Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mormonism and the Negro

Last night (July 22, 2008) when the family was together before bedtime, Pam was helping Grant put his baseball cards away in his binder. Pam asked, “When were blacks allowed to play in Major League Baseball?” Before I could respond, Alison (18 years old) walked by and said with her humorous accent, “A lot sooner than blacks were allowed in the Church.” She smiled as she walked into the bathroom. Pam let out an audible groan but nothing more was said about the matter. I offered a guess that Jackie Robinson played in the early 50’s.

It’s typical of Latter-day Saints not to talk openly about controversial matters. As a people I think we are not forthright and candid about hard issues. As my kids grow up they will have more and more of these kinds of questions that will need to be addressed. I’d like to briefly address the issue commonly known as blacks and the priesthood now as I see it without regard to footnotes and sources.

Mormonism started in New York and Ohio, northern states. Early Mormons got their racial views from society at large. Northerners were intellectually opposed to slavery while Southerners justified slavery because of economic expediency. Blacks lived predominately in the south but southern attitudes spread northward so that northerners developed their own version of prejudicial views toward the blacks; on the one hand they felt compassion for the slaves because of the injustices they were suffering and on the other hand they bought into much of the rhetoric of the southern states regarding the lower status of the “negro race.”

Mormons moved to Missouri, then later to Illinois, then finally to Utah were they were isolated from the day-to-day struggles that the rest of the country was facing during the Civil War and following the Emancipation Proclamation. Mormons’ racial worldview matured more slowly and lagged behind the rest of the country for lack of impetus. The issue of how to integrate blacks was not very significant in the early days of the Church since blacks were routinely segregated in most Christian denominations and the Church did not exist proximate to any significant numbers of black people.

There is historic evidence that Joseph Smith conferred the Priesthood on some black men. But once the Saints moved to Missouri they kept whatever abolitionist views they had, toned down because they already had enough trouble fitting in with the locals--after all, Missouri was a southern state.

After the Saints settled into Utah the leaders of the Church discussed whether or not blacks could hold priesthood offices in the Church. It was decided that Joseph Smith was against it. Perhaps the two strongest influences upon the Church leaders at the time were, first, an idea that existed before Joseph Smith—the idea some Americans held—that the negros were descended from Cain (also called curse of Ham and curse of Canaan) and their black skin was the curse of Cain, and second, the fact that Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham made reference to such a curse. A quick search of the internet will quickly reveal how prevalent this idea was outside of Mormonism.

The position was taken that blacks could be members of the Church but not hold Priesthood positions. Of course every position naturally needs some kind of rationale to support it and so doctrine evolved to support the position.

Fast-forward a hundred years.

When I was a young boy I noticed a book on my Dad’s bookshelf called, “Mormonism and the Negro.” I saw this book also for sale at Church before and after meetings (among many other books). This book was not written by a General Authority but was supported by the Church as evidenced by endorsements, both tacit and direct, within private letters as well as other books written by Church leaders and discourses given in Church Conferences. The “Curse of Cain” doctrine was widely accepted in the Church for many years. However, with the Civil Right’s Movement came the need to introspect and question this long-held belief. Finally in 1978 the Church rescinded its position on denying the priesthood to blacks.

Now if you look closely here you will see a pattern the Church uses, subconsciously perhaps, to manage change, and it seems reasonable and practical enough. First, make the change. Then speak minimally about if for a long time until the older membership dies off or gets used to the idea. Then slowly phase in new thinking. There is never a regime change in the Church and so it is difficult to repudiate acts of successors, however, after enough time has passed you will find that living Authorities will depart from the views and policies of their predecessors although they are loath to disrespect their legacies or create controversy.

But try as they might to reduce controversy, they’ve got it anyway because over the years there has been untenable doctrine taught in the Church regarding blacks, and some of the newer black members are asking for doctrinal clarification and even repudiation of past doctrines that were devised to support what is now being called, in retrospect, a “policy” of the Church and not a doctrine at all. A desire for such clarification of earlier authoritative statements that no longer ring true is reasonable and justifiable albeit potentially painful for those in the Church that believe that everything is revealed with crystalline clarity from God. In very recent years I can think of two very significant public statements of clarification and repudiation by President Hinckley and Elder Holland. More statements will surely be made as time goes along. These two statements are quoted at the bottom of this post.

D&C 1:30 says we are a “living church,” yet traditionally we have expected infallibility from our “Prophets.” To me, a “living” church is a growing and a changing church. Yet traditionally we have thought of the church as a perfectly restored replica of Christ’s static original church.

As we look back through the lens of today’s sensibilities we can see that even Abraham Lincoln, arguably the best friend that the black community has ever had, who ultimately even gave his life to abolish slavery (and save the Union), is viewed today by some as having been a racist whose motivations were more to save the Union than to abolish slavery. Nevertheless, I maintain that Abraham Lincoln was a good man with good motives, and did the best he knew how to do in his time. The same can be said of the Church. The past is complicated and messy and doing the right thing is not always clear or easy.

For those who would point to the Mormon Church as being racist I would say that it was really not any more racist than society at large was. The Mormons were only more obviously racist as they clung to views that most of the rest of the nation had already shed.

The Church is not perfect but at least it is “living” and evolving and getting better, in my humble opinion.

President Gordon B. Hinckley
General Conference April 2, 2006
“Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord. Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
PBS The Mormons
(Taken from an interview. I wish he would rewrite this and publish it somewhere.)

“One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. … It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place…o [when asked to specify the folklore] Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic…”

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