Up until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church) restricted priesthood ordination. That’s not all that odd; most religions have some restrictions placed on ordination, such as sex, education, or behavior. But the odd thing about this restriction was that all worthy male church members were permitted to be ordained except those of African origin.
This policy was, and has been, controversial, and led to speculation and false doctrine. If the policy wasn’t inspired, why was it in place? And if it was inspired, why would God restrict a certain race from exercising the priesthood? Some speculated that Black church members were (for some unknown reason) unworthy of ordination. Others speculated that God was waiting for the right time to lift the ban.
Setting the Record Straight: Blacks & the Mormon Priesthood is part of a larger series (Setting the Record Straight) that addresses some of the controversial issues in Mormonism, both cultural and doctrinal. I’ve read a few books in this series, and I’m going to go ahead and say the quality of the book depends entirely on the author; some of them are great, and some of them are not. This one is great.
Marcus Martins, the author, is a prominent Black church member who grew up before the priesthood ban was lifted. He talks about his own bitterness about the ban, as well as his father’s faith that he should live worthy to receive the priesthood as soon as the ban was lifted. He talks about what a privilege it is for anyone to be able to exercise God’s power. He talks about some of the blatantly false doctrine he’s heard as a religion professor, and some of the questions he’s had to answer from people who questioned his faith. He also talks about how strange it was for his family to convert from another Christian faith to one where the White church members often looked down on them for … reasons. Reasons that nobody could really define, but everyone assumed were there.
I think the power of this book is that it doesn’t have answers—and doesn’t pretend to. What Martins does is point out that most of the false doctrine floating around in Mormon circles comes from “finding” answers where there are none. Martins doesn’t know why he wasn’t allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978. He doesn’t pretend to know why. And he still believes this is God’s church. But what he does do throughout the book is show how people insisting on finding the answer (and then imposing their answer on others) led to misunderstandings of doctrine.
I think this is a great book for anyone—regardless of whether you’re LDS or not—who’s interested in learning about other faiths. It talks about how wrong we can be, and how much better it is to admit we don’t know everything. It also has a very forgiving tone; he points out the racism he’s encountered and encourages everybody to be better. He talks about how important diversity of races, cultures, and experiences can be in a growing worldwide church. But he isn’t bitter; he’s just helping to solve the problem. I love his attitude of moving forward, rather than dwelling on pain. ♦