“Saints, Slaves, & Blacks”: A Review

This past May, I went to see Jana Riess present her recent research on Mormon Millennials at the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. One of the most interesting (and disturbing) bits of information was her finding regarding Mormons’ opinions about the priesthood/temple ban. As she summarizes online,

The 2016 NMS asked whether respondents felt that the ban on members of African descent was “inspired of God and was God’s will for the Church until 1978.” Respondents were given a five-point scale of possible responses, with the upshot being that nearly two-thirds of self-identified Latter-day Saints say they either know (37 percent) or believe (25.5 percent) that the ban was God’s will. Another 17 percent think it might be true, and 22 percent say they know or believe it is false. Overall, then, a majority of Mormons still support the idea that the priesthood/temple ban was inspired by God. Only about one in five say they know or believe the ban to have been wrong. One major surprise in the data was that Mormons of color were actually more likely to say they knew or believed the ban was God’s will than white Mormons were. 70 percent of non-whites affirmed this, compared to 61 percent of whites. That also remains true when we consider only African American respondents in a group by themselves: 67 percent of African Americans know or believe the priesthood/temple ban was God’s will, which is six points higher than the rate for whites. (The margin of error is high, however, since there were only 50 African American Mormon respondents in the study.) Just because many non-white Mormons view the priesthood/temple ban as having been inspired by God does not mean they have warm feelings about it. About four in five say they are at least a little “troubled” by the ban, while only one in five are “not at all troubled.” Among white Mormons, by contrast, about one in three were not at all troubled.

She points out, “On a personal note, I’m in the minority here. I’m an active Latter-day Saint who believes the ban was the result of human error.” I’m in Jana’s boat (as I’ve detailed elsewhere). I’ve pushed back in church against the supposed parallel with the Levites[1] or the common “we don’t know” cop out. I think familiarity with the history of the temple/priesthood restriction obligates one to do so.

Information about the ban’s history has become far more accessible over the last few years. Case in point, there is the obvious example of the Church’s Gospel Topics essay. A couple years ago, Paul Reeve had an excellent article in the RSC/Deseret Book-published A Reason for Faith (you can read my review here), which summarized his research on 19th-century racializations of Mormons–and consequently Mormon attempts to distance themselves from non-white races–that was previously published through Oxford University in the award-winning Religion of a Different Color: Race and Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. Prior to that, Russell Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness (another MHA award-winner) provided a global history of the Church’s relationship with those of African descent. And I still remember my excitement over Edward Kimball’s 2008 article in BYU Studies Quarterly.

Image result for saints slaves and blacksHistorian Newell Bringhurst set the standard for the scholarship above with his 1981 volume Saints, Slaves, & Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism. However, the book languished somewhat in obscurity and eventually fell out of print. Greg Kofford Books has recently resurrected the volume in a 2nd edition with new forewords and postscripts by Edward J. Blum, W. Paul Reeve, and Darron T. Smith and an additional appendix from Bringhurst.

Saints, Slaves, & Blacks is a thorough exploration and chronology of the American experience regarding Mormonism and blacks. The breadth of documentation is truly impressive. I have to commend Greg Kofford Books for choosing to go with footnotes. While this may be distracting to some readers (it can be for me at times), Bringhurst often expounds on the primary text and/or provides additional quotations. Reading both the primary text and footnotes in tandem will provide the reader with a richer, deeper understanding of the topic.

According to Paul Reeve, “one of [the book’s] most significant contributions…is…its exploration and thorough documentation of the racial universalism inherent in the first two decades of Mormonism” (pg. 193). As Bringhurst explains,

Initially, however, the status of blacks did not differ from that of any other ethnic group. As objects for probable Mormon salvation, black people fell within the purview of Mormon universalism. The Book of Mormon proclaimed a basic desire to preach the Gospel among all peoples, blacks as well as whites. “All men are privileged the one like unto the other and none are forbidden” (2 Ne. 26:28). Joseph Smith expressed this same universalism throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. According to Smith, the voice of the Lord was “unto all men” and he was “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:2, 38:16).3 As for the gospel, it was “free unto all” regardless of “nation, kindred, [or] tongue” (D&C 10:51).4 “All those who humble themselves before God” would “be received by baptism into his Church,” including the “heathen nations” (D&C 20:37, 45:54). The Mormon Prophet instructed missionaries to go “into all the world” and preach the gospel “unto every creature . . . both old and young, both bond and free” (D&C 43:20). Finally, the Mormon gathering to Zion would include the righteous from “every nation under heaven” brought together “from the ends of the earth” (D&C 45:69, 58:9, 45) (pgs. 32-33).

Various early Mormons (e.g., Parley Pratt, W.W. Phelps) and publications–including lyrics in the 1835 hymnal–expressed similar sentiments. Yet, with this underlying universalism, how could early Mormons, say, oppose abolitionists?

The emergence of Mormon anti-abolitionism took place against the backdrop of an American society increasingly agitated over the slavery issue during the 1830s. The Saints were anxious to avoid being identified with the abolitionists who, like the Saints, were a despised and persecuted group. The Saints, moreover, eschewed abolition because they wanted to remain in Missouri and promote their religion in the slaveholding South. Therefore, throughout most of the 1830s, the Mormons lashed out at abolitionists like James W. Alvord and the concepts they represented. These anti-abolitionist actions helped to create a Mormon intellectual environment in which Joseph Smith was able to develop a set of racist theories specifically directed against black people. This latter development occurred as Smith and other Mormons tried to cope with the problems created by the few blacks associated with the Mormon movement during the 1830s (pg. 30).

As shown above, Bringhurst does a fine job of untangling the often contradictory views of race in early Mormonism, contextualizing and clarifying them in ways that will be beneficial to both scholars and laypersons alike.

Saints, Slaves, & Blacks is also sprinkled with numerous smaller insights, some of which are explored more fully by other scholars. Several of these were light bulb moments for me. For example, while I was already convinced of the theologically bogus nature of the temple/priesthood ban, I came across yet another reason to question its veracity: the whole notion of a temple/priesthood ban based on “lineage” is undermined by another teaching put forth by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that the Holy Ghost purges Gentiles of impurities and makes them the literal seed of Abraham. Bringhurst writes,

In fact, the Saints were anxious to “purge out . . . impure elements” not just from the larger Mormon community but also from the bodies of individual church members. This could be done, Young said, “through the Holy Ghost,” which could act upon individual Saints tainted with impure “Gentile blood.” These impurities would actually be purged “out of their veins” and replaced with the pure blood of Abraham. This process would remove impure “blood out” of the bodies of Mormons of varied ethnic backgrounds, including those who had the “blood of Judah” (pg. 124).

Yet, for whatever reason, “black people…could not be cleansed of their impure or tainted blood. Any such effort would naturally be impaired by the physical reality of the blacks’ dark skin, which in Mormon eyes was emblematic of their “tainted” blood as well as their accursed racial origins” (pg. 124-125). Bringhurst elaborates in the footnote, “Young claimed that he was expressing and quoting the teachings of Joseph Smith. This writer has not uncovered any contemporary corroborating evidence. Young seemed to be suggesting that a definite racial transformation took place within the individual so treated and “the revolution and change in the system” was “so great” that he would have “spasms” with the appearance of “going into fits”” (pg. 124). Yet, Brigham Young’s claim is corroborated by Willard Richard’s 1839 report, which states that Joseph taught “the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a gentile is to purge out the old blood & make him actually of the seed of Abraham. That man that has none of the blood of Abraham (naturally) must have a new creation by the Holy Ghost, in such a case there may be more of a powerful effect upon the body & visible to the eye than upon an Israelite…” Now, whether one accepts the teaching of blood purging via the Holy Ghost is irrelevant. The point is that much of Brigham Young’s teachings on race and priesthood were obviously ad hoc. Gems like this made Bringhurst’s book an excellent read.

I was admittedly hesitant when I was asked to review Saints, Slaves, & Blacks. Having read a good amount of the recent scholarship on the topic and knowing the book was a largely unchanged 2nd edition, I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Fortunately, my worries were put to rest in the first chapter. Despite originally being published nearly 40 years ago, the scholarship still feels fresh and relevant. Bringhurst’s book simultaneously plays the role of both the foundation of and a contributor to modern scholarship on Mormonism and race. And we should be thankful to Greg Kofford Books for making it available once more.



  1. Aside from the conflicting sources regarding the Levites and their priestly status, the parallel still falls flat. Levites performed temple and cultic practices vicariously in behalf of all of Israel. Israelite non-priests still received the benefits of the temple and its rituals. In contrast, black men were not merely denied the officiating privileges and responsibilities of the priesthood. Black men and women were denied the full extent of temple blessings. They were denied ordinances that the Church teaches are necessary for exaltation. For a useful overview of the scholarship regarding the Levites, see D.A. Garrett, “Levi, Levites,” in The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander, David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  2. There have been other recent books, such as Max Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People and Matthew Harris and Newell Bringhurst’s The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History.

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