Prior to 1978, people of African descent were denied ordination to the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This policy, often referred to as the Priesthood Ban, has been the subject of much debate, both in the church and by those on the outside. Most of the debate has been on the topic of why, asking things such as “Why would the Lord restrict the priesthood and the blessings of the Temple from people of certain descent” and “Why would He change his mind and give it to them later?” Others, mainly those who oppose the ban, ask “How can the Lord do such a thing?”
This latter question is the key to the puzzle. How could the Lord restrict certain blessings from His children? The answer is plain: He does so all the time. One of the central doctrines of the Church, one of its central missions even, is the salvation of the dead. Literally millions of people have died without even hearing the name of Jesus Christ, and billions of those who have heard and believed have died without receiving the saving ordinances. All who have been denied the ordinances in this life are not barred from eternal life; they may still receive all that the Father hath. They depend on us and our work in the Temples.
The Priesthood Ban is no different: they may have been denied certain blessings while in mortality, but they may still receive every blessing and every ordinance, provided they are faithful in all things, the same as everyone else. These blacks who joined the Church in those days: they received a remission of their sins at baptism, and received the Holy Ghost at confirmation. Their names are in the records of the Church. Finding their records and ensuring that they have received their ordinances should be relatively easy. If their posterity has been faithful, then they will enter the temples and receive these ordinances on behalf of their fathers who could not receive them in their lifetimes. In the end, the Priesthood Ban may have inconvenienced them, yet because of their faithfulness they will receive everything the Father hath, the same as everyone else who is faithful in all things.
Similar inconveniences exist for the children of polygamists and children living with a same-gender couple. Current policy is that such children may not be baptized until they have reached adulthood. Some have complained about this, asking things like “How is it just to deny them baptism? They didn’t do anything wrong!” Such complaints lack a proper perspective. Like the blacks, these children may receive all the blessings of eternal life if they are faithful in all things. Due to their circumstances in this life, they may be inconvenienced for a time. This inconvenience may be a trial for some. Is inconvenience a sufficient reason to reject the Gospel or fight against the Church and its leaders?
With this new perspective, let us reconsider the original question: Why were blacks denied the priesthood? The answer is simple: There was something more important. There was something that the Lord saw that was so important that inconveniencing the blacks in this manner, and exposing the Church to accusations of racism and (after the policy ended) of flip-flopping, was considered a necessary sacrifice. In this sense, restricting blacks from the priesthood is comparable to President Wilford Woodruff ending the practice of plural marriage. Woodruff stated that if the practice was not ended, the civil government would confiscate all the temples and imprison Church leadership. By ending the practice, he saved the Church from destruction. Woodruff also stated that if he had not received a direct commandment from God to take this course of action, he would have let it happen. This decision was not taken lightly. Restricting the plurality of wives was a necessary sacrifice for the continuance of the Church.
It is a common theme throughout the Scriptures that God often gives people commandments without explaining why they are important. Nephi wrote two versions of his record on two separate sets of plates, which were preserved and expanded for centuries before Mormon abridged one and attached the other in the Book of Mormon. Mormon didn’t know why either; it wasn’t until 1828 when Martin Harris lost 116 pages of manuscript that the reason for the two records was made apparent. From the vantage point of the Nephites, there was no reason for there to be two records, and very little reason to keep one in the first place. They kept it because they were commanded to. 2400 years later, one of Satan’s plans to overthrow the work was thwarted because of it.
We do not know if the Lord has ever revealed the reason for the Priesthood Ban; if it has been, the Church has not publicly shared that revelation. It follows that there is a reason for this silence (whether from God or from the Church), and this silence is probably tied to the reason itself. I have my own theories concerning that reason, but, following the Church’s lead, I have decided not to share them. All I will say is that it is a small sacrifice to temporarily inconvenience some to save many more and thwart the plans of the adversary.