White Wash by Shane Johnson publish December 16, 2004
For black Saints, forgetting the LDS Church’s racist heritage is easier said than done.
Darron Smith, author and former adjunct sociology faculty at Brigham Young University, recently appeared on a local TV station to promote Black and Mormon, a collection of essays he co-wrote and edited about the black experience in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The next day, Smith says BYU’s sociology department received a phone call from an irate woman “calling me all kinds of niggas.”
Having received several similar threatening e-mails on his Website, darronsmith.com, one from a purported member of the Aryan Nations, Smith has taken to prearranging undercover security at his speaking engagements.
The contentious book probably won’t show up on any church-recommended reading lists, although it is sold in church-owned bookstores. But the reason Smith says he felt compelled to write it is also one of the reasons he was baptized a Latter-day Saint.
“Besides my testimony and my belief, the impetus for my membership is the radicalism of Joseph Smith,” Smith said. “I see him very much in the same light as some of the early dissenters in this country.”
Specifically, Smith notes the LDS church founder’s 1844 presidential platform to abolish slavery. In Black and Mormon, he and a compendium of essayists attempt to demystify the “racist folklore” that sprang up in support of the church’s 126-year ban against blacks holding the priesthood, a sacred distinction now reserved for all worthy males, “without regard for race or color.” For its duration, though, the ban barred black devotees from receiving temple endowments, conferring blessings and being called to serve church positions of esteem.
The book’s contributors argue that the ban’s doctrinal justifications – based on selective interpretations of ancestral curses detailed in the Mormon gospel – don’t mesh with higher precepts held within the church. As author Alma Allred noted in Black and Mormon, “Too many scriptures collide with those ideas for them to be valid.”
Allred points to the second LDS Article of Faith, which teaches that “men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” So why should black people have been punished as a group for something none of them did?
Smith argues that the dubious justifications for the ban will continue to foment in the hearts of well-meaning white Saints, not to mention continue to torment faithful and potential black Saints, until the church disavows the racist teachings once and for all. Otherwise, he says, “We’re still going to be talking about this 10, 15, 20 years from now.”
Smith admits his own part in propagating that racist dogma. Like many black converts who joined the church after 1978 – when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors and 12 apostles received a revelation from God restoring the priesthood to black men – Smith had no idea the church had enforced a spiritual embargo against people of color. So while serving a church mission to Michigan in the 1980s, when inquiring blacks invariably confronted him with the ban, Smith espoused the script he now holds in contempt – that God had cursed those of African lineage for the sins of their biblical forebears, or a variation which holds that blacks were less valiant than their white counterparts during a pre-mortal existence.
Smith says that blacks continue to defend against incredulous critics, who charge that no self-respecting black American would join a racist church, and against those white members who are still suspicious of the “seed of Cain.”
“There is a psychological toll taken on black folks for this kind of work,” Smith said, which exacts a sort of “racial battle fatigue.”
But even well-meaning white church members, whom Smith says will be instrumental in bringing about the changes he calls for, will inevitably come up against barriers.
Mormons for Equality and Social Justice activist Suzette Smith (no relation to Darron), says that her group is glad to support an effort to eradicate persisting stereotypes among members.
“We are having some conversations,” Smith said. “But I prefer not to say anything about the form our actions might take, because it is still in its genesis.”
However, Smith notes that it is not “the purpose of our group to be in conflict with, or question our church leaders.”
Perhaps an even bigger barrier than overcoming the hierarchy will be overcoming history.
As Good as Gospel
Although some debate remains over whether the priesthood ban originated with church founder Joseph Smith, scholars agree that Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, codified the practice into official policy in 1852, eight years after Smith’s death. The historical record tends to exonerate Smith’s role.
Nineteen years prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Smith ran for president of the United States, vowing to abolish slavery. He undoubtedly permitted, and is believed to have performed the priesthood ordination for Elijah Abel, a black man, in 1836. Abel was subsequently elevated to the rank of general authority, a distinction which, to date, has been held by one other person of African descent.
“If that’s any indication of how Joseph Smith was,” says Darron Smith, “it should be a type and shadow of what the church would have been had he lived.” But at the same time, the progressive prophet was also known for espousing the belief that blacks were descendants of the accursed biblical figure Ham.
For his part, Brigham Young’s blueprint for racism is infamously preserved in the voluminous Journal of Discourses, a trove of transcribed spiritual guidance from early church leaders. “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture,” Young declared in 1870. In a sermon 15 years earlier, he preached these words:
“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. The first man [Cain] that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. [A]nd the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. 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 until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.”
As recently as 1966, in the seminal text Mormon Doctrine, the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie offered the culmination of a century’s worth of Mormon thought on the subject: “Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.”
Shortly after the ban was lifted, McConkie gave what stands today as the church’s lone, semiofficial analysis of the revelation:
“Forget everything I have said, or what Brigham Young or whomsoever has said that is contrary to the present revelation,” McConkie admonished the Saints at a BYU symposium in August 1978. “We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”
However, McConkie didn’t necessarily believe the ban on blacks was misguided. As he instructed in his updated 1979 release of the widely circulated Mormon Doctrine, just as the ban was divinely repealed, its inception was also God’s doing.
In part, McConkie wrote: “In all past ages and until recent times in this dispensation, the Lord did not offer the priesthood to the Negroes.”
Church spokesman Dale Bills declined a request for interviews with church officials. Instead, he e-mailed the church’s boilerplate statement.
“For over a century male members of African descent were not given the priesthood for reasons that we believe are known to God,” the statement read. “Various opinions about the reason for this restriction were superceded by the 1978 revelation.”
Bills declined to clarify the church’s operating definition of the word “superceded” which, according to Webster’s, could mean the difference between expunging those reasons, or simply setting them aside.
Darron Smith’s wife, Joy, who is white, says she attempted to help other white church members understand just how those outmoded racist teachings persist, but was soundly rebuked for her effort. As Joy tells it, she was leading a standard lesson for the Relief Society sisters in her Utah County ward about “following the prophets.” But she veered from the approved materials, raising the question of whether all of the teachings of Mormon prophets should be obeyed – even if those teachings happen to be manifestly racist, such as the church’s well-documented condemnation of interracial marriage.
As Brigham Young declared in 1863, “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.” Young added: “This will always be so.”
In a 1954 lecture at BYU, arguing against desegregation, Elder Mark E. Peterson said: “the Negro is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a café where white people sit. He isn’t just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. He will not be satisfied until he achieves [absorption] by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not intermarry with the Negro.”
With the announcement of the priesthood revelation in the June 17, 1978, edition of the LDS Church News, that prejudice was again made clear in an article headlined “Interracial Marriage Discouraged.” So even as some things change, others stay the same.
“This racist folklore continues to affect my family,” Joy Smith said, explaining why she sought to challenge her sisters’ attitudes toward the words of the prophets. But when she continued with the interracial marriage example, Joy says the Relief Society president repeatedly interrupted to tell her she was “out of bounds” for criticizing church leaders.
She finished the lesson, but before her next turn in the monthly rotation, was released from her calling for not following the manual. Soon after, Joy Smith stopped going to church altogether.
“I’m just not going to beat my head against a brick wall anymore. I’ve had enough.”
She also decided it had been enough for the couple’s two daughters, who she says face a “double whammy” in the white- and male-dominated church.
Smith’s falling out in 2001 came at about the same time her husband began work on Black and Mormon.
“Darron is so concerned about the African Americans joining the church who have experienced what he has experienced” Joy said, “he wants to be there for them.”
The Lost Black Sheep
For Eugene Orr, life as a Saint has been a paradoxical mixed bag. Work brought him from Lewiston, Calif., to Clearfield, Utah, in 1968. While he was packing up to leave, Orr’s friends prepared him for “Mormon country” with an eerie admonition: “Those Mormons there claim to have the only true church here on the face of this earth, but they don’t like blacks,” Orr recalled.
As fortune would have it, though, Orr found his induction to Mormondom a blessing that’s borne fruit ever since. Describing that fateful encounter, however, it sounds more like the prelude to a Mississippi nightmare.
Late one rain-soaked evening in March 1968, Orr was skipping between puddles along the sidewalk in front of the downtown Salt Lake City Greyhound bus terminal when a young white woman “comes out of the swinging door with newspaper overhead, and runs smack into me,” he said. “I graciously offered my umbrella,” which the woman accepted, allowing Orr to escort her to her car.
Taking a stab in the dark, Orr asked the damsel if she “knew any Mormons.” She did. In fact, she was one. The conversation turned quickly to the black priesthood ban, whereupon the woman beckoned Orr into the car for a chat. As though he felt obliged, Orr stressed that “there was no danger for her, and she felt no danger.”
The woman couldn’t satisfy Orr’s curiosity with what little she’d gleaned from scriptural study, so she arranged a meeting with the missionaries for the following Sunday. Orr didn’t find their explanations much more informative, or acceptable, for that matter.
“One missionary said if I joined the church, and became a righteous person, my skin color would become white from black,” Orr recalled, speaking by phone from his home in Alberta, Canada.
In a last ditch effort, the woman called upon a black church member she knew of, Darius Gray, whose testimony made all the difference. Orr was baptized Aug. 23, 1968. A month later, he married the woman. Today, they’re known as Mr. and Mrs. Eugene and Lei Orr.
Unlike the wedding, though, Orr’s shotgun conversion was not without consternation. He ultimately had to reconcile for himself why the “one true church” would deny him its most sacred ordinations.
“There’s a process you have to go through to understand truth,” Orr explained. “And understanding the Holy Ghost, knowing that the Holy Ghost bears truth I knew what they were telling me about black people was not true. Many people don’t perceive that through the Holy Ghost; they lean on man’s understanding and that’s why they were lost.”
Although there would be many more tests, that personal conviction has sustained Orr’s faith. He is currently an active member, and serves as the first counselor in his ward’s high priesthood quorum.
Orr wasn’t deterred on his wedding day, when he and his bride suffered the indignity of a condescending lecture from the officiating bishop. >From the altar, Orr said the bishop contemplated “how God was going to accept this union; how it was going to work out in the eternities.”
Orr’s first three years in the church were spent searching out the fellowship of other black Saints. He and Lei hosted a reunion of sorts in 1969, which was attended by 30 people. By 1971, the annual event drew more than 100 members. So he and two others, Darius Gray and the late Ruffin Bridgeforth, petitioned then-Church President Joseph Fielding Smith with a letter outlining their concerns. Smith had been famously quoted in a 1963 article in Look magazine as saying: “I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Negro. ‘Darkies’ are wonderful people, and they have their place in our church.” So it was no small coup when Smith responded to the group’s concerns by appointing three apostles, Boyd K. Packer, Thomas S. Monson and Gordon B. Hinckley, who first held court with the trio seven years to the day before the priesthood ban would be lifted.
Out of that string of soul-searching weekly meetings with the brethren sprouted the Genesis Group whose purpose was “bringing back the lost black sheep our white brothers and sisters were not going after,” Orr said.
Another of its missions was to press upon the church how sincerely blacks ached for full inclusion. Whether their efforts had any bearing on the ultimate revelation would be speculation.
When Orr left Utah for Canada in 1977, there was some derision among the Genesis Group’s founding members. He and Gray wanted a more aggressive approach toward winning the priesthood, while Bridgeforth preached patience, Orr said.
Even years after the church rescinded the ban on blacks in 1978, Orr has felt its byproduct. His mother, a devout member in a Florida ward for 10 years before her death in the mid-’80s, was eulogized in a Baptist church, instead of her Mormon wardhouse, because her bishop was afraid white members wouldn’t be able to “cope with” the influx of black mourners, Orr said.
Despite the revelation, Orr believes “our white brothers and sisters still think we were cursed.” As he sees it, “we were let out of prison, but we were never told why we were in there.” And just as anxious as he was in 1977, Orr says patience today will only keep the Saints on that “slow ship to China,” whereas, “it needs to be like the Berlin Wall; it just needs to come down.”
The “new school” of LDS blacks seem generally to be of Orr’s mind.
There was a time when Tamu Smith (no relation to Darron) relished putting on a happy face for her church. Over the years, the 30-year-old model, actor and mother of nine has appeared frequently with her children in LDS publications extolling the virtues of strong families and everlasting marriage. But whenever Smith was told to bring along her husband, Keith, for a publicity shoot, they never ended up using him, she said. Instead, she was invariably paired with a stranger – a black stranger.
Most of the black Latter-day Saints Smith knows, herself included, have married outside their race because they attend nearly all-white congregations. She finds that the exclusively white, Latino, Asian, and black families depicted in church-sponsored media bespeak a subtle, yet intentional warning against interracial coupling.
“If they’re not going to validate my family, then they’re going to have to find someone else who is OK with that,” she said.
Smith agrees with Darron Smith that the church ought to clear up the ambiguities associated with the priesthood revelation, as well as percolating views on “mixing with the seed of Cain.”
“I’m not looking for an apology,” Smith makes clear. “I’m not looking for sympathy. But I would like to know how [granting the priesthood to black males] is OK today, and it wasn’t OK yesterday. I don’t understand that.”
For many black members, the church’s abandonment of past racist practices necessarily means that those practices were wrong and unjust. White members, by and large, are content to trust in spiritual leaders, who’ve ingrained in them the idea that the church is always and eternally correct – even if revelation sometimes changes past policies.
Says Darron Smith: “Black members, in part, are more skeptical of church authority because of the priesthood ban.”
While the church has taken great pains to embrace people of all colors since the 1978 revelation, notably on the international front, its take on racist peccadilloes has been to let the past be past. “Look, that’s behind us,” current church President Gordon B. Hinckley told CBS’ Mike Wallace in a probing 1996 interview. “Don’t look at those little flecks of history.”
But as Hinckley learned earlier this year, history can be stubborn that way. The prophet was reportedly moved to tears upon receiving a resolution passed by the Illinois Legislature expressing regrets for the shameful treatment of the Saints when they were expelled from that state in 1844.
Some would say the church remains ambivalent to its own little flecks, and that position has apparently filtered down. “I hear a lot of members saying, ‘Just get over it; let it go,'” Tamu Smith said. “But we haven’t gotten over it.
“It’s bittersweet to sit in Relief Society, and listen to the sweet stories about how the pioneers sacrificed so much,” she said, “because they look at me and think that my history as a black person in this church started in ’78.”
The black members who struggled and succeeded during the exclusion are rarely exalted, if mentioned at all, Tamu Smith said.
“You don’t hear about Elijah Abel, Samuel Chambers, or Len Hope Sr., who couldn’t go into his wardhouse, but still paid a full tithing through the Depression.
“And there is a problem for me that the church is not growing in black America,” she continued. “I think there are a lot of people patting themselves on the back because the church is growing leaps and bounds in Africa. But this is their back yard, and they’re not doing anything about it.”
Natasha Ball and Ebony Washington will attest to that sentiment. Both converted while living out of state, and both are set on leaving Utah once they’ve completed their studies at the University of Utah.
“I challenge anyone to find another person on this planet who has as much faith as I do,” says Washington who, unlike most converts, sought out the church after seeing a commercial about the golden plates when he was 13 years old.
Faith aside, Washington says he’s never been able to find his place, socially, among the Saints, because he doesn’t conform to the idealized version of a clean-cut, young Mormon.
“You got to dress a certain way, and you got to talk a certain way – verbiage, diction, dress, act – like a white male,” said Washington, a math and physics major by day, and aspiring hip-hop recording artist by night. “Utah is not a place for a person of color. Very soon I shall be gone.”
Ball, born a Texas military brat, says that once she graduates from the University of Utah, where she is president of the Black Scholars United, she’ll hop “on the next thing smokin'” out of Utah. Unless, of course, the Lord has some other purpose for her here. But, as it stands, Ball doesn’t necessarily feel as welcome as all that.
Aside from having LDS peers tell her she’s destined to become white in the hereafter, Ball learned while serving a recent English-speaking mission for the church that its lay leadership wasn’t immune to bigotry either.
She recalls sitting in the pews one Sunday, when her mission president sidled in next to her companion to inquire: “How’s she doing with the language?” Ball and her companion responded with uncomfortable shrugs, she said, which quickly turned to shock when he told them: “Once they learn Ebonics, it’s hard to teach them English.” Without another word, the mission president proceeded to his front-row seat.
“There was nobody I could go to [to report] something inappropriate,” Ball said. “You either choose God, or you go to your mission president.” More often than not, Ball chooses God.
Despite their struggles, Ball and Washington expressed unyielding testimonies of the church and its gospel. Using the analogy of a poisoned well, Darron Smith was asked why he and others don’t simply find another, less-painful spiritual well from which to drink.
“For a great deal of African Americans, they’re willing to endure the well, because the spiritual and theological understandings of the faith are much greater than any racism or discrimination that they would endure,” Smith said.
Don Harwell, current president of the 1997 reinvigoration of the Genesis Group, which was all but disbanded after the revelation, agrees that racist attitudes persist in the church, but he won’t go so far as to say there is poison in the well. “There’s a stink in the well, but it’s not poisoned,” he said.
Harwell has taken up the issue with church leaders including members of the upper echelon. He says that he’s sat in on meetings where “there’s been a lot of work geared toward this.”
So why hasn’t the church opened up the dialogue? It could be as simple as cold feet, Harwell says. “You have a group of white men, who have a group of black people, who had a history through hundreds of years now, and in my opinion they don’t want to assume responsibility for everything that’s ever happened to black people,” he said. “I really believe the brethren [church leaders] want the truth, but they don’t want you to come and back-stab them.”
Don’t Lecture the Prophets
There are certainly those black Saints, like Ozwald Balfour, who don’t feel the same pangs of discrimination. When Balfour witnesses ignorance and bigotry, he’s able to brand the actor as “stupid” and “unenlightened,” rather than as the representative of a racist institution.
“Without a doubt, I would say that every good thing that has happened in my life since [converting in 1979] has been a direct result of my membership in this church,” said Balfour, who runs a media-production company, hosts a Saturday morning talk-radio program, and chairs the Utah Republican Black Assembly.
As to others’ call for a renunciation of past racist doctrines, Balfour isn’t that concerned.
“If it was something that the leadership needs to do, they’ll do it, and they’ll get around to it in their good sweet time,” he said, adding, “You don’t lecture the prophets.”
Balfour has no need for soul-searching wranglings over doctrine or spiritual equality, and he questions those who presume to have more divine knowledge than has been revealed to the prophets.
“Is this really a church that’s built on revelation or isn’t it?” he asks. “If you don’t believe so, then you don’t believe in this revelation or any other. You can’t pick and choose.”
In an essay titled “Dispelling the Curse of Cain: Or, How to Explain the Old Priesthood Ban without Looking Ridiculous,” LDS scholar Armand Mauss notes that the black priesthood ban was initiated at a time when racism flourished in all of the United States. “Brigham Young himself did not actually want slavery in Utah,” Mauss wrote in the hypothetical apologia, “but he did believe that black people were not the social or intellectual equals of white people, and that slavery should be tolerated for Mormon slaveholders as long as it was tolerated elsewhere in the United States.
“Obviously divine guidance does not depend upon historical context,” Mauss continued, “but it seems clear from history that some revelations have been received by prophets in response to inquiries motivated by the surrounding social and political environment.”
Similarly, the impetus for lifting the ban had temporal roots as well. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, national civil rights groups condemned the church’s racial restrictions. In 1969, 14 black University of Wyoming football players were kicked off the team when they insisted upon wearing black armbands in a show of protest during a game they would never play against BYU. Other NCAA teams threatened to boycott BYU teams as well, throwing the state of the Western Athletic Conference into sheer upheaval. In 1974, the NAACP succeeded in pressuring the church-aligned Boy Scouts of America troops to drop priesthood prerequisites for leadership positions, from which blacks were necessarily excluded. And by 1978, Mormon officials had been repeatedly subpoenaed to defend the practice in court.
The ultimate conundrum, however, was developing a world away in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where in 1978 the church was set to open its first temple in South America.
“When you had a temple going into a country where black ancestry was extremely common, it became a huge political embarrassment,” said Utah historian Will Bagley, an executive committee member of the Journal of Mormon History. “And then they were stuck with the basic question that confronts all racists: What’s a Negro? What’s a black? And Mormon racists had long insisted that a single trace of black blood was enough to put you out of God’s good graces.
“The bottom line is it was not a pretty picture. And it was later presented as some wonderful epiphany,” continued Bagley, a long-since-lapsed Mormon. “Well, it was a political act, and it was long, long overdue. And they really have yet to ever step up to the plate, and say that it wasn’t that God was a racist; it’s that his servants were all f – – ked up.”
Bagley can afford the luxury of such caustic criticism. And notwithstanding his disdain for diplomacy, he’s peculiarly suited to uncloak the elephant standing in the middle of the room by addressing the obvious question: “How do you apologize for the words of God’s selected prophets?
“I believe the Lord had nothing to do with this evil folk tradition. It was the invention of an inveterate bigot, Brigham Young, and it was maintained by provincial, narrow, ancient white men who should have known better. And the continuing refusal of LDS leaders to accept responsibility and ask forgiveness for the pain they inflicted on generations of members casts doubts on their claims to any sort of spiritual authority.”
That answer, however irreverent or blasphemous, embodies a widely held perception in secular circles, and more unfortunately, in non-LDS black circles, says Darron Smith. “If the church is going to proselytize amongst blacks, don’t we have a responsibility to make sure they aren’t scaring folks off by saying that ‘Your people were cursed.'” Just as there are faithful Saints who adhere to the church’s outdated racist teachings, there are nonbelievers who, until convinced otherwise, will view the church through that same prism.
As a church member in good standing, former BYU dean of religious education Robert Millet is more cautious in formulating an answer. In fact, minutes into the discussion, he worried aloud if he’d still have his job in a week.
Nonetheless, Millet acknowledged that in his various positions at BYU – he currently specializes in bridging religious divides through interfaith understanding – black students have often come to him seeking solace for their spiritual ailments. One such young man confessed just how difficult it is being a black Latter-day Saint, telling Millet it takes a pretty “thick skin,” to which Millet offered what consolation he could.
“I wish I could give you a pill to help with this, but I can’t,” Millet told the young man. “It’s just going to take some time.”
Despite 22 years of scriptural scholarship under his belt, even coming to a working definition of the problem is problematic, “because it’s an issue, a doctrine, a practice we don’t completely understand,” Millet said.
“All of us wish we had a Joseph Smith here, or a Brigham Young here, to help us understand why the restriction was put into effect to begin with, but we do not. But because we believe that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were prophets, and were divinely inspired, we rest in that confidence, and we sort of place this issue on the shelf in terms of the why.”
Millet believes the church could foster greater understanding by clarifying or contextualizing its past racist practices, but “that decision rests with powers higher than myself,” he said.
And when those church powers appeal for the past to be past, “it isn’t just an effort to avoid a hard topic,” Millet said. “It’s an effort to say if you want to judge why don’t you do that in terms of the present church?”
In his final analysis, asked whether the church should, as Darron Smith and others call for, expunge and publicly repudiate the teachings that continue to cause consternation among black members, Millet says no. “It’s a part of the history; it’s a part of the tradition, and we look at it now and say, well, that’s just wrong. We don’t believe that the restriction was wrong, but we look back and say we don’t know all the reasons why.”
Darron Smith can agree with his BYU colleague on one point – he too fears that speaking out could cost him a job, if not his place in the church. But Smith nonetheless insists his motives are genuine.
“I believe if church authorities understood the psychological damage that this problem has caused among its black members, they would be compelled to act,” he said. “On the other hand, if the church is not aware of the difficulties that this dilemma presents for its proselytizing efforts among blacks in North America, it may be that we need to make it plain for them.”