6 years after a 'fake apology' for the Black priesthood/temple ban, many Latter-day Saints yearn for a real one


On a balmy May morning in 2018, Latter-day Saints awoke to startling news of a purported document saying that the church's prophet-president had issued a "full unqualified apology for the error of racism which was taught from this office and in the tabernacle and over the pulpits of our churches the world over."

Within minutes, the so-called apology went viral.

Black and white church members were thrilled — crying and hugging and sharing widely such a welcome mea culpa — believing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had finally expressed regret for its 126-year-long practice of excluding Black members from the Utah-based faith's temples and its all-male priesthood until 1978, when the racist prohibition ended.

Trouble is, the document was fake, invented by a former church member, who said he wanted to "start a conversation."

Six years later, as the country celebrates Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, an increasing number of Latter-day Saint believers want to see a real apology from top church leaders.

It's way past time, they say, and would be especially crucial to the faith's millennial and Generation Z members.

An apology was needed "a long time ago," says Rachel Weaver, co-founder of the Black Menaces group at church-owned Brigham Young University. "It's always been necessary."

To her, it is ever more urgent.

As the world becomes "more progressive, more accepting and more aware of the way we've been an exclusionary society," Weaver says. "it's becoming more and more unacceptable that there hasn't been an apology while other institutions are recognizing their own racist culpabilities."

Indeed, more than a decade ago, the Southern Baptist Convention expressed profound remorse for its involvement in slavery and continued racism. And just this past week, U.S. Catholic bishops apologized for inflicting a "history of trauma" on Native Americans, including at church-run boarding schools.

What an apology would accomplish

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rachel Weaver, co-founder of BYU's Black Menaces, films a TikTok video in Provo in 2022. Weaver says a church apology for the former priesthood/temple prohibition against Black Latter-day Saints would "allow white members to see and acknowledge the harm the ban has done and continues to do to Black members." (Trent Nelson/)

An official Latter-day Saint apology "would validate experiences that Black members have had," Weaver says, and "allow white members to see and acknowledge the harm the ban has done and continues to do to Black members."

It would be "instrumental in fostering a healing and reconciliatory climate," says Provo mother Tamu Smith, thinking of her own young adult children.

"This generation, having survived a deadly pandemic, has witnessed and participated in protests against racial injustice and political unrest," says Smith, co-author of "Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons" (later changed to "Can I Get an Amen? Celebrating the Lord in Everyday Life." "They've developed a strong sense of social justice and are prepared to stand up to injustice wherever they see it. Today's youth expect the church to align its actions with its teachings, especially regarding repentance."

The church has a responsibility "to lead by example," she says, "to do the difficult things it expects of its members and to demonstrate that true repentance can bring restoration."

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tamu Smith, speaking in 2019, says the church should "lead by example" and apologize for the former priesthood/temple ban against Black members, showing that it can "do the difficult things it expects of its members and to demonstrate that true repentance can bring restoration."

Smith's daughter, Jalyn Briggs, agrees.

The 27-year-old grew up repeating the church's 13 Articles of Faith, including the second one, which says that "men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression."

The temple/priesthood ban "contradicted that," says Briggs, who has a child of her own. "Either the ban nullified that statement, or Black members were 'different' because of some 'curse.' But that contradicted the scripture that 'all are alike unto God.'"

None of it, she says, "added up."

An apology could change "how a lot of members view that history," Briggs says, "and it would teach people that the church is a perfect organization led by imperfect people. That reality doesn't register with a lot of members."

(Courtesy) Jalyn Briggs says an apology from top Latter-day Saint leaders for the former Black priesthood/temple ban "would teach people that the church is a perfect organization led by imperfect people."

One of Briggs' "biggest disappointments," she says, was hearing apostle Dallin H. Oaks state at the 2018 "Be One" gala — celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ban's end — that he had prayed about the reasons for the temple/priesthood exclusion "but could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them."

Without a divine directive, Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, determined that the best path would be to remain "loyal to our prophetic leaders."

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gladys Knight sings at a rehearsal for the 2018 "Be One" gala, celebrating the end of the priesthood/temple ban. (Trent Nelson/)

If members just "follow the prophet when they don't get answers," Briggs says, "it's important that the prophet now issues an apology" to help followers abandon any racist thinking.

It would give young Latter-day Saints a way to reject the reasoning of BYU religion professor Brad Wilcox, who apologized for the way he described the policy, but not for what he saw as "God's timeline."

Many of Briggs' mission-serving devout — Black and white — friends have left the church over this issue.

"I get their disillusionment," she says. "The church wants me as an individual to stand up and stand alone, but it is not willing to stand up for minorities in their church."

If leaders would offer a public apology, it could end "a lot of the backbiting, passive aggressiveness and political misconduct toward Black members," she says. "They could no longer use their religion as an excuse for it."

An evolving perspective

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Darius Gray, Genesis Group president from 1997 to 2003, speaks at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in 2021. Gray says a church apology for the former priesthood/temple ban is needed partly to counter current political and cultural attitudes that display "more hostility and discrimination toward persons of color."

For years, Darius Gray did not believe a formal apology from his church would make much difference.

Gray, a co-founder of the Genesis Group, a support congregation for Black Latter-day Saints, joined the church in 1964, while the ban was still in force.

When it ended 14 years later, he saw any official church apology as "a well-intended effort but one not addressing the change of heart required as followers of Christ."

From Gray's vantage point, "the focus needed to be toward longer-lasting, soul-changing actions. An apology would have served a lesser need, while leaving unchanged decades of negative characterizations targeted directly at Black members," he says. "Is it possible to demean a people more deeply than by declaring them as representatives of Satan as some Latter-day Saint leaders said? Could any heartfelt apology alone be enough to offset years of divinely attributed damnation and rejection?"

Gray acknowledges earnest progress — noting that church leaders have done much in recent years to make amends, condemning racism in all its forms from the pulpit while teaming up with the NAACP on ongoing projects serving the Black community. And, in a 2020 speech at BYU, Oaks called "Black lives matter" an "eternal truth all reasonable people should support."

These days, though, Gray and others see in current political and cultural attitudes "more hostility and discrimination toward persons of color, often bolstered by a growing sense of justification rooted in old religious myths."

So he has amended his position on a church apology. The prominent and respected Black Latter-day Saint believes it is time — past time — for the faith to acknowledge the error of the ban and redress the consequences of now-disavowed teachings.

Without such a "Christ-centered public admission," Gray says, "those who would divide and disparage become empowered."

Not just for Black Latter-day Saints

(Screengrab from BYUtv) Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, who has famously stated that the church doesn't issue apologies, addressed racism and Black lives matter at BYU in 2020.

After discovering the 2018 "apology" document was phony, "many of my white brothers and sisters were saddened, and they reached out to express their disappointment," Tamu Smith recalls. "This showed me that the apology was not just for one particular group but for all of us. The solidarity and empathy shown by those closest to me in my community during that time of disappointment and hurt continue to serve as a source of strength and unity."

Any apology "transcends race and benefits everyone," Smith adds. "We are called to mourn with those who mourn and to stand with our brothers and sisters in their pain, regardless of our own background."

When Latter-day Saint historian W. Paul Reeve speaks about the church's racial history to members in predominantly white Utah and other locations across the United States as well as internationally, inevitably he is asked some version of a question regarding the potential for an apology.

"These are faithful Latter-day Saints who yearn for an open and honest reckoning with the faith's racial past," says Reeve, author of the acclaimed "Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness." "My sense is that an apology would be healthy and healing. It would allow the faith to model the principles of repentance that it teaches and invite Christ's grace to heal and lift the collective church community."

The University of Utah history professor believes it is "impossible" to "root out" racism — as church President Russell M. Nelson and Oaks have instructed — "without examining its roots."

Once you've done that, Reeve says, "the next step is to take accountability for what you find."

Don't 'seek apologies or give them'

"I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them," Oaks told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2015. "We sometimes look back on issues and say, 'Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve.'"

Though the question focused on rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ members, Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, generalized it to all of Latter-day Saint history.

"I'm not aware that the word 'apology' appears anywhere in the scriptures — Bible or Book of Mormon," Oaks reiterated in a video chat with The Tribune. "The word 'apology' contains a lot of connotations in it — and a lot of significance."

Christian scriptures are replete, however, with the word and concept of "repentance." And, Reeve points out, the global church of 17.2 million members has issued "statements of regret" in several cases.

In 2007, apostle Henry B. Eyring, now of the First Presidency, offered words of regret (which a church official termed an "apology") at a memorial service for victims of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in which Latter-day Saint militia members slaughtered scores of men, women and children in a wagon train traveling from Arkansas to California.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) An emotional Henry B. Eyring lowers his head while speaking during a Mountain Meadows Massacre memorial service in 2007. The apostle expressed "profound regret" for the scores of men, women and children slaughtered by Latter-day Saint militia members in the 1857 onslaught. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Trib/)

The church issued a public apology on behalf of a member who had performed proxy baptism rituals for the parents of Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate.

It may be a little trickier for the temple/priesthood ban. It brings into question the church's belief in prophetic leadership since every church president from Brigham Young until Spencer W. Kimball, who lifted the ban, had defended the exclusion — if not the justifications for it.

To Briggs, the young Black mother in Provo, apologizing shouldn't be that hard.

"Repentance is a big thing to me," she says. "If I did something to hurt someone — even unintentionally — I would always say 'sorry.'"

Why, she asks, won't the church do the same?