By Russell Stevenson
Russell Stevenson is the author of For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830–2013 which won the 2014 Best Book award from the Mormon History Association.
The story of the relationship between Mormonism and Africans is a story of promises—promises made and promises failed. Through the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, whether as translator or composer, assured the world that all humanity is “alike unto God, both black and white, bond and free, male and female.” This assurance comes to us without caveats, provisos, footnotes, or loopholes. In fact, the Book of Mormon lays out a radical vision for antebellum race relations.
Though he faced criticism from his closest associates, Joseph Smith took steps toward making this vision a reality when he approved the ordination of African-American men such as Elijah Ables and Quacko W. Lewis.
Elijah Ables, once renowned for his preaching activities in Canada, felt the bitter taste of broken promises when Church leaders later dismissed him as nothing more than a black “man named Abel.” Through Missouri, Illinois, and Winter Quarters, the LDS community had paid a heavy price to establish its political identity—too heavy to allow for the likes of Elijah anymore. When Andrew Jenson declared to the public that Elijah Ables had in fact held the priesthood, it scandalized the LDS leadership and community. By the late nineteenth century, the Latter-day Saints had crafted its idols after the great gods of the day: whiteness, Anglo-Saxonism, and eventually, Americanism.
With the Gospel Topics essay “Race and the Priesthood,” the LDS community has finally been given a tool, however imperfect, to begin addressing invisible idols that have been with us for so long.
Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that an individual will find his “ultimate moral frustration as well as his fulfillment” in “the collective life of man.” He argues that sin finds its most common root in “collective egotism and group pride,” a far more “pregnant source of injustice and conflict than purely individual pride.”
Indeed, as a committed labor union activist and supporter of Christian socialism, Niebuhr himself was deeply involved with “the collective life of man.” He had few reservations about supporting the efforts of government programs intended to assist the downtrodden. But he still harbored a deep skepticism about the ability of the group to ever transcend itself. And even if it did, mere individuals had little hope of experiencing that transcendence. “The individual dies before any of the promised collective completions of history,” Niebuhr reminded us. He insisted that “only a power greater than our own can complete our incomplete life, and only a divine mercy can heal us of our evil.”
In 1979, a year after the First Presidency announced that the priesthood would be given to all males and that temple blessings would be available to all members irrespective of their ancestral ties, Scott Kenney, then editor of Sunstone, observed that “obedience to Priesthood authority could not absolve any individual of personal responsibility.” A person could candidly point out the faults plaguing the Church as a body without “deny[ing] the divinity of its mission nor the inspiration of its leaders.” And these observations need not be confined to race relations. “The never-married, the homosexuals, the drug-abusers, and the ‘mentally disturbed,’” Kenney observed, hold a less powerful place in the LDS community and deserve our attention.
For the first time, with the introduction of the “Race and the Priesthood” essay, the Saints can feel safe in acknowledging that the priesthood and temple restrictions had more in common with slavery and racial segregation than with the inspiration of their past leaders.
But “who has heard this report?” as the Prophet Isaiah asked. “To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” Sadly, Mormonism as a whole has not yet heard the report nor received the revelation. White Latter-day Saints are often willing to tell themselves that the days of discrimination are past. We can go about our business as usual. We try to excuse the past with off-hand remarks that amount to little more than “everyone was doing it.” But by doing so, we reveal our privilege—the kind that believes that real-life consequences can be wished away, that we can absolve ourselves from the sins of a racially tinged past by “liking” the “Race and the Priesthood” essay.
The kingdom of God demands more inclusiveness and love than most of us are willing to give. We struggle to recognize our complacence and even more so our compliance. And what about when we are culpable?
So we work, struggle, and toil to call down the divine mercy that the Latter-day Saint community so desperately needs. We pray that the healing balm of the Atonement can be applied to those whose trust has been betrayed, and to those of us who have been the betrayers.
Ables showed us a way. Even when faced with institutionalized marginalization, he declared to the First Presidency that he would be a “welding link” between the black and white Church populations—language he almost certainly borrowed from Joseph Smith’s writings on the sealing authority.
Healing race relations is not merely the work of playing nice; it is the work of completing an unfinished redemption, of sealing together a human family that capitalist expansionism and greed has dismembered.
Keeping Mormonism’s promises is the work of our generation.