Mormonism and Race

Sorry I’m a day late with my Human Rights Day post, but hopefully you’ll find this one interesting.

Sunday night, I finished reading a biography of Mormon leader David O McKay who served as prophet and President of the LDS Church during the Civil Rights Movement.  In one of the most interesting chapters, the author attempted to characterize  and describe the various thoughts and rhetoric that were circulating amongst the church’s hierarchy during this turbulent time.

The political ideology among the upper echelon of church leaders ranged from the ultra-conservative Ezra Benson, who repeatedly and publicly alleged that the Civil Rights movement was nothing more than a puppet organization of the Soviet communists in a trojan horse plot to take over the United States government, to Hugh Brown, a liberal who consistently (albeit quietly) pressed his Apostolic colleagues, searching for small ways to gain a foothold that would eventually move the church toward a reversal of the long-standing Church policy that excluded people of African descent from becoming a part of the lay Priesthood of the Church.

David O McKay, for his part, tried to hold a moderate course during this time.  It wasn’t by choice, but by the internationalization of the Church that he was forced to grapple with this policy time after time.  Many questions came to his desk dealing with the extensive grey area that existed in the policy.  Exactly how ‘African’ did someone have to be before they were denied the Priesthood?  He took an unprecedentedly liberal position, giving people “the benefit of the doubt” and approving ordinations unless there was explicit evidence or knowledge of African ancestry.  In other words, rather than asking dark-skinned members to prove they weren’t of African descent, they were only asked if they were, which greatly eased the burden on people of mixed heritage.

He began softening the rhetoric toward Blacks and established, if only within the ranks of the General Authorities, the fact that the ban on Priesthood ordination was indeed a Church policy that generations of Church leaders and members had tried to doctrinally justify, rather than an immutable, eternal Church doctrine that was irreversible.  It was scarcely known among Church members at the time, that the policy originated with Brigham Young years after the Church moved into the Great Basin, and that Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, had in fact ordained several Black church members into the Priesthood before his martyrdom.  McKay did acknowledge, though, that the policy could only be changed by direct revelation from the Lord, and evidence seemed to suggest that he did his fair share of pleading for divine clarification on this issue.

McKay’s moderate course was probably influenced by the wide variety of opinions he was surrounded with and his desire to be a uniter between them. Himself, he was not a social progressive, and he was anchored by the overwhelming majority of conservative Mormon members and leaders, but also listened to and elevated President Brown and other liberal and moderate voices into his inner circle.  He was even quite close to President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into federal law.

While the policy reversal would not come by revelation until 1978 (to then-junior apostle Spencer Kimball), it is hardly correct to characterize LDS church and its leaders as uninfluenced by the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s.

I share this because in my post-racial lifetime (born in the 1980’s), I’ve never understood why it took 15 additional years for the Church to come around on this.  Perhaps only God will know why it took so long, as it was clear that movement began as early as the 1950’s to try and change this policy.  It also wasn’t as simple as the old-school dying out (as I previously thought), as hard-liners such as Benson and McConkie ended up making up the Council that would later approve the change.

It does make me appreciate those who lived during this trying time, both in our Church and in our country, who were not afraid of change and who had a vision of what a colorblind society might look like.  Change can be scary and uncomfortable, and we can choose to disagree with change.  But the march of progress moves ever-forward, and often we have to decide whether we’re going to be on the train or be left behind.  I appreciate those who sacrificed and stretched in order to provide me with a better, though still imperfect, world and Church.

My most personal run-in with this came during my mission to Brazil.  Because most church members in Brazil joined the church after 1978 and due to Brazil’s already race-insensitive culture, race is rarely an issue for members.  However, one day when I was working in one of the oldest, most established areas of the church, we visited with a long-time less-active family.  While they graciously fed and entertained my companion and I, it soon became clear why they had gone inactive almost 20 years earlier: they couldn’t stand the ‘browning’ of their local congregation.  In sum, they considered the Church less of a religion and more of a whites-only private club. After probing the issue more, it became clear that many of the nascent branches of Brazil suffered some loss of membership after the lifting of the priesthood ban.  Certainly this was overshadowed by the worldwide influx of new members and the joy that was felt by those thousands of saints who had waited, many for decades, to receive the priesthood and full fellowship in the church.  Still, though, it was a bit disheartening to see how an individual had let their personal racism preclude their entire posterity from the blessings of church membership.

Thankfully, Mormonism’s long-term association with racism will likely be very different than its association with polygamy.  While polygamous sensitivity has lived on for several generations past the practice’s discontinuance, we already see the world and Church membership much more quickly moving on from the days of the priesthood restriction.  While those who lived through and were most affected by the Civil Rights era will probably always be sensitive to the history, it is clear that those born in this generation will experience this period as a point of fact, rather than a first-person emotion.

7 thoughts on “Mormonism and Race”

  1. Appreciate your thoughts. Especially given that every lds church member must come to grips with this history at some point.

    My only personal experience to date was when I went to college and was taught a Book of Mormon class by an African professor who had spent years answering the question with “I don’t know why” and then going on to explain that his faith/beliefs did not require a reason. Wow, that’s conviction… and I’m sure that I was influenced by that experience.

    I also appreciate you distinguishing the difference between eternal, unchanging doctrine and Church policy as this is sometimes mis-understood and mis-represented by those both inside and outside of the church.

  2. Yup. Not to derail, but depending how you define the word “doctrine”, even those change from time to time. Certain things we think will never change (Faith in Christ, Repentance, etc), but that’s the beauty of believing in modern revelation, things can (and will) change! Certainly the priesthood ban was taught over the years as doctrine, and many people viewed it as a change of doctrine. So we just get in the weeds a bit when it comes to definitions and perceptions of “doctrines”, “practices”, and “policies”.

  3. I too encountered the “old timere” in Brazil. I am not not so sure if it was race that bothered them. I think a lot of it was socio-economic. the members of the church were of european descent but they were also the wealthy and the well educated. So I am not sure if they were disheartened with the color of their skin as much as the change in class and culture. Not saying that it was right, but i think it is grayer than just plain race.

  4. So the revelation came to Spencer W. Kimball when he was a junior apostle? Why didn’t it come to the president of the church? I’m very interested in this.

  5. Oh snap… unfortunate phrasing there… The meaning was Spencer W Kimball, who was a JR Apostle during David O McKay’s tenure, would later receive the revelation when he was church president.

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