The Mormon Church & Blacks

February is Black History Month.  I recently finished Matthew Harris & Newel Bringhurst’s most recent book, The Mormon Church & Blacks:  A Documentary History.  The black priesthood ban has been a pet topic of mine; I have written nearly 60 posts on the topic over the past 8 years.

For me, this has been one of the shorter books I usually read–less than 150 pages.  In chapter 1, Harris and Bringhurst detail the scriptures from the Books of Mormon and Abraham that many of you are familiar with.  Chapter 2 discusses documents relating to church history from 1830-44.  Some of the interesting documents include the newspaper article that ignited riots in Missouri in 1833, forcing Mormons to leave Jackson County Missouri.  WW Phelps published an article “Free People of Color” in the Mormon newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star.  Missouri mobs claimed the article amounted to “tampering” with slaves.

Among other items, Chapter 2 also shows Elijah Abel’s Patriarchal Blessing, in which the black man was acknowledged to have the priesthood, and was an “orphan” of the lost tribes of Israel, as well as Joseph Smith’s presidential platform in which he proposed freeing all slaves by compensating slave owners through the sale of public lands.

Chapter 3 primarily details Brigham Young’s legislative efforts in which he pushed the Utah legislature to legalize slavery under the euphemism of “service”, as well as his famous speech referring to the Curse of Ham, and an interview with Horace Greeley, the famous New York journalist.

Chapter 4 covers the time period of 1877-1949, and covers several of Jane Manning James letters asking the First Presidency for the sealing ordinance.  She asked to be sealed to Walker Lewis, as well as to be sealed to Joseph and Emma.  As a compromise, she was eventually sealed by proxy to Joseph and Emma as a servant during her lifetime as a white sister participated in the sealing ordinance in her place.

Also of note was Zebedee Coltrin’s false 1879 assertion that Joseph had stated blacks could not be ordained in 1834.  Yet Joseph F. Smith produced conflicting evidence, including Elijah Abel’s mnuch later priesthood ordinations, and noted that Coltrin had washed and anointed Abel in the Kirtland Temple just prior to 1840.  Coltrin still claimed that Abel had been ordained in error.  The Quorum of Twelve in reconciling Coltrin’s conflicting accounts, decided that Abel had “been ordained before the word of the Lord was fully understood.”  Two publications came during this time period which justified the ban:  “The Negro and the Priesthood” was published in Liahona:  The Elders Journal in 1908, as well as Joseph Fielding Smith’s book Way to Perfection in 1931.

Chapter 5 starts out discussing President David O. McKay’s experiences in South Africa regarding the ban.  The church had trouble ordaining men because they had to prove they had no “black blood” in their genealogy, even those who appeared white.  (The church was also concerned that blood donated by blacks in the US could literally contaminate white members.)  The chapter also includes the 1949 First Presidency statement that blamed the ban on pre-mortal actions of blacks who were not valiant.  This view that blacks were cursed from the priesthood and temple was confirmed by a 1954 Mark E. Peterson speech, as well as the 1958 publication of Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, a Seventy at the time.  Many of the details of the 1960s were fascinating, as the chapter dealt with civil rights issues as well.

David Gillespie, a black member of the church, wrote a touching letter to President McKay, that seems very similar to the issues surrounding us today.  With the ban still in place, Gillespie (an Eagle Scout) wrote of his disappointment as a teen not being able to participate in Aaronic Priesthood activities with his peers.  He felt feelings of bitterness when he could not give his child a name and a blessing, and could not bless his family when they were sick, especially when his second child died of a serious illness.  He noted that white members “were sealed in the Temple and their children were sealed to them.  Since our marriage will dissolve when we die, we’ll not have need for children and our family life.”  Gillespie’s 1967 letter continues,

I find myself on my knees, again and again, asking God to free my soul from this canker.  But it persists.  I see others who have recently been baptized into the Church, and after a few short weeks receive the Priesthood….Men who have been indifferent to the Church, men who have had their nasty little jokes about the Word of Wisdom, about Tithing, and many of the things that have meant so much to me…Now, I see these men suddenly so swept up in a wave of religious revival that after twelve short weeks of special lessons are to be given the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood and take their children and wives to the Temple where they will be endowed and sealed.  This, in spite of my faithfulness, I am denied.

After a few more paragraphs, Gillespie concludes with the question, “is this the will of God or the will of man?”

In introducing the letter, the editors note that

A. Hamer Reiser, the First Presidency secretary, also reached out to Gillespie, acknowledging receipt of the letter to President McKay but also to express his “deep respect” for the “valiancy” and “faith” of black people in the church.”

I feel that a similar situation is arising today with justifications like Elder Christofferson’s recent statement that “nothing is lost” for children gay members who won’t be baptized or ordained.  Certainly these children will feel the sting that Gillespie felt, and to deny this is beyond comprehensibility to me.

In reacting to the great inactivity of black church members, when Joseph Fielding Smith became president in 1970, he organized the Genesis Group, a group to promote activity among black church members in Salt Lake County.  The chapter concludes with notes from Michael Marquardt’s notes of an interview with Eugene Orr, a charter member of the Genesis Group.  Orr noted “Through baptism your sins are remitted and yet you are told that you have a sin which was not remitted which was committed before earth life.”  I guess it’s strange to me that church leaders denied both the atonement of Christ, as well as baptism’s power to wash away all sins with the black ban.

Chapters 6-7 detail events from 1978 onward.  Most fascinating to me was some events in 1998 of which I was not familiar.  David Jackson, in researching a talk on blacks and the church, discovered the unsettling words of Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine, which was still being published as late as 2010.  He was so concerned that he wrote President Hinckley a letter in 1995, asking for a statement to

“handle this type of problem.  I have drafted the following:


(To be added to the next printing of the Doctrine and Covenants)

To Whom It May Concern:

I therefore, as president of teh Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges of practicing or teaching racism are false.  we are not teaching racism through our scriptures nor permitting any person to enter into this practice.  Some cases have been reported in which the parties allege that racism was taught in the scriptures were interpreted negative to people of African descent.  There is nothing in my teaching to the Church that employs racism to any people of color based on racial characteristics of any kind to spiritual conditions or spiritual worthiness in this life or in the preexistence.  {italics in original}

I believe this letter contains the work of the Lord in these latter days, please set the member of the Church free from this racist stigma so we can work together in God’s great kingdom for the salvation of all….

The editors, in introducing the letter, gave some fascinating details.

Hinckley did not respond directly to Jackson, but in a letter to Jackson’s bishop, a letter which Jackson himself was not allowed to read.  Jackson was offended.  The bishop, Sterling Brennan, asked Jackson if he could read Hinckley’s letter to him, but Jackson refused.  His position “was not to let anyone read something to me that I could not receive a copy of.”  Nevertheless, Jackson’s bishop later summarized the contents of the letter, in which Hinckley insisted that the church’s doctrine’s were devoid of racism.  The matter did not end there.  Gladwell {Jackson’s home teacher}, with Jackson’s encouragement, contacted an acquaintance from law school, Marlin Jensen, of the First Quorum of Seventy who also oversaw the public affairs department of the church.

The editors then summarize a series of meetings among Jensen, Armand Mauss, Bill Evans of the LDS public affairs, and others in which Jensen would use “as a basis for a formal proposal to be sent through channels to the First Presidency.”  Mauss wrote a five page document listing demeaning references in LDS literature, and asked church authorities to write

an authoritative article in the church’s magazine, The Ensign, or Church News, “or both, reiterating this repudiation and explaining the potential harm such doctrines can cause to any people of color who join the church, and to the public image more generally.

The funny thing to me is that if President Hinckley had made such a statement outlined by Jackson in 1995, it would have prevented the Randy Bott incident in which Bott claimed the ban was pre-mortal in origin and referred to the Book of Abraham to justify this in the Washington Post on 2012.  But church leaders simply do not like to be counseled, and it seems, felt the Bott affair was preferable to Jackson’s and Mauss’s ideas.

The editors continue,

The committee’s work was abruptly compromised in May 1998 when someone informed Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Stammer about the “Gladwell-Jensen” project.  Stammer’s article, “Mormons May Disavow Old View on Blacks,” provoked a firestorm at LDS Church headquarters.  The day the story broke, a church spokesman told a reporter at the news station KSL Channel 5–owned and operated by the LDS Church–that the story was “totally erroneous.”  A church press release on the same day noted that church leaders had “read the story” and were “surprised at its contents.  The matter it speaks of has not been discussed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.”  The  press release then went on to explain that “the 1978 declaration continues to speak for itself.”

The affair caused considerable embarrassment and quashed any prospect that LDS leaders would repudiate past racial statements affirming priesthood denial.”  Armand Mauss, whom Stammer had interviewed for the story, observed that the church “would be seen as bowing to public pressure if they made such a disavowal in the wake of the news stories about secret deliberations on the issue.”

I guess what is so frustrating to me is the complete lack of humility of the leaders on some of these topics.  We are counseled to be humble.  “Do what is right and let the consequences follow” is one of our hymns.  Yet the leaders are so prideful, that they won’t do what is right for fear of bowing to public pressure.  It takes a complete accident, like a good church member Randy Bott sticking his foot in the Church’s mouth for the church to finally start to come clean with some of the recent essays (like Race and the Priesthood) where they finally blame the ban not of God, but on “racial distinctions and prejudice” that were “customary among white Americans.”  Unfortunately “Mormon congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community.”  (I recently had a discussion with my bishop, and I referenced the essay.  It was news to him that the ban was not doctrinal.  It’s not in the Ensign, and even current bishops don’t know about these essays.)  Yet finally, we got a statement in 2013 with the church specifically disavowed the ban.

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 unrighteous 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.

Overall, this was a great book, with some good primary sources for those interested in researching the topic of the black ban on priesthood an temple ordinances.  I highly recommend it.

What is so unfortunate to me is to be an eyewitness to the unrighteous exclusion of children of gay parents.  While I believe our leaders are good men, why do church leaders continue to make mistakes in the name of God?  At least they acknowledge that the policy has resulted in an increase in suicides among gays.  What are your thoughts on these episodes of the past with regards to blacks?  Do you see a parallel with the ban on children of gay parents?  Were you aware of some of the scuttling of a disavowal in 1998?  Must we pray for more Randy Bott foot in the mouth episodes for real change to happen?


7 comments on “The Mormon Church & Blacks

  1. Thanks for this. I was especially interested in the 1998 discussions portion.

    What is unfortunate to me is the number of church members who read the essay on race and the priesthood as only disavowing the explanations for the ban, and not the ban itself. Unfortunate, because I can’t deny the essay is written in such a way as to allow such a reading.

  2. And yes, I suspect we are experiencing a similar moment re: gays in the church. I expect the process will be quicker (than 120 years), but more painful to the church as a whole, because it will be both more visibly within the church and more publically observed (which will both slow and speed the process). I expect a topsy-turvy dance of forward and back until it breaks. I just hope it breaks in a way that heals the church and not a way that breaks it.

  3. Leonard, I agree with your sentiments, except for one thing you said, “I expect the process will be quicker (than 120 years), but more painful to the church as a whole”

    Sometimes I think we forget how painful the Manifesto was, as well as the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. I hope it is much quicker too, but I think it will be just as painful as the 1890s or 1960s. To refresh your memory of some of the pain, here is a post from the protests of the 60s and 70s. I do think it was painful.


  4. […] about another unusual sealing performed sometime between 1894 and 1902. In my previous post on The Mormon Church and Blacks, there is some correspondence between Jane and various church leaders in which she asks for the […]

  5. MH – you’re correction is well noted, in that my phrase did fail to reflect the incredible pain of both past events. I think in some ways the manifesto may have been the most painful, in that it was such a vivid and centralized part of Mormonism at the time; the continuance of splinters to this time demonstrates that.

    And I don’t mean to understate the pain of the 60s and 70s either. But while I suspect that in some ways it was worse than what we are experiencing with homosexuality, because it was so bluntly visible, and in defiance of explicit, long term faithfulness, there are reasons why I said what I said.

    There were limited blacks in the core areas of the church, and in many of the outer reaches too. Of course, there were areas where it was massive, and in all areas painful.

    But because homosexuality “appears out of nowhere” (while anyone could fall in love with a person of African descent, if they met one, people didn’t randomly have children of African descent), it will continue to impact directly and immediately otherwise “faithful families”. This has always been true, but when you combine this with the increasing profile and voice that LGBT people have outside (and increasingly, inside) the church, it will be a tide that the church cannot hold at bay. The longer it continues, the more the pain will increase as increasing numbers of families get torn apart or torn away from the church by it.

    I.e. – I suspect the church will lose more members over this issue than they did over the other two, and it will only increase as time goes on.

  6. If you are right, it will be interesting to see if there becomes a Gay Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a gay prophet (aka Warren “Gay” Jeffs)

  7. There actually is/was one attempt at exactly that.


    But I would not expect such a movement to flourish. For polygamists who separated, it was to continue what they saw as a divine practice, with claims of continued authority. And it’s a practice that anyone could potentially do. Any given monogamist could, in principle, become a polygamist.

    In the 1980s, and likely still, there may be some homosexuals who would be content to live in exclusively homosexual communities, my sense is that was largely do to being rejected by the community at large.

    LGBT individuals and families today seem to desire to be part of a single community with their straight brothers and sisters, including within the church. Since homosexuality is complimentary with heterosexuality, they’re not really competitive with each other the way mono/poly-gamy are.

    Of course, that does get blurred by bisexuals, for whom homo/hetero-gamy are conceptually competitive (indeed, I suspect some of the underlying “fear” is misreading bisexuality as equivalent to homosexuality, in that the fear of normalizing homosexual relations is that more people will choose to be gay. Rather than what I would interpret as more people within the bisexual range will choose same sexed partners.

    In any case, I suspect most LGBT Mormons who want to remain Mormon want to do so within the church. They want to be one with us, and us with them.

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