Updated Review of Black and Mormon

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. In general, I am pleased with the vision of the editors in putting this work together, and would rate it as a success and an important contribution. 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in a Church dominated by whites, a Church with a past racial policy that continues to cause pain in spite of having been revoked for a quarter century.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 objections for part 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 a policy that caused such pain. 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, in my opinion, 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 repudiate 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.

Following a thorough and intriguing forward by the editors, the book contains eight chapters written by an impressive group of respected writers, including some well-known African Americans within the Church. I believe all of the authors are LDS, but the book is hardly an exercise in defending the status quo or rationalizing the past. It is a sincere effort to help those within and without the Church to better understand blacks and the Church in terms of the past, the present, and the prospects for the future. It is well worth reading and pondering.

The chapters comprise the following:

  • “The ‘Missouri Thesis’ Revisited: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People” by Newell G. Bringhurst. This reviews various historical attempts to explain the origins of the exclusion policy, such as the theory that it evolved in response to tensions over slavery in Missouri. This chapter provides an excellent review of scholarly efforts in this area and, coupled with the next chapter, offers a good overview of what is known and not known about the origins of the former priesthood restriction.
  • “The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings” by Alma Allred. This was one of my favorite chapters, clarifying widespread misconception about what the scriptures say. Allred shows that it is vain to seek for scriptural justifications for the past policy, and refutes the errant explanations based on the myth that the exclusion was due to blacks being descendants of Cain or Canaan. Allred also indirectly shows an interesting and subtle consistency between the ancient concept of the “right of the priesthood” – the right to hold the presiding office in the ancient patriarchal priesthood – and revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants on the lineage of Aaron and the right to preside. I discuss Allred’s essay in more depth on my previous post, “Rejecting Mormon Folklore about the Former Restrictions on the Priesthood.” It should greatly increase the awareness of many members about the misconceptions we have often had about the roots of the former priesthood limitations.
  • “Two Perspectives: The Religious Hopes of ‘Worthy’ African American Latter-day Saints before the 1978 Revelation” by Ronald G. Coleman and Darius A. Gray. This brief chapter relates the story of two black American converts to the Church, Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Len Hope, Sr. Jane joined the Church in Connecticut in 1842, and made it to Nauvoo in 1843. She found work in the Joseph Smith home and lived there with them. With her personal knowledge of what Joseph Smith was really like in his own home, I find it interesting that she “unquestionable believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet” and remained strong and faithful in the Church throughout her life.
  • “Spanning the Priesthood Revelation (1978): Two Multigenerational Case Studies” by Jessie L. Embry. Brother Embry explores the lives of some African Americans who joined the Church in spite of the huge barrier of the priesthood exclusion, exploring two extended families. I was strengthened by the faith of those who could overlook not only the priesthood restriction, but also the lack of sensitivity or even racism of some fellow members. Their testimony was based on the Spirit and a real relationship with the Lord that allowed them to “look over [the errors of others] and see the Lord.” What a great example for all of us.
  • “Casting Off the ‘Curse of Cain’: The Extent and Limits of Progress since 1978” by Armand L. Mauss, past President of the Mormon History Association. Dr. Mauss discusses the Church’s approach to public relations around race issues and the Church’s relationship with the black community since the 1978 revelation. In spite of some very hopeful breakthroughs, especially in the Los Angeles area, there are still large gaps make it difficult for the Church to simply move on in terms of race issues. His discussion includes the lingering effects of past erroneous teachings that were once used to justify the priesthood restriction and the desire of many members for the Church to formally clarify that such teachings were wrong. He also reviews the optimistic progress that has been made among white members of the Church in terms of civil rights issues and attitudes.
  • “African American Latter-day Saints: A Sociological Perspective” by Cardell K. Jacobson. This chapter explores survey results showing trends in the attitudes of Mormons on race issues, as well as sociological information about blacks in the Church. The data from the point to genuine progress and hope. One interesting point was that blacks in the Church, based on data from the 1980s, tend to be relatively more highly educated and upwardly mobile than other blacks outside the Church and than the whites in the Church, who in turn were slightly more educated at the time on the average than whites outside the Church. Similar patterns were found in data from 2002.
  • “‘How Do Things Look on the Ground?’ The LDS African American Community in Atlanta, Georgia” by Ken Driggs. A hopeful discussion of a successfully integrated ward in Atlanta. I especially enjoyed reading this, having lived in Atlanta for 5 years and having attended the Atlanta Ward a couple of times, though my ward was in Tucker (now the Brockett Ward). But I also witnessed inspiring examples of blacks and whites moving past racial barriers and working together in the joy of the Gospel. I saw precious little of racism among the members of the Church there.
  • “Unpacking Whiteness in Zion: Some Personal Reflections and General Observations” by Darron T. Smith. A chapter that explores the reluctance of whites in the Church to confront racial issues and discuss past racial problems. Some may view this as a robust call for progress, but I believe this chapter may be problematic for many members of the Church – and not just the whites. The chapter carries a tone of bitterness over past problems which, though not without basis, may not advance understanding between different groups.

I wish to further clarify my concerns about the last chapter by Darron Smith, a black convert who served a mission in the Church, a lecturer at Utah Valley State College, and an adjunct faculty member at BYU. His viewpoints, though eloquently expressed, strike me as being too heavily derived from the academy, where bitterness toward society 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 and oppression of minorities.

I think Smith takes the class-struggle paradigms behind “whiteness theory” far too seriously. For example, Smith sees the reluctance of local Church leaders to replace standardized Relief Society lessons with controversial discussions of racism in the Church as evidence of racism. He says that “white people consciously suppress conflict (passive aggressiveness), not only because they wish to avoid the discomfort of confrontation, but also because this avoidance enables them to maintain white hegemony. When white people say, for example, ‘Let’s not be contentious,’ they eliminate opposition. Without opposition, whiteness always wins” (p. 153). I find this and several other statements to be offensive. There are times and places for digging into controversy, but Relief Society is not it.

I also think that some blacks will be offended by Smith’s charge that groups like Genesis (an highly respected association of black Mormons, whose founded, Darius Gray, is among the contributors to this volume) are guilty of “replicating, in every significant way, the established ‘whiteness’ norm of Mormonism” which makes them “socially white” (p. 163). I object to this worldview. Whites aren’t necessarily white oppressors seeking to enforce whiteness, and blacks who don’t share your political and social perspectives aren’t “socially white” or, as some agitators say, “white on the inside.” Race is not a political identity.

I also fear that Smith has fallen into a paradigm of victimhood in which all actions of the “oppressor class” are interpreted negatively. With his strong feelings, I must say I am proud of him for holding on to his testimony and contributing actively and faithfully to the Church in his life, but I think he would be more effective in advancing the cause of minorities in Zion by cutting back on some of the “whiteness theory” rhetoric.

While parts of Darron Smith’s writings reflect a point of view that many whites and at least some blacks and other minorities may find objectionable, I believe his chapter is valuable in showing the diversity of viewpoints that can exist among faithful Mormons. His essay is worthy of consideration, discussion, and certainly debate – in the right setting (perhaps not in place of approved lessons during Relief Society or Priesthood meetings, where there are sheep that need to be fed, not stirred up).

Smith also makes the interesting suggestion that affirmative action in the Church would be helpful in correcting 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.

Though I have some difficulty with Darron Smith’s chapter, others will not–and objections or no, the book as a whole represents a significant and positive step toward better understanding the difficult past and the hopeful future of black Latter-day Saints. I highly recommend this excellent work, and congratulate the editors and the authors.

Addendum: My Background in the Church
I have had a few experiences in the Church relevant to the issue of race relations, but am strictly a neophyte in this area. My association with members of the Church from other races began most extensively during my mission to Switzerland (1979-1981), where I taught people from over 50 countries and learned about some of the challenges that minorities face. Later I lived in Atlanta for 5 years, where the Tucker Ward provided valuable opportunities to fellowship with black members as well as members from a variety of foreign countries. Following that, I moved to Wisconsin. In spite of being heavily white, my area has a large number of Hmong refugees from Laos and a healthy group of Hmong Latter-day Saints. I was soon asked to be a minority liaison for the Appleton Stake, serving on the High Council with responsibilities to assist the Oneida Indian members and the Hmong members. I loved working with both groups and frequently attended Church with them. I began learning the Hmong language at this time. I also had some involvement with Hispanic families in the Appleton area. After a couple of years, I was called to be the bishop of a new ward that included over 100 Hmong members and a few Hispanics. When I was finally released as bishop, the Hmong members of my ward were split off into their own branch, and I was called as a High Council advisor to them for a while, and then my entire family were called to be members of the Fox Cities Hmong Branch to help strengthen the branch, with me as first councilor to a Hmong branch president. Although the Hmong people have suffered from racist attitudes in the U.S., I saw great love and acceptance for them among in general among the Latter-day Saints in my ward.

In terms of minority relationships in Atlanta, a particularly memorable experience came through my family’s friendship with a remarkably talented black LDS woman who set up a community theater in Decatur. I attended one night and really enjoyed it. As the only white person present in the small audience, there was an interesting moment of internal tension when a group of teenagers performed a rap song about their victimization by whites and their plans for violent revenge against the oppressors. (A key concept from the song was that whites had nailed blacks to a cross, but the nails were rusting and soon the blacks were coming down from the cross and would go after the whites, so look out.) At the end of the performance, rather than choosing that moment to engage in confrontational “race talk,” I clapped – and clapped loudly. (And I can assure you that my avoidance of conflict here was not a ploy to maintain white hegemony and enforce whiteness upon the blacks present.) No one seemed to notice that there was anything improper about the song, and I certainly wasn’t bringing it up – and I still enjoyed the evening, choosing to look past the offensive and see the good around me. The point of this story is that my experience as the lone white in the community theater may have some similarities with the experience of black members of the Church, especially if they ever had to endure whites improperly speculating about the causes of the former priesthood ban. Curse of Cain? Unworthiness in the pre-existence? Ouch! Might as well do a rap song (or a country ballad) in Priesthood meeting about putting those darned minorities in their place. Fortunately, I think attitudes are improving – and I was encouraged to see that ethnographic data shows that the Latter-day Saints are making significant progress in their attitudes toward minorities. I hope that progress will continue to be mutual.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on “Updated Review of Black and Mormon

  1. I did not actually read the review of the book, but the topic in general is one where many good LDS people have misconceptions. This topic needs to be understood better by the general Mormon community. A large portion, especially the younger (as i am) are ignorant of the history of this topic, they heard that in the 70’s it was lifted, and they saw the video in Sunday school but thats it. They need to understand what a big deal it was and is, they need to understand why people have such a tough time accepting what happened. They need to know what was said in the past by our church leaders. Why this needs to be addressed and understood by faithfull saints. I have not read the book, but I’m going to call it excellent for the effort to inform.

  2. I thought your personal experience was especially interesting. I wouldn’t know how to react sitting through a rap song like that. I think I’d be even more offended being a black member of the Church though because it isn’t just a few outspoken foolish teens but has the appearance of being actually backed by God.

    Some crazy things have been said by leaders of the church, and fortunately that doesn’t happen anymore. But what to make of what they’ve already said? http://www.mormonoddities.com/wiki/index.php/Mormonism_on_Blacks gives an example of one retraction — related to comments on the intelligence of blacks.


  3. I am really thankful for this reading. For 3 years now, I’ve been with my friend, he is morman. We’ve often disussed the Black/White issues, and the morman’s view of black america. I’ve even talked to several missionaries about this subject, and still havnt gotten any direct answers. Although, I accedentaly stubbled onto this site, I am glad. Have I read the book? No, I havn’t, but I’m so thankful that alot of the concerns that I have are being addressed. This is 2008, and the issue of even having people of color worshipping,and holding high possitions is a big deal. What would the LDS view be with white men and black women dating? Also, white women, and black men dating?
    Concerned …
    Black woman/White man

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