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One of the more common attacks against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we are racist. Quotes are often produced that seem to reflect this sentiment. Often these quotes intended to prove our current racism come from pre-U.S. Civil War statements, but a few come from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Racism is an ugly term that is used to marginalize and it has been effectively and often unfairly used against Mormons.
Clearly racism has existed and continues to exist in America and elsewhere. Certainly, though the LDS church teaches that racial prejudice is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there are racist Mormons just as there are racist Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Jews. African Americans, and others of African descent who were removed from their homelands during the several centuries of the slave trade, have been treated badly and everyone who has practiced racial discrimination and prejudice needs to repent.
Racism has been a pervasive problem for many people and cultures worldwide throughout most of human history. The question is if Mormons past and present are/were more racist than everyone else. Should we be singling out Mormons for their institutional racism?
African Americans have been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ever since 1830, when the church was founded. Unlike many American Protestant denominations, the LDS church never instituted a uniform policy that Black members would be forced to worship in segregated congregations.
There are many quotes throughout LDS history extolling the equality of all men, and even a scripture in the Book of Mormon stating “All are alike unto God.” (See 2 Nephi 26:33.) Former LDS Church president Gordon B. Hinckley also denounced racism in an April 2006 speech to the Priesthood of the church:
Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.
Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible? (Source: The Need For Greater Kindness)
Nonetheless, members and leaders alike are informed by the culture of their day and age. Some quotes from past church members and leaders seem to reflect the feelings of their social-historical context and deserve to be labeled as racist. But that context has affected many other church leaders as well. For example, according to Steven Patrick Miller in Rise of the Republican South, even Protestant Christian leader Billy Graham said after Martin Luther King’s speech during the 1963 march on Washington, “Only when Christ comes again will the lion lie down with the lamb and the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with the little black children.” We can also consider that both the Methodists and the Baptists argued in the 1840s that slavery was biblical. The Southern Baptist convention that President Jimmy Carter belonged to was formed in 1848 over the slavery issue. They issued an apology in 1999.
Sociologist Dr. Armand Mauss wrote an insightful treatise on this subject, including some comments in Q & A format, on this topic in 2003. Though his words should not be construed as an official statement of LDS doctrine, Mauss clearly outlines the historical context for this practice:
Questions and Answers
Q : I hear that the Mormon Church is racist, or at least that many Mormons are. Anything to that rumor?
A : I guess most white people in America have grown up with some racist beliefs, and Mormons have had their share. However, national polling data for more than a decade have revealed that Mormons are actually less likely than other Americans, on average, to support racist ideas and policies.
Q : But aren’t black people unwelcome in the Mormon Church, or subjected to some kind of second-class status?
A : Not for the past twenty-five years. It is true that from the middle of the nineteenth century until 1978 the few black people who joined the Church could not be given the priesthood.
Q : Why was that?
A : The reasons are not entirely clear, but the policy seems to have begun officially in 1852 with an announcement by Brigham Young, who was Church president at that time. He made that announcement as part of the deliberations in the Utah territorial legislature over the legal status of both blacks and Indians, and in particular whether slavery should be permitted in the territory.
Q : So, was it permitted?
Q : That sounds pretty racist to me. How can you justify that?
A : I wouldn’t try to justify it. Slavery in America was a racist institution. Brigham Young himself did not actually want slavery in Utah, but he did believe that black people were not the social or intellectual equals of white people, and that slavery should be tolerated for Mormon slave-holders moving to Utah as long as it was tolerated elsewhere in the United States.
Q : Why would Brigham Young believe such things?
A : Because he was a nineteenth-century American, and hardly any white people of that time, North or South, believed in equality for blacks. Slavery was still an unsettled issue throughout the nation, with some even in the South opposed to it, and many even in the North who were willing to tolerate it. Brigham Young’s ideas were really right in the mainstream of American thinking at that time. They were very close to the ideas of other prominent Americans from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, who himself did not even free all slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation.
Q : I thought most Americans of that time believed in God and in the Bible. Where was God in all this?
A : It is doubtful that God had anything to do with it. Many Americans of the time, including Brigham Young and most other Mormon leaders, believed that the scriptures justified the subordination of black people because they were descendants of Cain or of other biblical figures who had sinned egregiously. Latter-day Saints do not believe that God takes responsibility for the evil in the world, or that He condones the use of his name or of the scriptures to justify evil. Yet he has granted human beings their agency either to operate a society according to His principles or to pay the consequences. The Civil War and the racial strife since then have been the consequences of slavery.
Q : But don’t Mormons believe that their Church is led by prophets of God? How could prophets have permitted racist ideas and practices to become part of their religion?
A : Prophets are not perfect and don’t claim to be; nor do they always act as prophets in what they say and do. People in all ages, including those who become prophets, grow up without questioning much that is assumed by everyone else in their respective cultures, unless some experience motivates them to seek revelation on a given matter.
Q : Well, maybe so, but racism is such an obvious evil that I would think authentic prophets would have been more sensitive to it.
A : … It seems obvious to all of us now, but not to people who believed in Manifest Destiny, the White Man’s Burden, and “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Even the original apostles of Jesus assumed that non-Jews could not become Christians unless they first accepted Judaism and circumcision. The apostle Paul disputed that, but the idea persisted.
Q : Did all the early Mormon leaders hold racist ideas?
A : Pretty much–like all other Americans. But there was a range of opinion. Not all of them embraced all of the racist ideas in the culture. For example, Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the LDS Church, saw no reason to keep black people from holding the priesthood, even though he shared the conventional idea that they were descendants of Cain and Ham. We have no record that he ever sought a special revelation on the question; he just accepted blacks into the priesthood. He also believed that the innate inferiority of blacks so widely assumed at that time was as much a result of inferior environment and opportunity as of lineage.
Q : So why didn’t Joseph Smith’s views on such matters prevail in the Mormon Church?
A : Joseph Smith was assassinated while still a young man, and well before the race question led to the Civil War. We can’t be sure whether his ideas would have changed later or how. We do know that his successor, Brigham Young, had somewhat different ideas, though not necessarily based on revelation; and he headed the Church for more than thirty years.
Q : Didn’t anyone question Young’s views during all that time or later?
A : All of Brigham Young’s successors tended to assume that he had had a good reason for withholding the priesthood from black members and had probably gotten the policy from Joseph Smith. A few black members questioned the policy a time or two, but when they did so, the Church leaders reconsidered and simply reiterated it. By the time the twentieth century arrived, no Church leaders were living who could remember when the policy had been otherwise. Meanwhile, the nation as a whole had become permeated with so-called Jim Crow laws restricting all kinds of privileges for blacks. In that environment, the Mormon restriction on priesthood seemed entirely natural.
Q : But other religious denominations were critical of such racial restrictions, weren’t they?
A : Eventually they were, but not until the age of civil rights in the 1960s. Prior to that time, only a minuscule number of blacks were ordained in any denomination–except, of course, in the so-called black denominations such as the AME and the predominantly black Baptist groups.
Q : But wasn’t the Mormon racial policy more pervasive and severe than in other religions?
A : Not really. In the Mormon case, the policy was simply more conspicuous because of the universal lay priesthood that Mormons extended to all men except blacks. In other churches, the racial restrictions were more subtle. Ordination to the ministry in all major denominations required access to the professional seminaries. Before the age of civil rights, the seminaries, like the schools of law and medicine, were the gatekeepers to these careers, and blacks were rarely admitted to any of the professional schools, including seminaries (except, again, in the black denominations). Most of today’s religious critics of the erstwhile Mormon racial restriction belong to denominations in which there were scarcely any more black ministers or priests than in the Mormon Church. Not many institutions in American society, including religious institutions, can be very proud of their historic treatment of black people.
Q : So you are saying that the Mormons were really no worse than others in their teachings and policies about black people?
A : That’s about right, small comfort though that might be in retrospect. National surveys comparing Mormons with others in racial attitudes indicate that Mormons in the West, at least, were close to the national averages in all such measures during the 1960s and 1970s–more conservative than some denominations but more liberal than others.
Q : When did the Mormon Church finally change its policies about blacks?
A : 1978.
Q : That seems a little late. Didn’t most churches and other institutions drop all their racial restrictions a lot earlier than that?
Q : What took so long? Why couldn’t the prophet just change the policy?
A : Especially in such important matters as this one, a prophet or president in the LDS Church is not inclined to act alone. The president, his two counselors, and the twelve apostles are all considered “prophets, seers, and revelators,” and they usually act as a body when deciding on fundamental doctrines and policies. This process is by definition a conservative one, since it requires a relatively long period of discussion, deliberation, and prayer in order to reach a consensus–in order to feel that they have all been moved by the Holy Spirit toward the same decision. The prophets came close to consensus more than once across the years before they finally achieved it in 1978.
Q : That seems like a very cumbersome process, which might actually constrain God in getting through to the prophet with a revelation. Why couldn’t God just speak to the president or prophet and tell him what to do?
A : Well, of course, God could do anything He wanted to do. In the Mormon tradition, however, the revelatory process normally (not necessarily always, but normally) begins with human initiative, whether that of a prophet or of any other individual seeking divine guidance. The individual formulates a question or proposal and takes that to God in prayer for divine confirmation. This was the pattern followed by Joseph Smith himself in what Mormons call “the Sacred Grove.” It is the pattern also in Mormon scriptures such as D&C 9 and Moroni 10:4-5. Mormon prophets do not sit around waiting for revelations. They typically take propositions to the Lord for confirmation, and these propositions are the products of a great deal of prayerful deliberation, both individually and collectively.
Q : So this is what finally happened in 1978?
A : Yes. President Spencer W. Kimball had anguished for some time over the restriction on black people, and he took a great deal of initiative in persuading his colleagues to make it a matter of the most earnest prayer and deliberation. In response to their collective efforts, he reported on June 8 that “the Lord (had) confirmed” (my italics) that the priesthood should be extended to all worthy male members (Official Declaration #2).
Q : Was President Kimball the first prophet to focus so intensely on the issue?
A : Not necessarily. Most of his predecessors said little or nothing about the matter, except for President David O. McKay (1951-1970). He was clearly deeply concerned about it even in the 1950s, when he visited several parts of the world with black populations, and even black Church members. One of his counselors, Hugh B. Brown, was also publicly anxious to see a change in Church policy. However, they were apparently never able to galvanize the consensus among the other apostles that might have changed the policy ten or fifteen years earlier.
Q : Too bad. It would have looked a lot better for the Church if the change had come sooner.
A : Maybe, but not necessarily. During the 1960s, the Church was under a great deal of pressure over its racial restrictions from various national organizations and leaders….Yet if the Church had made the policy change then, the public relations outcome might have been anticlimactic, since the Church would have appeared to be caving in to political expediency, rather than maintaining its own prophetic and procedural integrity, even in the face of public criticism.
Q : Well, anyway, now that the Church has dropped its earlier racist ideas and policies, is it attracting many black members?
A : Conversions in Africa are really quite startling, but of course racial conflict in the U.S. has never been especially salient to Africans. The growth of the Church among African Americans, however, has been much slower, largely because of the lingering racist heritage of the past, and the seeming inability of the Church to deal with this heritage candidly. Those black members and investigators who find it hard to look past all that have also found it hard to remain active in the Church. We have a lot yet to do.
The Q & A was slightly edited from the original to fit this article. You can read the entire article complete with footnotes at: http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2003_LDS_Church_and_the_Race_Issue.html. A similar version of these comments, on a site for Black members of the LDS Church, is located at http://www.blacklds.org/mauss.