Mormonism’s Black Issues

Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks chose a friendly audience deep within the Book-of-Mormon-belt for his now controversial October 13 speech in defense of the Mormons’ ongoing fight against same-sex civil marriage. Speaking to students at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Oaks decried the continuing erosion of religious freedom and the declining influence of religion in the public sphere, before mounting a strongly-worded defense of “the ancient order” of marriage against the “alleged ‘civil right’ of same-gender couples to enjoy the privileges of marriage.”

Elder Oaks recalled expressions of outrage directed at Mormons and acts of vandalism against Mormon temples and wardhouses committed after the November 2008 passage of Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage in California. (Mormons, who make up 2% of California’s population, contributed more than 50% of the individual donations to the Proposition 8 campaign and a sizeable majority of its on-the-ground efforts.) The post-Proposition 8 backlash was, he stated, comparable to Civil Rights Movement-era “voter intimidation of blacks in the South.”

Oaks, a former University of Chicago law professor who clerked for United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1957 and 1958 in the aftermath of the Warren court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) desegregation decision, knew that his black-Mormon comparison would draw public attention. In fact, when he previewed his speech for an AP reporter on October 12, he speculated that it might “be offensive to some.”

Sure enough, commentators from within (and without) the world of Mormonism have questioned the soundness of Oaks’ analogy, asking whether Mormons in their effort to eliminate same-sex marriage are more justly characterized as proponents of religious freedom or opponents of gay human rights. In fact, four Mormon gay rights groups issued a joint statement on October 16 urging the Apostle to consider how the Mormon anti-gay marriage effort might paradoxically compromise religious freedom for members of faiths that recognize the sanctity of committed same-sex relationships.

But most of Oaks’ respondents politely sidestepped an even deeper paradox troubling his black-Mormon analogy: the fact that Mormons have our own long and peculiar history of discrimination against African Americans.

MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann alluded to this history when he gave Oaks his daily “worst person in the world” award on October 14. Comparing the Proposition 8 Mormon backlash and the harassment of black voters was especially inappropriate, Olbermann argued, because Mormons had been “on the wrong side of integration.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibited individuals of African descent from joining the Church’s lay priesthood (open to all devout Mormon men over the age of twelve), serving as missionaries, or participating in Mormon temple ordinances from 1849 until 1978, a fact that many Mormons today find difficult to talk about or explain.

In the earliest years of Mormon history, during the 1830s and 1840s, six or seven African-American men including Elijah Abel (1808–1885) and Walker Lewis (1798–1856) were ordained to the Church’s priesthood. But under the leadership of Mormon Church president Brigham Young, the ordination of African-American men ceased, African-American men and women were prohibited from temple worship, and intermarriage was officially discouraged.

Some historians believe that Young’s about-face on the status of African Americans may have been motivated by embarrassment stemming from an 1847 scandal involving an excommunicated African-American Mormon named William McCary, or by political pressures surrounding the extension of slavery to Utah territory.

Whatever the actual motivation for the priesthood ban, Mormons soon articulated a number of working theological narratives to legitimate anti-African American discrimination, drawing liberally from European and European-American folk theologies that identified Africans and African Americans as the descendents of Cain or Ham.

According to some Mormons, the priesthood ban was an element of the curse placed upon Cain for killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4), or the curse levied on Ham’s son Canaan to punish Ham’s humiliation of his father, Noah (Genesis 9:20-27). The Pearl of Great Price, a Mormon book of scripture, described the people of Canaan as being cursed with “blackness” (Moses 7:5-8) and indicated that descendents of Ham and his wife Egyptus were “cursed… as pertaining to the Priesthood” (Abraham 1:21-26).

In 1849, Brigham Young declared that “the Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood,” a position he reaffirmed in a January 16, 1852 statement to the Utah territorial legislature:

Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain]… in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it.

Another rationale for Mormon discrimination against African Americans was articulated in 1845 by Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde, who speculated that the cursed condition of African Americans was a consequence of their actions during their premortal existence.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these doctrines gained traction while memories of early African-American priesthood holders like Elijah Abel faded; Church leaders continued to prohibit temple ordinances and priesthood ordination for Church members with as little as “1/32” African-American ancestry. In 1949, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement declaring that the black priesthood ban was a “direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization.”

The rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s actually spurred some Mormon leaders to renew their support for discrimination. In a 1954 speech at Brigham Young University, Apostle Mark E. Peterson denounced interracial marriage on theological grounds, arguing that “if there is one drop of Negro blood in my children… they receive the curse [of Canaan]”; in 1958 Bruce R. McConkie wrote in Mormon Doctrine that African Americans had been “less valiant in the pre-existence,” and thus “sent to earth through the lineage of Cain.” Speaking from the pulpit at a semi-annual Church Conference in 1965, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson (a former Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower) charged that the Civil Rights Movement was a Communist plot to destroy America.

Other Mormon leaders were more moderately disposed towards African American equality. Historians credit Apostle Hugh B. Brown and Church President David O. McKay with efforts to open the question of ending the priesthood ban, even though both men maintained personal misgivings about the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969, the First Presidency of the Church issued an official statement expressing support for full civil equality under the law for all citizens regardless of race while defending the black priesthood ban as a prerogative of religious freedom.

On June 8, 1978, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that “the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood,” effectively ending the prohibition on full African American participation. The announcement was accepted as revelation by an affirmation of the Church membership at the October Church General Conference and subsequently canonized as scripture.

In the years since the repeal of the priesthood ban, a number of official steps have been taken to correct prejudice within the Church. The Church published a new edition of the Book of Mormon in 1981, replacing a promise that the righteous would become “white” with a promise that they would be made “pure” (2 Nephi 30:6), but leaving intact a handful of other Book of Mormon scriptures correlating dark skin with spiritual accursedness. In 1990, Helvecio Martins, an Afro-Brazilian Mormon, became the first man of African descent to be ordained as one of the Church’s General Authorities. African-American Mormons and their allies have also undertaken a number of unofficial efforts to raise consciousness about Black Mormon experience and concerns, like the well-received 2007 documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. (Experts estimate there are now about 1 million Mormons of African descent worldwide.)

But without an official, explicit clarification of earlier teachings on race, many older Mormons continue to quietly maintain and circulate old beliefs connecting blackness and the priesthood ban to the Cain-Ham genealogy or to lack of spiritual valiance in pre-earthly life. Younger Mormons born after the end of the priesthood ban, and raised in what one prominent black Mormon has described as Mormonism’s “deafening silence” on race, have little knowledge of the Church’s history of discrimination and few resources for coming to terms with it.

Indeed, Mormons may now have a greater sense of their own historical persecution as a religious minority than they do a sense of responsibility for the Mormon Church’s discriminatory history. Whereas Mormonism’s African-American problem is rarely discussed within mainstream orthodox Mormon circles, stories about nineteenth-century anti-Mormon mob violence, the state of Missouri’s 1838 Mormon “extermination order,” the assassination of Joseph Smith Jr., and the subsequent exodus to Utah are frequently recounted. Last November’s protests directed at Mormon temples and wardhouses after the election only confirmed and intensified Mormons’ deeply-held sense of marginalization and persecution.

Elder Oaks’ October 13 analogy between African Americans and Mormons mobilized this sense of persecution and galvanized Mormon same-sex marriage opponents, just as Maine’s Proposition 1 campaign to ban same-sex marriage enters its home stretch and last-minute fundraising appeals from the National Organization for Marriage find their way into Mormon same-sex marriage activists’ inboxes.