“The Race Issue:” Thoughts on the State of the Field

Armand Mauss has graciously agreed to post his thoughts on the study of race and the church. Mauss continues to be one of the leading scholars on the race issue over the past four decades and much of what’s been discussed this week can be found in Mauss’s scholarship, notably All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (U of Illinois Press, 2003).

The only new developments with regard to the race issue, it seems to me, are the recurrent discoveries of that historical issue for the first time by incredulous new members (black or white) and/or by Mormon youth who have grown up without knowing that the Church ever had any racial restrictions. It seems that each generation (or convert) in the Church has to discover anew that skeleton in our historical closet. Having lived with the issue for more than 50 years, I find myself somewhat surprised whenever I encounter the wide-eyed “How-could-this-ever-have-happened?!” demands by younger church members — or at least by the better educated ones. There has long been a substantial and readily accessible scholarly literature on the topic, and a little study of that literature (plus a little ordinary American history) will cover most of the questions people have about when, how, and why we got burdened with the “race issue” until 1978.

The relatively brief Mormon variant of all this racist nonsense, however (only 130 years), was not a sudden invention. It was mostly imported from a long racist tradition found in much earlier religions. If you want to explore that tradition and its religious roots, here are four recent books that you might wish to consult (some of which were called to my attention, I must acknowledge, by Stirling Adams) : (1) Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification for American Slavery (Oxford U. Press, 2002); (2) David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton U. Press, 2003); (3) Benjamin Braude, Sex, Slavery, and Racism: The Secret History of Noah and His Sons (Knopf, 2005); and (4) Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge U. Press, 2006). Against the historical background laid bare in these books, it is not difficult to understand why our Mormon forebears found their myths about black people to be so natural.

My current interest in the race issue focuses both on the past and on the future. As for the past, I find myself frustrated and appalled at the perpetuation of racist thinking at the LDS grassroots (at least in the U. S.). There are at least two forms of this hang-over from the past:

(1) Even though the traditional priesthood restriction has been gone for three decades, many well-meaning Saints (including leaders and seminary teachers) are still using the old racist folklore (marks, curses, failures in the pre-existence, etc.) to “explain” to the youth why the church formerly had that restriction! These “explanations” will probably persist to some extent until there is a formal repudiation of all such folklore from the First Presidency itself. President Hinckley ventured close to such a repudiation in his remarks during the Priesthood Session of the April 2006 General Conference, but he basically believes that a repudiation is already implicit in the 1978 policy change, so I don’t expect a further repudiation very soon. I wish the rest of the Church shared Pres. Hinckley’s assumption about an implicit repudiation, but many don’t.

(2) A second and more subtle form of racism underlies the continuing books and sermons that periodically appear on the “special lineage” of the House of Israel (usually with reference to a special category of spirits set aside in the pre-existence to come into mortality through that lineage). This idea too is a survival of 19th-century LDS thinking that has its roots in the same heritage that ascribes a divine rank-ordering to the various races (with the “special” Israelites at the top and the “descendants of Cain” at the bottom). Operationally, LDS doctrine and practice have moved beyond all such traditional distinctions to recognize, at last, with the Apostle Paul, that distinctions of lineage and all other kinds are done away through acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. This is the theme of my own 2003 book, which is apparently not widely read, judging from the persistence of both (1) and (2) that I have described above!

Finally, while I am not doing any systematic research right now on the future of race relations in the Church, I am keeping track of the many ways in which the Church has been reaching out to black people as though to “make up for” the errors of the past. Besides all that has been happening to convert 200,000 Africans, I see a renewed effort to win the hearts and minds of African Americans — so far with limited success, but with good prospects for the future, I believe. I could elaborate a lot more on this point, but my post is already too long.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Armand. Many of us have read and enjoyed your book (and your other work over the years).

  2. Thanks for the short and sweet summary, Armand. I find it ironic that local leaders and the CES seem to be among the segments of the Church most resistant to the new perspective reflected in the 1978 revelation and the subsequent changes (like missionary work in Africa) that you refer to. No segment of the Church is more dedicated to the idea of modern revelation than local leaders and the CES … yet when a 20th-century revelation actually comes along, it’s like they only want half a revelation (repudiating the practice but not the folklore) rather than a 100% revelation that would require them to actually changing their thinking about what had been (up to 1978) accepted as LDS doctrine.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you, Armand. Your decades of work on this issue, culminating in All Abraham’s Children, has been a vital consecration of your talents to the Church and has made it possible for thoughtful Saints to come to grips with this unfortunate policy. We are all in your debt.

    It occurs to me that I have a couple of past posts that are relevant to this week’s theme, so thought I would take this opportunity to link them here.

    One is Missionary Malpractice per se, in which I argue that the issue of the ban should be affirmatively broached with black investigators coming into the Church, rather than just burying our heads in the sand and hoping it never comes up.

    The other is Nature Abhors a (Doctrinal) Vacuum, a principle which explains the persistence of lay attempts at explaining the ban (and such persistence is evidenced even in the comments to these blog posts this week).

  4. #2 great insight.

  5. Matt W. says:

    Dave: The problem is that many are not aware the revelation is repudiating anything at all, it is merely changing the practice, which was foretold to be changed by BY to begin with. OD2 does not really address any of the issues around the practice, it just changes the policy itself, without broaching the theology.

  6. Chuck McKinnon says:

    With respect to Dr. Mauss, one reason some people may not accept the dismissal of marks and curses as mere “racist folklore” is their explicit inclusion in the Book of Mormon, viz.:

    2 Ne. 5: 21, 23

    21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
    [...]
    23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.

    Alma 3: 6-7

    6 And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.
    7 And their brethren sought to destroy them, therefore they were cursed; and the Lord God set a mark upon them, yea, upon Laman and Lemuel, and also the sons of Ishmael, and Ishmaelitish women.

    3 Ne. 2:14-15

    14 And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;
    15 And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;

    So the Church’s founding scripture says that in at least one case, “black” skin was a curse laid upon a people by an explicit act of God, and the removal of that curse followed their repentance and admission to the Church and Kingdom of God.

    I know there are other ways to read the verses above in the context of the entire Book of Mormon. Many here could cite specific passages that temper the meaning of those above, such as Jacob 3 and 2 Nephi 26:33. But many people’s reading of the scriptures is only cursory. I think that combining Kevin Barney’s “doctrinal vacuum” idea with verses like those above makes the marks and curses view much more authoritative, and hence tenacious, than a frustrated dismissal of “racist folklore” admits.

  7. Practicing Mormon says:

    Especially for those not of our faith, who may read this forum: statements like “I find myself frustrated and appalled at the perpetuation of racist thinking at the LDS grassroots” can be misleading if taken out of context. As the author himself points out, the present-day Church works to welcome people of African heritage.

    Most LDS readers probably feel this author is striving mightily to detect racism in Church. He claims he has found “subtle” racism that “underlies” a few unimportant Church doctrines. This may be wrong, or it may be right, but nobody should think that church members are consciously racist.

    The post compares to efforts to detect anti-semitism in the New Testamant and Christianity at large. Maybe that’s incorrect, or maybe it’s right on the money, but most modern day Christians (including Mormon Christians) are not consciously anti-semetic.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    PM, whether mormons are racist and/or antisemitic as a matter of conscious act is cold comfort to those who feel the effects of such racism and/or antisemitism.

  9. While it’s cultural (and political) rather than institutional, I think the new locus of Mormon racism is prejudice towards Hispanics, and more particularly, illegal aliens. The brethren have only begun to address this problem, but I think it will become a more visible point of concern. I’ve seen astonishing displays of racial insensitivity and xenophobia towards Hispanics from otherwise devout members.

  10. But in the context of this overall discussion, many (if not most) modern day Christian creeds still deny salvation to Jews – and Muslims and Hindus and Mormons … That doctrinal base perpetuates all kinds of issues both in thought and in deed.

    I like Armand’s statement that “distinctions of lineage and all other kinds are done away through acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.” It is explicitly our view of the universal applicability of the Atonement that leads to our practice of vicarious temple work and, ideally and hopefully, to our internalization of the universal brotherhood of humanity. It might be a topic for another thread, but I believe temple ordinances as they are practiced in mortality are more for us and our hearts than for those whose work we do – since we admit freely that we can’t complete the work we are attempting to do.

  11. bodhi, that’s a North-American issue, not a Mormon issue. Of course, some members get caught up in it, but it certainly is not institutional racism toward Hispanics – who are the fastest growing segment of the Church.

  12. Sorry. Typed “institutional racism” instead of “a locus of Mormon racism.”

  13. Practicing Mormon says:

    Steve,

    All I’m saying that most people of African heritage who attend the Church, whether once or many times, do not go away saying, “wow, what a bunch of racists.” They probably go away thinking Mormons are friendly, kind people.

    Sigh.

  14. PM, what black people think, on average, when the attend church for the first time is something I’d really love to know. We don’t know, and there are all kinds of reasons to think their experience might depend a lot on the ward they choose. Among other things, in many wards, a black investigator would be the only black person in attendance on a typical Sunday — something that has to mean something. But there are, of course, other factors they might consider, as well. It’s not at all clear what the actual answer would be.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    PM (#13), I hope you are right, and I think you might be, but I don’t know.

  16. I tend to agree with Practicing Mormon (#13).

    Last fall I happened to be visiting a former ward in a suburb of Baltimore when the R.S. lesson was based on a Gen. Conf talk warning us against racism in any form. The teacher, who was African American, said she was a bit puzzled as to why the stake president had chosen that talk, because she had never experienced any racism since she joined the Church. She said that perhaps that was because she had always belonged to wards with a diverse composition. As I recall, she joined in Chicago, moved to Philadelphia, and was now in Baltimore. The other black women present agreed that they had never experienced racism in the Church. I was very happy to see that there were many more black members in the ward now than there had been 15 years ago. My husband indicated that the blacks present in Priesthood meeting that day had expressed similar positive feelings.

    Of course there are places in the Church where prejudice exists, but I was truly grateful to feel as well as see and hear evidence of a genuine spirit of brotherhood in that particular ward.

    I’m not sure that dwelling on the details of the history of racial attitudes among members, or negative statements from past prophets (whose understanding was obviously limited by the conditions of their time) is the best way to work towards unity among members of all races and nationalities in the Church today.

  17. At the ward level, it seems obvious that racial attitudes are dictated very much by location and racial composition of the members. My ward (and my stake I believe) still has virtually no black members (other than a few adopted children) and there are sometimes evidences of unfortunate racist attitudes reflected in things people say in lessons, comments or testimonies, mostly from older members. I would not want to be the first black member of my ward. It would be a challenge.

  18. Struwelpeter says:

    Bodhi,

    You’ve never been to church in Miami if you think the church has problems with Hispanic illegal aliens.

  19. a random John says:

    Dave (#2),

    Unfortunately we (the membership in general) don’t have the revelation. We have a press release announcing a change in policy.

  20. a random John says:

    One thing that strikes me as making the Mormon notion of a curse on Ham somewhat unique is the notion of the Restoration. We threw out all sorts of ideas from other religions that were very prevalent. So when we keep one it gives it the imprimatur of authenticity to members that don’t know the history of the issue.

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    Dave,

    What arJ said. It isn’t fair to blame the membership for “wanting [only] half a revelation” when that’s all they ever got, if that. I understand the desire to read OD2 (or Bruce R. McConkie’s famous statement) as a repudiation of the traditional racist “folklore,” but that desire is just a fantasy, nothing more.

    Armand,

    How do you know that Hinkley believes a “repudiation is implicit” in the ’78 policy change? Is that just your read of his comments, or are you privy to juicy inside info on Hinkley’s views?

    Aaron B

  22. John Williams says:

    Aaron Brown,

    Hinkley or Hinckley?

  23. Left Field says:

    #19: To be precise, OD2 is not a press release, it is a letter to priesthood leaders.

    If God or a prophet chooses to do so, a revelation can be expressed in the form of a written text, but I disagree that the text is the revelation. Therefore, I reject the notion that there must be an undisclosed text behind OD2 that constitutes the revelation. The revelation was received when Spencer W. Kimball understood the will of God. How the revelation is subsequently expressed has nothing to do with the reality of the revelation.

    Besides, to the extent that a written text might be considered necessary, why is the text of OD2 inadequate as a revelation? Section 134 and the Articles of Faith can be thought of as press releases. Section 102 is the minutes of a High Council meeting. Several revelations are letters, just as is OD2.

  24. a random John says:

    Left Field (#23),

    I agree and have stated elsewhere that there might be not text. In fact I think it is likely that there is no text. Odd that we don’t know, don’t you think? In any case, clearly OD 2 is not the revelation. It is the result of the revelation. Do you think that OD 2 is the best expression of what was experienced?

  25. Exactly how far are we to take #2?

    Are we to accept, then, that wherever, whenever, and under what circumstances a person is born in this life never has any correlation whatsoever to what we did or the state to which we had progressed in the pre-mortal life?

    If so, what does that mean for Benson’s oft-repeated quotes about “choice generations” and being held in reserve for six thousand years?

  26. Jim, perhaps the same we take the same type of quotes that were told to 50 year-olds when they were teenagers, the same type of quotes that were told to me as a teenager and the same type of quotes that they still tell youth. I have no doubt that Jane Manning James is a choicer spirit than I. I also have no doubt that God has great designs for his choice spirits, but this rhetoric is seems to resonate like 19th century millinnerianism.

  27. Then there’s the “thou wast chosen before thou wast born” business–”great and noble ones” and all that–in the BoA. so there’s something going on with what Jim’s talking about.

    Not that it has anything to do with race, though. In fact, I think that’s one of the central messages of the BoM: we are favored because of our obedience–lineage aside. The BoM was way, Way, WAY ahead of it’s time on the race issue.

  28. “The BoM was way, Way, WAY ahead of it’s time on the race issue.”

    Jack, do you you mean the verses that preach a universal God and universal gospel call? In that sense, it was ahead of the time of most of 1800s America (though in line with the New Testament preaching).

    But, the verses that mistakenly ascribe dark skin put it squarely in its time, too.

  29. Thanks to all for the comments on my blog. Just a few reactions to some of them :
    1)Chuck (#6) is certainly right that the passages he cites in the Book of Mormon are usually read in such a literal way as to link skin color to spiritual condition. Even Pres. Kimball believed that converted Lamanites underwent a lightening of their skin. Yet those passages need not be read in a racist way, and (if one assumes the BoM is literal history) we don’t know how such passages were understood by the ancients (see pp.127-28 in my All Abraham’s Children for a non-racist reading that would be readily available).
    2) I thank Kevin (#3) for calling our attention to his two related articles. I hearily concur that a doctrinal vacuum invites the creation and maintenance of folklore about the origin of the priesthood ban, as well as other kinds of folklore. Mormons just HATE to say “Gee, I don’t know.” We expect our church to have all the answers (wherever they might come from!). Kevin is right too about the missionary malpractice in failing to tell new converts, especially black converts, about this historical problem. It might roll off the backs (and testimonies) of black members in the eastern cities, as RoAnn indicates, who might have become more hardened to such slights from their own experiences in that part of the country; but it continues to surprise and hurt many black converts whom I know personally in the West.
    3) Practicing Mormon (#7) seems a little sanguine about such matters to me. Forgive the immodesty in mentioning my book again, but I recommend that s/he read chapters 6 and 7 on anti-Semitism.
    4) To Aaron (#21), I know what Pres. Hinckley believes about this question because he has said so publicly. In an LA Times article (May 1998), he said that the 1978 revelation “speaks for itself” on the matter of doctrine, not just practice. See my All Abraham’s Children, pages 248-50, where I recount an episode in which the question of a public repudiation of old doctrine was raised.
    5) To Jim, Jonathan, and Jack (#25, 26, 27), I would observe that there are scriptural precedents for believing that certain INDIVIDUALS were chosen in the pre-existence for certain callings or conditions in mortality, though the encounter of Jesus with the man born blind emphasizes that none of us can assume that we know any of the REASONS for any of these connections between premortal and mortal life in individual cases (though, of course, the Book of Abraham does say that there were already “noble and great ones” in the pre-existence). My MAIN observation about all this, however, is that there is NO scriptural precedence for believing that ENTIRE LINEAGES or other collectivities were set aside in the pre-existence for any particular mission on earth — only INDIVIDUALS. Therefore, church leaders, or anyone else, who make claims about CATEGORICAL connections between premortal spirits and mortal populations are entirely on their own. To me, it’s just more folklore.

    Thanks again to all who have taken the trouble to read and respond to my blog, and thanks for “listening” to these responses from me.
    — Armand

  30. Dr. Mauss, I was actually wiahing for more by the end of your post.

    I’m curious about whether you are studying transracial adoption in LDS families as one of the ways the Church – not the institutional Church, but the individual members, really – is reaching out to African and African-American people.

    My interest is personal; my husband and I have adopted two sons with African-Amercan heritage. It seems I saw many more transracial adoptions of African-American children in Utah than here in California. I think it would be a really interesting phenomenon to study.

  31. Like Ray, I appreciate Armand Mauss’s statement that “distinctions of lineage and all other kinds are done away through acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.” I intend to read All Abraham’s Children.

    All of this reminds me of an idea in the conclusion of Bates and Smith’s book Lost Legacy about phasing out the office of presiding patriarch (historically of Smith lineage): “Spencer Kimball…concluded that ‘blood’ whether in blacks or Smiths, really made no inherent difference at all.”

  32. Ana : You ask about a really interesting phenomenon, one in which you are participating, along with a lot of others I have met over the years. On your trips to Utah, I wonder if you have had contact with the Genesis Branch (or have even attended its meetings). If not, go to http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org. In my visits to meetings of that branch or group, I have encountered several families in your situation. I have never asked them about their motives in adopting black or mixed-race children, so I can’t answer your question about whether they see themselves as reaching out to African-Americans or just reaching out to love some kids who might be hard to adopt otherwise. I’d suggest you enter into communication with some Genesis members and compare notes.
    Best wishes — Armand Mauss

  33. Gavin Guillaume says:

    I was baptized in September 1978 (I had been 8 a few months). Another 8-year-old, an African-American boy, was baptized the same day.

    I wish I could remember exactly if he was baptized by his father or by another ward member. My memory wants to tell me that he was baptized by his father, which probably would have been a hugely historic moment for that part of the US.

    The 1978 revelation was never directly discussed in our home until we were all in college (in the 1990s). There was also no discussion of racism, etc. My parents wouldn’t have been the types to have dwelt on it much — my mother was probably sheltered from exposure to black people. My father, on the other hand, often recalls the fact that he was one of the few white people in his neighborhood in Michigan when he was in grad school in the 1960s.

    I really wish I had been knowledgeable of the events of the time, but I was a bit young.

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