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Helvecio Martins: First Black General Authority

Mark L Grover gave a fascinating biography on Helvecio Martins, the first black general authority in the LDS church in the latest issue of the Journal of Mormon History (Summer 2010.) Elder Martins was ordained to the Second Quorum of Seventy in 1990 under President Ezra Taft Benson. In 1995 he was released, and he passed away in 2005

Martins joined the LDS church in 1972 with his wife Ruda and son Marcus. Grover describes in detail race relations in Brazil. From page 36,

“This racial climate is a positive factor in the functioning and success of Brazilians of African descent. It does not eliminate issues of race, but it places them in a difference context. Elder Martins is an example of how a person of color can succeed in this type of social system.”

Martins grew up very poor. Grover says on page 37,

“He liked school and had a firm commitment to education, so he was unhappy when, after the sixth grade, knowing that his parent needed help, he left school to begin earning money to help them. At age twelve, he found only low-paying jobs: picking oranges or digging ditches. It was a step up to become a courier at a law office.”

Grover says that Martin never regretted helping his family; instead it furthered his resolve to get an education. His greatest help ended up being his future wife, Ruda. She worked as a secretary in a law office, and encouraged his to continue to pursue his education. Ironically, Ruda’s family was his first exposure to racism. From page 38,

Ruda’s family were fair-skinned mulattos and were concerned about their daughter marrying someone darker. A common belief in the Afro-Brazilian community was that marrying someone darker would “weaken” their racial lineage. “They had feelings against those who were darker and were actually more intolerant because they were not white but yet did not want to marry someone who was darker,” Helvecio explained. “They felt that it would be better if their children married either mulattos or whites but never someone darker than they.

Ruda and Helvecio continued to study and date, and eventually Helvecio became a favorite of his mother in law. After they married, both continued to work; Helvecio finished a bachelor’s degree in accounting at night, and went on to take finance and business administration graduate classes, as well as a teaching certificate. He earned a job at the government owned oil company, Petrobas, and taught night finance and business administration classes at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. He moved up the corporate ladder very quickly at Petrobas.

Helvicio grew up with the Catholic faith, but adopted his wife’s religion of Macumba, “an Afro-Brazilian religion that included, among other beliefs, spirit possession and the worship of African gods.” Page 40 continues,

Thus, even as Martins became one of few blacks in a job environment and social circle that included Brazil’s president and was almost exclusively white, he and Ruda participated in one of the most distinct black cultural groups in the country— one that appealed primarily to poor and black Brazilians.

In 1972, he and Ruda felt the need to look for another religion. Missionaries arrived at this opportune time, and they were baptized on June 2, 1972. Their baptism created conflict with Ruda’s family, but Helvecio’s sister eventually joined the church as well. From pages 41-42,

Helvecio’s and Ruda’s acceptance of the priesthood restrictions was, surprisingly not difficult. In fact, it had been the first question they had asked the missionaries; and Helvecio, although he could not later remember the exact words, recalled that “it was very clear and precise and sounded so right that it didn’t bother me at all. At that time I accepted it as being the will and desire of the Lord” (28) In fact, they were somewhat annoyed that it became an issue that other members of the Church frequently brought up. In the beginning their complete acceptance of the restrictions and continued activity in the Church created some questions and even mild antagonism toward them from members who were struggling to understand the restrictions themselves. Many expected the family to leave the Church soon and were surprised when they remained active…

However, they then went from being a novelty in the Church to notoriety, attracting attention that they did not desire. In fairness to their ecclesiastical leaders, the Martinses were unique. There were other faithful black members, but most were poor. Helvecio probably had the highest social position and prestige of any Brazilian member, white or black. Few members had any political or economic influence, while Martins was on a first-name basis with the president of Brazil. He met often with cabinet members and other government officials or groups about the priesthood ban. They also gave interviews to the press who were curious about the restrictions and about the Martinses’ acceptance of those limitations.

Helvecio spoke in stake conference shortly after his baptism and was introduced to all the General Authorities who visited Rio de Janeiro, including several apostles. His visibility was so extensive that his colleagues at work started referring to him as a “Mormon bishop.”

None of Helvecio’s reaction was artificial or compensatory. “I didn’t feel bad, I felt very good,” he states with the utmost sincerity. “I felt supported and blessed. Logically I realized there were many things I could have done and many ways I could have served that [were] not possible because I didn’t hold the priesthood. But I didn’t feel any less or inferior or rejected or relegated to a second-class citizen. Everybody supported me, everybody helped and assisted me, and I felt that things were even a bit easy for me.” (38)

Grover discusses Martins advantages growing up in Brazil. From page 43,

He did not see the priesthood restrictions as aimed at him personally but rather to a group of which he was part. That is an important psychological factor that meant he did not take the restrictions personally. Second, because he lived in Brazil, he did not have access to much of the literature in the United States giving various unofficial “reasons” that could have created confusion and conflict. This lack of information probably helped eliminate many potential concerns, and he could reconcile himself to the restrictions with what he knew.15

Third, the restrictions did not significantly affect his participation in the Church. Some Afro-Brazilians in Brazil report being baptized and then forgotten; but Helvecio’s leaders recognized and respected his status and experience outside of the Church. Within a week, both were immediately called to positions that did not require priesthood. Helvecio became teacher of the Gospel Doctrine class, while Ruda served as a counselor in the ward Primary presidency. Such callings quickly integrated them into the fabric of their ward and stake, giving them considerable interaction with the other members.

Finally, he was in a Brazilian congregation that did not exhibit the forms of racism that might have existed elsewhere, even in Brazil. Most in the congregation probably did not attach much significance to the racial restrictions except as an American practice that came with the gospel but was not essentially Brazilian. Most Brazilians dealt with the restrictions by ignoring them as much as possible.

Martins served in many positions, including Public Relations Director, stake executive secretary, and counselor in two stake presidencies, bishop, and mission president (twice). At the end of this second stint as mission president, he was called to the Second Quorum of Seventy in 1990. From page 47,

After a year in Brazil, he suffered a serious accident in June 1991. He fell in the shower and needed surgery on his neck to correct the effects of a fall in the shower and needed surgery on his neck to correct the effects of the fall and an earlier injury from a car crash in 1969. That surgery affected his ability to move, and he struggled to maintain his health. He continued to work hard through suffering chronic back pain. In October 1995 at age sixty-five, he was released after five years as a Seventy.”

Grover notes that Martins is “remembered only sparingly in connection to the black issue.” From page 48,

Although I think that knowing Elder Martins would greatly enhance anyone’s life, this comparative anonymity would actually please him. The last thing he wanted to be known as a symbol of his race. He stated firmly to me: “Soon after my call, some poorly informed people ironically tried to identify me as the Brazilian General Authority, or a representative of the black race to the Lord. This idea is a mistake. I was not called by the Lord to represent any people, nationality, ethnic group, race, or any part of society or group of His children. I was called as a representative of the Lord to his people, just as those who preceded me, those at my side now, and those in higher Quorums than the idea of one I now am a member….Consequently I formally reject the idea of representing any group; that is not what I am.” (76).

Finally, I enjoyed what Grover wrote about race issues. From page 51,

Much has been written about Mormonism and race issues in the United States with minimal reference to South America or the Caribbean. Brazil has by far the largest number of members of the Church (hundreds of thousands) who are black. A high percentage of some congregations are of African descent.34

Numerous black bishops and stake presidents are serving and have served. Research that discusses race in the Church but which does not examine what is happening in Brazil, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Columbia, or other areas of Latin America, let alone Africa, will not be accurate. Focusing only on African Americans seriously distorts the overall picture of blacks in the church.35

So, do you agree that we have a distorted view of blacks in the church?

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13 comments on “Helvecio Martins: First Black General Authority

  1. What comes across is the ties to culture in or out of the church. Where whiteness mattered, people wanted their daughter to raise status by marrying “lighter”. When access to secular authorities was important, that became more important than access to priesthood. And so on. Very human.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for the writeup. I agree with you that the USA-centric view of Mormon Studies scholarship frequently distorts otherwise very good representations of the church.

  3. Regardless of whether the view is distorted or not, one thing is for sure…the Priesthood ban is a SAD, unfounded chapter in LDS history.

  4. Thanks for comments all. I agree that the priesthood ban is a sad chapter in LDS history. At the same time, I have the utmost respect for Elder Martins. He really was a sort of Jackie Robinson in the church, without the acclaim.

  5. Did the book address his children at all? Where they dark-skinned or more mulatto? Not that this matters at all, I’m just curious. Also, if he had children, are they LDS?

  6. Taken from LDS Church News:

    The Martins family, including his wife, Ruda Tourinho de Assis Martins, and their four children, joined the Church in 1972. His first question to the missionaries was, “Are you racist?” The missionaries taught the Martins family. The entire family was baptized together, including son Marcus, now Religion Department Chairman at BYU-Hawaii, who, after the revelation on the priesthood, postponed marriage to serve a full-time mission.

  7. His younger son served a mission in our area, and he was one of the blackest people I have ever met. Very dark skinned.

    I don’t know about the other children, and this is one of the fun and challenging things about living in Brasil, where even in the same family there would be all range of skin and hair color….children would be passed from hand to hand during sacrament meeting, and we couldn’t easily tell who belonged to whom:)

  8. I took Book of Mormon from Marcus Martins at Ricks College after my mission. I loved the class. I interviewed him about the ban on the 20th anniversary of the lifting for the school paper. I started out by asking him what the reason was for the ban. He gave me a one word answer. Racism.

  9. I understand marcus martins has written a book about the priesthood ban. it is in my ‘to read’ list.

  10. I don’t think there’s any doubt the ban was a result of racism. Marcus is to be commended for being able to look past that. My hat is off to him.

  11. “Racism” it certainly was—exhibited by those allegedly weren’t to lead us astray.

  12. @Bishop Rick

    I came to this page “by accident”, but I need to clarify a few things. I knew the Martins’ really well. We were neighbors in Brazil and after I moved to the US he and his wife visited our home and we traveled together around Utah. He was one of the reasons I searched the LDS Church’s ideas and ultimately joined it. All of Helvecio’s children were and are very active. I was on my mission for six months when Marcus Helvecio Martins (Brother Martins oldest son) wrote me a letter saying that soon after the revelation about priesthood extended that blessing to ALL male faithful members, he decided to postpone his wedding (planned for 2 months after that day) and serve a mission. He served in the same mission where I was serving, and after his mission married the same girl. Marcus is dark skinned like his father, and his wife has much lighter skin. I never cared to ask her if he had black descendents or not because Brazilians (like me) usually don’t care about race and skin color is as important as hair or eye color. Just a characteristic that makes us different. What you see as racism I see as the right of the Church (or any church) to create or change laws. When other churches change basic doctrines like whether children go to hell or heaven or someplace in-between, there is no criticism about it. And not believing in “revelation” they can’t even play that card. Still, I believe that a church is a private body and like any institution (Boy Scouts, American Cancer Society, Religious groups, etc) they have their rules and the right to stick to it. Why does Boy Scouts ban gays? Why the American Cancer Society doesn’t run events helping other diseases, like MS for example? The point is: If I don’t like their rules, I just don’t join them. Can we (more specifically, you) live with that? I hope so, because it would bring us more peace and understanding for organizations we don’t belong to. We claim the right to worship our way and allow others to worship any way they want if they want. But when we attach other groups just for the fun of it… it sickens me.

  13. Thank you for the excerpts from Helvecio’s biography. I will look to read the whole thing. His autobiography was wonderful. I lived next door to his son Marcus in Hawaii and had a wonderful visit with Helvecio on a trip he made once to Hawaii.

    I agree that the reason the exclusion stayed in place as long as it did was because of raciam. Apart from a number of individuals, George Romney, Lowell Bennion, David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball come to mind, who were not racists, too many members of the Church were, and some still are. I can see that the Church is taking the right course by reinforcing our need to love all of our members equally and to treat our black brothers and sisters as children of God, as we would wish them to treat us.

    Has God, because of racism and prejudice, ever either allowed or mandated any policy that discriminated against a group because of the racism of the dominant group? What of Jesus’ direction (Matthew 10: 5-6) to preach initially only to the house of Israel? Did he give this direction because he loved the Samaritans and Gentiles less or because they were less worthy? If anything the Jews at the time, even the apostles at time were included, were not good examples of tolerance and love. Jesus always treated Samaritans and Gentiles with love and acceptance but not the early Saints for quite some time. God’s purpose, though, is to help us, like the non-blacks of today, to develop that love which will allow complete and total acceptance of all as equals.

    I hope my fellow members who have difficulties with prejudice will come as we should to be filled with the love of God toward all races and groups.

    Phillip Smith

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