Current Race Relations Within the LDS Church

Armand Mauss is an LDS sociologist from Washington State University.  He wrote a chapter in the book Black and Mormon, where he discusses race relations within the church.  He has both positive and negative things to say about race relations.  I’ll start with the positive.  Mauss notes that the LDS church has been involved in the national celebration of Black History month each February.  He notes several meetings in conjunction with Black History Month held in LDS churches in Salt Lake City, Oakland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, DC (to name a few.)  Prominent LDS speakers such as apostle Dallin Oaks and Yoshihiko Kikuchi (First Quorum of Seventy) have spoken at these events.

The church has also tried to reach out to black community leaders.  Following the 1992 LA riots (after the Rodney King verdict), Mauss notes on page 89,

A few leading Mormons in the immediate vicinity and nearby launched a campaign to bring relief to the south-central inner city.  The effort went forward under the auspices and initiative especially of the presidents in the Palos Verdes and the Los Angeles stakes.  While much of the city was still smoldering, a series of Mormon car and truck caravans began delivering food and other supplies to the First AME and Mount Zion churches from Mormon congregations in neighboring stakes.  The campaign went on for several days, including a Sunday when some of the LDS congregations even canceled their usual meetings in order to collect and distribute supplies.

The AME pastor, the Reverend Cecil Murray, had heard little about Mormons except their traditional racial doctrines; but he was apparently so gratified that he gave a public pronouncement encouraging people in the vicinity to talk with the local Mormon missionaries, who had theretofore been largely ignored or even threatened.  This episode established an ongoing religious and social relationship between the First AME Church and the local LDS stakes that was still active at least a decade later, when a Latter-day Saint apostle was invited on behalf of the LDS Church president, this congregation’s Lovejoy Award, in recognition of the outreach efforts by local Mormons during recent years.

Murray and other local black leaders apparently also intervened with Tom Bradley, then the black mayor of Los Angeles, to get his help in ending a six-year delay in the issuance of a building permit for a  Mormon stake center in the area.  The construction of the new stake center, in turn, pumped twelve million dollars worth of jobs and goods into the economy of South Central.  Local Mormon leaders believe that the goodwill of black religious leaders such as Murray has also been responsible for protecting the new stake center against vandalism and for opening doors to Mormon missionaries.  During Black History Month in February 2002, that same stake center served as a site of a large conference on genealogical research for black Americans, sponsored jointly by the LDS Church, the African American Heritage Society, and the California African American Genealogical Society.

Mauss highlights other noteworthy projects.  The church helped assemble electronic records of the Freedman Bank, (from page 93), “a Reconstruction-era institution that had gone defunct in 1874 but had left behind the banking records of thousands of freed slaves.”  This project was well-received by the black community, though there was a testy moment at a news conference.  Mauss notes on page 93,

one of the reporters in attendance asked whether this project and the attendant publicity were offered as part of a church gesture of conciliation to the nation’s black people in light of traditional racist doctrines.  The church public relations official in charge bridled at the question and offered a rather abrupt response.  Fortunately for the Public Affairs Department, a skilled church authority was present from the Seventy and intervened with a much less defensive and more appreciative response to the reporter.44

Mauss discusses how the church attempts to handle different different situations regarding race.  From page 103,

the church has tried in various ways to emphasize the positive and beneficial effects of its program in the lives of black people.  Where this objective can be achieved without reminding anyone of earlier priesthood policies (e.g., in various outreach efforts through genealogy or humanitarian efforts in Africa), the church as an institution has sought to be identified as closely as possible with such efforts.  On the other hand, wherever the embarrassing past is likely to be suggested in any celebration or commemoration, the church has generally preferred to see that these events take place under direction less closely connected to the church hierarchy.  Tacit support has nevertheless often been given by sending a church official as an observer or speaker, but not to conduct the event.

The church has often been seen as a white church, and it can be hard for blacks to fit in.  On page 84, Mauss notes,

A major drive during the early 1980s by the Mormon mission in North Carolina brought in some nine hundred black converts, but a few years later only a hundred remained active in the church.13 The president of the California mission in Oakland during 1983-1985 gave special proselyting attention to the large black population in that area, and his missionaries succeeded in baptizing nine-three new black members, constituting 5 percent of all the converts in the mission during that period.14 … This level of growth and enthusiasm did not not long survive the normal change of mission presidents, but several black families went on to gain some prominence in local Mormon congregations.15 … Temporary surges in missionary success with black Americans elsewhere have often been reported anecdotally.

Mauss has interviewed many black church members, and has pulled information from the Oral History Program of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU.  While these samples can’t be considered “random samples” where large conclusions can be drawn, Mauss notes several reasons why blacks don’t stay active in the church on page 86, (formatting changed)

  • These reasons included (in no particular order) discomfort over class and cultural differences with white Mormons in most congregations;
  • feelings of being treated categorically as blacks instead of as individuals;
  • exaggerated attention as “novelties” of some kind in their treatment by whites;
  • continuing undercurrents of racism in such LDS popular beliefs as the curse of Cain;
  • white resistance to intermarriage or even to interracial dating;
  • and in general a level of white acceptance that was considered civil but not warm.

At the same time, the black interviewees recognized that these difficulties were the kinds that tended to occur between blacks and whites in America generally, not just in LDS Congregations.

One black couple in Riverside, California, reported that their children had dropped out of the church because of teasing by their white peers about their supposed descent from Cain.23

Some irritants came out of sheer insensitivity, such as the occasion reported by Marva Collins when her ward Relief Society sisters decided to raise funds through a “slave auction,” in which members would perform household tasks for the highest bidders.  The women were totally oblivious to the impact of such an idea on their only black member.24

… [page 87]

While these accounts of life in the church for new black converts contained much that was reassuring and inspirational, the recurring problems with white ignorance and insensitivity were also readily apparent, even among those still active in the church.  Indeed, the president of the Genesis Group was quoted in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune as saying that the single most important reason for the attrition of black members was the attitude of some white members.25 Whatever the number of those offended enough to drop out, their departure would be understandable and presumably a source of great concern to church leaders from the top down.  So far, however, this official concern has focused less on challenging the racist residue among white Mormons than on maintaining public relations outside the church.

Many blacks are aware of the priesthood ban.  Mauss summarizes some studies done by sociologist about this issue.  From pages 98-99,

How does a black member of the LDS Church negotiate an identity that manages the cognitive dissonance between an ethnic or racial definition that he or she can’t escape and a demeaning religious tradition that he or she was once encouraged to accept in the process of conversion?  As we might expect, this negotiation yields different resolutions for different black Mormons.58

Fortunately this task was undertaken by two sociologists, O. Kendall White Jr. and Daryl White.59 They studied the Embry-Cherry interview transcripts and abstracted five different modes of identity negotiation that emerged in those interviews, as the black Mormon respondents articulated the relationship between their racial and religious identities…  The five different modes seemed to arrange themselves along a conceptual continuum.  At one end of the continuum were respondents who gave precedence to their newly found Mormon identity over their racial one, and at the other end were those who did the opposite.  In between were different combinations of racial and religious explanations for the identities that black Mormons embraced in their relationship to God and to the church.

(formatting changed)

  1. The first type of identity resolution embraced the truth-claims of Mormonism while recognizing the traditional racial ideology that seemed to go with it.  The erstwhile denial of the priesthood for blacks was explained as a lack of historic or even moral readiness on the parts of blacks themselves and their supposed ancestors back to Cain or Ham rather than as any error in the church.  This mode was especially common among black Mormons who had joined the church in earlier years, while the priesthood restriction was still in force.
  2. The second type of identity resolution also gave precedence to the Mormon religious identity, while explaining the traditional racial ideas and policies as simply a great quandary, one which all would understand some time in the hereafter but that should not be allowed in the meanwhile to keep anyone from the true faith.
  3. The third mode called for relegating all racial issues in the church to the past.  Whether the traditional teachings had a divine or human origin was no longer relevant, and nothing was to be gained by hashing it over.  The main thing these black Mormons wanted to do was to assert their own new identities as members of the true church and look to the future rather than to the past.  Black Mormons assuming this posture, such as the oral history interviewee Marva Collins, were, in effect, validating the public comments of church leaders, especially President Hinckley, about the need to forget the past.60

The fourth and fifth modes, while still embracing a Mormon identity, put the responsibility for the traditional racist teachings entirely on the whites.

    4.  In the fourth mode, the explanation was that the church had simply allowed human error to influence church policy, because of political compromises (in Missouri or Utah) or because of the need to mollify a few slave-owning converts. Black Mormons taking this position, even if they had joined the church before the priesthood policy change, always looked upon the racist elements in Mormonism as imported from the outside, never part of the true gospel, and certain to be changed eventually.  Interestingly enough, this was the posture taken, in the Embry-Cherry oral histories, by some of the most prominient black Mormons from the pre-1978 period.  These included Ruffin Bridgeforth, founding leader of the Salt Lake City Genesis Group; Catherine M. Stokes, of Chicago; and Cleeretta Smiley, of Washington, D.C.  Smiley candidly characterized the traditional Mormon racial teachings as “damnable heresies.”61
    5.  Finally, the fifth mode reversed the moral positions of whites and blacks with the argument that blacks had been denied the priesthood all those years because God knew that whites were not morally and spiritually ready to accept black members into full fellowship.  This position carried the implication that the blacks had demonstrated superior moral strength through their patience and forgiveness.62 In transferring the burden of responsibility for racist teachings and policies to whites, the fourth and fifth modes maintained a positive identity for blacks while still embracing completely the Mormon religion and identity.

There was  very interesting story about a proposal for the church to make a public repudiation of the priesthood ban, and for the church to send a message about folklore associated with the ban.  From pages 90-92,

The news report about the impending repudiation first appears in a Los Angeles Times article on May 18, 1998, and was carried around the world in vaious media.35 However, when confronted by the press at a news conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley denied the report, saying that “the matter…has not been discussed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.”  True though that denial apparently was, the repudiation in question definitely was under discussion at lower organizational levels; and thereby hangs a tale.36

As recounted by Richard and Joan Ostling, the need for such a public repudiation had become apparent to Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a president of the third-ranked body of general authorities, the First Quorum of Seventy, and to some of the staff working under him in the church’s Public Affairs Department.37 The discussions at Jensen’s level, however, had apparently not yet produced any specific proposal for consideration by the Twelve at the time of Hinckley’s comments to the press.  The main issue in question was the racist [page 99] residue remaining in authoritative books written by prominent Mormons leaders of the past.  These books (listed above earlier), some of them considered doctrinal “classics” among grassroots Mormons, had continued in print under church auspices long after the end of the priesthood restriction that had been “solved” in 1978, simply by the change in priesthood policy.

The twentieth anniversary of the end of the priesthood restriction seemed an especially propitious time to expect an announcement of such a disavowal.  However, when June 1998 approached with no indication that such a statement would be forthcoming, the black member of the ad hoc committee, who had initiated the process in the first place, became impatient.  In the apparent belief that the process could be accelerated with a little encouragement from the press, he sought and received an interview with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times and explained what had transpired.  The resulting press exposure had just the opposite of the desired effect, as church leaders refused to be prodded in their deliberations.  The whole process was thereby aborted, and the “disavowal” that Hinckley finally issued turned out to be nothing more than a denial that he was considering any such disavowal.39 The rest of the ad hoc committee was chagrined and irritated that one of its own members had leaked the story to the media, and Jensen presumably suffered some embarrassment at the raised eyebrows of some of his superiors.

Mauss finishes a few loose ends of that story, and then ends the chapter with a discussion on how to deal with this idea that the priesthood ban is based on “folklore”.  He discusses why it is so hard to get rid of.  From page 106,

To repudiate any of the cherished religious lore of their immediate ancestors seems to some Mormons, especially the older ones, almost like a repudiation of the grandparents themselves, to say nothing of their teachers, who might have walked with God.

He goes on to discuss the 1978 revelation on page 107,

Thus, when the priesthood restriction policy was dropped in 1978, this change was not portrayed as an actual reversal, since several earlier church leaders had predicted it would happen.  (Of course, several others, including Brigham Young predicted it would never happen.)  Even with the earlier abolition of polygamy, the practice was only “suspended” and could be restored at any time, since the theological basis was left intact.  This myth of continuity has the important function of validating the traditional claim of continuous revelation (which is canonical) and protecting the church against the charge of purely pragmatic and expedient change.

The second cherished organizational myth is related to the first: the myth of history as time-filtered–the organizational equivalent of the old adage that “time heals all wounds”–and similarly dubious ideas.  This myth is typically accompanied by an organizational posture of benign and selective forgetfulness.  Thus, if the church progresses in a continuous, linear path by divine guidance, then contemporary realities and understandings replace those from the past, which will eventually be forgotten.  Obsolete ideas and practices simply don’t count any more, even if they originated as divine revelations.  Where discrepancies appear between the present and the past, there is no point in reminding ourselves about the past.  Especially if an event in the past is embarrassing, then recalling it and dwelling on it, even if only to repudiate it, merely confuses the matter.  Such negative thinking has no place in the Lord’s kingdom.  If harm has resulted from earlier ways of thinking, then everyone involved should forgive everyone else and get on with construction a better future.  Apologies or ringing declarations of disavowal should not be necessary, since few peoples or individuals have histories free of offenses against others, and thus few are in a position to demand apologies.  With time, memories of these offenses will fade automatically, and we will all be better for it.  Meanwhile, if we have not made the requisite changes, let’s not stir up useless and uncomfortable old memories.

Mauss continues on this track, but I’ll stop here.  I thought it might be interesting to conclude with a poll about the ban itself, and I will pull the 5 responses from black members about the ban.  What do you make of the ban?  What do you make of the folklore? What do you think of Elder Jensen?

[poll id=”12″]


16 comments on “Current Race Relations Within the LDS Church

  1. I’ve heard it said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. I live in a large Midwest city where almost every neighborhood is segregated. My neighborhood is almost 100% white. Four blocks away, everyone is black. The rest of the city (with just a few exceptions) is the same. I have a friend who married an African, and they had a hard time finding a neighborhood in the city where both of them felt comfortable.

    The make-up of my ward’s church meetings is probably 10% black. The other family ward that attends our building has a similar make-up. That makes our ward more diverse than 90% of the city (which is pretty sad, actually).

    I think the biggest hardship for many blacks in our church is the culture. They’re used to worshiping in vastly different ways than we are, and they are used to interacting with each other in different ways. So not only are they attending a church where they’re a distinct minority, but they’re also becoming involved in an unfamiliar culture. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I think we do need to solve it somehow.

    And yes, even though I don’t think our racist past is necessarily our biggest barrier in attracting black members, it is something we need to apologize for. Maybe it’s a timing issue, and we just need to wait for one or two more members of the 12 to be replaced.

  2. Wow. This is an incredible post and the work done by Brother Mauss is priceless. As a gay man living the Law of Celibacy and waiting for the further light and knowledge from the Prophet concerning my orientation, I find many of the insights, explanations and justifications relating to the cognitive dissonance piercing to my heart. While the struggles may not be the same between the blacks and gays, the thought process in dealing with an unwelcome culture, misperceptions by the members, perpetuation of untruths, and justification of the condescension really hit home. It goes to show how much further we need improve mentally to unconditionally accept everyone under the umbrella of the Restored Gospel.

    I found it interesting that the older members of the church felt that any repudiation of the ban ascribing human error or pure racist thoughts to the original perpetrators of the ban was a repudiation of their ancestors entirely. What can we make of their inability to separate the value of an ancestor as an individual from the ancestor’s teachings or beliefs?

    Our ward here in Florida is such a diverse mix of those of European, South American, Caribbean, Black, and African nationalities as well as those Southern members who refute any allusion to heritage and label themselves merely “American”. The latter make it very interesting when having a discussion of family history as they only recognize their US ancestors as their primary identity.

  3. Elder Jensen is a treasure who will be remembered by future generations as such–and not only for his efforts to confront this issue honestly. Are there any other such clear thinkers to replace him when he is gone?

  4. He is the Hugh B. Brown of our day.

  5. Some irritants came out of sheer insensitivity, such as the occasion reported by Marva Collins when her ward Relief Society sisters decided to raise funds through a “slave auction,” in which members would perform household tasks for the highest bidders. The women were totally oblivious to the impact of such an idea on their only black member.


    I can’t even think of what to say about this. I’m speechless.

  6. Tim, you’re right. The problems of race relations are in almost every Christian church in America. I will say that one of the other chapters in the book talked about the Atlanta ward, and said the race relations were excellent, and it was a very integrated ward. I agree that an apology would be really nice.

    Michael, that sounds like a really interesting ward. I’ve never been in a ward like that.

    MAT, I met Elder Jensen at the Mormon History Association meetings last summer. He is a truly classy individual.

    Philomytha, yes, the insensitivity of members is amazing.

    Randall, interesting link at Deadspin. The amazon link is at the beginning of the post. I’ve heard Darron on a Mormon Stories podcast. He is pretty interesting, and I feel bad about what happened to him at BYU.

  7. @philomytha

    I think things like this are usually exaggerated in their outrage when viewed in retrospect.

    I bad idea? Without doubt. But did they call it a “slave auction” at the time, or is that a label that was applied to it after the fact?

    Of course, if it was called a “slave auction” at the time, that is despicable.

  8. Wet blanket–yes it was called a “slave auction.” What gives you the idea that it wasn’t? Are you saying Marva was lying?

    There are other recent problems with racial insensitivity in Utah. Last month, a student at Alta High School dressed up as a Ku Klux Klan member in an assembly. When he wrote how funny it was on his Facebook page, he not only was suspended, but the Principal “retired” and the assistant principal was reassigned to another high school.

    The student claims it wasn’t racially motivated, but it is absolute sheer stupidity to think that this is funny. To quote Mauss, these types of incidents show “sheer insensitivity”. I don’t know where Marva Collins lives, but I do know that in Utah, because there are so few blacks, there is a lot of “sheer insensitivity” with regards to race relations, as the Alta High School incident indicates.

  9. In response to the poll:

    “I don’t know.” But it’s not a quandary to me, anymore than the entire Old Testament is a quandary to me. Hagar and Ishmael; all those battles between the children of Israel and everyone else; Alma and Amulek watching unbelievers murder the believers; etc., etc., etc. I think God does all kinds of things that seem crazy to me.

  10. I think it is pure human error and a shame that for so many years we allowed this to happen. I remember reading somewhere that many years before the ban on blacks and priesthood was lifted, the majority of apostles wanted it to pass. However, due to the fact that the decision needed to be unanimous, they had to wait until all apostles overcame their prejudices and now the church is still suffering reprocussions.

  11. I voted for the “racist elements were imported”, but if I could, I would’ve modified it slightly by saying “human error on the part of Brigham Young and other early church leaders, as well as continued error perpetuation by subsequent general authorities, and the systemic, folkloric, and doctrinal inability of the church to disavow or apologize for mistakes, are to blame.” But, that’s probably too long of answer and would’ve swayed the vote too much. In true or false tests, I was always instructed to find the longest answer, that one was usually true, because truth takes much longer to explain than falsehoods.

  12. Angie, I think humans interpret God incorrectly. I agree with you that some of these scriptural interpretations make God seem crazy. Grace For Grace–good to see you! I agree that some apostles needed to die before this change was implemented. Kevin, I thought about making longer responses, but I wanted to make the quiz readable. 😉

  13. Another great read. I believe that the Bible has been interpreted incorrectly for years and has led to many problems within the Mormon church (and other Christian faiths) with regards to race-relations. And, this misinterpretations trickle out into our daily lives and into our communities. Growing up in Hawaii, of course the make-up of the wards here are very diverse, because the cultural landscape here. Still, many ethnic groups have sought to have their own wards in the name of “comfort.”

  14. I think the best explanation is that the inventor of the Mormon religion was also racist. Lets not sugar coat the reality of the world. We are all fallible human beings after all and we have done some very morbid things with depraved indifference. At least I am willing to admit that

  15. Joseph Smith certainly had faults, but I’m not aware of any evidence for racism.

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