In future historical treatments of Spencer W. Kimball’s ministry, race will almost certainly be seen as a central theme. Indeed, perhaps the single most influential act in his religious life was the elimination of Mormonism’s ban on priesthood ordination and temple ordinances for people racially conceptualized as being of African descent. The most recent addition to the Mormon canon is the official statement, by Kimball and his subordinates in the First Presidency, granting priesthood to black men, and access to temple ceremonies to black men and women. Beyond this major change in church racial policy, Kimball’s life also incorporated other important racial themes, including his racially-defined special ministry to the Lamanites (i.e., Native Americans and Polynesians), and his famous teachings on avoiding interracial and inter-cultural marriages. In light of the centrality of racial themes to Kimball’s life and ministry, we might expect race to play some role in this year’s priesthood/Relief Society lesson manual on his teachings. Are we to be disappointed in that expectation?
For the most part, yes. The series of “Teachings of the Presidents” manuals has consistently struggled to find a way to address controversial themes or historical evolution within the church. See, for example, my earlier remarks on last year’s Wilford Woodruff manual. Race in Kimball’s life, like polygamy in Woodruff’s, is such a central theme that it would be astounding if the manual managed to disregard it completely. (In Edward L. Kimball’s 2005 partial-life biography of Kimball, for example, at least 6 chapters focus on racially-related themes.) Yet the manual comes very close indeed to deleting race entirely.
The manual twice discusses Kimball’s role in ending Mormonism’s racial priesthood and temple restrictions. The most prominent of these two mentions is in the introduction to Chapter 22, “Revelation: ‘A Continuous Melody and a Thunderous Appeal’.” One paragraph provides a description of the racial ban:
Throughout [Kimball’s] service as President of the Church, he received revelations to guide the Saints. The most well known of all these revelations came in June 1978, when the Lord revealed to him and also to his brethren in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that the blessings of the priesthood, which had been restricted to some, could now be available to all worthy members of the church (see Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 2). (pg. 238)
This paragraph is written in a vague enough way that it might easily be read as claiming that Kimball’s revelation had opened the way for the priesthood ordination of women. After all, priesthood blessings other than temple attendance were available in roughly the same ways to black church members before 1978 as they are to female church members today: they could receive the blessings of having someone else administer to them. Obviously, however, this is not the intended meaning.
Instead, this paragraph attempts to grant historical importance to the 1978 revelation and policy change while simultaneously providing the least possible information about the pre-1978 policy that was changed. The motive for this verbal furtiveness is at least somewhat unclear. Many members already know that black church members were denied priesthood ordination and temple ordinances before 1978. For members who do not know, the manual’s ambiguous statement will almost certainly create enough curiosity to drive them to find out. What, then, is the reason for this circumlocution, other than perhaps a persisting discomfort with our racial history?
Members curious to discover who, exactly, was denied priesthood blessings before 1978 can find an answer within the Kimball lesson manual, but they will need to turn to the less-read and less-taught “Life and Ministry” material in the manual’s prologue. There, inside an extended quote from a 1988 article by Gordon B. Hinckley, we may read:
“The question of extending the blessings of the priesthood to blacks had been on the minds of many of the Brethren over a period of years. It had repeatedly been brought up by Presidents of the Church. It had become a matter of particular concern to President Spencer W. Kimball.” (pg. xxxiii)
So, readers can learn who was denied priesthood blessings, although no information is available about any practical or doctrinal components of this racial policy. Yet the fact that even this relatively uninformative, indirect statement is contained in the manual only serves to heighten our perplexity about why the above-quoted statement in the lesson on revelation is so obscure. If it is okay to mention, in the prologue, that blacks were denied priesthood ordination and temple attendance, why is it not also acceptable to explain this in the body of the text?
Other dimensions of Kimball’s racial world view are more thoroughly suppressed. Kimball, as mentioned above, saw himself as having a special mission to minister to Native Americans and Polynesians, who he thought of as Lamanites. In the words of the manual, “[h]e was an eloquent voice for their interests both in the senior quorums of the Church and among the membership at large. He decried all racial prejudice and oppression of the poor” (pg. xxiv). Omitted without discussion are the racial components of Kimball’s conception of the Lamanites, perhaps most evident in the following famous quote from his October, 1960, General Conference address:
I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today…. The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.
At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl–sixteen–sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents–on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather….These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.
The manual’s failure to discuss these attitudes may be an attempt at retraction-by-omission on the part of the church. Nonetheless, Armand Mauss’s work on Mormon concepts of race suggests that attitudes, like Kimball’s, that tend to suggest some link between skin color and righteousness are not yet extinct in the church. Hence, there may be reasons to prefer a straightforward discussion of these ideas and the reasons that the church is trying to move away from them.
Similar remarks might be made about the manual’s omission of Kimball’s well-known and oft-repeated council against interracial marriage. A representative example is the following 1959 quote, which I was taught repeatedly in Primary and as a teenager in Sunday School:
The interrace marriage problem is not one of inferiority or superiority. It may be that your son is better educated and may be superior in his culture, and yet it may be on the other hand that she is superior to him. It is a matter of backgrounds. The difficulties and hazards of marriage are greatly increased where backgrounds are different. For a wealthy person to marry a pauper promises difficulties. For an ignoramus to marry one with a doctor’s degree promises difficulties, heartaches, misunderstandings, and broken marriages.
When one considers marriage, it should be an unselfish thing, but there is not much selflessness when two people of different races plan marriage. They must be thinking selfishly of themselves. They certainly are not considering the problems that will beset each other and that will beset their children.
If your son thinks he loves this girl, he would not want to inflict upon her loneliness and unhappiness; and if he thinks that his affection for her will solve all her problems, he should do some more mature thinking.
We are unanimous, all of the Brethren, in feeling and recommending that Indians marry Indians, and Mexicans marry Mexicans; the Chinese marry Chinese and the Japanese marry Japanese; that the Caucasians marry the Caucasians, and the Arabs marry Arabs.
Some interesting dissenting voices notwithstanding, most observers follow Kimball’s verbal cue and interpret this and related advice as involving racial categories that ought to be kept distinct. Kimball’s argument, of course, invokes the difficulty of cross-cultural marriage, but the opening and closing sentences of this quote frame all of the intervening discussion of culture and class in an explicitly racial frame. Kimball’s understanding of race in quotes such as this seems entirely devoid of the recognition that race, class, and culture are not synonymous. Given modern American conceptions of race as primarily involving obvious physical features, people of very different races can share a class and cultural background, while people from the same race may be quite different in class and culture.
Furthermore, the church seems much less concerned about cross-cultural, cross-racial, or cross-class marriages in 2007 than it may have been in 1959. Once again, the absence of this material from the manual may be an attempt at retraction-by-omission. Yet, quotations from Kimball on the desirability of intra-racial marriage are current enough in the church that I was, as mentioned above, taught lessons from them in more than one ward. So, for the sake of minimizing confusion and disorder, there may be some reason to wish that the manual had instead included the quotes and a discussion of why the church has chosen to move away from the council contained within them.
What the Kimball manual intends to do, it obviously accomplishes: there is ample material here for a year of priesthood and Relief Society discussions. Furthermore, the book’s failures with respect to what might now be seen as somewhat more controversial aspects of Kimball’s life and ministry are not unique; the church as an institution seems to lack a sense of how to address these components of our doctrine and history. Here’s hoping that the lesson manual committee finds a clearer solution to these dilemmas next year.
 The phrase “people of African descent” is often used in Mormon discussions as if its meaning were unproblematic. Of course, this is not the case. One major objection relates to the biological and anthropological evidence that all homo sapiens originated in Africa; in other words, there may be some reason to believe that we are all “of African descent.” Other dilemmas include the meaning of “African” and the meaning of “descent.” What parts of the African continent are “African” enough to fit in the category? People who live on the part of Africa associated with the Middle Eastern culture region are typically not described by Mormons as being of “African descent”; nor are South African Boers. These outliers strongly suggest that “African” in this Mormon phrase is merely a code word for “racially black.” With respect to “descent,” Mormon concerns have always addressed only people who were “known” to be of black descent. For a very long time indeed, the Moors played a prominent role in the life of the Iberian peninsula and other parts of Southern Europe, and as a result it is quite difficult to believe that any particular Southern European individual is entirely free of black ancestry. Yet Mormons did not deny priesthood ordination or temple ordinances to Southern Europeans. Hence, “descent” has often simply involved the possession of physical traits conceptualized as markers of membership in the “black” racial category.