Choosing to Stay in the Mormon Church Despite Its Racist Legacy

One black woman tries to reconcile her faith with the institution’s history of discrimination.

The Atlantic/August 28, 2016

By Janan Graham-Russell

It’s been six years since I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each year has been a lesson in faith and doubt, stretching and engaging what it means to be black, a woman, and Mormon. The decision to join on my own was not an easy one. As the child of a Protestant mother and a father who converted to Islam in his teens, I was doing something unheard of in my family by becoming a Mormon. And as a black woman, I had a heightened awareness of what it means to potentially be the only black person in any given congregation in the United States.

As a child, I watched as preachers in my congregation espoused their deepest beliefs about God. They spoke to the horrors faced by black people in the United States in their dealings in life and death. There was intense power in their sermons, one that was complemented by the soft presence of a “Black Jesus,” a savior who understood the plight of African Americans in word and form. He represented the long tradition of resistance within the black church to white-supremacist theology: Racialized violence in the United States was often supported by white Christians who recognized whiteness as good and blackness as evil. Within the walls of my congregation, blackness was not discounted, but embraced in all its various forms from the pulpit to the pews. Islam also informed my faith; I witnessed the immense devotion in my father’s prayers and the care with which he kept his Koran. These two traditions of my childhood shared a reverence for and recognition of a version of God who is not racist.

The yearning for a church home faded as I grew older. As the years went by, I sought solace everywhere except inside the walls of a chapel or mosque. There was something about my earliest years that left me feeling disconnected from the religion of my parents and the faith I had inherited. But the summer before I graduated from college, I found that something was missing within me, spiritually; I sought faith among new religious groups, hoping I would find meaning in my own journey.

When I came across Mormonism, it was largely unfamiliar. In contrast to the faith of my childhood, certain aspects of the theology and structure resonated deeply with me. Vivid descriptions of eternal hellfire for those who sinned were replaced by an overwhelming sense of the capacity to grow on earth and throughout eternity. I was fond of the communal focus of the congregations, which created a place for each and every person. I was aware that black members had been banned from joining the priesthood or from performing specific rituals, from the mid-19th century until 1978. But my doubts about the restrictions were overpowered by a belief in the LDS Church’s active expression of faith in every part of life and the capacity for good in its members.

It was not until I joined that I began to understand and experience the implications of the priesthood and temple restrictions in the lives of black Mormons. Some have left; and the lack of consistent dialogue within the Church about the bans has created confusion about the restriction’s origins and the official LDS position on racial issues. The seeming reluctance by some Mormon leaders to speak about the violence faced by its black members in the United States has brought many black Mormons to points of frustration.

But I have chosen to stay. I have found a renewed relationship with the notions of blackness I was taught as a child, and I have rediscovered God at the margin of Mormonism—far from the experience of the white men who have historically led the Church. My faith offers both solace and struggle: I have found solidarity among the often-weary voices of African American Mormons, who must work to affirm their spiritual and physical lives in a Church where those lives didn’t always matter.

In its history, culture, and theology, Mormonism is a distinctively American faith. The country’s importance is affirmed in the Book of Mormon; many of its key events take place in North America. Established in 1830, the LDS Church first sought to form a physical Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, described by the founder, Joseph Smith, as “a gathering of saints.” These hopes were dashed in 1838 by the increasing violence between Mormons and non-Mormons and the issuance of Missouri Executive Order 44, which called for the extermination or forcible removal of Mormons from the state. Today, the LDS Church’s central administrative building is in Salt Lake City, with the highest levels of leadership comprised predominantly of white American males.

Mormon history has closely followed America’s on slavery, civil rights, and racial discrimination. “Mormons were conflated with nearly every other ‘problem’ group in the 19th century—blacks, Indians, immigrants, and Chinese,” writes W. Paul Reeve, an associate professor of history at the University of Utah, in his book, Religion Of A Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. This was a “way to color them less white by association. In telling the Mormon racial story, one ultimately tells the American racial story.” To ensure their inclusion in the upper ranks of the American society, Reeve argues, Mormons had to differentiate themselves from the “problem groups.” These efforts began early in the LDS Church’s history.

Smith wavered between a posture of opposing slavery and supporting full citizenship for African Americans throughout his lifetime. Smith argued that abolition would “set loose upon the world a community of people who might, peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society, chastity, and virtue.” When he ran for president in 1844, Smith included an anti-slavery stance in his platform, on the condition that millions of formerly enslaved blacks would be relocated to Texas. Other Mormons shared his cautious approach to slavery. In 1833, The Evening and Morning Star, a Mormon newspaper, published “Free People of Color.” It urged adherence to Missouri law, which placed strict guidelines on the migration of free African Americans into the state. While black people were able to join the church, some members hoped to avoid confrontation with slave-owning whites. In part due to rising tensions with non-Mormons, Church leaders warned against preaching to or baptizing enslaved blacks “contrary to the will or wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life.”

When Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS Church, led pioneers west to escape the mob violence of the Midwest, he also brought Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay, all enslaved African American men. These were a few of the many African Americans, enslaved and free, who were taken or voluntarily came into the Utah territory around the time Mormons first arrived in 1847. Along with them came the question of what to do about slavery in the Utah Valley and how to reconcile its existence with the Mormon belief that all are alike in the eyes of God.

During Smith’s lifetime, there was at least one African American man, Elijah Able, who held the priesthood. Afterwards, the status of African Americans in the LDS Church shifted dramatically. In 1852, Young offered an answer to how Mormons should deal with slavery. Buffered by mentions of curses of blackness in the Bible, the Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price, another set of scriptures within the Mormon faith, Young argued before the Utah Territorial Legislature that black people of African descent should be in a subordinate role and restricted from the priesthood because they were subject to the curse of Cain. The curse was interpreted as the mark placed on Cain after he killed his brother Abel in the Bible.  Mormons and other religious leadership commonly cited this passage as justification for the enslavement of black people in the United States.

The enactment of the priesthood-temple ban affected African American members both physically and theologically; it acted as a form of spiritual exclusion and a barrier to inclusion in Church administration and certain ceremonies. Mormon theology teaches that special rituals conducted during one’s life determine one’s proximity to God. The ban reserved the spaces closest to God for white people and others who were not of black African descent.

While Brigham Young explicitly argued that African American men should be excluded from the male-only priesthood, it was less clear how these changes affected African American women. Yet, it mattered: Anti-interracial marriage laws and theologically justified attitudes about mixing races prohibited whites from marrying blacks. Although the function of the priesthood has shifted over time, white women have historically had access to the priesthood and temple rituals in ways African American women did not through their marriages and on their own. 

In 1884, Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a convert to the LDS Church, sent a series of letters to LDS leaders in Salt Lake City petitioning for her right to perform special religious ceremonies. One of these was the sealing ceremony, in which a person is spiritually tied to another person for eternity. The sealing can be done between spouses or between parents and their children. Years prior, Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, asked James if she wanted to join the Smith family as their adopted child. She refused. It was a decision she would later regret.

“Is there no blessing for me?” James wrote. Despite her requests, she was denied. She was eventually sealed to Joseph Smith as a servant. Because of her black African lineage, she was not even part of the sealing ceremony—it was performed on a white woman, Bathsheba Smith, in James’s place. James remained a member until her death in 1908.

In the 20th century, questions loomed over the restrictions and their effect on African Americans. A 1959 report by the Utah State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that “the Negro is the minority citizen who experiences the most widespread inequality in Utah. The exact extent of his mistreatment is almost impossible to ascertain.” It suggested that the priesthood-temple restrictions were part of the discrimination taking place in Utah. “Mormon interpretation attributes birth into any race other than the white race as a result of inferior performance in a pre-earth life and teaches that by righteous living, the dark-skinned races may again become ‘white and delightsome,’” the committee wrote.

LDS Church leaders have taken various stances on civil rights, interracial marriage, and racial integration. In response to a proposed civil-rights demonstration headed by the NAACP in 1963, Hugh B. Brown, a high-ranking church official, issued a statement in support of civil rights and “upholding the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States.” Yet, a year later, in a letter addressed to George Romney, the civil-rights supporter and father of the future Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then-Church apostle Delbert L. Stapley recommended that African Americans should not enjoy “full social benefits nor inter-marriage privilege with the Whites, nor should the Whites be forced to accept them into restricted White areas.” Although it was not the official position of the LDS Church, his statement seemed to come from a place of authority. Just a few years later, faced with growing concerns over the priesthood-temple ban, the growth of the LDS Church in countries with large mixed-race populations, and boycotts of Brigham Young University sports teams by black athletes, then-Church president Spencer W. Kimball lifted the restrictions by way of revelation, which the Church teaches is communication directly from God.

Today, the LDS Church continues to have a complicated relationship with its black members. In a 1996 interview with 60 Minutes, then-Church president Gordon B. Hinckley downplayed the comments by Brigham Young and the racial history of the LDS Church. He renounced racism in a speech given in 2006. Five years after Hinckley passed, in 2008, the LDS church quietly released an essay on race and the priesthood, attempting to explain the restriction’s origin. It goes on to repudiate the racism and racist folklore that had been used to explain the restriction in the past.

But the attitudes of white members, who make up the majority of the Church in the U.S., have not necessarily changed. For example: In a 2012 article for The Washington Post, former BYU professor Randy Bott employed some of the racist folklore that describes the former priesthood-temple restrictions as a benefit to black members. “I think that [discrimination] is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if [the priesthood] wouldn’t have been a benefit” to blacks? he wrote. “Blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.” While the LDS Church was quick to refute his comments and the persistence of racism in and outside of its walls, he was echoing the lessons once taught as eternal law—not something that’s easily forgotten.

In the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, Tamu Smith, an African American convert, recalls being called a “nigger” inside a temple, one of the most holy spaces in Mormon life. Others have commented on the sense of isolation they feel as blacks in the Church. Interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune in June, Alice Faulkner Burch—a women’s leader in the Genesis Group, an LDS-sponsored organization for black Mormons in Utah—said black Mormons “still need support to remain in the church—not for doctrinal reasons but for cultural reasons.” Burch added that “women are derided about our hair ... referred to in demeaning terms, our children mistreated, and callings withheld.” While leadership duties over the Church, community areas, and entire congregations are exclusive to men, women act as leaders over secondary organizational groups known as “auxiliaries.” Throughout the world, black men and women head their congregations and organizational groups, respectively. Still, the upper male and female leadership of the LDS Church remains largely white and American. While these leaders many be perfectly efficient in their roles, the persistent racial disparity suggests that the previous restrictions, and the ambiguity regarding their origins, still influence the pool from which the highest-ranking members of the Church are selected.

At the same time, the Church has made special efforts to reach out to African Americans. In its recently completed Freedman’s Bureau Project, the Church worked with national museums and archives to index the records of African Americans who were formerly enslaved. In a faith tradition which holds genealogy as a pivotal aspect of salvation, this move was a monumental step in recognizing the needs of African American Mormons. Additionally, church leaders have sought to clarify the meaning of the word “blackness” in Mormon theology—it is often used not just as a reference to skin color, but also as a symbol of disobedience to God.

The African American experience in the LDS Church is one filled with its share of joy. Devan Mitchell, an African American Mormon living in Renton, Washington, told me about an experience with another black convert after the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July. “I found her in the chapel and we held each other and cried,” Mitchell said. “As a result of this expression of our pain, something wonderful happened. The members of our ward came together, they embraced us as well, and they prayed with us, they mourned with us.”

This kind of resilience is often found in the communities built by black Mormons, which recognize a God who never cursed people of black African descent. “What we want to instill in our children is a sense of pride of who they are,” said Natalie Sheppard, featured in Nobody Knows. “[It’s not only] being a child of God but being a black child of God in a beautiful garden, that if he had wanted to make everyone the same, he would have done that. But instead he made us all different for a reason. Part of that reason to me is so we can teach each other.”

African American Mormons are shaping and affirming their presence in the LDS Church by telling their own stories, and African American Mormon women in particular—once overlooked in discussions about the effects of the restrictions—are making their presence known inside and outside of Mormon culture.

A portrait of a young black woman hangs outside a sealing room within the temple recently built in Payson, Utah. Once described as Jane Elizabeth Manning James, the nameless woman remains as “anyone whose heart is broken and whose spirit is contrite.” It is a reminder of the presence of African Americans in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, here in the chapels and along the pews with our fellow Saints, waiting to be let in.

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