People of African descent have been a part of the Mormon movement from its founding year, 1830, when a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete” joined the fledgling faith. Although their numbers were small, blacks continued to join across the nineteenth century, even as the space for full black participation diminished over time. Prior to Joseph Smith, Jr.’s death at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis were ordained to the lay Mormon priesthood, both Elders in the higher, or Melchizedek priesthood. Abel was most likely ordained by Mormonism’s founding prophet himself, and Lewis at the hands of Smith’s younger brother and Mormon Apostle, William Smith. The first two Mormon temples, those at Kirtland and Nauvoo, also included open policies toward blacks, places where “persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color . . . shall with us worship the Lord of Hosts in his holy temple.”
In this light it is most accurate to speak of an integrated Mormon priesthood in Mormonism’s first two decades, a progressive position for Mormons in a charged national racial and religious context. Unfortunately that open stance subsequently gave way, in fits and starts, to a black priesthood and temple ban, both firmly in place by the end of the nineteenth century. Mormonism then returned in 1978 to its roots when it again integrated its priesthood and temples. Even as those restrictions were implemented and then removed, blacks were always admitted into membership through baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Mormonism has always included integrated Sunday worship, from 1830 to 2012, a claim that not all Christian religions can make.
The first recorded statement of a race based priesthood restriction came in 1847 from Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt, three years following Smith’s murder at the hands of an Illinois mob. Brigham Young most fully elaborated his views in 1852 before an all Mormon Utah Territorial legislature as it contemplated a law to govern the black slaves that Mormon converts from the South brought with them as they gathered to the Great Basin. Young tapped into long standing Biblical exegeses to draw upon Noah’s curse of Canaan, but more directly to link a racial priesthood ban to God’s purported “mark/curse” upon Cain for killing his brother Abel.
In America, as scholar David M. Goldenberg demonstrates, that idea dated back to at least 1733 and in Europe to as early as the eleventh century, long before Mormonism’s founding in 1830. Various early Christian sources described blacks as “the cursed descendant[s] of Cain and the devil,” and black skin originating “with Cain, the murderer of his brother, whose family were destined to have the black colour as punishment.” It was an idea that infused American culture and permeated racialized understandings of who black people were before Mormonism existed. In 1829, David Walker, an African American fully recognized the degree to which the curse was employed in American society when he wrote that “[s]ome ignorant creatures hesitate not to tell us that we (the blacks) are the seed of Cain . . . and that God put a dark stain upon us, that we might be known as their slaves!!!” In 1852, Young drew upon these same centuries-old ideas to both justify Utah Territory’s law legalizing “servitude” and to argue for a raced based priesthood curse.
As some critics note, Young also spoke out forcefully against interracial sex and marriage, something that marked him more American than uniquely Mormon. Even though his bombast advocated capital punishment, an extreme position even in the nineteenth-century, those views were never codified into Utah law. Some Utahns did lynch some blacks, but the numbers were relatively small, especially when compared to the post-Reconstruction racial violence in the Bible-Belt, a region where judge lynch reigned supreme. One historian counted seven lynchings in Utah between 1882 and 1903 (another historian estimates twelve total), while a different study documented more than 450 lynchings in Georgia (Newt Gingrich’s home state) between 1882 and 1930. The majority of victims were white in Utah, while the overwhelming majority in Georgia were black.
In my estimation neither Mr. Gingrich nor Mr. Romney are responsible for racism in either state. But the recent barbs aimed at Mr. Romney imply that he and any believing Mormon who accepts the Book of Mormon as scripture and Brigham Young as a prophet must be a racist. Similar illogic could readily be used to sully any of the current candidates, simply because Christians of a variety of religious traditions drew upon the Bible to shore up slavery before the Civil War and to justify segregation after it.
It was America’s prevailing concern against interracial mixing that I believe most directly accounts for Mormonism’s transition across the nineteenth-century to limit the space of full black participation. It is impossible to understand that trajectory, without first understanding Mormonism’s own racialization at the hands of outsiders. It began in the 1830s and helps to account for the violent expulsion of 1,200 Mormons from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri, where Mormons were charged with inviting free blacks to Missouri “as fit companions for our [white Missourians’] wives and daughters.” Fear of Mormon race mixing reached new heights after Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852. In the minds of outsiders, Mormon polygamy was not just destroying the traditional family, it was destroying the white race. A U.S. Army doctor reported to Congress that polygamy was giving rise to a new “race,” filthy, sunken, and degraded. One writer argued that polygamy placed “a mark of Cain” on Mormon women while another said that Mormonism was “as degrading as old-fashioned negro slavery.”
One political cartoon depicted Brigham Young with a black wife while another newspaper reported on two supposed “negro balls” in Salt Lake City where “negro men and women, and Mormon men and women, [were] all dancing on terms of perfect equality.” The writer called it “the most disgusting of spectacles.” Other cartoons and dime novels portrayed Mormon plural marriages as hotbeds of interracial sex, constructions deliberately designed to heighten American alarm over a perceived violation of racial boundaries and to portray Mormons as facilitators of racial contamination. The solution according to one newspaper was to start lynching Mormon missionaries after “the black men are all lynched.” The irony, of course, is that by the turn of the century, Utah had already adopted its own law against interracial marriage and Mormons had barred black men from the priesthood and black women and men from LDS temple worship (except baptisms for the dead).
Even though America’s broader racial history provides much needed context for Mormonism’s own racial history, it is not meant to excuse or diminish the charged racial statements Mormon leaders made. I reject those statements. They are not a part of what it means to be a Mormon to me and certainly do not inform my daily efforts to walk with Christ. I apologize to all blacks for the part that Mormon leaders played in denigrating blacks and for its race based priesthood and temple bans. But please understand, I did not make those statements and I had nothing to do with the implementation of those bans. Even as a practicing Mormon I am not answerable for them and I am not convinced that Mitt Romney is either.
I am not bound by a Mormon leader’s past racist statements any more than I am bound as an American by Thomas Jefferson’s views on race. Brigham Young, John Taylor, David O. McKay, or any other Mormon leader does not speak for me on matters of race only so far as they point me toward a colorblind redemption through Christ. For all of the emphasis that outsiders place upon a perceived blind obedience to authority among Mormons, they fail to give equal weight to the democratizing impact of personal revelation, a central tenet of the faith from its beginnings. Even Brigham Young, sometimes depicted as an extreme authoritarian, counseled Mormons to avoid blind faith: “Let every man and woman know by the whispering of the spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates or not. This has been my exhortation continually,” he said.
While you may indeed find Mormons today who hold racists views, they do so in direct violation of Mormon standards, specifically a 2006 call to repentance by then Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. The only revelation on race and priesthood in the Mormon cannon came in 1978. It confirmed the biblical standard that God is “no respecter of persons” and the Book of Mormon principle that “all are alike unto God.” Even Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, a man responsible for some of Mormonism’s most egregious justifications for a racial ban, denounced his own statements within months of the 1978 revelation. He asked a Mormon audience at Brigham Young University to “[f]orget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or . . . whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” It was a statement that suggests that prior Mormon teachings on race were unfortunately devoid of the “light and knowledge” that revelation represents to Mormons.
In the end, it is an interesting trap that outsiders sometimes create for Mormons, a trap most publicly highlighted in the attention Mr. Romney’s run for the presidency has drawn. On one hand some Evangelical Christians denigrate Mormons as members of a non-Christian “cult” because they say Mormons too radically depart from “traditional Christianity,” while on the other hand Mormons are labeled racist for not departing far enough from Protestant Christianity’s teachings about the curse of Ham, Canaan, and Cain. Both are charges that likely say more about those casting the aspersions than they do about Mormons—Mitt Romney or otherwise.
W. Paul Reeve, PhD, is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press. He is the author of Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes, and co-editor with Ardis E. Parshall of Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. With Michael Van Wagenen he co-edited Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore. He is a practicing Mormon.
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