Mormons' new true believers

Family focus attracts minorities to faith with past steeped in racism

The Chicago Tribune/July 26, 2005
By Margaret Ramirez

As sunlight flooded the church from a window above, Brad Hunter brought his 2-week-old baby girl, Leah, in front of the congregation for her first blessing.

One by one, the male leaders of this Mormon church in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood formed a tight circle around the child. Black, white, Latino, Indian and Japanese Mormons placed their palms under Leah, forming a cradle of hands. Then the men closed their eyes tight and prayed.

The striking scene provides a modern-day portrait of today's Mormon Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Long perceived as a mostly white institution, the church now counts more than 12 million members worldwide, with nearly a third of its followers in Africa and Latin America.

This year, as the church celebrates its 175th anniversary and the bicentennial of the birth of its founder, a religion that began in a New York log cabin has emerged as a diverse global faith and the fourth largest church in the U.S. with 5.5 million American members.

Mormon growth has been fueled by converts of color brought in by the church's missionary zeal and attracted largely, experts say, by the church's focus on family.

"The church has really emphasized the importance of family at a time when families are in trouble. That emphasis has made a great deal of difference," said Jan Shipps, a prominent Mormon scholar at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who is not a church member. "It's an important religious force and it's here to stay."

The church's diversity has emerged almost defiantly from the relics of its racist past. Early Mormon teachings spoke of black people as inferior, cursed by God and unworthy to serve as clergy. Not until 1978 did the church lift the ban that barred blacks from the priesthood.

The American church remains predominantly white, and precise growth patterns are difficult to note because the church says it does not keep statistics on race or ethnicity. But church officials and religious scholars say that in the past 20 years the Mormon message has been well received by middle-class African-Americans and, in particular, Latino immigrants.

Scholars say the number of black Mormons, miniscule before 1978, is estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 today. The church says 130,000 people belonged to Spanish-speaking U.S. congregations in 2004, up from 92,600 in 1995. Those figures do not include Latinos attending services in English.

Texts still reflect racism

Yet despite the increasing presence of minorities in the church, race issues have emerged as part of the church's growing pains.

Some scholars say the racist doctrine still found in Mormon texts and church leaders' past negative comments are factors in the slow growth of the church among African-Americans and have driven some members to leave in disgust. Other Mormons question whether an increasingly diverse legion of Latter-day Saints can be adequately represented by a leadership still composed mainly of white men.

Darron Smith, a black Mormon and an adjunct sociology professor at church-owned Brigham Young University in Utah, believes church leaders should formally repudiate all racist doctrines and teachings on blacks, arguing that it is the only way to retain black members.

"Why do Mormons persist in believing that black people were cursed? Many of them do and stubbornly defend racist white sentiment. Why is that?" said Smith, who co-authored a new book of essays titled "Black and Mormon." "I think this is counterproductive to the church's mission."

The large majority of black Mormons say they are willing to look beyond the racist teachings and cleave to the church in part because of its powerful, detailed teachings on life after death. Cathy Stokes, a black Mormon who lives in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, said she was drawn by members' strong devotion to living the faith.

"Joining this church was the single most important decision of my life," said Stokes, a former Baptist who converted in 1979. "And since I've come, I have never felt more love than I feel here."

At church headquarters in Salt Lake City, blacks and Latino Mormons still wield little influence, said Armand Mauss, a Mormon scholar and past president of the Mormon History Association.

"As far as leadership is concerned, the role of the various minorities in Mormonism as a whole is not yet very great, but it is growing, and it is crucial in parts of the world outside the U.S.," said Mauss, of Irvine, Calif.

Change will be necessary for the unity of the church, he said.

"Theologically, the presence of minorities is also crucial to Mormonism because of its claim to be a world religion, reaching out to all of God's children," he said. "That claim is very important also to most Mormons everywhere, and it will become a reality gradually to the extent that the church succeeds in holding on to its converts over the long haul and integrating them into the highest echelons of church leadership."

Bible and Book of Mormon

Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, believing Joseph Smith revived the early church when he received revelations from God. The church views the Book of Mormon as a companion text to the Bible or "another testament of Jesus Christ." According to Mormon scripture, Jesus visited the Western Hemisphere after his resurrection.

Central to Mormon theology is the belief that church leaders are living prophets, also called "seers" or "revelators," who receive ongoing revelations from the heavens. The church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, is considered to be in communication with God on matters of the faith.

Choosing the Mormon faith usually means significant life changes. Mormons are to pray and read scripture daily, as well as spend three hours at church every Sunday. They are asked to give 10 percent of their income to the church.

On the first Sunday of each month, they should fast and donate the money they would have spent on food to the poor. Families gather together on Monday nights for "home evening," with teachings and discussions on the faith.

Smoking, alcohol and caffeinated drinks are prohibited. Young Mormons are told not to date until age 16. Mormons believe marriage is sealed for eternity. Interracial marriage is discouraged; divorce is deplorable.

In the early church, Smith is believed to have ordained a black man named Elijah Abel in 1836. But his successor, Brigham Young, initiated a policy denying blacks the priesthood.

In a teaching known as the "curse of Cain," Mormon doctrine states that God marked Cain with blackness and cursed him so he would forever be persecuted. Several other teachings in the Book of Mormon speak of black skin as vile and evil and white skin as "pure and delightsome." The scriptures imply God would darken the skin of people who fell out of his favor and lighten that of those who pleased him.

Young, in his "Journal of Discourses," described "some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind" and connected them to Cain, saying "the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin."

`Old dogmas die hard'

Such texts, Mauss believes, will be a burden for the church and its black members until church leaders make an explicit and public disavowal.

"Discredited doctrines about why some people are black have continued to circulate among Mormon whites in various places, despite the fact that no church leaders have taught such things for at least a whole generation," Mauss said. "Old dogmas die hard."

Asked why leaders have not formally repudiated the teachings, spokeswoman Kim Farah referred to a statement made by Hinckley in 1998: "The 1978 revelation continues to speak for itself. ... I don't see anything further that we need to do."

A black woman from the South

Stokes, a Chicago public health official, said that when she decided to become a Mormon, friends thought she had lost her mind. Why, they wondered, would an intelligent black woman raised in the racial strife of rural Mississippi want to join a church that once taught black people were inferior and cursed by God?

"People said things like, `What's wrong with you? I thought you were smart until you joined the Mormon church,'" Stokes, 69, recalled on a hot summer morning inside the chapel of her Hyde Park church. "I just laughed it off. It think that's due to the comfort of knowing who you really are."

Stokes admits she doesn't understand the references to blacks in the Book of Mormon. Yet, she believes racism is not unique to Mormonism and is a problem that nearly every church has had to confront.

"At some point, I think there will be a correction by church leaders. I do think it will come," Stokes said. "But I don't think it's my place to push for it. I think it's my place to be prayerful and follow God.

"I believe this is the true church of Jesus Christ. But, we can't say it's perfect."

Jesse Thomas, another black Mormon who lives in Chicago, joined the church in 1989, after the birth of his first child. He now attends Sunday meetings at the Logan Square church, which is officially known as a ward (smaller Mormon congregations are called branches).

Thomas said he learned about racism in the church texts only after he was baptized into the church. He stayed, he says, because of the way the faith affects almost every aspect of daily life.

"Those things never made me question whether this was the right church for me. It didn't cause me to back-pedal. I have never felt slighted by anyone in this church," Thomas said. "You also have to understand this isn't a church where it's just a Sunday stroll. It's a daily walk where your constant companion is the Holy Spirit."

"I believe the Book of Mormon is true," said Tony Ratliff, 48, an African-American computer support specialist who joined two years ago and assisted in the baby blessing in Logan Square. "I have read some of the racist doctrines of the past. But it doesn't bother me.

"I say, let's move on. Our power doesn't come from the past. It comes from our obedience to God."

`Special appeal' to Latinos

In Illinois, more than 50,000 church members worship in 12 stakes--geographical divisions comparable to Roman Catholic dioceses. The first Spanish-speaking congregation started in 1975 in the Chicago stake, with just a handful of members meeting in Logan Square.

Today the ward has nearly 600 members, mainly from Mexico and Guatemala, and is the largest of 15 Spanish-speaking congregations in the Chicago area.

Latino Mormons, many from Catholic roots, say they were attracted to the Mormon teaching that Jesus appeared to indigenous Americans, who are said to descend from a Hebrew people called the Lamanites. Mormon scriptures link the conversion of Lamanites to the second coming of Christ.

"I think there's a special appeal to the Latin people because it's their history," said Wilford Wagner, stake president in Schaumburg, who was raised as a Mormon in Mexico. "It's the history of their ancestors and how the Indians came to be."

Vicente Miranda felt something different. After moving to Chicago in 1995 from Puebla, Mexico, he found work in a factory and met a woman who told him about a friendly church in Logan Square.

"I got very emotional when I came here," he said softly. "It was like a sudden sense of peace washed over me. I felt like something was waiting for me here. I guess I was searching."

Like many other Latino converts, Miranda said the Mormon church appealed to him because of its lay clergy, who all work full time outside the church. Just nine months ago, to his own surprise, Miranda was appointed bishop of the Spanish-speaking Logan Square congregation.

"Part of what's happening is that there is a greater sense of empowerment that the church provides," said Jorge Iber, assistant professor at Texas Tech University and author of "Hispanics in Mormon Zion."

"In the Mormon church you can become a counselor, you can become a bishop, you can become an elder, and there's a certain amount of status that goes with that in the community."

Though Latino Mormons interviewed in Chicago said they had not experienced discrimination in the church, Iber said some members elsewhere say church leaders look upon the Spanish-speaking wards as the "minor leagues."

"You still have these tensions," Iber said. "People are wondering, "Am I really a member of this church? Or do I finally become a member when I learn English?"

Diversity and church's future

Shipps said part of the church's mission in the future will be to shape these new converts to be leaders in the church.

"When you grow really fast, you have to stop and catch up," she said.

"Because this is led by a lay clergy, they are having in a sense, to take a breather and help the converts who made the church grow so fast, prepare themselves for leadership."

Raised Catholic, Nancy Rodriguez of Chicago said that when she converted to her future husband's faith it severely strained her relationship with her mother.

"My mother felt betrayed and I felt horrible for hurting her," said a tearful Rodriguez. "I wondered if it was worth it. But I knew in my heart this is where I had to be."

Worldwide growth

The Mormon church has experienced tremendous growth, particularly in South America, in large part due to the church's aggressive missionary work and family focus, experts say.

Church membership in 2005

Total: About 12 million

U.S.: 5.5 million (50,000 in Illinois)

Other: 6.5 million

Membership of select continents

Scale in millions

South America: 2.8 million

Asia: 848,000

Africa: 214,000

Missionaries in 2005

U.S.: 17,000

South America: 11,400

Asia: 4,300

Africa: 1,350

Other: 16,950

Total: About 51,000

Sources: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tribune reporting, Chicago Tribune

Growing members, growing diversity in Mormon church

The U.S.-born Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is celebrating the bicentennial of founder Joseph Smith, has grown into a diverse global faith of about 12 million members.

Start of church

1805: Joseph Smith Jr. (below) is born in Vermont.

1823: The angel Moroni reveals existence of ancient gold plates to Smith, which he translates into Book of Mormon.

1830: Smith, with five other men, founds the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York.

1836: Elijah Abel becomes first black man ordained as priest.

1839: After being expelled from Missouri, Smith establishes a Mormon community in Nauvoo, Ill.

1844: Smith and his brother Hyrum are jailed, then killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill.

To the west

1846: The church is driven out of Illinois, and Brigham Young (right) leads exodus.

1847: Young becomes president of 26,146-member church and builds settlements in Utah.

1852: Young bans black men from priesthood. Plural marriage, a practice that was taught by Smith, is publicly announced.

1890: Church President Wilford Woodruff issues the "Manifesto," which bans polygamy, a condition for Utah statehood.

Ripening diversity

1919: Three sisters from Mexico immigrate to Utah and become the first Hispanic Mormons in the U.S.

1971: The Genesis group is formed to better support the social and spiritual needs of black members.

Church reaches 3.1 million members.

1978: Church President Spencer Kimball receives revelation from God and drops ban on black priests.

1990: Brazilian Helvecio Martins becomes first black church officer.

2000: Non-English speaking members are the majority of the 11.1 million members, and the number of Spanish-language congregations continues to grow (right).

2004: An Illinois House of Representatives resolution expresses regret for expulsion of the church in 1846. Membership is 12.2 million.


In U.S., scale in thousands

1995 through '04

'04: 4129,839

Brigham Young's journey

Source: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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