Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood by W. Paul Reeve is a thought-provoking and insightful book that explores some key aspects of the intersection of race and religion in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To me, this volume is up there with Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk About Polygamy as both the best and most important entries in a fantastic series. Reeve, a professor of history at the University of Utah, draws on his extensive research to provide a nuanced and detailed account of the Church’s racial policies and practices from its founding in the early 19th century to the present day.
The book is organized into three main sections, each of which examines a different aspect of the relationship between race and priesthood in the Church. In the first section, Reeve discusses the Church’s initial openness to African American members in the early 19th century, their cultural context, and steps that led to the eventual adoption of a ban on the ordination of and performance of temple ordinances by individuals with black African ancestry.
In the second section, Reeve examines the experience of those who were affected by the priesthood and temple ban. He draws on a range of sources, including personal letters, diaries, and oral histories, to paint a vivid picture of how race has shaped the experiences of African American members of the Church and how they came to be excluded from key ordinances in the Church. He also describes how the ban solidified over time and justifications for the ban developed within the Church.
In the third and final section, Reeve describes the lifting of the ban, lingering issues since 1978, and then looks to the future, exploring the challenges that the Church faces as it seeks to become more racially inclusive and diverse. He discusses the efforts that the Church has made in recent years to address past racial injustices, as well as the ongoing work that needs to be done to create a more equitable and inclusive community.
I have studied the topic of the priesthood and temple ban pretty extensively and it’s something that is important to me to understand. (For anyone who might doubt my interest and investment in the topic, I have something like a dozen posts about it that I’ve written over the years to which I can refer you.) Let’s Talk About Race and the Priesthood takes a massive amount of information and background research and distills it into a very accessible book. It also offered some information of which I was not aware, such as the extent to which Orson Pratt opposed slavery in Utah Territory and how difficult it was to enforce the ban evenly throughout Latin America, where segregation and avoidance of interracial relationships were not as normalized as they were in the United States.
I was also impressed with how candid and straightforward Reeve was throughout, talking directly to the problems, but also offering some of his own insights and thoughts that have come from deepy wrestling with this history as a practicing member of the Church. I think the main thing that I would have appreciated having more of would be some wrestling with the portrayal of race in the Book of Mormon and the relationship of that portrayal with the beliefs that underpinned the ban, but that is something that probably speaks more about my own wrestles rather than anything lacking in the book.
Thus, W. Paul Reeve’s Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood is an important and timely book that sheds light on a complex and often fraught topic. Reeve’s careful analysis and engaging writing make this book a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Consider me a fan. Also, consider picking up a copy and reading it. It’s well worth it.