Race and the LDS Church (Part I)

May 21, 2007 | 43 comments
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Some recent blog comments have discussed how the church’s history on race compares to other religions. Now, national politicians and pundits are discussing the same thing. There seems to be a general perception that the LDS church has not had a strong record as to race. The underlying facts, however, are quite a bit more complicated than that simple answer would suggest. As it turns out, the correct answer to the query “In matters of race, has the LDS church been progressive compared with other religious institutions, or has it been regressive?”, is: Both. This is the first in a series of posts which will discuss the church’s comparative record on race, and particularly on interaction with Blacks. I will proceed more or less chronologically. This post will discuss the antebellum era. Future posts will discuss the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, and the modern era. I realize that the interaction of religion and race is quite complicated, and this post cannot hope to capture all of the details. I apologize in advance for any omissions or oversights.

The good news is that church has a relatively (though not entirely) good record in its interactions with chattel slavery.

Protestant and Catholic Interactions with Slavery

Many prominent leaders and preachers in many denominations — including the Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic faiths — were instrumental in instituting and defending the system of chattel slavery in America.

In particular, Protestant apologists in America articulated a moral and Biblical justification of slavery that defended the moral integrity of that institution against the attacks of Christian abolitionists. For example, the prominent and eloquent Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer eloquently defended slavery on the grounds that Blacks were descendants of Ham and Nimrod and thus subject to Biblical curse. Palmer was later a leading voice in support of the Confederacy.

Other apologists were common. Presbyterian minister James Thornwell argued that the Bible accepted slavery, and that rejection of slavery was rejection of the Bible. Thorton Stringfellow, a Baptist preacher from Virginia, published a widely disseminated pamphlet providing scriptural justifications for slavery. Methodist ministers like Augustus Longstreet did the same.

The moral justification of slavery was used in slave religious instruction. Slaves were not always allowed religion, but where they were, they were often instructed that they should be submissive and passive in their God-given role as slaves. This pattern existed in the Protestant faiths, including Baptists and Episcopals.

Not only did many antebellum Protestants defend the institution — in many instances, they participated in it. Prominent church leaders were slave owners. For example, “by the eighteenth century, probably as many as 40 percent of Baptist preachers in South Carolina owned slaves.” (Dictionary of African-American Slavery, at 77).

The Catholic church also has a number of links with slavery. The church was instrumental in establishing the transatlantic the slave trade, in response to Bartolome de las Casas’ arguments against enslaving Native Americans. Some Catholics supported slavery in the antebellum United States. Pope Gregory XVI condemned the transatlantic slave trade in 1839, leading to a lively debate over whether this meant that Catholics should support abolition more broadly. In response, Catholic leaders including John England and Orestes Brownson publicly supported slavery. In later years, many Catholics adopted a private/public distinction, freeing their own slaves but not supporting abolition. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision, was a Catholic. Religious orders including the Jesuits bought and sold slaves.

Not all religious interaction with slavery was negative. Some Catholics and Protestants drew on religious ideals to argue in favor of abolition, and not all Protestant and Catholic leaders were slave apologists. Slavery was the direct cause of a number of denominational schisms. In the 1830s, many Northern Baptists began supporting abolition. In response, the Southern Baptists withdrew from the national organization. The Presbyterian church also split over slavery. (The Episcopalians did not divide, and developed neither a strong abolitionist element nor a strong apologist element.)

The churches did often try to work within the system to limit abuse. There are a number of examples of such responses. For example, Baptist members were occasionally subjected to church punishment for mistreating their slaves, though this was relatively uncommon. Southern Baptists urged relaxation of laws against slave marriage, as well as law prohibiting slaves from being taught to read or write. Jesuits and Methodists were pioneers in teaching slaves to read. The Vincentian order (Catholic) allowed slaves to veto their sales.

Nevertheless, on balance each of the major Protestant religions, as well as the Catholic faith, had major and problematic interaction with slavery. Prominent leaders from nearly every one publicly justified the institution (with the exception of the Episcopalians, who remained largely apolitical).

These interactions had a number of ongoing invidious effects. The religious justifications were important in maintaining the moral foundation of slavery. It is impossible to say that they extended the time of slavery; however, without them, the moral critique of slavery made by abolitionists (some of whom were also religious, and many of whom were Quakers) could well have swayed public opinion against slavery. However, prominent Protestant leaders were eloquent at marshalling arguments, and their words carried great moral weight. Thus, the many sermons and writings of Christian (especially Protestant) apologists for slavery probably extended the time that Blacks suffered in slavery.

In addition, these statements inflicted secondary and ongoing harms. Many of these apologias articulated explicitly racist ideology, such as the idea that God had cursed Blacks or had put Blacks into the place of slavery. This had the effect of encouraging racism and linking racist ideas to religious belief. Later racist organizations including the Ku Klux Klan and its successors often adopted religious or quasi-religious rationales. They drew on the framework already put into place by religious defenders of slavery.

LDS Interactions with Slavery

The LDS church has less egregious links to slavery.

Joseph Smith was never a strong supporter of slavery. Coming from early 19th century New England, he carried the cultural attitudes of the North. Slavery was not a part of his upbringing or economic vision. In addition, many of the early converts were from free jurisdictions (such as England) and were not in favor of slavery.

Overall, however, the church’s attitude was ambivalent or inconsistent. This can be seen in a series of events in Missouri. W.W. Phelps clashed with slavery advocates in Missouri. Phelps wrote an editorial in the Evening and Morning Star, suggesting that free Blacks might be able to migrate to Missouri and become Mormons. Phelps’ editorial led to angry mob reaction, because Entry of free Blacks was against Missouri law. The church then officially disavowed that position in the next edition of the paper, writing that the church did not support free Black migration to Missouri and that no such migrants would be admitted into the church.

Similarly, Joseph Smith’s own position was not particularly consistent. He made some public statements during his lifetime supporting slavery, suggesting that it was the natural consequence of the curse of Cain. He did not consistently criticize slavery for most of his ministry, and the church was never strongly abolitionist. Individual members (particularly converts from the South) owned slaves, though not in great quantities.

Joseph Smith publicly stated that the church was not abolitionist, and at times he critized the abolitionist movement. However, in the last few years of his life, he became more vocal in his criticism of slavery. Beginning in 1842, he made a limited number of strongly anti-slavery comments. Then, in 1844, he adopted a kind of moderate abolitionist position in his run for president — he publicly advocated ending slavery through purchase.

The ambivalent approach to slavery continued after Joseph Smith’s death. Utah had a slave presence since the pioneers arrived. Three slaves — Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay — came with the first group of LDS pioneers to Utah in 1847. Green Flake was later freed by Brigham Young, following an interesting chain of events in which he may have been paid as tithing. (I am indebted to Margaret Young for bringing this possibility to my attention.)

Utah was organized (along with New Mexico) as a popular sovereignty territory in 1850 — that is, it was initially designated as neither a free territory nor a slave territory, but the choice was left to its residents. The 1850 Utah census listed 24 free Blacks, and 26 slaves; the 1860 census listed 32 free Blacks and 29 slaves.

In 1852, the Legislature passed an act establishing rules for slavery in Utah. Utah had unusually generous slave laws — slave education was required, and abuse or sexual exploitation of slaves prohibited. Also that year, Brigham Young spoke to the legislature about slavery, criticizing the abolition movement and suggesting that slavery was the logical consequence of the curse of Cain. (It is likely that Indian slavery was largely responsible for the attitudes in Utah’s slavery laws. Had Mormons been primarily concerned with black slavery, it is entirely possible that they would have lacked the provisions on education and possibly some other of the more provisions. Utah’s slavery laws were drafted with the purchase of Indian children in mind. I am indebted to Ardis Parshall for this observation.)

Utah did not ammass a very substantial Black slave presence. When the Civil War began, Utah lukewarmly took the side of the Union. Slavery was formally abolished in the territories in 1862.

On balance, the LDS church has a relatively good record in its interactions with slavery. Church leaders intermittently made statements supporting the institution. However, the church leadership never approached the level of support for slavery of some other religious leaders (like Stringfellow or Palmer), and the church even briefly supported a moderate form of abolition. The early church was neither strongly nor consistently abolitionist, but it did have its periods of stronger anti-slavery sentiment. Also, slave ownership was never very prevalent among Mormons.

Some of the church’s relatively strong record is probably the result of geographic and demographic factors. The church did not have much of a presence in the South, and so it never really had a need make concessions to the institution or to promulgate defenses of slavery like the major Protestant religions. (The question did come up when Southern converts who were slave owners asked about bringing their slaves to Utah, but was not a major concern.)

Overall, the church does not have a superlative record vis-a-vis slavery. The organization with the best record is almost certainly the Quakers, who were consistently and vocally abolitionist in a way the LDS church never was. Nevertheless, compared with the major Protestant and Catholic faiths, the LDS church has a relatively strong record as to slavery.

This conclusion should not be overread. I do not wish to suggest that the simplistic critique “the church’s record on race is bad” be replaced with an equally simplistic “the church’s record on race is good.” The church’s interactions with race include both positive and negative, and the sometimes-suggested idea among members, that the church was always abolitionist, is clearly wrong. Hopefully, this post allows readers to appreciate the complexity of the matter.

Also, slavery does not end the query. As noted at the beginning of the post, future posts in this series will address Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, and the modern era.

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43 Responses to Race and the LDS Church (Part I)

  1. Tom on May 21, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve been extremely curious about how other religions fared in regards to racism in America but haven’t done the research to find out. Looking forward to the rest.

  2. Ugly Mahana on May 21, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    I would also like to thank Kaimi for preparing a series on the topic. However, I hope that the focus will be more on how the Church acted out its part in the broader sphere, not how other religions fared. I think that Kaimi’s notice at the end of the post regarding records is well taken. For the apologetics, I don’t think comparison shows the Church in a good light. For the critics, I think things are much more complicated than they would like. For the rest of us, I think we had better just learn our history and let others speak for themselves.

  3. Margaret Young on May 21, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Interesting comment, Mahana. (I can’t write “ugly.”) I’m not sure I understand what you mean by this, though: I hope that the focus will be more on how the Church acted out its part in the broader sphere .

    And this is as good a place as any to introduce the website to our documentary (which will talk about slavery only in passing):
    http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com

    We’re still constructing it, but I think the designer did a marvelous job.

  4. Clair on May 21, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    After the invention of the cotton gin, plantation slavery became so well entrenched and profitable that no amount of preaching would have dislodged it. A time when talk and ideas might have abolished slavery was during the formation of the Republic, when slavery was only marginally profitable. It would be particularly interesting to examine the influence of churchmen from about 1760 to 1820, when they might have made a difference in the duration and extent of African slavery in the U.S.

  5. Tom on May 21, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    Ugly Mahana,
    Most of us already know quite a lot about our own church’s past with racism. I think that in order to understand racism in the Church’s past it’s important to know how other churches have dealt with racial issues. If we discover that other churches also had problems, that doesn’t exonerate or excuse our church for its problems, but it puts those problems into context.

  6. Blain on May 22, 2007 at 12:09 am

    Part of the reason Methodists and Baptists preached in support of slavery, especially prior to the Second Great Awakening, was so they could get access to slaves, particularly in less populated states like Virginia. Prior to that, they had been rather against slavery, and the slave-owners were concerned that having Christianity preached to their slaves could lead to slave revolts.

    Prominent Protestants being slave owners is not at all to be surprising — Protestants, particularly the Episcopalians and Congregationals, were the old money. It’s not like large plantations were held by anybody other than prominent Protestants.

    And W.W. Phelps’ article was in response to free blacks who were coming to Missouri to join the Saints already. The law of Missouri was that a freedman entering the state had to bring documentation to prove his status, without which he could be jailed, beaten and removed from the state. Phelps’ article made that legal requirement known to avoid the jailing, beating and removal thing, but it was definitely taken by Missourians, particularly those who owned slaves, as an invitation for lots of freedmen to move to the state. They were concerned, again, about encouraging slave revolts, and they were none too happy with the Mormons already for their funny ways and growing political clout.

    But minor quibbles about an excellent post. Good work.

  7. Joshua Madson on May 22, 2007 at 3:27 am

    I guess I dont take much comfort in the, well at least we weren’t as bad as these guys type arguments. It tends to inspire a certain amount of mediocrity. I hope for more from the true church than some doctrinal ideas and knowledge.

    When i see groups like the quakers and anabaptists who frankly are much more Christian on most of the issues Jesus cared for in his ministry, I wonder how much having keys or a good pedigree (ie priesthood lines) really matter in comparison to the weightier matters. Is having the keys more or less important than not treating other races inferior? Is having the book of mormon more or less important than forgiving ones enemies, turning the other check, and being a peacemaker?

    If we fare better than some, great we should expect that. after all this is the true church.

    If we fare worse than some groups where does that leave us. Not as true as we hoped? Still true but under more condemnation? True church, poor discipleship?

  8. Alison Moore Smith on May 22, 2007 at 4:42 am

    Thanks, Kaimi. I look forward to the next installment.

  9. Adam on May 22, 2007 at 11:27 am

    An interesting and enlightening take on the subject, though I must admit that I find little comfort in the positives of the Church\’s inconsistent history. This discussion highlights one fact; the Church leaders\’ and their positions are nothing more than products of their times. Had a more substantial membership of the Church come from the South, then I\’m sure there would have been more negatives.

    Question: If the Spirit speaks truth, and the truth is that slavery and racism are evil, why weren’t Church leaders more receptive to the Spirit with regard to this matter? This question might be more applicable to the later segments of this subject so I might also bring it up then.

  10. Adam on May 22, 2007 at 11:29 am

    Sorry for the weird formatting. (?)

  11. Nate Oman on May 22, 2007 at 11:30 am

    An interesting addendum: I’ve been doing research on civil disputes in ecclesiastical courts. One of the most interesting cases to look at is the Baptists. In Virginia initially there were multi-racial Baptist congregations (although with a decidedly Blacks-at-the-back-of-the-church orientation), and later there were all-black Baptist congregations. Interestingly, Baptist slaves were subject to church discipline for refusing to obey their masters or for acting sullen or uppity. Nor did slaves meet with much sympathy in black congregations (which were generally run by freedmen), although obviously these churches found themselves in a pretty precarious position. I’ve never seen any Mormon ecclesiastical court cases from the nineteent-century dealing with race or slavery. I’m assuming that any Mormon involved in the Indian slave trade would have been subject to discipline, and I’ve no idea how black slaves would have been treated (were treated?) by ecclesiastical courts.

  12. ronito on May 22, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Very good post.

    I am very interested and looking forward to part two, I hope it is coming soon. However, as a latino might I suggest that unless you’re going to deal with other races such as Asians, or Latinos or even Caucasians. That perhaps the title should be changed? I realize that latinos and other races haven’t had as big and dramatic as a history as blacks in the church. But the title lead me to believe it would something a little different something about how the church deals with race relationships and what not not necessarily what I read about.

  13. jjohnsen on May 22, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    I have to agree with number 7. It may be simplistic to say the Church’s record on slavery is ‘good or bad’, but can we honestly say it was anything other than bad? Even better than some isn’t good enough when there are examples of other religions that had a zero tolerance policy toward slavery. The Lord’s true church shouldn’t be better than most. The only explanation I can think of other than the church being untrue is some church leaders let their bigoted feelings outweigh what the spirit must have been telling them. That, or they ignored the spirit in this matter thinking they were doing what was best to build the kingdom, even if it was the wrong thing in the short term.

    I believe the true church of God should always be at the forefront in social issues. Slavery, the poor, war, etc. When looking at the Quaker’s attitude toward slavery 150 years ago, is there any possible way we can say our leaders were more inspired to do God’s will then they were toward slavery? Sadly, I don’t think we can. Are there issues our great-great-great-grandchildren will look back at and wonder if our current leadership lacked inspiration?

  14. endlessnegotiation on May 22, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    I have to second Adam’s sentiments. What is laudable at all about ignoring slavery (which for the most part is what the Church did)? Such behavior turns JS, BY, and other Church leaders into the Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer of their times. It’s despicable and a huge black mark on those men’s lives.

  15. Kaimi Wenger on May 22, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    Adam, J Johnsen, Joshua,

    The question of how progressive the church ought to be is an interesting one. Should the church really be more progressive than the times? There are arguments for this; but I don’t think the answer is totally clear.

    As for whether this affects the church’s status as a divine institution — well, we tend to think that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and He never sought to end slavery. (This point was used repeatedly by Protestant apologists, and early church leaders mentioned it as well.) And this was clearly not a mere oversight — Jesus was comfortable tackling and challenging numerous well-established social institutions, but never addressed slavery. If the Son of God doesn’t try to end slavery, is it reasonable to expect the Prophet to do it?

    Really, our now-universal horror at slavery is the exception. It’s a historically aberrant reaction to an institution that was widely accepted for nearly all of human history.

  16. Kaimi Wenger on May 22, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    (I don’t mean that as a justification of slavery, and I’m not trying to justify slavery, or attitudes towards it.

    I’m just pointing out that the modern attitude — the idea that the wrongness of slavery should be self-evident — is one that has been dominant for only 1% of human history. For most of the rest of the time, the propriety of owning other people has never been seriously questioned. It’s easy to impose our modern biases on people who existed in a completely different cultural milieu.)

  17. Joshua Madson on May 22, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Kaimi,

    one distinction I would make is that “slavery” at the time of Christ was different than the slavery that existed in America which was based on skin color, was for life, and continued from generation to generation. Slavery by many accounts was much worse in the US than at any other time. Slavery in Christ’s time was more of an indentured servitude and Christ did announce a year of jubilee at the beginning of his ministry, Luke 4 (acceptable year of the Lord) which would have required the release of slaves and forgiving of debts.

  18. Kaimi Wenger on May 22, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    TT,

    Not really, sorry. I started this post a month ago, in response to an exchange I had in T&S comments. It got set aside for finals, and I finished it up yesterday and posted it. Thanks for the link, though — that’s a good discussion you’ve got going at FPR, and I’ll get to some of those points in later posts.

    Margaret,

    The website looks nice. What’s the latest word on the film?

    Blain,

    Thanks for those additions — they’re very useful.

  19. Mike on May 22, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Kaimi, being the artist of this excellent picture of a controversial subject, gets to choose the colors with which the picture is painted. I would have added one small paragraph about Elijah Able, in addition to mentioning the three Black pioneers.

    I’m gong from memory here and could be off, it wouldn’t be the first time. But I think Elijah Able was an undertaker in Nauvoo and uncommonly loyal to the Prophet (buried Rockwell’s mistakes?). He was ordained to the Priesthood and held positions of some responsibility. His descendents went west and each generation was ordained to the Priesthood. I went to high school with one of his descendents and he along with his father and grandfather held the Priesthood before the 1978 Revelation.

  20. Kaimi Wenger on May 22, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Joshua,

    A number of modern Christian apologists have made just that argument, since one common indictment of Christianity is its 1800-year-plus acceptance of slavery. However, the comparison between slavery in antiquity and slavery in America is a complicated one, and does not in my opinion boil down to simply characterizing slavery in antiquity as less harsh. A number of factors are involved, including the location and the era.

    Slavery under Roman law was better, in many regards, than slavery in America. The racist elements were quite a bit less (though not entirely removed; slaves were mostly ethnic barbarians and treated as such). Hereditary slavery was certainly allowed under Roman law; there are complicated rules about it. And some slaves could buy their freedom under Roman law; the same applied to American slaves, however.

    Working conditions for American slaves were substantially worse in most cases. American slaves not only worked on plantations, but could be leased to industry, such as railroads. Daily working life in antiquity is generally believed to have been less severe. However, slaves in antiquity were often sent to the army, where they were used as cannon fodder in wars. I’m not sure which side I prefer in that trade-off.

    Slavery in antiquity was, any way you cut it, a pretty barbaric practice. If we tie divinity to opposition of barbaric practices, then we should probably expect Jesus to have opposed slavery. Instead, neither Jesus nor the early Apostles made any serious effort to combat slavery.

    That seems to suggest that we should either (a) find a way to reconcile the coexistence of divine leaders and a divine institution with a barbaric cultural practice, or (b) start investigating Hinduism, Buddhism, and Wicca.

  21. Kaimi Wenger on May 22, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Also — feel free to help me out here, TT, or any of you crazy FPR-ers — weren’t most (all?) of the Essenes opposed to slavery? And they existed as political-religious units at the time of Jesus. And He wasn’t an Essene.

    Meaning that Jesus existed at a time when a viable group opposed to slavery was active (it’s a bit of a stretch to call them abolitionists, based on what I know of them, but they were definitely not slaveholders), and He apparently declined to join them, or to adopt such a position Himself.

    (Though they were a little weird, theologically, weren’t they?)

  22. jjohnsen on May 22, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    “The question of how progressive the church ought to be is an interesting one. Should the church really be more progressive than the times? There are arguments for this; but I don’t think the answer is totally clear.”

    Why wouldn’t it be? With a leader that is led by inspiration, why wouldn’t a church always be at the forefront of change? Because it would make us look bad? Because other churches would like us less? Because politically it might hurt us? These all sound like reasons man would worry about, not God’s church. I worry about a religion that might actually sacrifice something like this to gain a larger foothold.

    Maybe you’ll be able to address the similar thing in later parts, because my question will be the same. I don’t want to go off topic, especially on something you may address later, but why would a church led by an inspired prophet of God wait until 1978 to give full membership to people based on the color of their skin? Wouldn’t the inspired church lead the fight against that type of intolerance? And again, are there similar social issues we may not even think about that much today that our descendants will look back on in horror wondering how a prophet of God didn’t address them?

    I enjoyed your post and look forward to the rest of this series of posts.

  23. Randy B. on May 22, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Great post, Kaimi. Thanks.

    (And damn you for that sidebar link to Dicewars!!! ;) )

  24. DavidH on May 22, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    I share jjohnsen’s concerns, and have for some time. I do not have a good answer, nor a comforting defense.

    I continue to like what Armand Mauss said in a speech last year (and probably in other speeches): that seeing the Church both as a divine institution and a human institution (with, perhaps, a heavier emphasis on the human side), for him, meant that decisions and policies sometimes disappointed him, but never disillusioned him. I too have been disappointed at times, and I try hard not to become disillusioned.

    This means, among other things, changing the way I picture the divinity of the Church, so that, in my mind, the Church, itself as an organization and in its policies and practices, is not infallible and inerrant at any moment in time. Over the long haul, I think it is, in the sense that God will gently nudge the Brethren to make course corrections.

    I suppose God could have commanded David O. McKay (or one of his predecessors) to make a change without consulting first with the other Brethren, including Elder Lee, who, from my reading, would probably not have welcomed such a change. But instead, for whatever reason, God waited until the membership of the Quorum and First Presidency had changed and a new President of the Church so seriously desired the will of God on this matter that, not only did he personally pray regularly in the upper rooms of the temple about this, but he met and counseled with each member of the 12 and First Presidency until all 15 were ready to feel the revelatory confirmation that the change/correction was right.

  25. Fenevad on May 22, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    re: #14 and #15, I seems strange to expect our leaders to rise completely above the level of their times. We all (leaders included) come to the gospel with our weaknesses.

    In response to the broader point here, I don’t think many of those who will dig into the Church’s race relations will care what other denominations did in the 1800s, nor are they really interested in our actions then either. That is not to say that this information isn’t valuable, but when folks latch onto us as a racist organization, they are squarely pointing to the Church during the civil-rights era when many of us were alive and involved. We thus get the same attention someone from a conservative Baptist congregation that holds/held miscegenation to be a sin would get. If we have to answer for anything, it would be the continuing legacy of (unofficial) racial discrimination after priesthood was granted the blacks.

    Drawing attention to our rather poor history with respect to racial minorities raises valid questions about Romney as a political candidate, questions we all should be able to answer for ourselves and to others.

  26. It's Not Me on May 22, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    Some of the comments here seem to forget that the Church is not the Church of Harold B. Lee, or Joseph F. Smith, or whatever prophet. It is the Church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we can consider that it was not the Lord’s will that the change be made until it was. I’m not saying that church leaders did not share prejudices widely held by their contemporaries; I am saying that the Lord’s inspiration moved them slowly in the direction of making the change, and facilitated the change to occur when it did.

    That’s probably a weak way of putting it. Clearly the decision reached by Spencer W. Kimball was ratified by revelation. (By the way, David O. McKay is said to have prayed over the issue on many occasions, but the answer he received was that the time was not right–with no explanation as to why it was not right).

  27. Visorstuff on May 22, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    As I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I think the fact that as institutions, other churches condemn the LDS church based on the racial attitudes of the church is somewhat hypocritical. While a good number of other faiths officially stopped segregating in the 1960s and early 1970s, the LDS church is condemned because it stopped only six years after the last major church did. I had forgotten about the Southern/Northern baptist split – another interesting point.

    It is less of an apologetic argument, nor a way to justify that which is inexcusable today, but I think people of other faiths and Mormons themselves need to understand from a historical perspective that they didn’t act that different from other faiths, and did not lag all that far behind in their attitudes to race. It is not apologetic at all, but placing the 1978 revelation in the proper context it needs in relation to other faiths. I look forward to the remainder of the posts!!

    Incidentally, the church is both progressive and conservative. The Welfare system, Correlation, and Block schedule are some example of progressiveness and even modern liberalism. However, as a whole, church members have become increasingly (and likely dangerously) conservative since the retrenchment period of the 1860-70s. I’m a registered republican, but too many members think you have to be a republican to be a good church member. The disseperation of church and politics is dangerous. Thank heavens for a more equal (read: but not entirely equal) split of political views among the GAs.

  28. TrailerTrash on May 22, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    Kaimi: “weren’t most (all?) of the Essenes opposed to slavery? And they existed as political-religious units at the time of Jesus. And He wasn’t an Essene.”

    I don’t know if the specific example of the Essenes can be said to be “opposed” to slavery except in as much as there is no evidence that there were slaves at Qumran, but I am not super familiar with this marginal case. That said, there were a number of ancient thinkers and groups that objected to slavery on moral grounds. The argument was not widely accepted, but it certainly existed in antiquity among Greek and Roman thinkers.

  29. Fenevad on May 22, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    Some of the comments here seem to forget that the Church is not the Church of Harold B. Lee, or Joseph F. Smith, or whatever prophet. It is the Church of Jesus Christ.

    Be that as it may, the Church is in a dialectic relationship between the divine and the human. It thus deals with us in the mortal, human condition, and our attitudes and preparedness for any given doctrine or action are important considerations. Otherwise we would still be under commandment to follow the United Order as an actual economic system (and failing miserably).

    Since the leading apologetical argument at the present for why the blacks were granted the Priesthood when they were (i.e., that it was withheld from blacks because of the dominant prejudices of the time) has essentially nothing to do with some sort of eternal principle and everything to do with our present-day prejudices, I think it safe to say that the attitudes of members is of primary concern here. We can say that the change required the ratification of God (as Spencer Kimball stated), but if we accept the standard apologetical line, the policy was there in the first place because of our prejudices, not because Jesus wanted blacks to be treated as second-class citizens.

    We can say that the Church is Jesus’ church but still recognize the impact of individuals on the Church. It does not exist in a vacuum independent of human concerns.

  30. It's Not Me on May 22, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Be that as it may, one of the commenters on here seemed to be a little overly harsh in criticizing past leaders of the Church for not changing the policy sooner. All I’m saying is that perhaps it was not “in the Lord’s due time” regardless of the perceived righteousness of the leaders.

  31. Brewhaha on May 22, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    After reading Bushman\’s \”Rough Stone\” I started to develop a much more naturalistic approach toward church and individual development. Seeing how Joseph Smith truly developed his understanding line-upon-line (even of the First Vision) left me with the impression that God still relies a great deal on the natural development of His leaders, His church, and His church\’s policies. I believe that the same can be said about slavery. Even though it should have been clearly wrong to early church leaders, I am comfortable with the belief that He trusted in the eventual development and adoption of the correct policy.

  32. Julie M. Smith on May 22, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    “God still relies a great deal on the natural development . . . ”

    We all know how true that is for us as individuals; why it would (or could) be any different for a group of individuals strains credulity.

  33. Razorfish on May 23, 2007 at 12:04 am

    How does our culture influence our revelation?

    The problem I have with the arguement “in the Lord’s due time” is that the Church appears much more reactionary and behind the curve compared to how other churches handled segregation, civil rights, ecclesiatical rights etc.

    Does anyone believe the 1978 revelation would have transpired had the civil rights movement never happened? If you think the two aren’t inextricably linked, then why was this revelation never received until nearly 150 years after the Church was restored. Maybe the Lord was willing much earlier to “whisper this revelation” but the culture, the society, the members within the Church, or the leaders weren’t ready to receive it.

    If I had to err on which side was the cause for the greater delay on the revelation, I would place the blame on us (as individuals) and not on the Lord.

  34. Julie M. Smith on May 23, 2007 at 10:03 am

    “Does anyone believe the 1978 revelation would have transpired had the civil rights movement never happened?”

    Yes. Pres. McKay wanted to rescind the ban in the 50s. But I agree with you that the problem was “us.”

  35. Blain on May 23, 2007 at 10:31 am

    1, 14, 23 etc.

    I think the problem here is having the expectation that the Church should be led the way you think it should. I’m not sure where this is coming from, but I don’t recall seeing any of your names (nor mine) on the list of the people who are supposed to lead the Church. I also don’t know how any adult in the Church, who has had any background in the history of the Church or who has just held a number of callings, can entertain the notion that the institutional Church is or ever has been or could be perfect.

    Folks, the Church is made up of Mormons, in case you haven’t noticed. I’ve never seen a perfect Mormon, and I don’t believe any of you have either. I have no reason to believe there will be any this side of the Millenium, and I’m glad of that, because, if there were, there wouldn’t be room for folks like me.

    Joseph Smith was never perfect, and neither was Brigham Young. They both did stupid things from time to time. They also were prophets of God that played key roles in the restoration of the Gospel. Their greatness as prophets is not lessened by their lack of perfection — if anything, it’s strengthened, because God was able to bring great things to pass through them, and that’s more impressive when you start with imperfect material than it would if you started with something already perfect. If you’re going to look at the history of the Church and expect to find that it was always X, and that X is something you believe in, you’re almost guaranteed to be disappointed. The Church has grown and evolved and changed from the day Joseph walked out of the grove until today, and it’s not going to stop. If you want to see one version of that change solidified as The One True Way, then you’re not getting the idea of how the Church runs. This is a Church where you have to be in it for the ride, not because you happen to be comfortable with how it is this current moment.

  36. Blain on May 23, 2007 at 10:40 am

    28 — An interesting thing I ran into last week in my “History of Religion in America through 1864″ class was the notion that Mormonism took many of the more diametric religious issues of the day and took the position of “both.” Grace v works? Both grace and works. Laiety v priesthood? Lay priesthood. Infant sprinkling baptism v adult immersion baptism? Child immersion baptism. It reminds me of a podcast I was listening to recently (don’t recall which one or who the speaker was, but it might have been Richard Bushman on Mormon Stories) who spoke of paradoxes in the Church, and how you don’t resolve a paradox — you transcend the paradox. That just meshes so well for me, because that’s what I see the Church doing all the way back — taking paradoxical positions because the truth is to be found at neither end of the paradox but somewhere in the middle.

    Your comment brought this to mind.

  37. Brewhaha on May 23, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    We all believe in individual free agency being necessary for growth. Is there such a thing as “institutional free agency”? And if so, is it a necessary component of growth in the church? It seems reasonable that God allows His church to “find it’s way” through some difficult times when those difficult times don’t have eternal consequence.

  38. NorthboundZax on May 23, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    “I[t] seems strange to expect our leaders to rise completely above the level of their times.”

    It seems strange to me that many are willing to embrace the mediocrity that derives directly from this attitude. If we are content to have our (inspired!) leaders be better than many, but not as good as others on issues with as much importance as race and social justice, what do we really gain by having such leaders? I admit, I am at a loss to see much use in having inspired leaders that we expect to often lag behind the real leaders on crucial societal issues. The statement: “where much is given, much is required” comes to mind.

    Blain – interesting thoughts!

  39. Fenevad on May 24, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    It seems strange to me that many are willing to embrace the mediocrity that derives directly from this attitude.

    Mediocrity? I would think realism instead. The last I checked the Church was built out of people who come to it with all sorts of ideas, examined and unexamined. Some of them are so deeply embedded that we are unaware of them. Unless you have some way to lead us all into a celestial order immediately, I think we have to cut them some slack. That does not mean we don’t recognize their failings, but we allow them the privilege (prophets too) of being human, with all that entails.

    I would argue that that the leaders rose above their times in a great many ways, but not in every. The alternative to giving them credit for being men of their times with great strengths, but also great weaknesses in some areas, seems to be to damn them to failing to live up to our standards (which they did not know) and to damn ourselves for failing to live up to the standards of a future generation that we known absolutely nothing about.

    I’m not surprised at all to see “inspired leaders lag behind the real leaders on crucial societal issues.” Directing the Church must be like trying to turn a battleship around: it takes time and patience. In the meantime there are those who don’t have to run this massive enterprise (and who may be directly inspired by God in their sphere) who can point the way we should go.

  40. Blain on May 25, 2007 at 2:09 am

    39 — Thanks. I’m finding them interesting as well.

    However, you’re missing an important part of your sentence when it comes to “issues with as much importance as race and social justice,” and that’s the part where you own that they are important to you. That’s not a put down at all, but a reflection of the notion that what is important to us isn’t always important to God, no matter how important to us it might be. When David O. McKay wanted to end the priesthood ban, God said “no.” Somehow, his understanding of the importance of race and social justice is different than ours, and the deal is that he’s right all the time (even when he disagrees with me, which is just weird to think about).

    And I’m not sure who the “many” are in the Church who are willing to embrace the attitude that our leaders are human — there are way too many who reject that notion for me to be comfortable. Way too many expect every word from the mouth of a leader to be co-signed by God, so they don’t have to do any thinking.

    40 — One of my former bishops addressed the battleship turning metaphor by suggesting that the Church can actually change direction rather quickly if the prophet says that what we’ve been doing is wrong, and we need to make it right, but that doesn’t happen very often. Where the change is slow is when we don’t ever quite say that what we were doing was wrong, but now we’re doing something different because it’s better, especially when we don’t make those changes clear all the way through the Church. It’s not hard to run into people who will quote policies that date back decades, from handbooks that have been replaced (and ordered destroyed) as though they are current (and, possibly, eternal) policies when the most recent handbook indicates otherwise.

    I think we need to get a lot more aggressive at rooting out these expectations of perfection, because they just keep on doing so much harm. The Church isn’t great because it brings perfect people together and does things perfectly — it’s great because it brings flawed people together, and they do better together than can be explained by their abilities.

  41. Joshe2000 on June 13, 2007 at 7:00 am

    Just a little bit of information regarding the ban on the priesthood. Many dark skinned (many darker than blacks) Saints (males) held the priesthood way before the revelation of 1978. Thousands of dark skinned Saints held the priesthood in the islands of the Pacific (Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, etc) before the revelation of 1978. We are talkng about from the 1850s, when Brigham Young 1st sent missionaries to the Pacific islands.

  42. lynx on June 20, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    #21 – \”That seems to suggest that we should either (a) find a way to reconcile the coexistence of divine leaders and a divine institution with a barbaric cultural practice, or (b) start investigating Hinduism, Buddhism, and Wicca.\”

    easily the most intelligent thing on this entire page, speaking as someone who was raised mormon, left the church out of sheer disgust at it\’s racist history and it\’s racist present (the doctrines on native americans, after all, have NEVER been recanted and the \’78 revelation didn\’t touch them) and is now a pagan. The fact is you cannot reconcile Divine inspiration and the claims of men to be speaking for God with their acceptance of barbaric and disgusting practices. If you accept that slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc are inherently, utterly, and incontestably WRONG then any person who claims to speak for God on matters of morality and does not denounce them is clearly lying. it\’s really very simple. Apologists for bigotry can argue it any way they like, but the fact remains that in order to seriously believe in Christianity and Mormonism in particular one must either accept that God is a Bigot and worship him anyway or engage in doublethink.

    I\’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Joseph smith:

    “For instance, the descendants of Cain cannot cast off their skin of blackness, at once, and immediately, although every soul of them should repent, obey the Gospel, and do right from this day forward. . . . Cain and his posterity must wear the mark, which God put upon them; and his white friends may wash the race of Cain with fuller’s soap every day, they cannot wash away God’s mark; The Lamanites, through transgression, became a loathsome, ignorant and filthy people, and were cursed with a skin of darkness … yet, they have the promise, if they will believe, and work righteousness, that not many generations shall pass away before they shall become a white and delightsome people; but it will take some time to accomplish this at best” The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star, vol. 14, p. 418

    This man was obviously not the prophet of any god worth worshiping.