Any etiquette book will tell you: there are certain topics you just don’t bring up in polite society. Any Mormon will tell you: we have a few topics of our own to add to that list. And one of them is the issue of blacks and the priesthood.
Until Black and Mormon was released last year, the only scholarly treatment of the topic of African American Latter-day Saints was Embry’s Black Saints in a White Church, which was written a decade ago. So while there is perhaps a need for more academic (and personal, and theological) inquiry, this book is an uneven and awkward contribution. While some of the essays were informative and interesting, the work as a whole suffered from some poor choices by the editors.
The Introduction, which is credited to both Bringhurst and Smith, is sloppy and slippery. For example, as evidence that the Church considers any reference to its past on this issue “embarrassing,” they quote the Ostlings stating that the CES seminary student book contains just “ten words about the revelation” buried in a “laundry list” of events during President Kimball’s tenure. But a quick check at www.ldsces.org reveals that the Declaration extending the priesthood is its own entry, with about a page of text, and it also given several paragraphs (more than any other single event, in fact) in the section on the life of President Kimball. (My suspicion is that the Ostlings were using the old CES seminary book, and Bringhurst and Smith followed them without checking their sources because the evidence fit their theory.)
When I read a book about a topic that I don’t know a lot about, I need to trust the authors/editors. But when they slip up on such an easily (un)verifiable bit of data on page four, it is hard for me to trust them on the facts that I can’t verify. It is even harder for me to trust their judgement.
Similarly, they cite in the Introduction the famous passage in Mormon Doctrine (no link as not to aid or abet) where Elder McConkie states that African Americans did not hold the priesthood because they were not equal to other races. They present this as Latter-day Saint belief without citing Elder McConkie’s (almost) equally famous follow up after the 1978 revelation: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon 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.” (All Are Alike Unto God,p. 1, which I copy from a secondary source, as I don’t have the original, but I believe this to be accurate). Neither does their simplistic Book of Mormon exegesis of Nephites=white=good and Lamanites=dark=bad inspire confidence in their ability to guide me through the murky history and theology of African Americans in the Church.
Perhaps my biggest beef with the Introduction, however, is that they set out “the reasons for Mormonism’s limited appeal among African Americans” as a “key issue” for the book, yet not a single disaffected member or disinterested investigator is given voice in this book. I realize these people may be harder to find than active African Americans Saints, but I also don’t trust the ability of active Church members (of whatever race) to articulate why the Church doesn’t appeal more to nonmembers.
Tighter editing would have improved the book in other ways as well. Virtually every essay reminds us of the basic history of the ban and that the Church doesn’t record the race of its membership (making research difficult), but then noting that Church records aren’t available to researchers in any case.
As for the essays, Bringhurst presents an interesting history of the Missouri thesis (that is, that the Church limited the rights of people of African descent in order to ease persecution in slave-holding Missouri). However, he points out that we can’t find any instance of Joseph Smith limiting the priesthood, which works against the Missouri thesis. I appreciated his inclusion of Elder Ballard’s statement (from 2002) about the priesthood restriction: “we don’t know . . . It’s difficult to know why all things happen.” Bringhurst then ends his essay with a bombshell (at least, it was news to me):
“Making the situation of Elijah Abel even more ambiguous is that this black priesthood holder served three missions for the Mormon church, the last one in 1883, shortly before his death on December 25, 1884. Even more paradoxical is the fact that Elijah Abel’s son, Enoch, also a Latter-day Saint, was ordained an elder on November 10, 1900, even though Mormon black priesthood denial had been enforced as a widely accepted practice since 1852. Still later, Abel’s grandson, Elijah Abel Jr., was ordained a priest on July 5, 1934, and an elder on September 29, 1935. Such historical information is acknowledged on the momument erected for Elijah Abel and dedicated by Elder Ballard.”
Maybe this is common knowledge, but I had never heard of this. It seems the topic of an essay itself (perhaps addressing the larger issue of doctrine and practice and the sometimes imperfect alignment between the two) rather than a concluding paragraph.
In the next essay, (and it pains me that such a thing might be necessary), Alma Allred offers a solid exploration of the scriptures used by ignorant people to justify limitations on African Americans. (Question: Can exegesis correct folk doctrine?)
Ronald G. Coleman and Darius Gray present the personal history of two Saints, Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Len Hope Sr. These histories are inspiring in the best sense and deserve a wide audience. I cannot really fathom the kind of faith shown by people like Len Hope. When he was made unwelcome in his Ohio ward (this is after WWI), he still continued to pay tithing and opened his home to a monthly devotional meeting with the Branch President.
While Jessie L. Embry’s essay strives for a more sociological approach, presenting the case studies of two multigenerational African American families, I found the personal aspects of the story most interesting and, again, an amazing testament to the faith of early African American Saints. After Katherine May attended a ward in New Orleans for three years in the 1960s without anyone speaking to her (can you imagine?), she wrote a letter to President Kimball (!) asking what she needed to do to become a member of the Church. He forwarded her letter to the ward, who sent missionaries, who baptized her.
Armand Mauss’ essay sketching “the extent and limits of progress since 1978″ begins with an important idea (perhaps worthy of its own post):
“One of the great popular myths in traditional Mormonism, quite apart from racial questions, is that people can find in this religion all the ‘answers’ they need. A consequence of this myth is people’s manifest discomfort with quandries that seem to have no ready explanations. Producing those explanations had always been a growth industry among the Mormon folk. . .”
As for limitations on progress, he points out that the rationalizations and justifactions for the ban were not repudiated explicitly in 1978 or since then, and therefore survive as folk doctrine. This is an interesting topic; one wonders what motivates the decision of the Brethren not to address this issue, and what the advantages and disadvantages are of this approach. As an example of progress, Mauss tells of Saints in the Los Angeles area responding to the aftermath of the Rodney King riots and generating such goodwill that AME pastor Reverend Cecil Murray publicly encouraged people to meet with the LDS missionaries(!). I was relieved to see (although I never completely trust) empirical data showing that Church members have lower levels of racism than the national average (which is the theme of the next essay, by Cardell Jacobson). One would certainly hope so. Mauss’ history of the Genesis Group is also useful. I’m not sure that many Church members even know that Genesis exists.
Ken Drigg’s essay, “‘How Do Things Look on the Ground?’: The LDS African American Community in Atlanta, Georgia” was a heartening example of what a multiracial, inclusive ward (complete with African Americans in key leadership positions) can look like. But the article reaches its full impact only in comparison with the unfortunate concluding essay by editor Darron Smith, “Unpacking Whiteness in Zion.” Smith’s perspective is best explained by considering the anecdote with which he begins his essay. His wife (who is white) was teaching a Relief Society lesson on following the prophets when she asked (hypothetically) if “all the teachings of Mormon prophets [should] be obeyed–even teachings manifesting such racist thinking as the condemnation of interracial marriage?” Unsurprisingly, the Relief Society President (“embrac[ing] her own whiteness as authoritative”) shut down that line of thought and later released his wife. Smith interprets this as the “tyranny of bourgeois decorum,” “humiliating,” and “the repudiation” of “the acceptability of our family [which included two biracial children],” especially since the Stake RS President was later asked to re-teach the lesson.
But I’m not convinced that this event had anything to do with race. It has been explained to me that one of the insidious facets of racism is that one never knows, for example, if lousy service is because the waitress is incompetent–or because you are black. I can appreciate how difficult it might be to make the distinction, but had a teacher in a lesson on following the prophets asked whether we should follow all the teachings of the prophets, even the ones displaying [insert any negative word here], such as [insert any counsel here], she almost certainly would have been shut down just as quickly. Because Smith doesn’t even entertain the idea that this incident might not have been racially motivated, but simply a consequence of his wife’s inflammatory approach, it becomes hard to take him seriously, especially when he views the event as a repudiation of his family. Making the situation even murkier, I don’t know that the Church has ever condemned interracial marriage (it certainly doesn’t now), but rather counseled against it at a time when it would have inarguably brought extreme hardship on the spouses and their children (although I’m still unsure, personally, if it should have been discouraged; perhaps the fact that, when it was discouraged, interracial Temple marriage would not have been impossible is the deciding factor).
Given Smith’s curious interpretation of events and his apparent love affair with the graduate-school jargon of oppression, it is more surprising that he had a discussion with a General Authority about teaching a Black Studies class at BYU than it is that his request was turned down. It becomes even harder to situate his thought in the LDS mainstream when he calls for an “affirmative action program” (his words) for Church leadership. He claims that the subjective method of assigning callings (i.e., inspiration) allows for unconscious racism. While I am sure that it does on rare occasions, affirmative action for callings is hardly a reasonable solution if one believes that callings come by revelation. Working with leaders (and members in general) to be sure that they realize that racism is incompatible with the Gospel seems a much more logical solution.
He concludes, “whether whites admit it or not . . . they harbor racist thoughts.” Again, Drigg’s essay about the Church in Atlanta becomes a vivid backdrop to Smith’s shrill essay.
I don’t claim to have many good theories about the history of race in the Church. Despite its weaknesses, this book did spur my thinking about it (especially the information about black priesthood ordiantions between the 1850s and 1978), as well as some larger issues concerning folk doctrine and obedience. It is a deeply flawed but nonetheless worthwhile read for those interested in Mormon Studies.