Book Review: The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History

I have been noticing a lot of talk about issues regarding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and it’s relation to race and the priesthood. [1] The Salt Lake Tribune, for instance, has posted two related articles on the topic: “39 Years Later, Priesthood Ban is History, but Racism Within Mormon Ranks Isn’t, Black Members Say” and “Steps the Mormon Church Could Take to Enhance Race Relations Within the Faith.” LDS Living has also posted a blog in regards to this: “A Black Mormon Man’s Thoughts on Race, Priesthood, and the Church’s Essay.” And both Daniel Peterson and Tarik LaCour have posted useful responses to the Salt Lake Tribune’s article: “Race and Mormonism, Thirty-Nine Years after the Revelation on Priesthood” and “Response to Salt Lake Tribune Article Concerning LDS Race Relations.” I think all of these articles are pretty good. I think the Salt Lake Tribune articles are, however, a bit problematic in some respects (but overall worthy of consideration and well written).

In light of all this talk of race and Mormonism, I decided to write a review of The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History edited by Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst. The Mormon Church and Blacks

Before I write anymore on this topic, however, I want to note that the issue of Mormon relations regarding race has been one of the most sensitive topics for me to address. Since I was a young child, I had been a huge admirer of well known historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. I have also written an eleven part series in my blog dedicated to “Black History Reading” and have also written elsewhere on black related issues.  Indeed, this has been a topic that I’ve been wrestling with for many years.

In light of this, I also want to note that this isn’t simply an issue that Mormon historians need to deal with. In the larger context of American civilization, blacks were treated as dirt, garbage, and no more worthy than slaves. So while this issue hurts my soul in regards to “Mormonism,” it also hurts my soul in the larger American context.

Anyways, getting back to the book. I first found this book while strolling through the Deseret Book Store located in Gilbert, Arizona. I noticed the copy in the historical section. Intrigued, I picked up the book to examine the cover. On the back, as with all books, there were reviews praising the book’s accomplishments. Distinguished historian W. Paul Reeve called the book “long overdue.” Darius Gray, another fantastic person, called the book “A great resource for the serious inquirer.” These two praises convinced me that I ought to buy the book and read it.

The book was relatively short (144 pages) and was split up into seven chapters. The first chapter deals mainly with Mormon scripture that talk about black skin. The next two to seven chapters showcase documents that represent general Mormon attitudes regarding race chronologically from the time of Joseph Smith to post 1978 priesthood revelation.

Overall, I thought the book was pretty revealing. And I think it’s useful for some to seriously wrestle with this issue. It’s tough (as I believe it should be) for Latter-day Saints to deal with the difficult heart wrenching history. Leaders, it would seem, haven’t always been stalwart advocates for racial equality (putting it mildly). And conspiracy theories involving communist plots were certainly present in some circles of Mormons.

In the chapter on Mormon unique scripture, it quoted every Mormon scripture that might have something to do with race. Past interpretations of Mormon scripture were also included in some of the notes. “LDS officials,” one note read, “considered the Book of Abraham to be the main “proof text” justifying priesthood denial . . . but they sometimes associated the Book of Mormon with their racial teachings.” (pg. 151) While I agree that it was completely necessarily to point out historical/traditional readings of the “skin of blackness” found within the Book of Mormon, I also wish the authors had included more recent interpretations of the text that point out better exegesis of the Book of Mormon text. [2] Overall, I felt this particular chapter was lacking.

Dealing with historical ramifications, the book discusses the views of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the priesthood ban, civil rights, the 1978 revelation, and how the church deals with these historical issues today. It rightly states that “It is no longer acceptable to teach that blacks were cursed by God or that they were “fence sitters” in a previous life. These prior assumptions have been replaced by a new position.” (pg 118-119).

Sometimes, I talk with some of my LDS friends who say something along the lines of, “The past teachings of the church weren’t necessarily racist.” These Mormons, it seems, aren’t familiar with the problematic teachings that came from LDS leaders, official or otherwise. For instance, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson thought that the civil rights movement had communistic undertones: “Before I left for Europe,” Benson spoke at general conference, “I warned how the communist were using the Civil Rights movement to promote revolution and eventual take-over of this country. When are we going to wake up?” Mormon leaders also faced fears of interracial marriage between “negros” and whites. Mark E Peterson, for example, said the following: “Now what is our policy in regard to intermarriage? As to the Negro, of course, there is only one possible answer. We must not intermarry with the Negro.” (pg 70)

With all the negative, horrific stereotypes that existed among some of the Mormon hierarchy regarding blacks, there were also some more understanding voices. For instance, in stark contrast with Peterson and Benson states above, Apostle Hugh B. Brown said in general conference that “We call upon all men, everywhere, both within and outside the Church, t commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God’s children. Anything less than this defeats our high ideal of the brotherhood of man.” (pg 76)

I think this book is good for those curious about race and Mormonism or, more specifically, “blacks” and the Mormon Church. It’s certainly a tough one for believing Latter-day Saints such as myself. But it offers a more nuanced view of Mormon history that I think serious readers ought to consider.

  1. For those of you unaware of the history behind this topic, see the Church’s essay “Race and the Priesthood” and Lester E Bush Jr’s “Mormonisms Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.”
  2. For example, see Ethan Sprouts “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis.

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