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Mandela Elevated; Brigham Thrown Under the Bus

Racial issues were prominent this past weekend.  Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95.  He was universally praised by both republicans and democrats.    Harry Reid tweeted

In a way, Mandela was both the “George Washington” and “Abraham Lincoln” of his country. We’re so fortunate to have lived in his time.

John Boehner tweeted,

Mandela led his country with a quiet moral authority that directed his own path from prisoner to president.

But Mandela wasn’t always so universally praised.  He helped found the African National Congress which worked with the South African Communist Party to overthrow the government of South Africa.  He was convicted of sabotage in 1962.  The Washington Post reports that,

the African National Committee, which Mandela chaired, was peppered with members of the South African Communist Party. Even worse in the eyes of the Reagan Administration was the ANC’s apparent friendliness toward Moscow: The ANC’s secretary general, Alfred Nzo, bore greetings to the Soviet communist party congress in 1986. That was enough to inspire Reagan to accuse the ANC of encouraging communism in a 1986 policy speech, and to rule that South Africa had no obligation to negotiate with a group bent on “creating a communist state.”

The Reagan administration wasn’t alone in this fear, either — Margaret Thatcher’s conservative regime in Britain shared Reagan’s “constructive engagement,” anti-sanctions views regarding South Africa.

Mandela was finally released from jail in 1990, and became the country’s first black president from 1994-1999.  Yet these bombings from the 1960s continued to put him on the terrorist watch list of the United States.  He wasn’t removed from that list until 2008.  Mandela’s ties to violence and communism certainly make his past quite checkered, despite the universal praise heaped upon his at his death.  His association with communism is a bit strange; as president, he acted with democratic, rather than communistic principles, hence the near universal adulation at his death.

But he’s not the only one with a checkered past to make racial news this weekend.  With little fanfare, the LDS Church published a new entry on their website:  Race and the Priesthood.  Many people have called for the church to come clean with the priesthood/temple ban, so that people like Randy Bott don’t continue to promote racist justifications for the ban.  Following Bott’s remarks published in the Washington Post on Feb 28, 2012, the Mormon Newsroom asserted that

“For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago.”

While many were pleased that the church immediately issued a statement condemning Bott’s remarks, the church still wasn’t coming clean on the reasons for the ban.  On Friday, it should be celebrated that the church went along way toward’s clarifying the church’s history, and they laid the blame squarely at Brigham Young’s feet.

During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.

At last they’ve answered “when” the ban happened, as well as repudiated both the Curse of Cain and Pre-mortal explanations.

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.23

Why did the ban happen?  It seems that they blame it on U.S. culture.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege. In 1790, the U.S. Congress limited citizenship to “free white person[s].”4 Over the next half century, issues of race divided the country—while slave labor was legal in the more agrarian South, it was eventually banned in the more urbanized North. Even so, racial discrimination was widespread in the North as well as the South, and many states implemented laws banning interracial marriage.5 In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that blacks possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”6 A generation after the Civil War (1861–65) led to the end of slavery in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional, a decision that legalized a host of public color barriers until the Court reversed itself in 1954.7

In 1850, the U.S. Congress created Utah Territory, and the U.S. president appointed Brigham Young to the position of territorial governor. Southerners who had converted to the Church and migrated to Utah with their slaves raised the question of slavery’s legal status in the territory. In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.8

The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.9 According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel.10 Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin. Black servitude was sometimes viewed as a second curse placed upon Noah’s grandson Canaan as a result of Ham’s indiscretion toward his father.11 Although slavery was not a significant factor in Utah’s economy and was soon abolished, the restriction on priesthood ordinations remained.

It’s nice that they have finally explained ” why, how, or when this restriction began”, and have repudiated all forms of racism.  Maybe, like Nelson Mandela, these checkered parts of the past can be forgiven and the praise heaped upon Mandela can be heaped upon the church for finally coming clean with regards to this episode of the past.  Comments


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