Burden of the Cross – Part I

The purpose of this essay is to argue that liberal members, LDS politicians and outside activists who wanted the push the church towards a removal of the ban on blacks ultimately failed and possibly prolonged the ban.   It will also discuss how this discrimination affected African American membership in the church.  This essay will argue that pull factors of expanding church membership in the world and problems with racial mixing in Brazil were the real motivations for change amongst leaders in the church. 

Utah, until the 1960s, was the central location for Mormon population and where most settled.  The state has been traditionally been white and Mormon.  As late as 2005 Utah is 93% Caucasian or Hispanic while only 1% of the population is African American in origin. [1] The only exposure most people had to African Americans was through the media.  This lack of exposure to African Americans in general would create a fertile ground for ideas about race.  According to Darius Gray, leader of the LDS Genesis Group, “I think when I joined the church in 1964 it was estimated that worldwide there were maybe three hundred or four hundred Latter-day Saints of African decent.”[2] 

The reason for this lack of African American church membership went to the heart of Mormonism as a universal church.  The church had tried very hard not to set up segregated congregations.  Because wards, the LDS term for congregations, were based on geography not race it was unlikely that cities with a small membership such as in the eastern United States would be able to keep a segregated ward together.  So African Americans were expected to worship with white members in a common space.  This led to conflict within the church but also pointed to how different the church was in handling blacks.  When one considers that today 86% of African Americans church goers still attend Black only services it is obvious there is still segregation in the pews.  So in this case the LDS church stands out by trying not set up artificial barriers for their members.  However, one advantage to segregating African Americans is it allowed them to hold positions in their churches.[3]

This conflict of values between liberals and conservatives had proponents on both sides.  However when racism and inclusion conflicted racism usually won the day.  African American members found themselves having to accept this as a fact of life.   Isaac Thomas an African American who became a member of the LDS church in 1972 felt the sense of otherness when attending church services.  As a Black member in a mostly white church he was presented as “the black member” or in one particularly brutal example as he was entering a church in Los Angeles, “My first meeting walking into the door, I heard, ‘Oh mom there is a nigger going to our church’… I walked into the chapel and watched every head turn on its axis as I walked in.”[4]

The church and the membership did not do this in a vacuum they were surrounded by a majority who considered African Americans inferior.  In the United States of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the establishment of Jim Crow laws and segregation of African Americans.  Even in Utah, home state of the LDS church, there were separate places to sit in movie theatres and other public places.   Much of American society was caught up in looking at African Americans as lesser human beings.  So while a large minority of Mormons were racist so was most of the United States at the time.[5]

Liberals believed that ending the ban would be the first step in taking Mormonism to all parts of the world.  They generally looked at the ban as antiquated.  They were a cross section of the population from politicians, to educators to leaders in the church.  They were largely Democratic Party voters or had sympathies with the Democrats during the civil rights period.  They generally believed that the ban was simply a policy and a bad one which could easily be rectified.

Conservatives were people who believed the ban was justified.  First because of the common but errant belief that the founder of the religion Joseph Smith said it was doctrinal and church leaders from that point until the 1960s were claiming that the reason was because blacks were cursed through Cain or Ham the son of Noah who was cursed in the bible to be the servant to his brothers. This was seemingly confirmed by a book of scripture from Joseph Smith because it claimed a Pharaoh who was a descendant of Ham was cursed from holding the Priesthood.  The leaders of this argument were also leaders in the church who were largely Republican such as Ezra Taft Benson.

Benson’s views of civil rights were expressed clearly in the April General Conference in 1965, Benson said, “When are we going to wake up? What do you know about the dangerous Civil Rights agitation in Mississippi?”  Benson, who twenty years later become the head of the church, appeared to believe there was no doubt that the Communists were behind the Civil Rights movement and that, “…if we had done our homework and were faithful we could step forward and help save this country.”[6]

Benson was not alone in believing that much of the Civil Rights movement was under the influence of communists.  The problem was that Benson was the most visual.  He was a leader in the church as well as in political life which meant his conservative views carried weight.  He also had reason for his suspicions because at least one early civil rights leader Robert Williams fled to Communist countries spreading anti-segregationist rhetoric from Cuba and Vietnam.  Benson also used ideas from the leader of the John Birch Society Robert Welch.  Welch had long held views that their was a communist conspiracy in the United States to over throw the government and Benson believed much of that argument.[7]

Also on the conservative side was another leader, Joseph Fielding Smith who was the President of the Twelve Apostles and next in line to become President of the Church.  Smith had written a book in which he justified the ban in 1931 in The Way to Perfection, and in the 1960s Smith was a protector of the status quo.  He argued in 1964, “Why should the so-called Christian denominations complain?  How many Negroes have been placed as ministers over white congregations in the so-called Christian denominations?”  Again, speaking to Look magazine he went further, “I would not want you to believe that we bear animosity toward the Negro.  ‘Darkies’ are wonderful people, and they have their place in our Church.”[8]

Cleon Skousen was an ex-FBI agent and member of the John Birch Society he accused Communists of attacking the Church saying they were stirring up those who were their “transmission belt” to drive protest.  Skousen said speaking of the Church that, “…it is likely that within a very short time find itself struggling for living space on almost every front…” because these people would stir up the media to cover the Church unfavourably.[9]

Skousen’s ideas, while based on a false understanding of the Civil Rights and protest movements in the United States, they have some basis in history.  The abolitionists and early Republican Party stirred up a lot of media attention on the Church during the 19th century through sensational claims about polygamy.  The rising calls of the media to action against the Mormons led to an Army being sent to Utah to put down the Church and eventually to several pieces of legislation aimed at taking away the rights of the Church based on the practice of polygamy. [10]

The LDS population, especially in Utah, perceived any attack, especially by activists as an outgrowth of religious bigotry.  It led to a brief period of rampant paranoia among Church members.  Some even said that the Black Panthers had come to Utah and were ready to bomb General Conference.  In 1970 the rumours flew fast and furious until everyone finally calmed down enough to understand that this was not a repeat of the chequered history of Mormon relations with the USA.  No racially charged African Americans were coming to assassinate their leaders. [11]

Also a concern for the conservatives was racial mixing.  As miscegenation was seen, not in the same sense of racial mixing is bad just for white women, as it was in the south.  For the LDS church it represented a problem because it banned all the children from the relationship from being able to hold the Priesthood or to attend the temple.  This also stood for the white person who married a black person.  Since non marital sex was considered a sin miscegenation was only a concern for the LDS leaders when the person was legally married.

Hugh B. Brown as a member of the First Presidency under the leadership of David O. McKay became the voice of the churches’ more liberal wing and was usually presented with the task of meeting with the activists and presenting church opinions which were supportive of civil rights.  He became popular in the media and would get in trouble from time to time because he would speak out on issues like the ban without prior consultation with President McKay.  In 1964 McKay reiterated his and the Churches’ stand on the ban by being quoted saying it would not be lifted in his lifetime.    Where there seemed some willingness to consider change in 1963 it appeared that the Church had returned to its conservative position. The reporter Wallace Turner even recounts the reasons for the ban based on the curse of Ham and Cain in his article.[12]

On December 15, 1969 Hugh B. Brown and Nathan E. Tanner, two members of the First Presidency, released a letter to leaders of LDS congregations around the world to clarify the position of the blacks within the Church.  The letter started out looking for common ground, “We as a people have experienced the bitter fruits of civil discrimination and mob violence.”  It also quoted Joseph Smith’s comments that it was not right for any man to be a slave.  It recognized the need for all people to have their rights recognized.  The letter re-established the idea that the ban on blacks was not a civil matter but a religious one.  So therefore it could not be perceived the same way.   However, after saying the letter quotes McKay as saying, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood.”   The letter however did not use the language of the curse of Cain or Ham or any of the other statements which was used in the past to justify the policy of the ban.  The letter made efforts to come closer to African Americans while not repudiating the ban.[13]

It is interesting to note that the letter was signed only by Brown, a well known advocate for lifting the ban, and his nephew Tanner.  Brown was born in Utah but moved to Cardston, Alberta as a teenager and lived much of his early life in Canada.  Tanner as well was born in Utah but moved to Aetna, Alberta at a young age and spent nearly fifty years in the Province.  He was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for the Social Credit Government and also served as the Speaker of the Assembly.   It is interesting to consider how their growing up in Canada may have influenced their opinions on race.  Certainly some scholars believe that Brown was halted from removing the ban by other Apostles during this period.[14]

Also on the side of the liberals were a number of professors and politicians.  For educators like Professor Eugene England he felt that the church was burdened by the ban.  He described the ban as, “The cross we’ve hewn for ourselves is painful, embarrassing, humiliating, and ought to, perhaps does, engender humility. On no other issue does our history present us with such a sorry spectacle.”[15]

[1] US Census Bureau, Utah Quick Facts, US Census Bureau, (August 31, 2007),  http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/49000.html (Accessed December 3, 2007)

[2] Katherine Weiler and Ronald Coleman, Utah’s Africa- American Voices, KUED, http://www.kued.org/productions/voices/index.html (accessed December 3, 2007)

[3] Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc., “Trends and Data: African American Christian Community Population”, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc. National Site: Who We Represent, http://www.sdpconference.info/aboutus/represent.html (site accessed October 9, 2007)

[4] Isaac Thomas, “Convert to High Priest: A Journey Before and After the Revelation,” in All God’s Children: Racial and Ethnic Voices in the LDS Church, edited by Cardell K. Jacobson, (Springville Ut: Bonnyville Books, 2004), 57-58.

[5] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 61-63.

[6] Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, (West Port Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), 170. 

[7] Prince, 293-297.

[8] Bringhurst 171

[9] New York Times, June 20, 1970

[10] Leonard J. Arrington and David Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979), 55-60.

[11] Armand L. Mauss , “The Fading of the Pharaohs’ Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church,” in Neither White Nor Black, edited by Lester E. Bush and Armand L. Mauss, (Midvale Utah: Signature Books, 1984), 158-159

[12] Wallace Turner, “Head of Mormons Firm on Negroes,” New York Times, November 17, 1964.

[13] Bringhurst, Appendix 1.

[14] Michael D. Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, (Salt Lake City:  Signature Books, 1994), 14.

[15] Eugene England, “The Mormon Cross,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Spring 1973),  84.


2 Responses to Burden of the Cross – Part I

  1. […] hopefully will be meaningful to those visiting this site for the first time.  (see Introduction, Part I, Part II and Part III of the […]

  2. The Glenn Beck Review says:

    Well researched post. I’d like your comment on the expose of Skousen that I have up this weekend…if you’d like.

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