Overview

A high-ranking Mormon leader says exactly what he meant to say about the racist history of the church—and many of those eyeing the exits have finally heard enough

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mormon leader Brad Wilcox apologized after a speech Monday night in which he downplayed the long history of racism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Wilcox, who serves as “second counselor in the Young Men general presidency” and is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, made the comments during what’s known as a fireside.

… Now sadly, you live in a time where a lot of people get uptight about priesthood issues. It’s one of the most glorious things we have in the Church, and yet people want to sit and fight about it! Get uptight about it!

Now I don’t mean to oversimplify a complex issue, but I sure think we make it a little harder than it needs to be. How come the Blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1978? What’s up with that, Brother Wilcox? What, Brigham Young was a jerk? Members of the Church were prejudiced?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying: Why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978?, maybe what we should be asking is: Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?

1,829 years they waited! And why did the gentiles have to wait until after the Jews? And why did everybody in the house of Israel, except the tribe of Levi, have to wait until…

When you look at it like that, then instead of trying to feel like you have to figure out God’s timeline, we can just be grateful

The Church has been in an uproar over the past 24 hours. Wilcox has apologized. BYU said it’s “deeply concerned” over his remarks. And plenty of practicing Mormons are infuriated over what appears to be another step backwards in their Church’s desire to escape its racist past.

For those not familiar with the history of the Mormon Church, though, the reaction may appear overblown. It helps to understand why this speech made so many people upset.

The Mormon Church’s racist policies

It’s true that the Mormon Church banned Black people from the priesthood until 1978, at which point President Spencer W. Kimball said he received a “revelation” that opened to priesthood to all worthy men. However, Wilcox’s comments implied that Black people were never priests until that time. That’s not true. There were indeed Black priests in the Mormon Church in its infancy. It wasn’t until 1852, when President Brigham Young specifically announced that new policy, that they were excluded from that position. In other words, a racist policy was put in place, on purpose, for well over a century, in the name of Heavenly Father, before it was finally rescinded.

The Mormon Church has been trying to shed its racist image for decades. In 2013, they released a formal statement explaining, accepting, and unequivocally denouncing its past. But that hasn’t changed the minds of many critics, who still see plenty of institutional racism within Mormon circles.

Wilcox only made things worse by perpetuating the lie that Black people were never priests before 1978, downplaying what happened in 1852. He doesn’t like that people keep bringing up the Black priest ban. He’s so enamored by the Church itself that he just glosses over its despicable history. To answer his own question, yes, the Church is and was “prejudiced.” Bigotry is baked into the system.

Why did Black Mormons have to wait until 1978 to become priests? Because of white Mormons.

Wilcox’s language

It also didn’t help that Wilcox referred to Black people as “the Blacks.” As if they’re a monolith. During Black History Month, no less.

Furthermore, he used a famous example of Mormon racism and flipped the question to focus on the supposed victimhood of white people. He took a serious problem that others have faced and made it all about himself. Instead of focusing on the racism, Wilcox used racism to make an argument about reverse racism. He offered up the theological version of “All Lives Matter.”

One user on Twitter put it more bluntly:

The two situations aren’t the same. Not even remotely. The bus example drives that point home extremely well.

Wilcox has done this before

Wilcox apologized for his comments, posting on Facebook that he “made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry.” That certainly makes it sound like it was a one-time error.

But it didn’t take long for people to find a speech Wilcox made nearly two years ago in which he said all the same things — nearly verbatim!

It called into question the sincerity of his apology. Why was he sorry about “last night” when he’s clearly been telling this anecdote for a long while now?

All this from a guy who teaches religion at BYU and happens to be one of the few Mormon leaders literally in charge of the Church’s youth program worldwide.

The rest of the speech was bad, too

I should point out that it wasn’t just the racist comment that had people talking about Wilcox’s awful speech. He also “joked” about getting nervous when seeing his young daughter pretend to pass out sacraments because that’s not what girls are supposed to do. There’s a much longer breakdown at the Mormon Stories podcast.

While BYU expressed concern over his remarks, they also said they “appreciate his sincere apology.” Which is a nice way of saying Wilcox won’t face any repercussions for what he said, perhaps because they basically echo Church sentiment anyway.

Anyway, if you were looking for a reason to quit the Mormon Church, this is a pretty good one.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.