Latter-day Saints face race issue

East Valley Tribune/February 26, 2005
By Lawn Griffiths

It's been almost 27 years since the Mormon Church lifted its ban that had kept black males from the church's priesthood.

But Darron Smith, who is Mormon and black, contends the church's white culture in the United States has scarcely embraced ethnic diversity since President-Prophet Spencer Kimball's revelation was announced on June 8, 1978.

"Clearly, if African-Americans who have actively participated in the black church become Mormon, they must abandon many of their traditional religious traditions and social practices and subscribe to a white style of worship or be considered transgressors of the church's cultural norms," Smith wrote in "Black and Mormon" (University of Illinois Press, 2004), which he coedited with Newell Bringhurst.

During a speaking tour in the Valley earlier this month, Smith, 39, said he loves the church he joined in 1981. He served as a church missionary in Michigan as a young adult, currently serves as second counselor in a ward bishopric in Provo, Utah, and is an adjunct faculty member at Brigham Young University.

But an assignment, he said, came begrudgingly. "I went to my stake president in my home ward and told him I was dissatisfied by the fact that I was never really utilized and if there were ever opportunities for me to serve, then I would be happy to do it," he said. This led not only to an assignment in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, but also to the inside track to teach at BYU.

Smith was 15 when Mormon missionaries came to his house in Nashville, Tenn. He already knew something about the church because a black man he worked with at a department store had told him about the church. It wasn't until after the missionaries came to baptize him that they told him, " 'There was a time when blacks couldn't fully participate in the LDS church,' and I said, 'Why?' and they said, 'We don't know why.' "

Mormon writings had long pointed to a "curse" God put on Cain for the murder of his brother Abel, as told in Genesis. "Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to the line of human beings," Brigham Young pronounced. "This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin."

As recently as 1966, Bruce McConkie, a church apostle, wrote in his book, "Mormon Doctrine," that "the Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow there from, but this inequality is not of man's origin. It is the Lord's doing . . ."

Church critics would say Kimball's revelation came as a practical and convenient change.

"For outsiders, I would argue, it definitely seems like it was a political expediency, given the (race) riots and the protests that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s," Smith said. BYU was the target in 1969 of protests and boycotts by athletes in the Western Athletic Conference who said the paucity of black athletes and students at BYU stemmed from institutionalized racist policies.

The 1978 change opened opportunities for blacks interested in the Mormon Church, but neither middle-class nor working-class blacks found a comfort level in the U.S. church, Smith said. "The church has done much better in South America and, no question, it has done better in Africa. There is distrust, I believe, among a lot of blacks about the LDS church," he said. Smith identifies an "invisibility of whiteness" and an "avoidance of race talk."

In his book, Smith told how his wife, Joy Smith, was prevented from talking about interracial marriage during a lesson she was giving to her women's Relief Society meeting. "In an attempt to engage the class, she asked a hypothetical question: Should all the teachings of Mormon prophets be obeyed - even teachings manifesting such racist thinking as the condemnation of interracial marriage?" he wrote.

The Relief Society president quickly interceded and said she was out of bounds. Though Joy Smith, white and a lifelong Mormon, was allowed to teach the lesson, she was released from her calling four weeks later for "not following the manual."

"She had dared to interrogate 'whiteness,' thereby creating an unsafe place for the white members of her ward's Relief Society," Darron Smith wrote.

"I don't accept the claim of discrimination by the church, if we mean the church as an institution," said Mike Otterson, a spokesman for the church in Salt Lake City. Yet, "changing the way some individuals feel about racial issues is a much longer process, but that is a challenge for the entire country, not just the Latter-day Saints."

Otterson said anyone who travels the country and attends church meetings can see "the increasing ethnic diversity among our people . . . especially where such diversity is a mark of the local population."

Institutionally, Smith said, the church "refuses to acknowledge and undo its racist past, and until it does that, members like me continue to suffer psychological damage from it."

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