Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have consistently refused to apologize for past teachings deeming Black members of the Church inferior. Current leaders say they can’t apologize on behalf of long-dead prophets. They want to look forward, not back.
If Mormons can do temple work for the dead, baptize the dead by proxy, perform marriages for the dead by proxy, we can certainly apologize for the dead by proxy.
Previous Church teachings told us that Black people had been “fence sitters” in the Pre-Existence. They were less valiant and cursed with a dark skin to warn the rest of us to keep our distance. Black males, no matter how worthy during their mortal existence, could not hold the priesthood.
This wasn’t merely a “priesthood ban,” however. Without the priesthood, Black members could not take out their temple endowments, could not partake of temple marriage, and as a result could not fill the prerequisites for entering the Celestial Kingdom, the highest level of heaven.
That’s apart from Church members being allowed to own slaves, even donate a slave as tithing in one case. And that’s also separate from Church teachings on Native Americans, advocating for their enslavement as well, and other problematic policies on race.
When Mormons go to the temple to do work for the dead, we’re aware that we aren’t forcing folks in the Spirit World to “accept” the work. They continue to exercise free will, can still say, “Yes! Thank you! I accept the baptism!” or “No, but thanks anyway.”
So why is it so hard to apologize on behalf of former Church leaders who taught and practiced such harmful theology? We aren’t forcing them to accept the apology made on their behalf. We’re simply allowing them a chance to make some tiny effort at repairing significant harm.
These apologies are already being offered by proxy. Individual Church members—lots of them—are apologizing for the sins of the past. They do it through a petition on change.org. They do it in person to Black members in their congregations. They do it by funding films about LDS members in Africa.
It’s important for us as individuals to apologize. Like it or not, we accepted harmful teachings. We believed our leaders without questioning.
We should have questioned long ago, long before the “Race and the Priesthood” essay, before we were given permission to think differently. “I was just following orders” has been the justification for most atrocities throughout history. We don’t get a pass just because we “believed” the orders.
We don’t like to think we’re capable of hurting others. We didn’t mean to hurt anyone. So we often try to shift the responsibility onto someone else. That’s a natural first reaction.
It’s a problem, though, when that’s the end of self-reflection and repairing the harm we’ve done.
But even as more and more of us come to understand systemic and institutional racism, as we come to understand unconscious bias and struggle to make changes in our personal lives, in our workplaces, and in our relationships, we still understand that individual efforts alone are inadequate, just as individual efforts to reduce greenhouse gases cannot succeed in mitigating global warming without direct action by corporations, institutions, and governments.
It’s not that individual efforts don’t matter. They’re essential. They’re simply not enough.
Black members of the LDS Church need an official apology. All of us need to hear—officially—that current Church leaders apologize for discriminating against Black people and for teaching white members to discriminate along with them.
Years ago in my Single Adults group, a friend explained why he wouldn’t date a certain young woman. “She’s active in the Church now,” he said, “but she used to be inactive.”
“So you don’t believe in Christ’s atonement?” I asked.
“Oh, she can be forgiven for what she did,” he said, “but I don’t think people ever really change.”
Genuine repentance is more than saying we’re sorry. It requires change as well. But a change in behavior without the apology, without making amends, isn’t repentance, either.
When LDS leaders refuse to apologize, they aren’t looking forward. They’re sending a clear message, fully understood by their Mormon audience, that the people harmed simply aren’t worth apologizing to.
It’s still a continuation of racist theology, and that continuation has consequences.
LDS Church leaders must stop deflecting and apologize. If they can't bring themselves to apologize for their own behavior, they can at least offer an apology by proxy.