new additions to Juvenile Instructor in recent months whose research focuses on gender finally wearing off on me. Maybe it’s the result of my own recent attempts to be more sensitive to the experiences of (primarily black) Methodist women in the 18th and 19th centuries and the gendered assumptions I bring to my dissertation research. Regardless, I think it’s an important point that deserves further reflection.
On the one hand, using the term “priesthood ban” as a shorthand for the policy that denied priesthood ordination to Latter-day Saints of African descent seems appropriate: the policy, after all, likely had its genesis (at least in part) in response to the fears and concerns of church leaders about black men marrying white women (and the mixed-race children such relationships would and did produce) and in the selective reading of certain scriptural passages concerned mostly with restrictive priesthood ordination. As Max points out, though, the so-called priesthood ban did not affect only men. Black women were similarly denied certain blessings available to all other Latter-day Saint women through participation in temple rites and rituals. I wonder if grouping these restrictions with those placed on black men under the umbrella term “priesthood ban” only serves to further marginalize the experiences of those black women, turning our attention from the experience of African American female converts and even more toward their male counterparts. Go ahead and think of the black Saints from the 19th century you can name off the top of your head. My guess is that only one of them—Jane Manning James—is female. She was the only one I could think of.
Of course, the meaning attached to terms like priesthood has changed over the century and a half-plus of Mormonism’s existence and perhaps using a more expansive understanding of the word—one that incorporates temple ordinances for both men and women—is entirely appropriate when discussing this history. But those words do need to be properly historicized. And given the almost-entirely gendered meaning of the word in contemporary discourse (in which priesthood is equated with worthy male members of the church), I think we need to give more thought to how we use the phrase “priesthood ban” today, what specifically we mean when we do use it, and what more appropriate terms for Mormonism’s history of race-restrictive policies might be. Thoughts?*
*This, of course, is likely an issue than extends far beyond the question of race in LDS history, and while I’d like to keeps things primarily focused on that issue in particular, I’m entirely comfortable with discussion on this thread engaging other terms used when discussing Mormon history and culture that similarly assume certain gendered meanings and serve to focus attention only on the experiences of men.