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Mormon Teachings on Race Relations, 1935

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 24, 2009

Below is the full text of a lesson taught in the Church’s adult Sunday School classes on August 4, 1935. I do not know the author; the lesson was distributed anonymously with the quarterly “Gospel Messages” leaflet issued by the Deseret Sunday School Union Board, as were all other Sunday School lessons in that era. I haven’t changed a single word, not even the occasional outdated vocabulary.

Let’s have a lively discussion. I’ll be happiest if we can talk about this lesson and don’t merely repeat previous ‘nacle debates on race –  anything about the ideas in this lesson, how it might have been received in 1935, how it would be received today, whether it matches your preconceptions of what was taught in 1935 — rather than the origin of the priesthood restriction, charges of Brigham Young’s racism, and the current availability of BRM’s Mormon Doctrine. Thanks for your understanding.

RELIGION AND RACE RELATIONS.

Problem of Getting Along with People.

The problem of getting along with people of different racial origin has been a difficult one of solution from the dawn of history and persists even to the present time. There seems to be some sort of a natural antagonism which exists between peoples of different ancestry. This tendency is stronger when there is a marked physical feature of some sort which distinguishes these races from each other. Thus, the difference in skin color between the white and the black races has always been a barrier between the peoples of these differing colors. The same thing is true in regard to those peoples which we know as the yellow races and the whites and blacks.

Complications.

The difficulty of racial intercourse has been manifest in many ways. In the United States we see this conflict between races manifest in many laws applying to people of one race and not of another. More than half the states in our Union have laws prohibiting the intermarriage of people of different races. Of the twenty-nine states which have such laws, fourteen are found in the south, where the conflict between whites and blacks is most intense. In the West we find similar laws which are directed primarily not at negroes, but at Japanese and Chinese. On the Pacific Coast and in some adjoining states we also find laws prohibiting the ownership of land by orientals. In some states these laws even go so far as to prevent the renting of land or the holding of land by the guardian of a minor citizen of the United States.

Superiority Feelings Often Unfounded.

These conditions which exist in the United States, where the people of every race have come rather freely, are but examples of the type of problem which has existed wherever peoples of different racial origin have come in contact with each other. There has always been a tendency for those of one race to consider themselves superior to people of a different race. This feeling seems as natural as it is for members of most families to think themselves in some manner superior, or individuals to hold similar opinions regarding themselves. Usually, if examined from a purely objective point of view, these claims to superiority are found to be without foundation. Yet they form the basis for feelings of distrust, of contempt, of hatred, making intercourse difficult and giving rise to many serious problems.

Religion Applied to the Problem.

Here is a great and ever-present problem, the solution of which is always before us. How can our religion aid us in the proper solution of the problem? This is a question which people have asked for generations. Perhaps many people have not asked the question so plainly, for many people have never thought of religion as a means of solving problems. Yet, without the multitude having been aware of the fact, their religion has been used in an attempt to determine a policy in this, as in every other important consideration in life.

Misapplied.

Let us go for illustration of this matter to the Jewish scriptures, which reveal to us the religion of the descendants of Jacob. It is evident that the Jews considered themselves superior to the black people with whom they came in contact, for in their religious writings they tell us how God placed a mark upon the descendants of Cain and his children. And in another place the tradition has the story of the cursing of Ham, the son of Noah. As the result of these cursings, the descendants of these men became dark skinned and the children of Ham were designated as servants to the descendants of other sons of Noah.

Ill Effects.

Here we see an indication of an antagonism between the dark skinned and lighter skinned peoples, the latter placing a curse upon the former. This curse of God sets up a barrier between the two races which is next to impassable. It is an antagonism which has not disappeared even to this day. Here the religion of the Israelites, by means of which they come to think of the dark skinned races as cursed of God and as destined to become servants, becomes the very basis, as it were, for a feeling of superiority on the part of the Israelites, a feeling that the colored man can never become his equal.

In India we find a great religion resting upon a caste system which makes impossible the social intermingling of different portions of the population. It is entirely possible that this system, which exists today, has its origin in an attempt of the white conquerors of India to hold themselves separate from the dark skinned people whom they had mastered.

We may readily find another example of how religion can intensify race differences in the constant reference of the Jewish writers to the Israelites as a chosen people, who took it for granted that God thought more of them than He did of any other people on the face of the earth. The attitude of these people toward the “Gentile,” which term is always used by them in a religious sense, is further evidence of how their feeling of race superiority became a matter of religion with them.

And so we might find examples to illustrate this point from many additional sources, but the scope of this discussion does not justify further illustration of this point. From our present point of view, it does appear however, that people have used religion as a sanction for race prejudice and hatred; that the religious concepts of some people have hindered intercourse with those of other races.

The Gospel a Corrective.

What does Christianity have to say in regard to this knotty problem? Let us see whether or not we can find in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching an answer to this question.

In the Case of Peter.

We spoke in the last lesson about the manner in which the truth that the Gospel was for others than the Jews was made known to Peter in that great vision of the sheet which came down from heaven. We have spoken of Paul’s attitude in the matter of defending the Gentile. Most of the early Christians were Jews and they brought with them into the new religious group the race prejudices of their own people. Yet Paul explained to them how they had misunderstood their own religion in this regard and he succeeded in leaving the new and growing church the far greater idea of the brotherhood of man in Christ.

And of Paul.

One of the finest examples of Paul’s attitude in this matter is contained in the third chapter of his letter to the Galatians. Here he says to his Galatian friends:

“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

No finer declaration of the brotherhood of man can be found than this. Here Paul says in substance: Jesus has given us a new vision of the universal Fatherhood of God. By faith in Jesus you are all the children of the God of Abraham. More, you are the actual descendants of Abraham and all the promises which God has made to Abraham he makes equally to you. God cares nothing for race, He cares nothing for condition of servitude, He cares nothing for sex. all God is interested in is that you follow the teaching of his son, Jesus.

In the last sentence of this quotation from Paul there is given to the Jewish idea that they were a chosen people, especially beloved by God, because they were descendants of Abraham, an entirely new meaning. The seed of Abraham here become the righteous who have “put on Christ.” Paul here explodes, as it were, the Jewish idea that God loved them better than he did others simply because they were Abraham’s seed.

John, the Baptist Testifies.

John the Baptist had said something much like this to those who came to him for baptism in the river Jordan.

“And think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”

The Prophet Joseph.

Joseph Smith is credited with having said that when a man joins the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that he becomes, by so doing, of the “blood of Israel.”

It appears that we are justified in concluding from what we have seen that John the Baptist and Paul and Joseph Smith all saw the great truth that actual physical descent, in other words race, is of no importance in the sight of God. The very expression “blood of Israel” which to the Jew meant a literal descendant of Jacob, comes to take on an entirely new meaning. It now means those who accept Jesus and keep God’s commandments. We have noted also a new connotation for a term which means a certain place and now means a condition. The word Zion, which once referred to a city, now also means “the pure in heart.”

Jesus Illustrated the Principle.

The story of a good Samaritan was Jesus’ way of teaching this same great truth. And this story and Paul’s stand on this matter have completely destroyed in the mind of the true Christian every vestige of the concept that true religion gives any sanction to a separation of the children of God on the basis of race.

Brotherhood of Man an Essential Gospel Principle.

The brotherhood of man, as springing from the common Fatherhood of God, is the very essence of Christianity. The teaching of Jesus has no place for race hatred, racial distrust, any feeling of racial superiority. The brotherhood of man transcends all lines of color, of race, of family. Jesus was willing to carry this idea to the very extreme. When a messenger brought word to him that his mother and his brothers wished to speak to him, he said,

“Who is my mother? And who are my brothers? And he stretched out his hand toward his disciples, and said, ‘Behold my mother and my brethren, for whosoever shall do the will of the Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother.’”

In the light of this statement it does not appear that there could be any doubt as the attitude of the Savior on this matter we are here discussing. The Christian can draw no distinction between white, black, red, or yellow. All are the children of God the Father. Christians have recognized this fact in their attempt to carry the gospel to the people of every race. Color or race has not deterred them in their enthusiasm. They have faced the jungles of Africa to carry the message to the negroes. They have braved the dangers and rigors of winter in the Canadian forests to carry the gospel to the savage red man. They have suffered persecution and death to take the word of Jesus to the Chinese.

Christian Responsibility.

If that same universal regard for God’s children which has been manifest by the Christian missionary could dictate the attitude of the peoples of the world toward their neighbors of different races, there could be no racial problem which could not be solved without rancor, without recourse to force, without the imposition of unjust hardship on the members of any race. Christianity holds within it the solution to all our race problems. That solution rests in the mere application of the spirit of the religion of Jesus to all situations which rise. We cannot here discuss the specific racial problems, but we can give the general formula for their universal solution. That formula is a simple one, simple as was every teaching of the Savior. The dealings between brothers should be based on a binding love. All men are brothers, bound by the common bond of the universal Fatherhood of God. Jesus, our Brother, gave utterance to the simple formula, when he said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

State your idea about the following:

1. How did Paul harmonize the idea of the brotherhood of man and the Jewish idea of the chosen seed of Abraham?

2. How could Christianity be applied to race problems such as the Japanese problem on the Pacific Coast?

3. Should Americans as a nation and white men as a race, treat the Japanese as a nation and the yellow man as a race, as an individual American would feel bound, as a Christian, to treat an individual Japanese?

4. How can Christianity be applied to the solution of the negro problem in the United States?

5. How could Christianity solve the problem of Jewish persecution in some European countries?



18 Comments »

  1. This totally defies my preconceptions about the approach the church took towards race in the 30s. It is far ahead of society’s curve. As far as I know, only musicians and perhaps Quakers (though my impression is that Quakers were all white anyway) ignored race during the 1930s. What a great vision this lesson displays. This opens my eyes.

    Comment by Tatiana — April 24, 2009 @ 6:57 am

  2. Wow–those questions at the end are pretty incisive; even today they’d be pretty thorny (adjusted for current conflicts/events).

    Comment by Bro. Jones — April 24, 2009 @ 8:57 am

  3. I have to say that I almost stopped reading this article after that iffy beginning (where it sort of seems like it’s going to justify this so-called “natural antogonism” between the races). I was beginning to feel sick to my stomach and I almost stopped reading. But wow, I’m so glad I read to the end. What a beautiful way to approach the problem.

    And in light of what was happening at the time to the Jews in Europe, and to the blacks in the United States, this statement that “Christianity holds within it the solution to all our race problems” was just so bittersweet.

    Last, I felt the same thing as Tatiana, that this article defied my preconceptions about the approach the Church took towards race in the 30s. However, as I recall in Greg Prince’s book, even Apostle David O. McKay wasn’t aware of the exact Church policy towards blacks in the 1930s, and so perhaps the ban on the priesthood at the time didn’t loom large in the writer’s mind when thinking about race relations?

    Comment by Hunter — April 24, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  4. The tiny bit of anecdotal evidence I have from that period suggests that the membership of the church may have been lagging behind the ideals expressed in this lesson–of course, when and for what lessons is that not true?

    One of the obvious challenges that would have been faced by a teacher leading a discussion about this would have been “How do we reconcile the priesthood ban with the principles in this lesson?” That same question was one that many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s struggled with.

    Finally, the questions expose some of the writer’s biases and raise some profound issues. My guess is that the Japanese on the West Coast and the “negroes” did not view themselves as the problem. If they had written the lesson, perhaps the questions would have referred to the “nativist white problem” on the Pacific coast, or the “white prejudice against negroes” problem.

    But question 3 does pose a tougher question: how do we talk about the relationships between governments and nations without getting down into the gutter of race hatred? Most of the time we fail miserably–especially when those relationships degenerate into war.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 24, 2009 @ 9:07 am

  5. Thanks for these thoughtful reactions.

    This single lesson is obviously not a full exploration of Mormon teachings on race from that period, and i don’t suppose for a moment that every teacher taught it in the spirit which was intended, or that every member heard it in that way, or that suddenly the vast majority of Sunday Scholars suddenly embraced a colorblind philosophy. It is one aspect of our teaching that is usually bypassed, though, in favor of more sensational examples, and I thought it worthwhile and hopeful to post.

    I do appreciate your approaches to this discussion. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 24, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  6. Thank you for this. I’m sharing it directly with friends in the Southwest LA (Watts) branch, wards in LA, and others.
    .
    If only we believed and lived our own teachings…

    Comment by manaen — April 24, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  7. This is fantastic! Lets bring it back, (with a little historical correction) for gospel essentials.

    Comment by Doc — April 24, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  8. It is evident that the Jews considered themselves superior to the black people with whom they came in contact, for in their religious writings they tell us how God placed a mark upon the descendants of Cain and his children. And in another place the tradition has the story of the cursing of Ham, the son of Noah. As the result of these cursings, the descendants of these men became dark skinned and the children of Ham were designated as servants to the descendants of other sons of Noah.

    Is the writer hinting that the Jews buttressed their feelings of superiority by creating a story/tradition/myth of a divine cursing or am I reading too much into it?

    Here we see an indication of an antagonism between the dark skinned and lighter skinned peoples, the latter placing a curse upon the former.

    The curse was the result of antagonism? Was it justifiable?

    This curse of God sets up a barrier between the two races which is next to impassable. It is an antagonism which has not disappeared even to this day. Here the religion of the Israelites, by means of which they come to think of the dark skinned races as cursed of God and as destined to become servants, becomes the very basis, as it were, for a feeling of superiority on the part of the Israelites, a feeling that the colored man can never become his equal.

    Again, I find this difficult to parse. The writer refers to a “curse of God,” but also seems to suggest that the Israelite religion should not serve as the basis for feelings of superiority. Is the writer also arguing that beliefs about skin color, curses, and slavery have an illegitimate basis in the Israelite religion?

    Comment by Justin — April 24, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  9. Thanks manaen and Doc. It could be useful to have this circulate as widely as some of the other stuff. It’s a lesson that was certainly prescriptive rather than descriptive, but it existed

    Justin, my whiskers twitched at the same places. Whoever the unknown writer is (and I think it must have been an individual rather than a committee, although the Board undoubtedly passed it), he is deliberately stepping outside the traditional Mormon literalist interpretation to make his point about the relation of religion and race relations. I can’t tell whether he is saying that relationship had illegitimate origins or not; he is only explicit in citing the religious ideas as origins, isn’t he?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 24, 2009 @ 10:40 am

  10. Very cool find, Ardis. And very different from what I expected to see. :)

    Comment by Kaimi — April 24, 2009 @ 10:47 am

  11. it’s a fascinating article- I was taken by the folksy approach (reference to this ‘knotty problem’, for instance) and the general conversational tone. It really is different from other Church materials I’ve read from this period…thanks so much for posting!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — April 24, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  12. It appears to me that there have been, and to some extent, continue to be two strains in thinking about race/lineage in the Church–the racial/lineage equality approach evinced here (and what currently appears to be the official Church position) and the racial/lineage distinctiveness approach evident in Mormon Doctrine (at 114: “Deity in his infinite wisdom, to carry out his inscrutable purposes, has a caste system of his own, a system of segregation of races and peoples.”)

    My perception is that, historically, within the Church, those who took the race/lineage equality position were perceived as more “liberal” and those who took the race/lineage distinctness approach as more “conservative.”

    I defer to Ardis on this, but I also have a perception that during this time period some of the general authorities considered that the Church education system had become much too liberal. My recollection is that J. Reuben Clark, Harold B. Lee and Boyd K. Packer worked very hard to make that Church education more conservative, and I think they were successful.

    I wonder if this lesson is evidence of the “liberalism”, if not of Church education employees during the 1930s, but at least of manual writers.

    [David, your comment was caught in the spam filter, I don't know why. Sorry for the delay in posting. - AEP]

    Comment by DavidH — April 24, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  13. #8, Justin, I want to read this the same way you suggest. Certainly gives that impression. It also hits all around the notion of “race” as a social/cultural construct.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 24, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  14. Absolutely fascinating, Ardis.

    I don’t have much time right now, but I really appreciate this post. I might borrow blatantly from it for my own blog, but I will link to your full post if I do so.

    Comment by Ray — April 24, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  15. One quick thing:

    Most of the early Christians were Jews and they brought with them into the new religious group the race prejudices of their own people.

    Change “Christians” to “Mormons” and “Jews” to “Protestants” and “race prejudices” to “incorrect traditions of their fathers, including race prejudices” and you have a perfect description of one of the central issues of the Restoration – and why I think Jacob 5 and the on-going pruning is important to understand.

    Comment by Ray — April 24, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  16. Sorry, I meant to block quote that first statement in #14. Got distracted by my kids; yeah, it’s their fault!

    [Fixed, Ray -- but I'm leaving this one up because, hey, what are kids for if not to serve as convenient scapegoats? -- AEP]

    Comment by Ray — April 24, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  17. Thank you all for your comments and for the even tenor of discussion. Today’s post was something of an experiment, to see whether Keepa could talk about race in a way that isn’t always typical of the bloggernacle. We’ve started with an unexpectedly positive document, and I hope you’ll all hang on to your memory of this when we talk next week about a document that is very much from the “other strain” that DavidH mentions (his comment was caught in the spam filter for quite a while, so you might have missed it, above). I don’t know whether those strains are properly labeled as liberal and conservative, or whether there was a conscious decision by anyone to steer the church in another direction, or who that “anyone” was if he existed, but of course we all do recognize that our history as a people includes discussions of race that are less rosy than that in today’s post. (Can I have a round of applause for the depth of my understatement, please?)

    Thank you again for reading and commenting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 24, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  18. The first thing I noticed was this lesson is rather ambiguous on the origins of the curses on Cain and and Canaan: Was the original curse given by God, or of human origin? And, supposing it was of divine origin, was the Jewish use of it to disdain relationships all other relationships with the darker-sinned races appropriate, or not?

    The second is that while the teachings of Joseph Smith himself were referenced, no mention is made of the Book of Mormon: The lesson might have been enhanced with quote from Nephi about all being like unto God.

    The Book of Mormon also has something to say about how a not even a divine curse justifies racism, and the authors omitted it.

    This brings to mind the later comments from Ezra Taft Benson about how we (the church, collectively) had taken the Book of Mormon too lightly. As I recall, Marion G. Romney was hinting at the same kinds of things even earlier. How much further ahead of the curve might Church teachings have been?

    The lesson only lightly touches the condition of blacks in the US, and doesn’t mention the apparent disconnect with African blacks not being able to recieve the priesthood at all. I wonder if this might be because the writers didn’t think of it (since it wasn’t a major public issue, then) or because this disconnect was already something of a sensitive topic for thoughtful Mormon students of the scriptures.

    Comment by Confutus — April 24, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

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