* This is the third installment in my “Why I Don’t Believe” series.
Historical and doctrinal racism in the LDS Church has been a subject of my study for years. It also figured prominently in why I left Mormonism.
I could write at length on this issue (and have), but I don’t want to deter people from reading this. My previous posts have been tedious enough. So I will try to keep my commentary to a minimum and instead let church leaders’ words speak for themselves.
For the purposes of this post, all I ask is that you consider the following statements and whether they are befitting of men of God.
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? 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. This will always be so. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 10, page 110)
You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind…[Negroes] should be the “servant of servants;” and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree. How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses Volume 7, pages 290-291)
And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God;… (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, Volume 22, page 304)
Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. A curse placed upon him and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures. (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, pages 101)
There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, page 61)
Negroes in this life are denied the Priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. (Book of Abraham 1:20-27.) The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them…Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow there from, but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, is based on his eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of Spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate. (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1966, pages 527-528)
The negro is an unfortunate man. He has been given a black skin….But that is as nothing compared with that greater handicap that he is not permitted to receive the Priesthood and the ordinances of the temple, necessary to prepare men and women to enter into and enjoy a fulness of glory in the celestial kingdom…What is the reason for this condition, we ask, and I find it to my satisfaction to think that as spirit children of our Eternal Father they were not valiant in the fight. (George F. Richards, General Conference Report, April 1939)
Now we are generous with the Negro. We are willing that the Negro have the highest kind of education. I would be willing to let every Negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. But let them enjoy these things among themselves. I think the Lord segregated the Negro and who is man to change that segregation?…If [the] Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get celestial glory. (Mark E. Peterson, Race Problems As They Affect The Church, BYU address, 1954)
In 1947, Dr. Lowry Nelson, a faithful Mormon and sociology professor at Utah State Agricultural College (now USU), wrote the First Presidency a letter that challenged the LDS Church’s teachings and policies toward blacks. He wrote, in part: “The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad. I do not believe God is a racist.”
In an official letter, signed by all three members, the First Presidency responded:
From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it is has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.
Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now…We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency…toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.
Two years later, the First Presidency again reiterated the church’s position:
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time…The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality…Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.
Another case study in church racism is Ezra Taft Benson. Benson was a vehement opponent of the civil rights movement and allied himself with fringe, far-right groups like the John Birch Society. His politics would sometimes seep into his conference talks. In one such talk, Benson dismissed the “so-called civil rights movement” as little more than a Communist front.
We must not place the blame upon Negroes. They are merely the unfortunate group that has been selected by professional Communist agitators to be used as the primary source of cannon fodder. [The civil rights movement's] planning, direction, and leadership come from the Communists, and most of those are white men who fully intend to destroy America by spilling Negro blood, rather than their own. (Ezra Taft Benson, General Conference Report, October 1967)
Benson was so convinced of this conspiracy theory that he even wrote the foreword to the book, The Black Hammer: A Study of Black Power, Red Influence, and White Alternatives.
Many Mormons are aware of their church leaders’ prejudices and yet it doesn’t trouble their testimonies. Their understanding is that prophets are men and thus fallible. They are, as we all are, products of their time and don’t always speak in their capacity as mouthpieces of the Lord. I find this rationalization of church racism unsatisfying, however. The statements above are not mere musings—they are, or at least were widely understood to be, doctrinal pronouncements. Most of the statements included here were taught from the pulpit (even at general conference!) and published in church literature. That these leaders, in whom I placed a lot of faith, would claim divine sanction for their bigoted views profoundly upset me.
I see at least two other shortcomings to the “prophets are men” explanation. First, God cannot allow his prophets to lead the church astray. And yet, that’s exactly what church leaders did for many decades on doctrines concerning race. Why then should I trust anything these purported prophets say? Second, while I don’t demand perfection of prophets, I do expect of them something better than racism. Matthew 7:16 says, “By their fruits, ye shall know them.” And few fruits are more rotten than racism.
Racism in the LDS Church isn’t restricted to church leaders’ statements over the years, either. It is also readily apparent in the LDS canon. The Book of Mormon, for example, teaches that God marked the Lamanites (the alleged ancestors of today’s Native Americans) with dark skin to segregate them from the righteous Nephites.
And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. (2 Nephi 5:21)
When the Lamanites were righteous, the curse was removed and their skin would again be white.
And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites; And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites… (3 Nephi 2:14-15).
O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God. (Jacob 3:8)
With little exception, church leaders believed and taught that a literal change of skin color would occur in Native Americans who were repentant or converted to Mormonism. Spencer W. Kimball, as recently as 1960, held this view as evidenced by his observations of the Lamanite adoption program.
The day of the Lamanites in nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome…The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation…There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. (Spencer W. Kimball; The Improvement Era, Dec. 1960, page 923)
Just as converts would become “white and delightsome,” Brigham Young believed the opposite to be true as well—that apostates would “become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil” (Journal of Discourse, vol. 5, p. 332). Starting with Young and lasting until only a few decades ago, the devil was even referred to as having black skin in the LDS temple endowment ceremony. (“A Kinder, Gentler Mormonism: Moving Beyond The Violence Of Our Past,” by Keith E. Norman, Sunstone, August 1990, page 10)
In light of all the above, some Mormons concede that the church did indeed preach racist doctrines. They stress, though, that the church follows a “living prophet” who can receive revelations that supersede previous ones. This view was most famously articulated by Bruce R. McConkie shortly after the lifting of the black priesthood ban in 1978:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever 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.
We get our truth and light line upon line and precept upon precept…We have now added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter anymore. (Bruce R. McConkie, All Are Alike Unto God, pages 1-2)
This view of continuing revelation is too abusive, too elastic, and terribly convenient. New revelations can expound upon existing doctrines, but they shouldn’t outright contradict them. Revelations must generally conform to what has already been revealed. President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “If what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside.”
And while the church has rescinded the black priesthood ban, it has never officially repudiated or apologized for those racist teachings that justified the ban for over a century. Those offensive racial themes in the Book of Mormon also remain. So absent a total recognition and disavowal of its doctrinal racism, I simply cannot forget and forgive as McConkie would have me do.
Please understand that I am not claiming that Mormons are racist. I’m not even arguing that the LDS Church has been uniquely or unusually racist. In fact, some of Joseph Smith’s views on race were progressive for his time (he opposed slavery), and one can cherry-pick from the Book of Mormon verses that suggest racial tolerance. Rather, I think that Mormonism’s history of racism reveals the LDS Church to be an all too human institution. Not an evil or racist institution, mind you—just an uninspired one.