Turning our hearts: Century of Black Mormons

Some of the first of my relatives to join the church were a couple who lived on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. When they got married in 1831, relatives gave them two enslaved people as a present. Almost immediately and well before they had listened to the missionaries’ message, they released these people. I have taken pride in that. I could imagine that these were the type of people that found resonance with the gospel and moved to Missouri to help establish an egalitarian society, only to be crushed by the political and social reality of the time. I generally have ignored their parents, the enslavers; I’ve excluded them from my story.

One of the things that happens when you ignore or selectively forget is that you don’t have to deal with reality. We have done this as a people with regards to our early black converts. Today, a lot of people have heard of or even seen media depictions of Jane Manning or Elijah Able. A few more know of Green Flake, or Walker Lewis. But what of Marie Graves, or Elijah Banks and the hundreds of others? Are they part of our story? Generally not, and they must be.

There is a challenge of recovering the identities and stories of our black pioneers. Please go read Paul Reeve’s essay on the Century of Black Mormons to see the work and consequence of many of our friends in this area. But as you read, you will see that there will be more than recovering the identities. As we read the stories, we must integrate them into our stories. And because of what we did, this will be painful. We must accept this pain and register not just the First Presidency disavowal of the doctrines that facilitated it all, but we must actively vow to remember, and vigilantly guard against racisms in all their ugly manifestations.

Thank you to all that have worked on Century of Black Mormons. May our hearts be turned to these, our fathers and mothers, and theirs to us.


  1. Christopher Jones says:

    Thanks for this, J.

  2. Are your ancestors perchance members of the Dorris and Hendricks families?

    We may be related!

  3. Paul Reeve says:

    Thank you J!!

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    There was a great session at the most recent MHA in SLC that went over the nuts and bolts of how the project works. Very enlightening.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    AZHughs, the Skeens and Butlers, alas.

  6. Ah, well. Obviously a productive area for missionaries in the early days.

  7. Oh, this is exciting, Thank you J.

  8. You’re related to my wife. She used story in a talk once for Pioneer Day

  9. This is a wonderful approach, J. When we can finally include the life stories of these pioneers along with the ones we are more familiar with, we will finally see them as “we” and not as “they.”

    I’m still struggling to know what to do with my growing awareness of just how much enslaving there was in my family history, both North and South, both mother’s and father’s ancestry. The first step has been becoming aware, which is what Paul’s project is doing for our people as a whole, while I work through it with regard to my own ancestry.

    I do a lot of church and Utah history. I do a lot of family history. I have had remarkable experiences and have learned to love so many of these people of the past. But somehow the respect and love that I feel for the black Latter-day Saints I have helped to find is as great or greater than I have ever felt for anyone. There is something inexpressibly glorious and humbling — at least I have not yet found a way to express it — in this project. As a church we deprived ourselves of the full contributions these member could and would have made — Elijah Banks being perhaps the one I feel most strongly about in this regard. Maybe finally we can see a shadow of that would-be leadership and spirit, through incorporating their lives into our history. “Their story is our story” is a tagline used for immigrants and refugees, and it’s equally appropriate to the lives we’re coming to know through Century of Black Mormons.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Thank you Ardis, for your contributions, yes, but also for that moving and powerful comment.

  11. GEOFF -AUS says:

    How would racism in the church, particularly in Utah, be today? With most members being republican, and Trump normalising racism, is this affecting racism in the church? Or are there so few non whites that it is a non issue? Not sure how you could support Trump without supporting/defending racism, or trying to define it away as his spokespersons seem to do.

  12. Geoff: you ask good questions that deserve careful answering. But not here in this thread. Please don’t politicize this posting. Please. . It will destroy a productive discussion. Let’s make this particular topic a trump-free zone

  13. I’m delighted to learn that we’re cousins, Stapley!

    Like you, I’d long felt proud of the Butlers, but thought little about the Skeens (despite my grandfather being named after Caroline’s father, for reasons I can only wonder at). But a few years ago, in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations, something changed. I realized that I had to more fully acknowledge my Skeen heritage. I have no doubt that the considerable wealth and social status of the Skeens, gotten in the most evil manner, has contributed to generational privileges that I continue to enjoy, even though the Butlers rejected the most material (in both senses of the word) aspect of that privilege. The Skeens are a part of me as surely as the Butlers, the Hales, the Kowallises, and all the others. They are mine, and I must learn how to turn my heart to them without celebrating–in fact while condemning unreservedly–the evil heritage they left me. I wrote a Facebook post about it after the riot, and my neighbor, who was my ward’s family history consultant, pointedly asked if I would be willing to do temple work for my Skeen ancestors. That was a hard question, but I concluded that I must be willing, and I am willing (though my flesh is weak, and I don’t attend the temple as often as I ought to).

    I wish we knew what happened to the black couple that John and Caroline Butler freed. I wish we knew their names and their stories beyond their role in our ancestors’ story. We pride ourselves on the Butlers’ action in freeing them, but I don’t know how much we should. What else did John and Caroline do for those two people, after all, besides freeing them? Did they share the gospel with them? Did they do anything to give them sustenance as they began their lives as free people? I’ve never been able to find out even their names. Those two souls remain an anonymous footnote in my family history, the fact of their former enslavement the only biographical detail we know, and it grieves me. I would like to meet them in the hereafter, but I wonder if they would have any interest in meeting me. Maybe my hunger to know them is unwarranted. After all, the only thing I do know about them is that my family doesn’t own them!

  14. J. Stapley says:

    rr, it is a complicated thing, that will be addressed in more detail in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!

  15. J., are you a descendant of John Lowe Butler (as I am), he and his wife also refused slaves as a wedding present and were originally from the same region you mentioned.

  16. Hey Scott. Always good to meet cousins. It was the Butlers and Skeens who I was talking about, but come to find out it looks like the story was unreliable. Hopefully in the next couple of days we’ll have something up that discusses this.

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