Normally, I try to refrain from saying negative things about people in this blog, but today I'm going to have to break that rule and say that as a Latter Day Saint I am embarrassed at Brother Randy Bott's comments to the Washington Post citing "the mark of Cain" as a reason that black men were denied the priesthood prior to 1978. Since Brother Bott has been teaching religion at BYU for a number of years, I expected that he would have used at least a small segment of that time to research new ideas and thoughts on this controversial topic in our faith. After all, the LDS apologetics organization FAIR has.
I have a completely different opinion on the matter and it has nothing to do with Cain or fence-sitting and everything to do with the agency of man and a hundred years of racial politics and social issues. Pardon the length of this post.
Let's go way, way back to 1776. The founding fathers were a rather eclectic mix of individuals consisting of both devout abolitionists and devout slave owners. The abolitionists were appalled at the idea of their new republic, which was to be founded on principles of freedom and equality, might include slavery. But the Northern colonies knew there was no way they could make a go of this already insane revolution idea unless they had the Southern states on board. An especially poignant moment comes in the movie version of the musical 1776 when Ben Franklin (founder of one of the first abolitionist societies in the American colonies ) says to John Adams that slavery is a battle they simply can't fight at the moment and must be fought at a later time.
So, the North and the South put aside their differences for the time being, kicked England out of the colonies and went about forming a new nation. To keep the pro- and anti-slavery forces in check, states were added in such a way as to keep an even balance between free and slave states. And it worked- until 1820.
Alabama had just entered the union as a slave state and now Missouri was asking to join- as a slave state. And that was when all those long standing, simmering racial tensions started to heat up.
Missouri was admitted as a slave state with the Missouri Compromise which aimed to control further admission of slave and free states and keep a balance. The Mormons (many of whom were Northern abolitionists) settled in Missouri until mob violence drove them from the state in 1833. Now 1831 was also the year of the Nat Turner rebellion and many Southerners were getting mighty nervous about Northerners, abolitionists, and black people. Furthermore, the Mormons voted as a block (like they do now) and the slave holders of Missouri were not pleased about the possibility of abolitionist politics taking over in the state. The situation was a powder keg from the start. So, knowing all this, how accepting do you think Missourians would have been of a black bishop and the people who ordained him? Mormons were considered to be so much a threat that Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an extermination order that wasn't formally rescinded until 1976.
Blacks in leadership positions was the nightmare of every slaveholder. Remember, the Nat Turner rebellion happened just a few years previous and people things were getting really, really tense. At this point, we're about 15 to 20 years off from Bleeding Kansas and about 30-ish years away from the Civil War. The country was building towards a bloody war that would take the lives of around 700,000 Americans.
And after the Civil War there were Jim Crow laws, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, race riots, etc. etc. Let's be honest, any black man put into a priesthood position in the South (and in many other parts of the country) would not have survived very long- nor would his associates. Furthermore, let's take a trip across "the pond" to Africa and take a look at what's happening there during the mid 19th to mid 20th century. The forecast is colonialism and apartheid with a definite chance of future civil unrest. Ordaining African natives to the priesthood under colonial rule would have been a recipe for disaster. Any black African given a leadership position would not have lived very long. Most countries in Africa didn't throw off colonial rule until the 1950's, 1960's or 1970's, whereas places like Japan were never under colonial rule and most South American countries broke free from Spain and Portugal in the mid 19th century.
So the next question is, "Well, if you believe God is so great and all powerful, why wouldn't he prevent the black people from being hurt so that everyone could enjoy the priesthood?" But think about the implications of that. It would mean that God would have to force people to do the right thing. That would be tyranny. One of the tenets that is central to Latter Day Saint theology is that God holds agency (the freedom to choose our loyalties and actions) inviolate and that if He forced us to obey Him, He would cease to be God. The idea that we are here on Earth to be tested as to whether we will choose to follow God or Satan is fundamental to our beliefs.
I don't believe it was God's will that blacks should be denied the priesthood, I firmly believe it was due to the frailties of man.