Race, History, and Teaching in the Church

November 23, 2003 | 2 comments
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I had an experience today related to Kaimi’s discussion of race and hymns. I am the new Elders’ Quorum Instructor in our ward, which like Kaimi’s includes a substantial number of recent, African-American converts. I was teaching from the first chapter of the John Taylor manual, and during my preparation, I decided to pull the full text of the sermons that are quoted in that chapter. It turns out the bulk of the chapter is taken from a really wonderful sermon given by John Taylor in 1860. One of my pet peeves is the way in which we tend to take full sermons and chop them up into paragraph sized thoughts in our lesson manuals. In particular, John Taylor was a lucid and organized thinker and you lose something by not reading the full text of his sermon. Thus, I was excited to find that most of chapter one comes from a single sermon and that the sermon is short enough that at least some people would read it and appreciate it. I decided to make a copy of the sermon and distribute as a hand out in my class. The problem comes in the last paragraph, where Elder Taylor is rebuking the Latter-day Saints for their swearing and drinking. He said:

    There is nothing smart about all of this. A negro, a Hottentot, or an Indian can do that. There is nothing in these practices that bespeaks an intelligent mind , or that would recommend a person to the estimation of a good man, angels, or God. There is nothing Godlike in them. (Journal of Discourses 8:6)

I think that we can agree that this is an unfortunately racist passage. It in no way is central to the message of this sermon, which is otherwise a real masterpiece. Last night I agonized as to what to do with this passage. I could simply not hand out the sermon. I could leave it in and spend limited class time discussing it. In the end I simply snipped it out. I decided that as a teacher, it was my obligation to teach current church doctrine and that I was not at liberty to distribute material suggesting that “a negro, a Hottentot, or an Indian” had “nothing Godlike in them.” I take it that this is uncontroversially not current church doctrine. On the other hand, I strongly believe that the kind of airbrushing in which I engaged is very, very, very dangerous. It is important that we are honest about our past, and if members get nothing but a carefully groomed vision of their own religion, they will suffer disappointment and distrust when the “truth” gets out. It is just very difficult to figure out how to do this in a class where there is a vast diversity in terms of backgrounds and levels of experience in the church.

I am still far from certain that I did the right thing.

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2 Responses to Race, History, and Teaching in the Church

  1. Eric James Stone on December 2, 2003 at 7:10 pm

    Well, I won’t disagree with your having excised the passage, but I disagree with your interpretation of the passage as “suggesting that ‘a negro, a Hottentot, or an Indian’ had ‘nothing Godlike in them.’”

    I’m pretty sure that Elder Taylor is referring to “these practices [i.e., drinking and swearing]” when he says, “There is nothing Godlike in them.”

  2. Eric James Stone on December 2, 2003 at 7:11 pm

    And now I see someone else made the same point.

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