A good friend of mine and avid Mormon book collector recently apprised me of one of his newer and more impressive acquisitions: Spencer W. Kimball’s personal copy of The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. As the inscription below (scanned from the opening pages of the book) indicates, it was a gift from his wife, Camilla. (Click on the image to see it full size).
As I thumbed through the pages, I noticed some (but not an inordinate amount) of underlining and marginalia. This was obviously a book that President Kimball consulted and read regularly and thoroughly. In particular I was struck by what I found in the index. Though otherwise largely devoid of hand written markings, the index did contain a penciled in addendum, next to the entry entitled “Negro, status of the”:
Here President Kimball notes two additional passages in the book that speak to the question of the status of persons with Black African heritage. The passage noted in the printed, unmodified, version of the index (p. 269) includes the following language:
[T]hey came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any other city, and find an educated Negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability.
In addition to this passage, President Kimball notes two other passages. On page 334, Joseph publicly supports emancipation of slaves, with financial compensation for slaveowners, as a way of dealing with the political problems which arise out of the annexation of the Republic of Texas. Additionally, on page 120 Joseph suggests a slightly different sentiment:
This dismissal of abolitionism, coming chronologically earlier than the discussion about Texas annexation, merits a small note in the margin, a reference to a passage that contradicts it. It doesn’t read “BUT WHAT ABOUT WHAT YOU SAID HERE?!?!?!?” Just a modest cross-reference.
Now, I am not interested—particularly for the purposes of this post—in Joseph’s specific views on the “status of the Negro,” whether or how they changed or evolved. Neither am I interested in the origins of policies and/or doctrines about race, lineage, and priesthood. What interests me is President Kimball’s perceptions of and attitudes toward such questions, to the extent that they are at all legible in the written evidence of his engagement with this particular collection of statements attributed to Joseph Smith. One can’t extrapolate much here, but I do believe that a couple of modest conclusions can be reasonably, if tentatively, inferred:
1) The status of dark-complexioned persons with African heritage was very much on the mind of President Kimball, and he was very interested in what Joseph Smith thought about it. With the resources he had available to him, he carefully and thoroughly sought to understand the mind of the Prophet on this question.
2) He read Joseph’s teaching respectfully and deferentially, but also just a wee bit critically. He really cared what Joseph said, but he also noticed and pointed out contradictions. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that President Kimball believed that even Joseph’s understanding of this question—an incredibly salient political, social, and moral question of the moment—evolved and changed with time.
I won’t count this as a conclusion, since it is clearly (though, I believe, responsibly) speculative in nature, but I would imagine that learning, on the one hand, that Joseph believed the things spoken of in the first passage quoted above (“Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them”), and, on the other hand, that Joseph’s understanding and attitude toward these questions evolved over the course of his ministry as Prophet would have had a significant impact on President Kimball’s own ministry as he attempted to deal with this issue at the highest levels of Church administration.