Many Latter-day Saints shouted with joy or at least breathed a sigh of relief on June 9, 1978 when the Church announced that any worthy male could be eligible to receive the priesthood, thus ending the painful and controversial practice of denying the priesthood to males of black African descent. While many white members of the Church are glad to have that era behind us and now wish to move forward, many of have not appreciated the lasting impact of the former priesthood restrictions on black members in the Church, including the anguish that the former policy caused for black members (including black women) and investigators. Many of us are not familiar with the challenges that black Mormons face today or with a variety of race issues. To better appreciate the history of blacks in the Church and the hope of better serving all our brothers and sisters in the Gospel, I am pleased to recommend the outstanding new book, Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages).
Black and Mormon is a remarkable resource from a variety of intelligent minds and skillful writers. It opened my eyes to several serious issues, and changed some of my thinking on this topic. It will cause some pain and rethinking old assumptions for some members of the Church, but is likely to help all of us better understand one another and better understand some of the pains that blacks have felt and continue to feel in a Church dominated by whites, and a Church with a past racial policy that continues to cause pain in spite of having been revoked for a quarter century. I look forward to further progress in the Church and through our society to overcome racial misunderstanding and racism of any kind.
Though I have some criticism for one chapter of the book, in general Black and Mormon strikes a healthy balance between optimism for the future and facing the pain of the past. It is time for Latter-day Saints to understand and acknowledge the pain that blacks have felt because of the past policy on limitations to the priesthood. Much of the pain came from insensitive attempts to provide a doctrinal explanation of what was never explained and what was not doctrine, but policy. Most whites have not pondered what it would be like to be a black investigator or member of the Church who was not only told that he could not have the priesthood, but that it was because he was a descendant of a murderer or because he was unworthy before being born. Alma Allred and others do an excellent job of clarify the unjustified nature of such explanations, but gaping wounds remain, and reprints of some well-known LDS books continue to promulgate such harmful and unsound “explanations.”
This book further strengthened my respect for black members willing to accept the Church in spite of an apparently racist policy. The faith and patience of many black members should be explored and celebrated much more. Especially poignant portions of the book retell the stories of some black members and their families, and provide valuable insights into the issues of retention and missionary work among minority groups.
An important contribution of the book is helping to identify additional steps that could help to heal wounds of the past. For example, I personally look forward to some sort of formal clarification from the Church to denounce the former racist speculations that were often given in the vain effort of creating doctrinal reasons for something that was never doctrine but an unexplained policy.
A possible flaw in the book is the last chapter by one of the editors, Darron Smith, who is a black convert who served a mission in the Church. His viewpoints strike me as being too heavily derived from the academy, where bitterness is often the norm. Frankly, given the huge burden of racism and some of the painful experiences he and his wife have faced, I can understand some of the reasons for such attitudes, but his discussion of “whiteness theory” with respect to the Church seems too harsh – or perhaps too “academic” – in finding evidence of white supremacy, power, and oppression of minorities. I think Smith takes the class-struggle paradigms behind “whiteness theory” far too seriously. Yet I think his chapter is valuable in showing the diversity of viewpoints that can exist among faithful Mormons. He also makes the interesting suggestion that affirmative action in the Church would be helpful in correcting the problems of the past. In my unpopular view, at least some aspects of affirmative action have, in the long run, been a roadblock rather than a help to minorities in the United States, and I am not sure that an overt affirmative action program would be right for the Church either. (Believe me, making someone a bishop or branch president before they are really ready for that is doing nobody a favor – especially the bishop and his family; and it’s not necessarily a favor even when they are ready!) But I do agree that white members must do more to reach out to minorities and help them feel fully part of the Church.
I have more to say on this book, but I’m out of time right now. . . .