Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Mitt Romney, Blackness, and Brigham Young, Part II

Guest Post: Mitt Romney, Blackness, and Brigham Young, Part II

By: W. Paul Reeve - February 16, 2012

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.


Commenters: The topic is Mormonism, race, politics, and the media. General political commentary, whether pro- or anti-Romney, is off-topic and will be deleted.



  1. Thank you, Paul for writing, and Ardis for posting these.

    Comment by Grant — February 16, 2012 @ 6:50 am

  2. These have been wonderful articles. Thanks!

    Comment by MH — February 16, 2012 @ 8:04 am

  3. Great writeup, Paul. I appreciate the fresh perspective that you put to the question of a formal apology by saying:

    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.

    Regardless of the official status of the church, this is I think wise counsel for each of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

    Comment by kevinf — February 16, 2012 @ 10:51 am

  4. Excellent overall, and I’m sure I’m going to be sharing this.

    However, I do have one quibble.

    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.

    Only the leaders who made those statements and imposed those bans are in a position to apologize for them. All you can do is apologize for accepting those statements, or not speaking out against them, if that’s what you want to do. I beleve that’s an important distinction.

    I am not myself prepared to apologize for accepting those statements, except perhaps in the literal, classical sense. I was a teenager when the priesthood ban was lifted, and while I was uncomfortable with the ban and excited and delighted when it ended, I accepted the idea that my Church leaders were the ones authorized to set Church policy, not me. They’re the ones who will answer for the policies they set, not me. And they’ll be answering to God, not the American voters or the NAACP.

    Comment by Vader — February 16, 2012 @ 11:02 am

  5. Thanks, Paul, an important project.

    Comment by BHodges — February 16, 2012 @ 11:12 am

  6. “Both are charges that likely say more about those casting the aspersions than they do about Mormons”

    The same certainly seems to be true about the current uproar about proxy baptisms.

    Thank you for your thoughts on the topic. I just watched Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s movie Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons (can be seen here) for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and then sat down last week and watched it again with my husband. All of this is important information for every member of the church to consider, and perhaps those outside the church as well.

    Comment by Researcher — February 16, 2012 @ 11:36 am

  7. Thanks all, for the kind feedback. And thanks kevinf for understanding where I was coming from. Vader’s comment prompts at least an effort at clarification. Ardis can confirm that the sentence or two that kevinf and Vader zero in on, gave me the most pause and in one or two of the drafts I sent her, I took them out, not because I do not genuinely feel those sentiments, but out of concern for how those sentiments might be read and potentially misinterpreted. To be clear, I am not attempting to apologize in behalf of the LDS Church, BY, or any other church leader. I am not. I am speaking only for myself as a believing Mormon. My apology is born of sincere sorrow for the harm past leaders’ statements cause. I have no control over how the institutional church handles this matter, nor am I asking for any. I only have control over how I handle this matter and this is the way I choose to do so. Vader no doubt will follow his own inclinations.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 16, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  8. No post that has ever appeared on Keepa has gone through more drafts, more careful thought and editing and tweaking, than this pair of posts by Paul. If I had held onto them another week to give HuffPost a little longer to take advantage of their opportunity, these posts would no doubt have been clarified and polished even further.

    I wonder if any other topic with a Mormon intersection has more minefields — personal, institutional, social, religious — than this one. I might not say anything publicly when someone claims to have the definitive answers to the historical questions or the perfect solution to lingering issues, but I certainly would roll my eyes privately and dismiss such claims as shallow. Paul’s sensitivity to the issues is far greater than my own. I know enough to appreciate the struggle he’s had to sort out the history and bring precision to his thoughts while knowing that other people’s backgrounds might lead his words to be misinterpreted no matter how carefully he chooses them.

    I wish these posts had a wider audience than Keepa can bring. We’ve had the benefit of them (what more deserving audience is there, even if we’re a small one?), and they’re out there now for others to discover if they have the wits to go looking.

    Thanks, Paul.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 16, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  9. Paul and Ardis,

    Many thanks to both of you.

    Comment by Mark Brown — February 16, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  10. I do appreciate the minefields and I’d say the result was very much worth the effort, notwithstanding my quibbles.

    Comment by Vader — February 16, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  11. Extraordinary work, Paul. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 16, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

  12. Part II is even better than the first! I hope the research and thought that went into this post is repaid in a wider audience reading this material. I especially appreciate the background info on where the rest of Christendom stood on race during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    I would suggest, if this is ever published to a non-mormon (or even mormon, but non-scholarly) audience, to include the full text of Pres. Hinckley’s “call to repentance” as to my knowledge, it best represents the Church’s current stance on race.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 16, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

  13. For the record, here’s Pres. Hinckley’s statement (abridgment is mine)

    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…

    …Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 16, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

  14. I agree that fear of interracial marriage was probably a part of the restriction, as was an accommodation of Southern Latter-day Saint slave holders. Interestingly, Jane Harris Dykes, who was of African descent, married a white man in the temple with the permission of Church leaders in the latter part of the 19th Century. Why was this permitted? Because her Patriarchal blessing said she was from the tribe of Ephraim. Frankly, this tribalism makes me nervous. I see our assigned “tribes” merely as assignments. I am much more comfortable with BY’s statement about Q. Walker Lewis that “it’s nothing to do with blood, for of one blood hath God made all mankind.”
    Btw, I have no problem with anyone watching the documentary Darius and I made online, but for those who are really interested in the subject, it’s much better to purchase the DVD, which has the full 72-minute documentary and 100 minutes of special features. You can purchase either at the Documentary Channel store or at

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 16, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

  15. No, Tim Hendricks, my not posting your comments (which may remain visible to you from their lingering in moderation hell, but which have not appeared publicly) doesn’t mean what you claim it means. My not posting your comments means only this: Your opinions and the way you express them are of no interest.

    Trolls like you who attempt to blackmail me with lines like “If this is removed it shows that …” always stir my dictatorial impulses.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 17, 2012 @ 2:48 am

  16. There is no dictator like Ardis!

    Long live Ardis and God bless Keepapitchinin!

    Comment by Eric Boysen — February 17, 2012 @ 7:55 am

  17. Patriarchal blessing lineages are an interesting topic that I suppose could take us far afield, but it seems at least close to topic in a discussion of race and the Church.

    An Institute instructor I greatly admired told of taking his son for his patriarchal blessing. The patriarch met them at the door, looked at the son, kind of gulped, and told them to come back later, all but slamming the door in their faces.

    The phone was ringing when they got home. The patriarch was deeply apologetic and explained that when he met the son, he had an immediate strong impression that the son’s lineage was Judah. But he knew the parents had no Jewish background, and this deeply unsettled him. The parents confirmed their own lineage was Ephraim and the son was not adopted.

    He told them to come back. He proceeded to give the son a beautiful blessing in which his lineage was pronouced to be Judah. The patriarch, receipient, and his parents all felt that this was the correct tribal assignment. Assignment, not genetics.

    I also know several descendents of William Budge, who was quite publicly known to have been declared a direct descendant of Aaron (tribe of Levi) in his patriarchal blessing. All, without exception, have been declared of Ephraim in their own patriarchal blessings, even in cases where the patriarchs are aware of the family history.

    I, too, conclude that the pronouncement of lineage in a patriarchal blessing is, at least in some (and perhaps most) cases, an assignment rather than a DNA analysis.

    I know this is not a universal view. A close friend who is a patriarch, and highly conservative in his views, believes these are cases where there is mixed lineage and one lineage for some reason runs stronger in the parent than the child. I dislike that emphasis on DNA, but he’s a good man and a friend, and I would be honored if he ever had occasion to give me a blessing.

    Comment by Vader — February 17, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  18. Paul: Excellent articles with much helpful and interesting information. I think an issue that needs to be teased out (and perhaps is in your book) is the comfort LDS people have with “doctrinal evolution” or further light and knowledge that results from continuing revelation. This is seen by some, mostly outside the Church, as convenient backtracking. By many in the Church, it is used to say that God has spoken and “we just don’t believe in the priesthood ban anymore.” Both interpretations are far too facile. The truth is far mroe complicated.

    Comment by @UtahMormonDemoGuy — February 17, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  19. Cedric Falwell, you perhaps think that random, out-of-context quotations without explanatory commentary from you convey some sort of relevant message. They don’t. Try again when you actually have something to say.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 18, 2012 @ 9:58 am

  20. That is a very good post. Thanks to Paul and Ardis for making it available. And thanks to Vader for noting the somewhat awkward (IMO) apology, and to Paul for explaining it further.

    Paul’s emphasis on aversion to interracial mixing in racial restrictions seems true from what I heard and saw growing up in the 50’s and 60’s.

    For anyone younger and who lives in an area with a mix of races, to what extent is interracial mixing a part of today’s culture? I don’t see many mixed couples even today.

    How many here dated people of other races or married or almost married someone of another race? Or know someone who did?

    Comment by Clair — February 19, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  21. Margaret, Vader, and Clair
    Yes, I think ideas about tribes are especially problematic when immersed in 19th-century attitudes regarding “racial blood.” As race scholar Elise Lemire puts it, for most 19th century Americans “racial differences were physical differences located in the blood.” So when BY says, “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot” it raises all kinds of interesting questions. These questions played out in court cases across America (see Ariel Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on trial in America) and become problematic in Mormonism too. How much “blood” equals “white” and how much “black”? By the 1930s the state of VA adopted a “one drop” rule, meaning one drop of “black blood” made a person black in the eyes of VA law (most states had a one forth rule, but some had one-eighth or one sixteenth). By the turn of the 20th century Mormon leaders were applying a one drop standard to Mormons in terms of temple marriages and priesthood. But, as Margaret notes, they made exceptions when they believed that tribal lineage trumped “black blood.” The irony of course is what DNA teaches us today, a confirmation of Acts 17:26, that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men” and how intermarried we are in one big human family. Good luck trying to apply a one drop rule today.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 20, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  22. UMDG, Thank you. Yes, I do attempt to complicate both of those narratives in the book. I see the priesthood and temple bans developing in “fits and starts.” If BY’s three speeches in 1852 constituted the beginnings of the ban, why do they allow Elijah Abel to retain his priesthood and why does John Taylor need to investigate the matter in 1879? If it was a policy or doctrine by that point, why investigate? And the 78 revelation has a long history and context too. Both the implementation and the removal are complex, like history in general. Truncated and simplified narratives are much easier to tell and to attempt to understand but rarely adequately reflect the much more messy history.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 20, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

  23. In Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, it’s made clear that JS taught that one’s blood is literally changed with conversion. I wonder how this fits in with his views on race. That when they’re baptized they’re literally changed? If so, that would fit nicely with the book of mormon verses, and perhaps his reasoning on ordination.

    Don’t hold your breath for DNA confirmation of the TPJS passage…

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 21, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

  24. Thank you for this fascinating article! I am white and my husband is black – we’re both Mormons. I’ve often wondered how I will explain this part of our Church’s history to our children…
    I appreciate the information you have shared and I’m now excited to do some more research on this topic.

    Comment by Mandy — March 16, 2012 @ 11:08 am

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