Has the Mormon Church Truly Left Its Race Problems Behind?

The New Republic/November 15, 2011

It's looking more and more likely that Barack Obama will be facing Mitt Romney next November. According to recent polls, Romney's much-debated "Mormon Problem"—considered by some to be a main roadblock to the Republican nomination in 2008—has decreased in salience among the white evangelicals on whom he'll probably depend in both the primary and general elections. But one element of the Mormon problem that's yet to be vetted will come into stark relief should this match-up take place: the Mormon Church's troubling history of racial exclusion.

This history is a long one, stretching back to the inception of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in the 1830s. Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism, ran for president in 1844 as a moderate abolitionist; ordained a black man, Elijah Abel; and offered to adopt one young black convert, Jane Manning James, as his spiritual daughter. Yet earlier in his life, Smith wrote anti-abolitionist screeds replete with racist sentiment typical of Christian pro-slavery apologists of antebellum America. In one 1836 letter to missionaries in the South, Smith excoriated northern abolitionists as the instigators of discord among southern slaves who, he argued, were generally happy.

Other figures early in the Church's history illustrated such prejudices as well. The Mormon Prophet Brigham Young stated in 1852, "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood." Up until the mid-twentieth-century, some prophets perpetuated the idea that blacks were spiritually inferior, the permanently cursed descendants of Ham and Cain (a myth once popular in many American churches). In 1931, Church President Joseph Fielding Smith, the great-nephew of Joseph Smith Jr., wrote a widely distributed treatise—still available on Kindle—asserting that blacks were "fence-sitters" during a pre-mortal battle between God and Lucifer. When they were sent to Earth, according to Fielding Smith, blacks were marked with darkened skin as a permanent reminder of their perfidy. Until 1978, black men were forbidden from holding the Mormon priesthood, a sacred status that almost every Mormon male attains, and black couples could not marry in Mormon temples, a revered ceremony that Mormons believe unites the family for eternity.

This aspect of LDS history will probably prove less of a problem for Romney than for his Church, which is actively trying to change the dominant perception of Mormons as all but exclusively white. Romney's presidential bid does not rely on the black vote, and he has put distance between himself and the history of racial exclusion once practiced by his church. On "Meet the Press" in 2007, Romney tearfully recalled the moment in 1978 when he heard that the Church had lifted the century-and-half-long ban on blacks holding the Mormon priesthood. "I was driving home from … law school. … I heard it on the radio and I pulled over and literally wept." Since then, Romney has reached out to some black communities; a January 2008 Salt Lake Tribune article reported that Romney aided poor Massachusetts Haitians—using the French he acquired as a young missionary—while serving as the Church's regional leader in Boston in the 1990s.

But if Romney himself doesn't have a "black" problem, does his church? During the past three decades, arguably no religious institution has more effectively reached out to black people. Thirty-three years after the revelation, there are pockets of African American Mormons scattered around the country. Church leaders can cite exponential growth rates in Africa—some 320,000 (and counting) black Saints spread through dozens of African nations. They can also highlight how the LDS's social welfare networks have brought disaster relief to black populations, including, famously, in the days after Katrina and the Haitian earthquake. The LDS Church's multi-media "I am a Mormon" campaign and Mormon.org promote the message that today's LDS Church is an ecclesiastical United Nations of racial, ethnic, and national diversity.

For the LDS leadership, and many Mormons, all this is evidence that the exclusion of people of African descent is history. As a Church public affairs spokesman Michael Purdy put it to me in an e-mailed statement: "While the origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear, prophets taught that at some point, the priesthood would be given to all worthy males in the Church. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine." This statement follows the standard strategy articulated by Church in recent years: establishing distance from the pronouncements of past leaders without stating that these prophets were actually wrong.

Still, for many black Mormons, church leaders do need to say more—particularly because LDS Church prophets, unlike most Christian leaders, can speak with claims to divine authority. (This can create additional complications: Church leaders are hesitant to challenge past prophets, which some would equate to challenging God.) In Sunday School classes, at missionary training centers, and during youth sleepovers, Mormons, black and white, continue to debate the quasi-institutional Mormon racist "folklore" that perpetuates ideas of racially based spiritual inferiority. (In an interview for a Frontline documentary on Mormons, LDS Apostle Jeffery Holland spoke to the continued prevalence of such "folklore.") Many black Mormons with whom I spoke have been targets of racial epithets—mostly coming from an older generation of white Saints holding on to now officially abandoned beliefs. I've also talked to several black Mormon parents whose children have left the Church because they were teased or called the "N-word" during church activities or even in the sacred halls of the temple. White Mormons, too, have left the Church due to the perpetuation of racist theologies. According to BYU literature professor Margaret Young, a Church-wide Sunday School lesson discussing the 1978 repudiation this past summer elicited celebratory memories but also illustrated the persistence of ideas about black curses and fence-sitting.

The Church's reluctance to directly address this awkward legacy may be contributing to its perpetuation. The author and producer of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, Darius Gray, an African American Mormon since 1964, told me that current Church leaders have not sufficiently distanced themselves from the statements expressed by their predecessors. Instead, Church leaders have insisted simply "the revelation continues to speak for itself," as the late Church President Gordon B. Hinckley declared in 1998. More attention, says Gray, needs to be paid to this issue. "If you try to sweep the past underneath the carpet, what you end up with is a lumpy carpet."

Current Mormon leaders have done a great deal to help blacks become full members of the LDS Church. Many Mormons, black and white, await the day—perhaps during this presidential election season—when these same leaders directly say more about why past Mormon leaders did not.

Max Perry Mueller currently lives in Utah where he is researching the nineteenth-century LDS Church's relations with African Americans.

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