The 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith, officially established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ believe that Smith, under divine guidance, translated a set of golden plates into the Book of Mormon. This was the first of several literary works that were said to contain proper doctrine of the beliefs and views of the Mormon religion. Throughout the development of the Church, several aspects of the Mormon religion have caused many of its members to be persecuted by outside parties.
During the last half of the nineteenth-century the government formed strict laws to thwart the strong beliefs of polygamy until church leaders denounced the practice. In the twentieth century the Church came under fire because of its controversial ideas considering African Americans. Ideas of Caucasian supremacy can be found throughout doctrines and scripture that exist in important Church documents. Until recently the Latter-day Saint Church had denied the priesthood, as well as several other religious practices to anyone that was of African decent.
Heavy criticism from both non-Mormon and Mormon parties mounted until 1978, when then Church president Spencer Kimball announced the repeal. Several theories have been recently developed to explain the origins and reasoning of racial inferiority and the manner in which the Latter-day Saint Church treated African Americans during the last one- hundred and seventy-one years. A large portion of the Book of Mormon describes the history of several pre-Christian civilizations that existed throughout America.
A group of Israelites lead by a righteous man named Nephi established a society of god loving people. Nephis two brothers Laman and Lemuel rose up against their brother and formed a band of dissidents that rejected Nephis religious ideas. The righteous people came to be called the Nephites, while the nomadic dissidents were called Lamanites. The Lamanites were cursed by the Lord with the skin of darkness and became known as a dark, and loathsome, and filthy people full of idleness and all manner of Abomination1.
Eventually the nations of the Amlicites and the Zoramites were cast with dark skin and joined the Lamanites. The Nephite ultimately turned ungodly and became extinct due to numerous battles fought both among themselves and with the Lamanites. Church leaders believe the present-day Indians to be descendants of the Lamanites.. According to Smith, the Lamanites could cast away their dark skin and savage ways if they sought to repent and accept the true faith that ways taught by the righteous Nephites.
In 1851 the Mormon Church published another major literary work entitled the Pearl Of Great Price; it contained the Books of Moses and Abraham as translated by Joseph Smith. It wasnt until 1880 that the Pearl of Great Price became common Holy Scripture and was incorporated with the Book of Mormon. It eventually became a major tool in justifying the denial of Priesthood to anyone of African decent. The life of the biblical figure, Cain, is a very important aspect of the literary work.
He was believed to have the ability to converse with God, but he loved Satan more than God. Cain murdered his brother Abel and gloried in his wickedness because Satan commanded him to perform the task. Because of his decision to worship Satan not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race2. Cains decedents became known as the People of Canaan; blackness came upon all their children and they were despised among all people3.
The prophet Joseph Smith and the early elders of the Church believed that the seed of Cain continued through the flood by the wife of Ham, a son of Noah4. Several historians have formed a Missouri thesis, which traces the Mormons belief in black racial inferiority to the period in history when the majority of members of the Mormon Church resided in the slave state of Missouri. This thesis explains that the Church felt the need to project anti-black views to placate slaveholders. The Church was largely antislavery, and Missouri citizens were quick to notice the differences in the newly formed Church.
A Secret Constitution was circulated through Jackson County in July of 1833 that accused the Saints of tampering with our slaves, and endeavoring to sow dissentions and raise seditions amongst them5. The members of the Church were eventually forced out of the county after violent Mob action. Several other historians have dismissed the so-called Missouri thesis, arguing that the denial of priesthood came under the leadership of Brigham Young. A major fact that argues against the Missouri thesis was the record of the first African American priest; Elijah Abel was ordained an elder in the Melchizedek priesthood on March 3, 18366.
It is believed that Abel was a close friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was able to perform several church ordinances, including performing marriages, because he was recognized by the state of Ohio as a licensed minister of the Church. While participating in missionary work for the Church, controversial attitudes were directed towards Abel from both Mormon and non-Mormon parties. Citizens in upstate New York accused Abel of murder and offered a reward for his apprehension, but fortunately he was able to clear his name and was aloud to leave un-harmed.
After the assassination of Smith, Brigham Young led the LDS Church to settle Utah. Slavery issues often coincided with attempts at statehood. Church leaders were frequently forced to address the position of the church concerning the Negro race. Church elders, including Young, often spoke out against slavery in the South, but the increasing number of black migrations into the territory of Utah between 1847-1850 began to complicate the feeling of many Church leaders. Young and several other Church apostles were often quick to remark on the dangers of racial intermixture especially through marriage.
Young believed that any white man guilty of mingling his seed with the seed of Cane. could redeem himself or have salvation only by having his head cut off and his Blood [spilt] on the ground7 According to the Compromise of 1850 the territory of Utah was left open to slavery. A U. S. census taken in 1860 calculated that Twenty-nine slaves resided in the Utah territory8. In 1852 Utah territorial legislature outlawed all black-white racial intermixture, as well as the right of African Americans to vote, hold public office, and joining the Territorial militia9.
Church leaders for the first time began to speak out publicly about their practice of black priesthood denial. Elders further affirmed the subordinate position of Blacks by barring them from any Temple visitation rights. Any marriage that occurred by African American members of the Church could not take place at a Mormon temple. As the separation of the slave and non-slave states approached, the Mormon Church came under increasing fire for the practice of polygamy. Government officials, mainly the Republican Party, began to pass strict laws concerning anyone practicing plural marriage.
Many Republicans spoke out about the moral injustices of both slavery in the south and the practice of polygamy by the Mormon Church. In return Young along with other Church leaders began to accuse the Republican party of tearing the Union apart because of their abolitionist ideas. Several non-Mormons began to associate polygamous church leaders with African Kings that were known to participate in the practice of plural marriage. The Church was quick to deny any connection with African polygamy and often pointed out their beliefs in the subordinate position of anyone of African descent.
Young and Church leaders also expressed their dislike for the peculiar institution in the South. As the Civil war began, the Mormon-dominated territory of Utah decided not to participate in either seceding from the Union or joining the Union army. The Church characterized its position as both anti-abolitionist and anti-slavery. Young defended Utahs small number of slaves by comparing it more to benevolent servitude, and because of a lack of quality soil, Utah slaves were mostly used for residential service duties.
Several Church leaders such as William Hooper, Utahs Territorial delegate, and Apostle Jedediah M. Grant saw the Civil War as a blessing in disguise; they believed that the war would trigger a Mormon prophesied apocalyptic event that would cleanse society and eventually lead to ultimate Mormon control. The war over slavery during the second half of the nineteenth century forced the Mormon Church for the first time in its existence to publicly announce their feeling towards the African race.
At that time in history the idea that African Americans held subordinate role in society was a common belief for many citizens that were not associated with the Church. As a new generation of Mormons took the helm of the Church black priesthood denial perpetuated. Church leaders justified their reasoning through several different ideas. Church elders that were associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith affirmed that Smith believed that the seed of Cain was not allowed to hold the title of priesthood. The Pearl of Great Price was also used as a major literary device in maintaining ideas of African inferiority.
Leaders often referred to passages Smith had written about a close descendant of Ham that established the first government of Egypt; He became a very wise and righteous ruler but because he was an ancestor of Cain he was cursed pertaining to the Priesthood10. Republican Government officials continued to disapprove of the polygamous Saints; laws were passed that took away the right to vote to any known person practicing polygamy. Republicans sought out to fight against the moral injustices of plural marriage and the subordinate role of African Americans in society.
Denial of black priesthood could have been a way for the Church leaders to publicly challenge the increasingly moral attitudes of Republican officials. Upon the turn of the century African Americans began to take on a different role in society. Black citizens began to reside primarily in urban areas due to increasing employment opportunities. Large-scale employment prospects in Utah were created by the existence of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. The majority of Utah African Americans lived around the cities of Ogden and Salt Lake. The Church made little to no effort to convert Negroes.
International missionary efforts were restricted to countries that contained Caucasian citizens. The Church made noticeable efforts to maintain the idea of segregation. It wasnt until 1963 that Church attempted to establish their first mission in an African nation, Nigeria11. When the Nigerian government became aware of Mormon practices concerning blacks, they denied any members of the Church visas to enter their country. Negroes faced discriminatory rules outside the Church; African Americans were banned from many recreational facilities as well as restaurants throughout Utah.
Many parallels existed between Utah and States located in the south that strictly enforced Jim Crow laws. In1939 a petition that was initiated by Sheldon Brewster, a Mormon bishop, began to circulate that would allow the City of Salt Lake to restrict African-Americans to a specific district in the Northwest side12. Blacks throughout Salt Lake City marched to the Capitol Building in protest of the efforts to restrict residential areas by race; due to the demonstrations City commissioners disapproved the petition.
The second half to the twentieth-century marked the height of Mormon disparagement over the race issue. The Civil rights movement received full support from the government and many popular non-Mormon religious denominations. People from both within the Church and outside the Church began to take notice of the injustice treatment of black Mormons. Organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League began to criticize both the State of Utah and the Mormon Church over the evident racial inequality status that was held by African- American citizens.
By the beginning of the sixties Civil Right advocates began to picket in front of the Capitol Building in an effort to persuade the governing body to pass equal right acts. The Salt Lake chapter NAACP publicly demonstrated in boycotts against Woolworth establishments throughout Utah because of their anti-black rules. As the state of Utah refused to recognize the Civil Rights movement that was occurring throughout the nation, advocates began to directly blame the Mormon Church.
In an effort to discourage NAACP demonstrations in front of Temple Square Church leaders announced that they held no belief that intended to threaten the pursuit for full civil rights. Athletic contest that involved the church-owned Brigham Young University began to be plagued by demonstrations. Many black athletes refused to participate in competitions that involved the primarily Caucasian University.
Large schools such as Stanford University, the University of Washington, and San Jose State cut all extra circular activities with B. Y. U. because of alleged racial discrimination by the Mormon Church13. In1974 the NAACP filled a lawsuit with a Federal court against the Church in support of Byron Marchant, an African-American Mormon scoutmaster14. Mormon-sponsored Boy Scout troops required any senior patrol leaders to hold the title of priesthood, thus blacks were excluded. As a result to the lawsuit the Church reversed its discriminatory policy against scoutmasters. Further attempts to segregate African-Americans are evident through the formation of the Genesis Group.
The Genesis Group was formed for the estimated two hundred black Mormons who resided in Salt Lake City. The group held meeting in a chapel that was also used for several branches of the Liberty Stake. While outside pressures were mounting against the practice of black priesthood denial, several prominent liberal members of the Church began to express their dislike of the practice. In 1952 Dr. Lowry Nelson, a Mormon sociologist, published an article in Nation magazine condemning the unfortunate policy in an attempt to force Church leaders to address their racist concepts15.
The Mormon journal Dialogue began publishing controversial essays elaborating on race issues within the Church. Church elders viewed Dialogue from an uneasy perspective16. In spring of 1973 Lester Bush published a groundbreaking article in Dialogue that undermined the historical basis for black priesthood denial by directly linking the practice to Brigham Young. 17 Bushs historical analysis disproved the Missouri thesis and showed that the Church didnt begin the practice of discrimination against blacks by denying them the priesthood until after the death of the prophet Joseph Smith.
After nearly a hundred and forty years, Church elders, lead by the President of the Church, Spencer Kimball, announced that through prayer they had received a revelation from God allowing the title of priesthood to be available to Mormons of all racial and ethnic background. The Lordhas heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that follows therefrom, including the blessing of the temple.
LDS Church First Presidency, June 8, 197818 The announcement of the revelation marked the most significant change in the Mormon religion since the end of the practice of polygamy. Kimball had pondered over the reversal of the practice for several years; he sought support from the Council of the Twelve. Each apostle met with Kimball in private to discuss the positive and negative aspects of black priesthood denial. It was only after all the apostles had agreed with the new revelation that the Church announced publicly that blacks would be admitted to the priesthood.
The inability of the Church to avoid social pressures was most likely the main reason for the revelation. Negative media, criticism from the African American community, threats of civil rights lawsuits, and internal disarray reached a boiling point. Furthermore the spread of the Church to multi-racial countries located in Central and South America and Asia made it increasingly difficult to point out which members of the Church contained the so-called seed of Cain. Allowing equal rights for African-Americans allowed the Church to vastly expand its missionary work to urban Cities in the United States as well as to African Countries.
Studies conducted by the Church as of January 1, 1980 provided information on the increase of diversity among Mormon members living abroad: South America contained a total of over three-hundred thousand members, Mexico contained more than two-hundred and thirty thousand members, while the continent of Africa registered more than eight thousand members19. Since the beginning of civilization human beings have made judgments of those that are different. Many of those judgments have condemned those that are different to a subordinate role in some aspect of life.
These differences can be through physical appearance, economic status, religious views, or social attitudes. To condemn what is foreign is in many ways human nature. Throughout the first century of our Countries existence many people both accepted and projected the judgment that people of African descent were inferior to Caucasians. I believe that it is evident that the founders and early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agreed that Negroes were deserving of a subordinate role in their Church.
As society began to renounce racist ideas towards African Americans, many Mormon leaders stood firmly by the word of their ancestors. The refusal to accept new ideas hindered the development of the Mormon Church. Racism is an extremely ugly aspect of life. If a God does exist I strongly hope that he would not curse an entire race to a subordinate role because of an unrighteous ancestor. In the idealist strive towards racial equality I would like to that that it is the manner in which people conduct themselves that defines what kind of person they are, not the circumstances that an individual is dealt at birth.