Residual Racism in Modern Mormonism

Timothy Oliver

Both Mormons and critics of Mormonism were surprised to read in the May 18, 1998 Los Angeles Times that Mormon Church leaders were seriously considering public repudiation of long standing Mormon doctrine on the spiritual inferiority of blacks of African descent. The story, by Times Religion Writer Larry Stammer, indicated a high level committee including members of the Church's First Quorum of Seventy was studying the problem of how to "disavow the teachings" without causing Mormons to lose faith in the prophetic calling of Church leaders who taught the doctrine.

The Church was quick to respond to the Times story with what some have called "a denial, with deniability." Carefully avoiding use of words like racist, or doctrine, a statement made the same day by the Church's First Presidency said of the Times story that, "The matter it speaks of has not been discussed by the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles" (emphasis added). The Times story had never said the matter was being discussed in those circles. Rather, the story said the matter was being discussed in the Church's Committee on Public Affairs, which studies and makes recommendations to the Twelve and the First Presidency. The Church's statement did not deny that assertion.

Times Religion Writer Larry Stammer told Watchman Fellowship his sources were sticking to their story, and that he had written documents verifying all the essentials of his story. He said he did not know, but doubted that his sources had supplied their information in a bid to force the hand of Church leaders on the racism issue (telephone interview). In a subsequent Times story on May 24, 1998, Stammer reported past Mormon History Association President Armand L. Mauss's fears that the intensified public attention brought on by the original Times story might make it more difficult than ever for the Church to renounce the long held doctrines. Mauss has written a number of papers clearly aimed at helping Church leaders change the doctrine without losing face. He said, "he would not have done so unless he was encouraged by church leaders."

In a telephone interview, Mormon media spokesperson Don LeFevre told Watchman Fellowship that all races have full membership privileges in the Church today. He denied that the Church was racist in any way. When questioned as to how the "misconception" of Mormon racism had originated, he said it was "based on statements made by former Church Presidents." When asked if there were any passages in uniquely Mormon scripture on which racist doctrine could be founded, LeFevre answered that he could think of none, and that he was "not a theologian."

In his June 9, 1978 announcement of the revelation granting the priesthood to blacks, Church President Spencer W. Kimball claimed an awareness of promises by former Church Presidents that the day would come when "all brethren who are worthy [would] receive the priesthood&" When asked if any of these promises by former Mormon prophets had said when that time would be, LeFevre told Watchman they "didn't know" about "when" the priesthood would be given to the blacks, only that it would be. LeFevre's answer revealed either a certain disingenuousness, or a startling ignorance of Mormon Church history one would not expect from one serving in his capacity.

Watchman also asked LeFevre if perhaps the Prophet, the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve might be praying "long and earnestly," as President Kimball had done, about whether they should repudiate the racist doctrine on which the former ban against blacks in the priesthood was based. LeFevre said he could "not speak for the Brethren."

Those eager to help the Mormon leaders disavow racist Mormon doctrine more openly taught in the past have been quick to point out that virtually all mainline Protestant denominations have, at one time or another, taught the idea that African blacks were descendants of Cain, Ham and Canaan, and appealed to the curses placed on Cain and Canaan to justify slavery. Those denominations, however, have changed both their practice and their teaching. The Southern Baptists went so far as to offer an official acknowledgement of error and apology to blacks by the denomination as a whole. Mormonism changed its practice in 1978 under intense social pressure, but still clings to the doctrine, by refusing to repudiate the so-called scriptures wherein it is taught.

There is also a sharp difference between the claims made for teaching by Protestant leaders and the teachings of Mormon leaders - a difference which, in other contexts, Mormonism stridently asserts. In this case, however, it makes it more difficult for the Mormon leadership to do the right thing. Nineteenth-century Protestant teaching on race and slavery did appeal to a few verses of scripture, but it was always understood to be simply an interpretation of those passages - an interpretation now acknowledged to have been in error. Mormon leaders, however, claim direct, ongoing, day-by-day revelation to their prophets and apostles for the teaching and guidance of their church. It is claimed that when they speak to the Church in General Conference they speak as the oracles of God.

Mormon scripture's claims for Mormon prophets and apostles includes: "What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" (Doctrine & Covenants 1:38; emphasis added).

On January 2, 1870, Brigham Young preached: "I know just as well what to teach this people and just what to say to them and what to do in order to bring them into the celestial kingdom, as I know the road to my office. It is just as plain and easy. The Lord is in our midst. He teaches the people continually. I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture. Let me have the privilege of correcting a sermon, and it is as good Scripture as they deserve. The people have the oracles of God continually" (Journal of Discourses,  vol. 13, p. 95).

During the following General Conference, October 6, 1870, Brigham Young added, "I will make a statement here that has been brought against me as a crime, perhaps, or as a fault in my life... that Brigham Young has said 'when he sends forth his discourses to the world they may call them Scripture.' I say now, when they are copied and approved by me they are as good Scripture as is couched in this Bible, and if you want to read revelation read the sayings of him who knows the mind of God..." (Ibid., p. 264).

At a General Conference of the Church, October 6, 1890, President Wilford Woodruff taught: "The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty" (Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.).

During his closing address at the April, 1973, General Conference President Harold B. Lee exhorted the people, "If you want to know what the Lord has for this people at the present time, I would admonish you to get and read the discourses that have been delivered at this conference; for what these brethren have spoken by the power of the Holy Ghost is the mind of the Lord, the will of the Lord, the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation" (Ensign, July, 1973, p. 121).

Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer, speaking at Brigham Young University February 1, 1998, stated, "As one of the Twelve, I bear witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. He lives. He is our Redeemer and is our Savior. He presides over this Church. He is no stranger to His servants here, and as we move into the future with quiet confidence, His spirit will be with us" (Ensign, April 1998, p. 67; emphasis added).

Statements like the foregoing put the teachings of Mormon prophets and apostles in a completely different class from the teachings of Protestant leaders. Protestant leaders' teachings are acknowledged to be their best efforts to understand and expound what God has said. Mormon leaders, on the other hand, make the claim to be speaking for God. This makes it extremely difficult for the Mormon leadership to face up to serious doctrinal error taught by former Mormon leaders.

The facts, however, provide overwhelming evidence of doctrinal errors, including racist doctrine, both in "scriptures" produced by Joseph Smith and in public teaching of Mormon prophets and apostles following him. For instance, President Brigham Young taught: "The seed of Ham, which is the seed of Cain descending through Ham, will, according to the curse put upon him, serve his brethren, and be a 'servant of servants' to his fellow-creatures, until God removes the curse; and no power can hinder it" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 184).

In a General Conference address, October 9, 1859, Brigham Young taught: "You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race - that they should be the 'servant of servants;' and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 290).

During the Civil War, on March 8, 1863, Brigham Young taught: "The Southerners make the negroes, and the Northerners worship them; this is all the difference between slaveholders and abolitionists. I would like the President of the United States and all the world to hear this.

"Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 109).

On August 19, 1866, Young declared, "Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a sin [sic] of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the Holy Priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 272; the context of this statement makes it evident that "skin," not "sin," was intended).

Apostle Erastus Snow, August 8, 1880, explained, "Abraham came through Shem, and the Savior came through this lineage; and through this blessing of Noah upon Shem, the Priesthood continued through his seed; while the offspring of Ham inherited a curse, and it was because, as a revelation teaches, some of the blood of Cain became mingled with that of Ham's family, and hence they inherited that curse"(Journal of Discourses, vol. 21, p. 370).

President John Taylor, August 28, 1881, taught that, "...after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham's wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God..." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 22, p. 304).

"The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: 'Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death.'... The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality... spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure;" (First Presidency Statement, August 17, 1949, copy at Church Historical Department; reproduced in full in, Bush, "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview," Dialogue, vol. 8, no. 1, Appendix).

Many, many similar statements made by Mormon leaders over the course of nearly 130 years could be added to the above, which must be passed over for lack of space. Suffice it to say, it is teaching such as the above, as well as the racist doctrines taught in uniquely Mormon scriptures, that Mormon Church leadership today is being called upon to acknowledge and repudiate. The carefully worded public response to the Los Angeles Times story given by the First Presidency mentioned "all races" joining and "enjoying full blessings of membership in the Church." However, it carefully avoided even mentioning the issue of racist doctrine. There was no acknowledgement that racism has ever been taught by Mormon leaders, and no repudiation of such doctrine, much less any apology for the same.

The First Presidency's May 18, 1998 dispatch closed with: "The 1978 Official declaration continues to speak for itself." Indeed. One cannot help wondering if those words were intended to say more than what meets the eye. There is serious cause for belief that the Official Declaration speaks only for itself, and not for the privately held doctrinal beliefs of the inner circle of top Church leaders, who may have implemented it for no other reason than political expediency. Until there is public confession and repudiation of the racist doctrine, and until the racist teaching in the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price is removed, there will remain, for many, serious doubt as to the sincerity of Church leaders' claim that racial equality is a "fundamental teaching."

It may seem like a lot to ask of the Church, to repudiate doctrinal teaching of its former prophets, or to withdraw any of its official scripture. Yet that is exactly what the Mormon leaders have done in the past. In 1835 the Mormon Church published a revision of its 1833 Book of Commandments, as, The Doctrine and Covenants. A close examination of the original 1835 edition of The Doctrine and Covenants reveals that the first part of the volume, the Lectures on Faith, was that part referred to in the volume's title as "Doctrine." The second part, referred to in the volume's title as "Covenants," contained the revelations and commandments given through Joseph Smith.

The authorship of the Lectures on Faith may be questioned by some, but there is no question that Joseph Smith endorsed them before they were printed as the "Doctrine" part of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants - that endorsement was contained in the volume as the Preface. This Preface stated that the Lectures were included "in consequence of their embracing the important doctrine of salvation." How seriously Smith and the other signers of this endorsement regarded the volume's contents may be seen in their acknowledgement of the "expectation that we are to be called to answer to every principle advanced, in that day when the secrets of all hearts will be revealed, and the reward of every man's labor be given him."

 As Smith's doctrine of deity devolved, however, he eventually came to teach doctrine (D&C 130:22, and First Vision story found in "Joseph Smith - History," Pearl of Great Price) contrary to material found in the Lectures on Faith (Lecture Fifth). The confusion this caused seems to be the origin of Mormonism's strange distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost. The Lectures remained a part of the Mormon scripture, however, until 1921, when without notice or explanation the Church published a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants from which the "plain and precious" Lectures on Faith had been deleted. Most Mormons today have no idea when reading their Doctrine and Covenants that their leaders have removed the material referred to as "Doctrine" in the original volume's title.

Another example is the Church's teaching on the identity of God the Father. Brigham Young believed and taught the Church that Adam was God the Father. For Brigham, Elohim was not God the Father, but God the Grandfather. Mormons today, if they acknowledge the doctrine was ever taught, like to dismiss it as a quirky opinion of Brigham Young, and not the doctrine of the Church.

Adam-God, however, was publicly and extensively taught by "the Lord's mouthpiece," whom God would have "removed ... out of [his] place" had he been teaching false doctrine. The doctrine became widely known and opposed in the public press, giving Young ample opportunities to correct any error of misquotation or misunderstanding. But he never claimed to have been misquoted or misunderstood on this doctrine. Rather, Brigham went right on preaching this doctrine on numerous occasions spanning nearly twenty-five years, and including entire General Conference addresses devoted to the subject, despite the heavy opposition. Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, too, had difficulty accepting the doctrine - for which he was chided and berated by his fellow-apostles, and told he needed "to get a revelation that bro. B. Young is a Prophet of God" (Minutes of the Council of the Twelve, April 5, 1860). In face of all these facts it is utterly untenable to contend that Adam-God was never the doctrine of the Church.

Nonetheless, nearly one-hundred years after Brigham Young's death, during the October, 1976, General Conference of the Church, President Spencer W. Kimball condemned the Adam-God "theory" as false doctrine. "We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine" (Ensign, November 1976, p. 77).

If writings once regarded as scripture can be deleted from the Mormon canon, and if teachings of later Mormon prophets can set aside teachings of former Mormon prophets - both of which have been done in the past - then it seems high time for the Mormon leaders to formally disavow the racist doctrine of their former leaders, and remove from the uniquely Mormon scriptures those passages which teach that dark skin color is a curse from God. Doing so would not move either the world or Christian discernment ministries like Watchman Fellowship to acknowledge the Mormon leaders as "true prophets, after all." Indeed, either keeping the doctrine or making the change can be seen as evidence demonstrating the falsehood of Mormon claims to revelation and authority from God. But as past experience has shown, making the change would not likely cause any great loss of members. And at the very least, it would make more believable the claim that Mormon leaders are not still racists in their hearts. Watchman Fellowship urges "the Brethren," to give the world an Official Declaration that confesses and repudiates the doctrine that dark skin is a curse from God - a declaration that truly speaks for themselves, not simply "for itself."

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