By Armand Mauss
Armand Mauss is the author of All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage and The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation.
The “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics essay has been a long time in coming. Like the others recently posted on the Church website, it is a tremendous improvement over earlier official treatments of the topic in question; it is also a skillfully crafted example of apologetics-without-apology for certain undeniable and inconvenient facts from our past—even our recent past. The video vignettes provided along the right-hand margin of the essay add persuasive real-life validations of the general message in the written text, namely that despite an uncomfortable history, the LDS Church has now become a comfortable and welcoming place for black people as for all others.
Important Contributions of the New Essay
1) This is the first official statement by the Church to explicitly “disavow” the racist folklore and to actually use that specific term, although it must be noted that the disavowal did not extend to the restrictive race policy itself—only to the accompanying doctrinal folklore. Previous statements of recent years, especially the LDS Newsroom’s reaction to Professor Randy Bott’s 2012 Washington Post interview, “condemn[ed] racism” (inside or outside the Church); but such statements had never acknowledged the racism implicit in the Church’s own traditional race policy, or the damaging doctrinal folklore still lingering from it. Given the deep institutional roots of the race policy and doctrines, and the prominence of the leaders responsible for them, it is not terribly surprising that the present disavowal of the folklore would not have appeared in an official document for nearly four decades after even the policy itself had been dropped.
2) In effect, the essay concedes that the racial restrictions did not originate in revelation. It acknowledges that there is “no reliable evidence” that these restrictions occurred during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and it does not attach revelatory legitimacy to Brigham Young’s oft-quoted citation of his own prophetic authority for announcing the priesthood restriction in an 1852 meeting of the Utah Territorial Legislature. Thus, while revelation is cited in this essay as the basis for abandoning the race policy, no such claim is made for the adoption of the racial restrictions in the first place. Instead it derives their origins, at least implicitly, from the historical context of racial relations and racism in American history—or even earlier from European history—as well as from the history of Utah itself. All of this is a realistic and important corrective to the presumption of revelation that had permeated LDS discourse until very recent times.
3) The narrative is constructed in such a way as to neutralize the conventional wisdom that has circulated about why the racial restrictions were finally removed. Some of the Saints, as well as some outside critics and pundits, have occasionally groused about the time lag between the national civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s and the later 1978 end to LDS racial restrictions—as though the retrograde Mormon Church had to be dragged into the national consensus by incessant public pressure. From a broad historical perspective, however, 1978 is not so terribly far removed from the peak of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson’s famous political arm-twisting succeeded in getting legislation through Congress that even the popular John F. Kennedy had been unable to do; and it was 1967 before the many surviving state laws against interracial marriage were finally put down by the Supreme Court.
Undue attention given to the time lag in developments between the nation and the Church also overlooks the very real efforts within the Church itself during that period, first to relax and then to eliminate racial restrictions. These began with President McKay’s changes during the 1950s, followed by President Hugh B. Brown’s struggles all through the 1960s to modify Church racial policies. Nor should we forget the influence of the self-converted West Africans during the 1960s, or of the faithful Brazilian Saints who largely built their own temple in the mid-1970s, or even the initiative of the African-American Saints of Salt Lake City, who sought and received authority to establish the Genesis Group under Church auspices in 1971.
4) The new essay also treats in reverent but straightforward language the process by which the revelation was finally received and assimilated by the First Presidency and the Twelve. There is nothing in this official account resembling the folklore that later circulated, sometimes through relatives of the apostles present, about spectacular divine manifestations in the room, or other folklore of the kind that often stems from such special events. President Hinckley simply describes the “hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room” where the brethren were meeting and expresses his personal experience in feeling “as if a conduit opened” between heaven and President Kimball, who was leading them in prayer, such that every man present, “by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing . . . .” Although the issue at hand obviously made this a special meeting, the revelatory process described was nevertheless in the same basic mode as other meetings of the general authorities, where unanimity is sought through fervent collective prayer.
5) In its overview of the Church’s race policy and doctrine, this essay does not address the historical LDS aversion to black/white intermarriage, perhaps because the same aversion was so common in American history generally. Yet, scholarship has highlighted the importance of this aversion as an influence on the traditional LDS race policies, especially in the mind of Brigham Young. Indeed, even as late as 1978, a warning against racial intermarriage (ironically) was included on the front page of the very issue of the Church News containing the story of the new revelation ending the priesthood restriction—as though to warn the Saints that just because blacks were getting the priesthood did not mean that intermarriage was acceptable! However, readers now, who will take the time to click through the video vignettes provided with the “Race and the Priesthood” essay, will find one narrated by a white woman married to “Al,” a very black man, formerly a bishop and member of a stake presidency, with whom she has had five children—a very graphic statement that the Church no longer has any policy against intermarriage.
6) Finally, and especially gratifying: this Church essay, like the others in this new series, actually credits “the contribution of scholars to the historical content” in the article, which it has used “with permission.” Though these scholars are not named, I know who some of them are, and they are by no means limited to those employed by the Church. Having periodically cited the folly and the hazards of the institutionalized racial folklore for the past fifty years in my own publications, I cannot deny a certain feeling of vindication at seeing scholars finally given some credit for this disavowal and for the official recognition here of the historical process by which the race policy was instituted at first and then finally discarded.
Issues Arising but Not Resolved
1) History vs. revelation as the source of important doctrines and policies.
The essay’s competent and realistic recognition of the origins of the traditional race policy in the fully human historical process leaves the Church obviously vulnerable to the charge that its doctrine and policy were the products more of worldly influence than of divine revelation. That vulnerability, furthermore, can logically be extended to many other issues: What other doctrines and policies, the critics might ask, could be explained in the same way? If our modern prophets were wrong on this issue for so long, what else might they have been wrong about—polygamy, for example? The racial policy and doctrines, after all, were not merely the products of a residual drift from American history that became ensconced in Mormon church life through cultural inertia. These had, in fact, been officially and stridently reiterated in a 1949 official letter from the First Presidency, and similarly again as late as 1969, even if in somewhat truncated form. Furthermore, the folklore usually used to justify the policy had been taught as truth by LDS prophets and apostles for generations, even though the policy and supporting doctrinal justifications had never had their origins in revelation.
2) Distortion of the general views of key Church leaders on race.
Perhaps in an effort to displace partially the memory of some of those earlier racist teachings, or to retroactively “rehabilitate” somewhat those leaders who taught them, this essay cites selectively only the most forward-looking statements from three of the earlier prophets who (ironically) were among those most responsible for the perpetuation of racist thinking and policies in Mormon history: Brigham Young is quoted only with a favorable comment about one black elder and a prediction that black people would eventually enjoy the same privileges as whites. Joseph Fielding Smith is quoted only as acknowledging that some of the racist folklore among Mormons about black people was not “official” but only “opinions.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie is quoted only as acknowledging that traditional LDS ideas about blacks (including his own) had come from “limited understanding.” Given such relatively “progressive” selections from the writings of these three brethren, the reader would never know what they actually taught about black people during their ministries. To be sure, this new essay was not the place to review the racist statements of earlier lds leaders, but such selective quotations have the effect of actually distorting the real intellectual positions they held and taught throughout their lives.
3) Apologetics without an apology.
Despite the disavowal of erroneous earlier teachings, the solid historical contextualizing, and the greater transparency in this new Church statement, there is no intimation here of nostris culpis. It is simply conceded matter-of-factly that the Church looked upon black people in about the same way as did everyone else in America at that time. Now that we all know better, is some kind of apology in order to our black brethren and sisters? I can well imagine certain critics, from inside and outside the Church, calling for a formal apology—or perhaps some have already done so. Yet demands for collective institutional apologies are likely to be motivated at least as much by politics as by moral sensitivity—that is, in this instance, as an effort to exploit the obvious if unacknowledged vulnerability of the Church to the charge that its doctrines and policies were erroneously imported from the outside, rather than coming from divine revelation. If the Church were to begin apologizing for the errors of its past, there might be no end in sight. We shall have to be content with disavowals rather than apologies.
4) Avoidance of citations to scholars and publications previously “tainted.”
In this essay, as in the several others recently issued, the informed reader will notice a studied avoidance of specific citations to controversial authors and publications, no matter how fair and balanced their treatments might have been or how relevant to the topic under discussion. Most noticeably missing in the references (“Resources”) for all the essays is any citation to any articles in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, or, in the case of this race and priesthood essay, to any articles or books by the authors most responsible for the historical research on this topic during the past 50 years, such as Lester Bush, Newell Bringhurst, or yours truly. Private feelings of vindication are enough for me, but readers will have to look elsewhere for a more representative bibliography.