During the period of the racial priesthood ban, missionary work was nonexistent in entire regions of the world. Obviously, no missionary work was done in much of sub-Saharan Africa — the major exception being South Africa, where missionary work was largely confined to British and Afrikaner groups. Yet the ban also froze the church out of areas much closer to the church’s U.S. home. The Caribbean, for example, was considered largely off-limits until after the ban. For most islands in the region, no missionary work was done, the church had no congregations, and indeed there were often no members whatsoever.
For example, the Dominican Republic — an island of at least some 9 million, although exact numbers are difficult to come by given the number of people without documentation — was evidently home to exactly zero Mormons until 1978. According to most accounts of the Dominican church, the first members were baptized in the United States in that year, one year after the end of the priesthood ban. The same year, the country was dedicated for missionary work. The first missionaries arrived the following year, and the Dominican Republic had its own mission starting in 1980.
Why were there no members whatsoever for such a long time in a country located a short plane flight away from the U.S.? The church’s racial policies are the one and only answer. According to the CIA World Factbook, the Dominican population is 11% black, 16% white, and 73% mixed. But as always with measures of racial and ethnic identity, these statistics merely cover over layers of complexity. Dominican national identity is defined in contrast to Haiti, the country by which the land that would become the Dominican Republic was governed — by military force — from 1821 to 1844. As a consequence, Dominicans often define themselves by the extent to which they have non-black ancestry, in contrast to the perception of Haitians as more “purely” black.
Mormon racial priorities during the pre-1978 period, by contrast, involved determining the extent to which an individual diverged from a conception of “pure” non-blackness. In the Mormon worldview, an individual who was known to have a single black ancestor was black and unable to receive the priesthood, hold leadership positions within the church, go to the temple, and so forth. Such an individual was therefore also not a target for missionary work. Given this racial frame, in which blackness can be acquired by having a single black ancestor, every one of the 73% of Dominicans of mixed racial status in the CIA’s reporting was black. So also were many or most of the 16% of Dominicans reported as white.
So a large majority of Dominicans were black, in the pre-1978 Mormon racial schema, and it was really hard to be confident about the whiteness, in Mormon terms of the era, of any Dominican at all. And so the church simply stayed away.
Since the day we mended our ways and reached out to the Dominican people, our church has grown substantially there — although the extent of growth is mired in the typical problems of measurement. Officially, there are roughly 100,000 Mormons in the Dominican Republic today, although the best estimate is that only about 20,000 are active at all. Even so, either figure represents truly remarkable growth from a starting point of zero less than thirty years ago.
I served a mission in the Dominican Republic shortly before the 20th anniversary of the revelation changing our racial policies. At that time, there were about 60,000 official members in the country, not to mention the emergent organizational and physical apparatus of the mature church: three missions, various stakes, a temple and missionary training center under construction, and the standard network of full-time church employees, buildings, satellite dishes, basketball courts, and so forth. In other words, the church had developed the standard Mormon material artifacts and was really sinking roots.
What were the legacies, some two decades later, of the priesthood ban in the Dominican Republic? The question requires multiple responses.
For missionaries from the U.S., the legacy of the ban was perhaps more pronounced than it should have been. As a personal example, I learned in the MTC that the Dominicans were largely black and not — as I had naively imagined — probable candidates for Lamanite status. To me at the time, this was something of a disappointment, because I had imagined that I would be involved in a literal gathering of Israel along the lines of traditional Mormon racial myth. I am now ashamed of that response, and I can no longer imagine any reason why God might see anyone as better in any way than a Dominican. Nevertheless, I did think along pre-1978 lines at the time, and several other missionaries told me that they had thought the same way.
Other conversations revealed perhaps deeper and more troubling legacies of the earlier racial policies. I heard several conversations among missionaries in which they speculated about reasons for the racial ban, suggesting for example that the ban had been designed so that the church could become strong enough to spiritually support people like the Dominicans. This line of thought implies that Dominican potential members are so inferior to members from Europe and North America that somehow the Dominican members impose a spiritual cost on their brothers and sisters — an idea that I can find no way of defending. Yet it was one legacy of the earlier priesthood ban and related policies, as was the application of similar reasoning to particularly difficult investigators: “he’s part of the reason these people didn’t used to get the priesthood, you know.”
In the mid-1990s, the church as an institution was still experiencing serious effects of the earlier priesthood ban, as well. The most obvious of these was an acute leadership shortage. Because of the very late start date for missionary work in the country, the church had no members with as much as 20 years in the church, and really quite few with even 10 years of membership experience. Nonetheless, each unit needed a bishopric or branch presidency, a Relief Society presidency and teaching corps, a Sunday School, a Primary, and so forth. This institutional burden often weighed quite heavily on the handful of established members in a given ward or branch. In one branch where I served, the branch president talked in Sacrament Meeting every week, taught Sunday School, and ran the Elder’s Quorum because the entire Quorum presidency had gone inactive. His wife taught the youth Sunday School and ran the Relief Society. His 18-year-old daughter ran the Primary. I’ve often wondered how this family had the time to do anything other than church work.
The heroic sacrifices of these committed members simply could not rectify all the institutional weaknesses the church suffered due to a lack of established members — and therefore, in the end, due to the priesthood ban. One or two active priesthood holders cannot hope to fully implement the home teaching program, so the program was rarely in effect. One or a handful of established families cannot realistically fellowship the torrent of new members that the missionaries baptized into their units, so new members frequently went inactive before anyone other than the missionaries and the bishop or branch president really even knew their names.
Even so, it is worth emphasizing that the institutional legacies of the priesthood ban in effect contain their own sunset clause. The church in the Dominican Republic now has a handful of members with nearly 30-year histories in the church, not to mention a fair number of people with 20 years of experience. In all probability, the burdens of leadership are no longer as heavily concentrated in only a few hands, and the church is functioning at a level somewhat closer to full efficiency. Soon, at least a modest number of second-generation Mormons will be available for leadership positions. In a generation, this legacy of institutional weakness will likely be a matter for the history books.
Finally, and most optimistically, we may consider the legacy of the priesthood ban and related policies and doctrines on the beliefs and self-perceptions of the mass of members in the Dominican Republic. From what I could see and hear during my time as a missionary, this legacy was nearly nonexistent. I never heard a single member talk about the ban, and I never had a single investigator raise it as a pre-baptismal concern.
This lack of a prominent discourse about the ban may have at least two meanings. First, the ban may be irrelevant to Dominicans, for a variety of reasons. The ban predates the church in the country, so, really, no Dominicans were ever personally denied priesthood ordination or temple ordinances. The racial worldview behind the ban is so different from the racial frames current in the Dominican Republic that the ban may seem too foreign to take seriously. Or the policy might simply seem like ancient and irrelevant history.
Second, the ban may be a pending issue with the potential to seriously disrupt the Dominican church in the future. Perhaps there is no discourse about the policy because few people know about it, and the few members who do have not yet resolved their views on the subject. On this account, Mormon racial history may be something of a metaphorical powderkeg sealed in the foundations of the Santo Domingo temple.
I hope and pray that some form of the first version is correct. During my mission in this island of the black Caribbean, I met women and men of true faith, people living in desperate poverty who nonetheless were willing to make breathtaking sacrifices to join our church. I hope that these people have had the profound Christian charity to forgive us, to simply overlook our racial past and call us their brothers and sisters. And I pray that we, as a global body of Christ, may become more worthy of such an honor.