Some blacks say Mormon Church must address racism

Associated Press/June 6, 2003
By Debbie Hummel

Salt Lake City -- Mormon church leaders describe what happened 25 years ago as a shared, simultaneous revelation from God.

While gathered inside the faith's Salt Lake City Temple, the officials said God revealed that they should allow black men to become members of the Mormon priesthood, reversing more than a century of church practice.

The church ended the ban with a four-paragraph statement released on June 8, 1978, that said ''every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood.''

Since then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown significantly in Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Some black Mormons in America, however, feel the church doesn't do enough to encourage black membership, or speak out against past racism.

Tamu Smith, a black member of the church in Provo, said church leaders remain concerned about how some white Mormons might respond.

Mormon officials have ''spoken directly to certain issues in the past, they speak directly about homosexuality, adultery, pornography . . . They have not spoken directly against prejudice and racism,'' she said.

The issue is a tough one for the church.

Mormons believe their president -- the leader of the First Presidency -- is a ''living prophet'' who rules by direct divine revelation, so the black priesthood ban must be seen as God's will or else the divine prophets from the mid-19th century until 1978 were grievously mistaken.

The Mormon priesthood does not refer to a set of trained clerics -- rather, it is a lay status that virtually all Mormon boys enter at 12 and a prerequisite for even the most mundane church responsibilities.

The first black man to hold the priesthood, Elijah Abel, was ordained in 1836 by church president and founder Joseph Smith. However, what happened between the days of Smith, who also spoke out against slavery decades before the Civil War, and 1978 is a matter of debate.

Baptism and membership in the church have always been open to all. But starting in roughly the late 1840s, black males were denied the priesthood ''for reasons that we believe are known to God,'' church spokesman Dale Bills said.

Newell Bringhurst, a history and government professor at the College of the Sequoias, in Visalia, Calif., has extensively researched racial issues among Mormons.

Bringhurst, who was raised Mormon but has since left the faith, attributes the ban to remarks made by Brigham Young, the church's president after Smith was assassinated in Nauvoo, Ill. Young once said that blacks were the children of Cain who settled in Africa, and ''any man having one drop of the seed of Cain'' could not gain priesthood. Bringhurst said that view took hold.

A century later, the ban came under increasing scrutiny during the civil rights era. Still, Bringhurst said the church's international expansion more likely prompted its review of black priesthood.

According to a 1988 interview with Ensign magazine, church president Gordon B. Hinckley -- a member of the First Presidency at the time of the revelation -- described the event as feeling ''as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God.''

In the decades following the revelation, the number of Mormon members in Africa has gone from around 12,000 to more than 180,000.

But Natalie Sheppard, a black American who joined the church 20 years ago, said she feels the church has never done a good job of encouraging black membership. When she moved from Ohio to a Salt Lake City suburb, ''I experienced the rudest awakening of my life,'' Sheppard said.

She recalled storming into church headquarters and demanding to speak to Mormon leaders on a cold day in 1982 when her 6-year-old son -- waiting for her to pick him up -- was made to stand outside the home of another church member because he was black. ''I'm not saying that people need to apologize,'' Sheppard said, ''but we lose a lot of black members.''

This weekend, the church-sponsored Genesis Group for black Mormons is commemorating the 1978 revelation with several events, including performances of the play ''I Am Jane,'' the story of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a black woman who was active in the church and traveled with Mormon pioneers in the late 1840s.

On Sunday, the actual anniversary, singer Gladys Knight -- one of the church's best-known black converts -- will conduct the Saints Unified Voices, a 110-person multiracial choir.

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