By Peggy Fletcher Stack
In a rare move, a high-level Latter-day Saint leader and Brigham Young University religion professor has apologized for remarks he made Sunday about Black members and the church’s former priesthood/temple ban.
After clips from Brad Wilcox’s speech went viral, however, his heartfelt remorse left some critics thinking he didn’t go far enough in dialing back his pronouncements and lamenting why racism continues to dog The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At a fireside for Latter-day Saint congregations in Alpine, Wilcox said he gets questions from members who wonder why Black males didn’t get the priesthood until 1978, when the prohibition was lifted.
Was Brigham Young, the faith’s second president, “a jerk?” he said they ask, or were early Latter-day Saints “prejudiced”?
Maybe they are asking the wrong questions, Wilcox suggested. “Maybe instead of asking why the Blacks had to wait until 1978 to get the priesthood, we should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”
Many on social media pointed out that the sermon took place during Black History Month. Soon afterward, Wilcox, second counselor in the faith’s Young Men general presidency, issued an apology late Monday, saying, “I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry.”
Wilcox went on to say, “The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended.”
To those he offended, “especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness,” he said. “I am committed to do better.”
When asked, Wilcox and the church did not offer further comments.
BYU, however, put out a statement Tuesday, explaining “we are deeply concerned with the words recently used by Dr. Brad Wilcox” and “we appreciate his sincere apology.”
Though grateful for Wilcox’s apology, some still question his suggesting the ban was part of “God’s timing,” and not human error.
“Apologies are great, and repentance is awesome,” said Kimberly Teitter, a Black Latter-day Saint and Utah psychologist. “Apologizing for one night put on display when the same message has been shared numerous times, with private feedback provided and disregarded, does not feel like repentance to me.”
In the meantime, she said, “my heart aches, and I have faith that God aches as well.”
In a live Facebook stream, Zandra Vranes, co-author of a book about Black Latter-day Saints, also expressed concern with the apology, which she said fails to walk back the belief that God was responsible for the ban in the first place.
“I don’t know why,” she said, “we are more comfortable calling God racist than a man racist.”
Nate Byrd, a senior from Michigan and president of BYU’s Black Student Union, said students plan to protest Wilcox’s speech.
“It will be an opportunity to let Brother Wilcox know the impact of his words,” Byrd said. “What he said was doctrinally incorrect and not based on scripture. He is a professor of religion, and we are required to take classes from people like him.”
Latter-day Saint students “are not edified,” said Byrd, who served a full-time mission to Houston for the church, “by talks like that.”
The Utah-based faith addressed the question of historic racism and the now-discarded ban in its landmark essay, “Race and the Priesthood,” which placed much of the blame for the policy on societal racism during the 19th century when Young, as the church’s second prophet, formalized the exclusion.
In the church’s early days, under founder Joseph Smith, who openly opposed slavery, a few Black men were ordained to the priesthood.
Wilcox’s comments “ignore” this part of the faith’s history, said historian W. Paul Reeve, head of Mormon studies at the University of Utah and author of the acclaimed 2015 book “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.”
“In one fell swoop, it erases Black Latter-day Saints from Latter-day Saint history,” he said, among them Elijah Able (sometimes spelled Abel), perhaps the best-known Black member in the early church to receive the priesthood, in 1836. He later was followed by his son and grandson, who was ordained in 1935.
“You’re erasing the contributions of multiple generations of Black Latter-day Saints,” he said, “and suggesting that their contributions and their faith didn’t matter.”
Wilcox’s apology, he noted, does nothing to address this — instead doubling down on the idea that the ban was the result of what Reeve called a “fabricated sense of a divine timetable.”
Janan Graham-Russell, a Mormon studies fellow at the U., “wasn’t necessarily surprised” by Wilcox’s remarks, including the historical inaccuracies.
“If you’re not talking about this history of Elijah Able and other early Black saints in the church,” she said, “people are going to make assumptions and unfortunately factually inaccurate and racist comments when it comes to Black people’s involvement and relationship with the priesthood.”
Both she and Reeve compared Wilcox’s remarks to comments made by former BYU religion professor Randy Bott to The Washington Post in 2012.
In them, Bott pointed to Latter-day Saint scriptures that he said indicate descendants of the biblical Cain — who killed his brother Abel and was “cursed” by God — were Black and subsequently barred from the priesthood. He also noted that past church leaders suggested Black people were less valiant in the sphere known in Mormon theology as the “premortal existence.”
The church disavowed the assertions then — and in its essay — and Bott soon retired.
“There are going to be more Randy Botts,” Graham-Russell said. “There are going to be more Brad Wilcoxes until there is an honest and frank discussion about what these restrictions were and their impact.”
‘Patronizing’ toward women
She also expressed concern over Wilcox’s “patronizing” comments during his fireside talk on the topic of women in the priesthood — a point his apology does not reference.
Wilcox raised questions, for example, about women and the all-male priesthood, saying that women can “waltz” into the temple without having the priesthood.
Graham-Russell is not alone in her critique.
“Wilcox is perpetuating the myth of women as unknowable, mysterious, alluring sexual and spiritual creatures,” responded Emily Jensen, a Bountiful writer and web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “It makes [women] an ‘other’ who can be dismissed more readily. And centers the conversation on men.”
That the popular Latter-day Saint speaker and author talks about a female colleague as having a “loud voice” and uses “girl” and “girls” when discussing women’s issues “further accentuates his disdain for women’s voices,” Jensen said, “which is most unfortunate when you consider that he’s in the general Young Men Presidency, whose members, I’m sure, work closely with the general Young Women presidency.”
Wilcox also spoke about other Christian faiths, describing their members as merely “playing church” each Sunday, the same way children play house.
This description did not go over well with Blair Hodges, a Latter-day Saint whose “Fireside” podcast interviews people of various faiths.
The BYU professor’s “disparaging remarks about other faith traditions may resonate with long-standing Latter-day Saint ideas about being the one true church,” Hodges said Tuesday. “But he also contradicted other fundamental doctrines, including the belief that all humans are God’s children, or that God has revealed truth throughout the world even beyond the LDS fold, not to mention Joseph Smith’s declaration that we are supposed to find all the good and true things in the world and gather them in, or else we won’t come out true ‘Mormons’ at all.”
Last year, BYU released a 64-page report from a Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging at the Provo school. It exposed widespread and significant concerns about the mistreatment of minority students.
The document also noted that some religion classes continued to promote misinformation about Black exclusion from the priesthood.
“Many students reported that some of the most hurtful experiences they have had occurred in religion courses,” the report said, “where sensitive gospel topics such as the priesthood and temple ban and skin color in the Book of Mormon can be misunderstood or insensitively presented.”
BYU tweeted Tuesday that it is committed to implementing recommendations from the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging, including the creation of a new Office of Belonging.
Sunday’s fireside came nearly 18 months after church President Russell M. Nelson called on Latter-day Saints during General Conference to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”
A month later, in a speech at BYU, Dallin H. Oaks, Nelson’s top counselor and next in line for the faith’s presidency, called Black lives matter an “eternal truth all reasonable people should support.”
Under Nelson’s leadership, the church has built a close partnership with the NAACP, donating millions to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization and the United Negro College Fund.
Wilcox is currently scheduled to speak Feb. 20 at a multistake (regional) youth gathering in Long Beach, Calif.