I was reviewing the 1949  and 1969 First Presidency letters which reaffirmed and defended the ban on people of black African descent holding the priesthood or receiving Temple ordinances. Both assert that the ban was a commandment from God (a claim the Church has since abandoned), and the 1949 letter ends with this spectacular gymnastic dodge to lay the blame back on the blacks themselves:

The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

 

At the first mention of “premortal existence” I thought I was about to read an explanation of how black people must have been fence-sitters during the war in heaven, and are therefore born cursed. To my surprise, I encountered a lawyerly argument I’d never read: to paraphrase, “you knew ahead of time that you would come to earth and be barred from the priesthood and the temple and you chose to come here anyway, so we are totally justified in enforcing that condition on you. Frankly, you’re lucky to be here at all.”

It is worth thinking through the logic used here: Since we knew ahead of time the kinds of “handicaps” we would have, and still chose to come and endure them, there can be no injustice in the presence of the handicap, even when that handicap is imposed on us by an outside agent. What other handicaps do we endure? Economic? Social? Hunger and malnourishment? Physical and mental abuse of all stripes? Well, we knew we might face those things and we chose to come to Earth anyway, so “under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in [any of these deprivations].”

It is easy to lose sight of the human cost of interactions like this, between a large institution and millions of black people. So imagine instead an individual High Priest saying those things to a single black family he was refusing to administer sacred ordinances to, further compounding the situation by advancing an unsupported claim that the deprivation was God’s will.

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