Black Mormon numbers growing

Church's history of bias being slowly set aside

Times-Picayune/June 21, 2003
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Atlanta -- M.J. Cheatham Butler did a double take five years ago when she strolled into her new Latter-day Saints chapel and saw Evander Holyfield sitting near the pulpit.

Then she surveyed the rest of the scene: boys in corn-rowed hair passing the sacrament, men in tie-dyed African shirts exchanging notes on teaching assignments, and a large photo of the black Mormon pioneers Samuel and Amanda Chambers displayed in the foyer.

When the man with the shiny, shaved head turned out to be the bishop, not boxing's heavyweight champion, Butler said to herself: I am home.

Even in Atlanta, such an ethnic brew in a Mormon congregation is rare.

But it would have been impossible before June 9, 1978.

On that fateful day, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, ended its century-long ban on black members holding the priesthood. From then on, the priesthood would be open to "all worthy men," including those of African descent.

The change brought a string of firsts: first black priest ordained in Utah; first black missionary; first black bishop; first black couple married in the temple; first black man ordained in Los Angeles, Rio, Jamaica, Nigeria; first black general authority. And it brought relief to many white Mormons who were mortified by charges of racism leveled at them and their church.

Haunting issue

But the most dramatic changes occurred in predominantly black countries formerly off-limits to Mormon missionaries. Today there are more than 180,000 Latter-day Saints in Africa alone.

"It was a joyous day for every member of the church -- black, white, it doesn't matter the color," said Elder Merrill Bateman, general authority liaison to the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons.

Even so, history still separates black adherents from other members of the church. For most white members, the ban controversy is over, but the issue continues to haunt many black members, especially in the United States. They are constantly having to explain themselves and their beliefs -- to non-Mormons, other black converts and themselves. And no matter how committed to LDS teachings and practices they are, they must wonder: If this is the true church, led by a prophet of God, why was a racial ban instituted in the first place?

In the early days of the church, there was no official policy forbidding black men from being priests. In fact, Joseph Smith, who led the Mormon church from 1830 until his death in 1844, publicly opposed slavery and ordained at least one black man, Elijah Abel.

But after Brigham Young took over the fledgling faith, he had prejudices common in America at the time that black people were inherently inferior, writes Mormon scholar Armand Mauss in a new book, "All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage."

Members, not leaders

Young's views became the foundation of a churchwide policy. No longer were men with even a drop of African blood allowed to be ordained to the priesthood, which otherwise was available to virtually all males starting at 12.

Black men and women could still be members, but could not hold any significant positions. They couldn't be leaders, serve missions or be married in one of the faith's temples.

The policy met little resistance until the mid-20th century, with the rising of America's civil rights movement. In the 1960s and '70s, LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo faced protests from other schools, and the venerable Mormon Tabernacle Choir was the target of boycotts across the nation.

Mormon explanations for the ban paralleled ideas once believed by many other Christian groups, even used to defend the slave trade, Mauss writes. Now the official position is that only God knows the reason it took so long to eliminate the ban.

The church is clear, however, on how it happened.

'Less worthy'?

Although outsiders saw the priesthood change as a matter of political expediency, most Mormons believe it was a divine revelation given to then-LDS President Spencer Kimball and later shared in a collective experience with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

For Butler, now the Atlanta LDS Stake primary president, it was simple. When the missionaries told her that, because she was black, she was "less worthy," she replied, "I'm glad I don't believe that."

"Black people not valiant in the pre-existence? That's silly," she says in a dialogue with herself. "Do I think it was from God? I know it wasn't. Is the church true? Of course."

Black people are drawn to the LDS Church for the same reasons as other converts. They come for the teachings about Christ, visions, prophets and scriptures. Some find solace in an all-embracing community, even if it is mostly white. Some like the church's emphasis on healthy living and self-reliance. Or they appreciate the notion of a lay clergy.

A major drive during the early 1980s by the Mormon mission in North Carolina brought in about 900 black converts, Mauss writes, but a few years later only a hundred remained active.

Large turnover

Mauss suggests several reasons for a large turnover rate among black Mormons in the United States: perpetuation of racial myths, discomfort over class and cultural differences, feelings of being treated categorically as black people instead of as individuals, exaggerated attention as "novelties," white resistance to intermarriage or even interracial dating, and a level of white acceptance that was considered civil but not warm.

Darron Smith, who teaches a Mormon cultural studies class at Utah Valley State College in Orem, says black people likely to stay in the church are those who are "ideologically white."

"People like me who are used to being around white people," Smith said. "They identify more with the social, political and cultural norms of white people."

The church should be reaching out more to working class African-Americans, allowing more diversity in worship and doing more "call and response" expressions in music and sermons, he said. "The church needs to allow people to express their blackness."

The number of black people in LDS leadership ranks is growing. Today in Africa, more than 600 men serve as bishops or stake presidents.

In the United States, many black Mormons yearn for more. More black people in the pews, at the pulpit, in church offices, even in the Tabernacle Choir.

Says Yaa Macfarlane: "It's hard to show our non-Mormon friends any of the church videos, like 'Together Forever,' when the faces are all white."

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