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Jan 2nd 2012

Is the Mormon Church Racist or Sexist?

Someone asked me:

“[O]f the [12] disciples who are now Jesus’ disciples how many are not white? …and how many women?”

These are legitimate questions, though passive-aggresively phrased. The questioner’s real message is:

Since there are no women apostles and no minority apostles, isn’t the LDS Church racist or sexist or both?

The answer to each question — both stated and implied — is no.

Thus far, it is true, the apostles have generally been caucasian men from the United States.

Why is this?

For Latter Day Saints, the only answer we need is that a different outcome has not been God’s will. If our Father in Heaven wants someone to serve as His apostle, He makes His will known to his servants. If God wanted women to have His priesthood, He would make that known by revelation to His servants.

I realize that for the person asking this question, this is probably not a satisfactory answer. So I will give an answer using primarily non-religious reasoning.

In my experience, the Church is absolutely not racist or sexist. Of course, the church is not perfect. Imperfect people comprise the church. I admit that the LDS Church does have a less than diverse leadership corps. Yet I would reject the accusation that the LDS Church as a whole is a backwards organization on race or women’s rights issues for several reasons: (1) The modern Church was established during the racially and politically turbulent period of the mid-1800s, perhaps influencing its decision to limit or reject leadership roles for blacks at the time; (2) The church has a leadership structure that provides wonderful stability but also means that it is sometimes lags behind changes in American culture; (3) Other practical and doctrinal matters that I will explain myself or link here.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (more often referred to by the term “Mormon” Church) has existed as a Church for approximately 180 years. Its members consider the church a restoration of the original church that Jesus Christ founded during his time on the earth 2000 years ago. During Christ’s life, he called 12 apostles. After Christ’s death, the small fledgling church was persecuted and basic doctrines were lost or changed. So much so that many churches sprung up during Europe’s reformation period in which courageous religious reformers sought to return to various truths that had been taken away during the long period of apostasy. In the early 1800s, a young American man with the rather common name of Joseph Smith reported having been visited by God and his son, Jesus Christ, receiving an ancient manuscript containing the scriptural record — similar to the Holy Bible — of an offshoot of Israelites who were led by God to the American continent hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. Smith translated the Book of Mormon “by the power of God” as he stated. For Mormons, the book does not replace the Bible but rather compliments it. The Book of Mormon is over 500 pages long and contains approximately 1000 years of selected anecdotes and summaries from the history of the Israelite transplant colonies. The Book of Mormon peoples may be some of the same people we study in our history classes and call “Native Americans.”

In connection with founding the Church, Joseph Smith also received priesthood authority from God. Priesthood is the power and authority to act in God’s name. Like any agency relationship or grant of Power of Attorney under typical contract law, the LDS Church teaches that a person cannot take on the priesthood without that power being granted by one possessing that authority (I can’t act as your agent without your authorizing me, nor can someone purport to take on priesthood power without being called to do the same). Joseph Smith and others have stated that they received the priesthood through the ministering of angels, specifically John the Baptist and the ancient apostles, Peter, James, and John. If they had not, they would have been no different from any of the other reformers who were well-intentioned but not entrusted with priesthood authority to restore Christ’s church in full.

In the initial years of the LDS Church’s existence, it grew at an astonishing rate (it is still growing at a very impressive rate today relative to other churches). Tens of thousands of converts joined the church in the first few decades, primarily in the British Isles. For the first 100 years or so, converts typically emigrated to the United States and to Utah specifically where the Church ultimately settled. But initially, the Church was looking for a place to settle and was persecuted heavily. The Church attempted to establish itself in Missouri and the governor entered an extermination order authorizing the harassment and killing of all Mormons in that state. The order stood for over 130 years until it was rescinded in 1976. The Mormons who arrived in Missouri were vocally anti-slavery (at least initially), which contributed to tensions there. At the time, there was a political fight over whether Missouri would be a “free” state or a “slave” state. There were many, many non-whites who were baptized in the church, including even some black slaves. Many free black man were baptized and ordained to the priesthood. One, Ezra Abel, was even set apart to serve a mission for the church. Another, Joseph Ball, was the president of a branch of the Church (equivalent to a pastor or a minister of a congregation). At some point, it was determined that blacks were not to exercise the priesthood power. There is not a pronouncement that says why. There has been a lot of speculation on that. If you look at the history of the Church, however, you cannot help but see that the Church was being heavily persecuted on various fronts. It may have made a pragmatic decision to try to minimize attacks on it by not being too progressive on that issue. The Mormon Church’s missionaries in the southeastern United States were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, just as Blacks, Catholics, and Jews were targeted. A Mormon missionary was killed by a KKK mob in Georgia in 1879. Two Mormon missionaries were killed in Tennessee. Another was killed in Florida. Dozens and dozens more were attacked by the KKK and like-minded groups. Some of these attacks have been documented.

Most other American churches were behind the times on race. Specifically, many American Christian churches supported slavery and segregation. The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845, in whole or in part, due to its pro-slavery and pro-racial segregation platforms. The SBC did not apologize for this until 1995. The Presbyterians split in 1861 over race issues. They didn’t resolve their differences until 1983. Apparently the Methodists had segregated conferences until 1972. Bob Jones University, a non-denominational Christian school typically associated with the evangelical side of protestantism, denied admission to a white man as recently as 1998 because he was married to a black woman.

In any case, those institutions are not the LDS Church, but you can see they had significant problems with race. The LDS Church officially extended the priesthood to all males in 1978. I was not alive at the time, but as I see it, clearly, the LDS Church was not leading the way or setting the standard as I would have hoped. However, they were not far out of step with many other large churches in the US from 1845-1980 and they arguably had some compelling reasons for instituting the policy in the first place, given the hostile political climate of the 1840s and the church’s own struggle for survival as a persecuted minority in its own right. This becomes clear if you will read the timeline on black LDS history and black US history at I cannot endorse that page enough as I think it does an outstanding job of using primary sources and laying out the events and timing clearly. Again, please visit or bookmark for more information on this topic.

The same person who asked about the current diversity of the group of 12 apostles of the LDS Church later commented:

I am fiercely against people who in the 20th Century view people of color as having some mark of Ham. Cult! Cult. The 13% of the population to which Barack Obama belongs is a f[***]ing race! Not a cult! Not a stain!

Yikes! I do not know what set her off here, as she clearly became agitated. This may be a sign of serious misinformation on the Internet. The fact is: The Mormon Church does NOT teach that black people are marked with a stain. This doctrine may be taught in some religions or churches, but the LDS Church did not invent the theory nor do they teach it today. This was discussed in a recent news article by Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), an independent organization that studies and responds to claims made against the LDS Church:

“The Book of Mormon does not say that ‘Negro skin is cursed. The Book of Mormon takes place on the American continent before any Europeans or African-Americans were here — it doesn’t really have anything to do with blacks or Africans in any time period, let alone today. It is about a very specific group of people, in a very specific time and place.”

In fact, Gordon said, “there is only one actual mention of blacks in the Book of Mormon: ‘And he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female, and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26: 33).

Gordon also took issue with the suggestion that the LDS Church is racist.

“The LDS Church is completely, thoroughly, unequivocally welcoming toward people of all races — no exceptions,” he said. While he acknowledges the historical fact that LDS blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978, “thousands of black LDS members have made peace with the church’s past and have found truth, community and acceptance here.”

In modern times, the LDS Church is a very well-established hierarchical organization. Like any other well-established organization of its type, there are leaders who have been trained and prepared for years before they receive their assignments. The current church President, Thomas Monson, has served continuously in church leadership since being ordained an apostle in 1963! He became the president by being the senior member of the church’s governing body. This means he is the man ordained the longest time ago who has not died yet.

Some might say that the church is set up the way it is to provide stability. Like our nation’s federal government of checks and balances between the various branches of government and an electoral college that each tend to fight against a sometimes whimsical electorate, the top tier of church leadership is comprised of, primarily, septegenarians, octogenarians, and nonegenarians. I think this stability, which is often a benefit, may be one reason it took so long to extend the priesthood to everyone. I am just trying to be pragmatic about this. I don’t know, but it is a plausible explanation.

So, since black men have only been ordained to the priesthood since 1978 in the modern era, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of men already waiting in the wings with training and experience in church leadership, it is not too surprising that there have been no black apostles yet. If you look however at the other general governing bodies of the church, there are a lot of international church members in leadership positions, including those of African, Asian, and Hispanic ethnicity. In 2004, a man from Czechoslovakia was called to serve as an apostle. He had served in the same levels of church leadership for many years where you now see these many Black, Asian, and Hispanic individuals. I expect that we will see an apostle of Hispanic ethnicity within 5-7 years and an apostle of Asian or African ethnicity in 10-15 years. One 2003 article on the Mormon Church reported that there were some 600 black bishops and stake presidents leading the LDS Church in Africa at the time. Here are links to the identities of highest-level Mormon church leaders. Here is a link to photographs and names so you can kind of gauge the racial/ethnic background of the individuals in these leadership positions.

Women have not been ordained as apostles in the Mormon Church to this point, though they hold very prominent leadership positions throughout the Church. I do not expect that women will ever be ordained to the priesthood in the LDS Church or serve in priesthood-specific callings. The Church will not make the decision based on what is “mainstream” as that is not a factor in determining what God’s will is. As Mormon Church spokesman Michael Otterson has said:

‘[M]ainstream’ is a modern term, it isn’t found in scripture, and the scriptural inference of what God truly values is quite the opposite. God appears to be more interested in using the word ‘peculiar’ to describe his people…It is this sense of distinctiveness that Mormons cherish…[Mormons] want acceptance, but not assimilation. No church leader I have ever heard preach has suggested that Mormons should drop their distinctiveness…in order to become more popular with the world at large.

In any case, I do not know why a woman would want to have the priesthood or serve as a bishop or stake president (two prominent callings reserved to men only by virtue of the priesthood requirement). In addition to their full-time jobs, these leaders also serve upwards of 20 hours per week or more for the Church as unpaid clergy for terms of service varying from 5-10 years. They handle complaints. They attend 6 am meetings on Sunday mornings. They often work 8-12 hour days on Sundays instead of going hunting, spending a day on the lake, or watching football. They have responsibilities during the week. They have to constantly give prepared or impromptu public remarks in front of hundreds of people (While “public speaking” consistently outranks “death” as Americans’ number one fear). Again, they receive zero financial remuneration for this work. I would not wish this on anyone. No one seeks these callings out. They are universally dreaded. But men are expected to fulfill these duties when called upon — and to do them cheerfully — because they have a priesthood duty. They are blessed for their service.

The Mormon Church has a very distinguished women’s organization, the Relief Society, that is the largest women’s organization in the world. The leaders of that organization speak at the Church’s general conference annually. The Relief Society is headed by three women. One of those women is a Hispanic-American woman from El Salvador.

While the Mormon Church places the responsibility of presiding over the family on the father/husband, Mormons believe that men and women are “equal partners” in marriage. The Church released an official proclamation stating as much in 1995.

Jesus Christ’s original 12 apostles were not a terribly diverse group as far as we know. There were no Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, or females reported to have filled those roles. The apostles were called from those who were available in the surrounding areas.

For further reading on women and why they do not have the priesthood or serve in the top leadership callings in the Mormon Church, I recommend the short article: Why can’t women be ordained to the Mormon priesthood?

For further reading on blacks and the priesthood, I recommend the short article: Are Mormons prejudiced?

I have found peace and I am happier in my life because I am trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am glad to be a member of the LDS Church. I am not a leader in the Church by any definition. But I have felt that I have become a better person through my efforts to learn about the Savior.

3 Responses to “Is the Mormon Church Racist or Sexist?”

  1. Steve

    Regarding women and the LDS church, two facts are enlightening. (1) The women’s organization functioning inside of and as part of the church, the Relief Society, is the oldest (1842) and largest women’s organization in the world today. (2) Utah was one of the very first states/territories to grant women the right to vote.

  2. katie

    fantastic response. you are an amazing writer.

  3. MIke


    Fascinating post. As a Mormon living in the 21st century, I have often had questions about the LDS Church’s previous stances on black members and the priesthood. For me, the resolution has always been, as you pointed out is often the case, that God’s will has been followed. But, as with most gospel topics, I think it is helpful for everyone to understand some of the potential practical motives behind what I view to be God’s will.