For the faithful male member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, few matters are as important as the Mormon priesthood. He enters its lower ranks, the deaconry, for example, at puberty. By the time he is a middle-aged adult, he may well be a high priest. Some 70% of practicing Mormon males advance all the way through the priesthood, hoping thus to assure themselves and their families of a place in the highest level of the afterlife, the celestial kingdom. But the priesthood, and with it the key to that kingdom, has been for most of Mormon history barred to anyone with the slightest evidence of Negro ancestry. Last week, in reply to charges of racism, Mormon elders reaffirmed their belief that blacks cannot be admitted to the priesthood.
Black athletes, who precipitated much of the current discussion by protesting games scheduled with the Mormons' Brigham Young University (TIME, Nov. 14), argue that exclusion of blacks is a form of segregation. But the church statement vigorously denies this, pointing out that Mormons themselves "know something of the suffering of those who are discriminated against." Indeed, argue the Mormons, they believe that the U.S. Constitution was "divinely inspired," and they uphold the right of the Negro to "full constitutional privileges as a member of society." What is at issue, says the statement, is the Mormons' own theology about the place of the Negro in the divine scheme, and that is protected by the First Amendment since it "falls wholly within the category of religion."
Mormon belief depends largely on the writings of Prophet Joseph Smith, the church's 19th century founder. Though Smith's first book of revelations, the Book of Mormon, clearly states that "the Lord denieth none that come unto him, black and white," in The Pearl of Great Price, Smith's later translation of revelations supposedly made to Moses and Abraham, he took a dimmer view. Smith there concluded that Negroes are the descendants of both Cain, the Bible's first murderer, and Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the reason for their exclusion from the priesthood is "the mark of Cain." Though racist 19th century Christian preachers once advanced similar arguments, the Mormons go farther, maintaining that in a spiritual "preexistence" blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.
Since those who are barred from the priesthood cannot marry or be "sealed" in Mormon temples, few Negroes bother to belong to the Mormon church at all. Mormons, however, do believe that revelation is a continuing process, and their leaders have predicted that a revelation will one day open the priesthood to Negroesjust as a revelation ended polygamy during a critical confrontation with the U.S. Government in the past century.