Perhaps the most frequently cited Brigham Young quote which anti-Mormons plug into comments after any article even remotely related to Mormonism is this one:
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. . . . 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.” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 7, Page 291, 1859)
It’s a disgusting, offensive image. Did he really believe it represented all Blacks? I’m making an educated guess that he had exceptions. I suspect that he imagined most poor Blacks and slaves in a generalized stereotype as amoral, illiterate, potentially murderous sub-humans marching in mutiny against the bastions of White Privilege.
President Young’s words are indefensible. But consider the Blacks he personally knew, and ask yourself if he made exceptions to his appalling description:
Quacko Walker Lewis was a founding member of the first Black abolitionist society and nephew of Quock Walker, whose case (Quock V. Jennison) emancipated all slaves in Massachusetts. Q. Walker Lewis was baptized by Parley P. Pratt, ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood by William Smith, and entertained many Church leaders (including Brigham Young) at his home. Of him, Brigham Young said in 1847, “We have one of the best elders, an African, in Lowell.” Those words are nothing like the 1859 comments and suggest that (gasp!) Young actually thought highly of Q. Walker Lewis.
Green Flake’s family insist that Green was the driver of the wagon in which Young lay ill when it came into the Salt Lake Valley. President Young sat up and said, “This is the right place. Drive on.” We know little of Flake’s interation with Young, though the Flake children said they visited the Lion House on occasion and sang for Brigham Young. We also know that Young probably saved Green from being sold off. When the widowed Agnes Flake, widow of Green’s owner, had Amassa Lyman request that the slave be sold—even giving the name of a man who had agreed to purchase him—Young replied that he didn’t know where Green was. This was almost certainly untrue, since Young had given Green several acres of land in the Cottonwood area of Salt Lake. Again, there may well have been something like a friendship between Brigham Young and Green Flake, though not on equal ground. Green, too, would be an “exception” to the insulting description quoted above.
Jane and Isaac James were married in Brigham Young’s Nauvoo house, and I suspect he would not have included them in the globalized stereotype. Young often made grandiose observations and proclamations, but I believe he held his own private exceptions to his overstatements. That doesn’t make them palatable, but it does add some nuance.
It is absolutely true that, as the Church statements of last week declare, we do not know exactly when the priesthood restriction was put into place. It seems clear that it would have been after 1847, when Brigham Young called Q. Walker Lewis “one of our best elders”, but it was never canonized or brought to a vote as required by D&C 28:13. We do know that President Young stated in 1852: “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no Prophet of God has said it before, I will say it now.” That tends to be the time we assume the restriction started, but there were hints of it earlier, and it was brought into question several times before being overturned in 1978.
One thing is clear about Brigham Young’s views. He never preached that Blacks were “neutral” in the pre-existence.
So, let’s re-visit the “You Might Be A Racist” game. You might be a racist if…you believe that “Valiant A or B” refers not to a Primary class but to a condition of righteousness which those born white (A=Aryan) possessed as spirits, but which those born black (B=Black) possessed only when they weren’t distracted by the hardness of the fence they were straddling. Again, if you believed this during the first weeks of February, 2012, you should’ve abandoned it last week. Nobody on this Earth was “less valiant” than you in the pre-existence, nor did anyone declare that they’d rather not have the priesthood. (The latter was a conjecture made by Alvin R. Dyer as part of an absurdly racist talk given in Norway in 1961, though it continues to make its rounds among missionaries today.)
So how do we handle the scriptures which have been interpolated to suggest that there was some kind of judgment in the pre-mortal world, and we were given our mortal conditions based on our forgotten performance there? The interpolations wouldn’t be so problematic if we believed that fence-sitters were cursed with wealth and required to overcome the temptations of greed, but the general proposition has been the opposite, along these lines:
There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.” (Doctrines of Salvation, p. 61)
The speculation that privilege reflects pre-mortal valiance whereas disadvantage reflects less valiance comes in stark contrast to the doctrine that all made equal through the infinite atonement. How could God exact judgment on a spirit and then declare the following? (D&C 93:38): “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.”
That is the doctrine. All of us were born equally innocent. Abraham 3:22 is frequently used as well to demonstrate that some were “less” and others “more”:
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones.
It would appear that there was a sort of organized hierarchy before the world was. But read further to see the chronology.
27 And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first.
The identification of “noble and great ones” occurs BEFORE the War in Heaven.
Ultimately, the atonement equalizes us all, and we are left with the challenges of our mortal conditions and our communities. We will inevitably go beyond the cozy borders of our first homes, and, if we are living our religion, will go far beyond the easy designs of our self-arranged plot lines. We will stop interpolating our fellow human beings according to demeaning philosophies (and such philosophies demean us all) or antiquated paradigms; we will recognize divisive vocabulary such as “you people” or “those people” and will come to realize in sometimes heart wrenching ways that a call to discipleship is a call to service.
As I began my journey into black history, I learned painful stories of heroic Mormon pioneers neglected because of our justifications for exclusion. Some words still haunt me. Lucinda Flake Stevens, daughter of Green and Martha Flake: “If my being in church keeps others away, then I’ll stay home.” Jane Manning James: “I realize my race and color and cannot expect my endowment as others who are white. Still…is there no blessing for me?” Len Hope, upon being told that he and his family would not be welcome in their Cincinnati ward because of their race: “Can I still pay my tithing?”
Valiant souls, all of them, and more beautiful than I can describe. They were translated (not interpolated) before me, and I saw their glory. My Lord, what a morning!