by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
You know, at one time I worked for the World Council of Churches and we were based in London. I came from Africa. There was someone from Taiwan. There was someone from Malaysia, someone from the States, and then someone from Latin America, and he introduced me to Latin American liberation theology. And I came to visit for the first time in the United States and here encountered black theology. So all of that was a very significant part of what helped to open my eyes. Mercifully, there isn’t anything like the so-called self-made person.
I mean, they are people who helped to form me. And then discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite. I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation. I mean, the many parts of it that were so germane, so utterly to the point for us…
When you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.
by Krista Tippett, host
As we prepare to leave for Israel, I’m noting the strange and disturbing global outbreak of celebrity antisemitism: Charlie Sheen’s rant at his former producer; John Galliano’s rants at perfect strangers; and now a top boy band in Japan makes an appearance in Nazi garb.
These kinds of images are at once familiar and bizarre. For Jews, admittedly, “bizarre” may be too detached a word for something that is directly threatening and frightening. So it is up to the rest of us to consider what I mean in using that word to point at the way in which Judaism is a favored face for a persistent, shape-shifting specter in the human psyche: the global “other” — strange, difficult, despised, and intimidating at once. And “viral” is a good way to describe its incurable yet off-and-on interdependence with the human condition.
I first became aware of this in former East Germany, where I spent time in the 1980s as a journalist. Antisemitism was a strong current just beneath the surface. But there were virtually no Jews left in that part of Germany. There hadn’t been for decades. The specific nature of German grievances against Jews was obviously fictive. Laid bare was an amorphous fear of the abstract “other,” of difference itself.
Writing about this, naming it, feels like perilous territory — but territory we are morally called to walk.Comments
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"I saw them in the deep South. People who were considered backward, unable to do anything became the creators of a new possibility for the whole nation. When I think about Tienanmen Square and Prague, I realize that those folks in Mississippi and Alabama who were considered useless, were able to speak to the world."
— Vincent Harding, theologian and civil rights activist
Ordinary heroes of the civil rights movement who emerged out of Mississippi — people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and James Meredith — risked their lives to break the back of racial injustice. Their inspiring stories are the stuff of history books. These were regular people who accomplished extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
What’s less known are the stories of ordinary white Mississippians who tried to preserve segregation. Segregationists weren’t limited to the stereotyped “fat potbellied sheriff who kind of walks around with a gun, and chews tobacco, and throws the N-word around everywhere he goes,” explains Mississippi historian Robby Luckett in American RadioWorks' latest documentary, "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement."
Pro-segregation organizing was entrenched and complex. Government agencies and civic groups formed to thwart integration. Those who resisted risked retribution in different forms, from job loss to social ostracism to physical violence.
Segregationists, says Robby Luckett “came in all shapes and and forms, and were quite savvy. And when you understand that those are the people that the civil rights movement was up against, you understand the kind of challenge they had.”
"State of Siege" untangles the knots of this untold history. It’s useful history to revisit in this moment when citizens are pressuring entrenched regimes to change in the Middle East. Mississippi is arguably the state where segregation was hardest to break. And yet as "State of Siege" concludes, "It is sometimes said that civil-rights activists accomplished more in Mississippi than in any other southern state, because white resistance there was so incredibly fierce, and the road to freedom so very long."
About the image: University of Mississippi students protest against integration on October 1, 1962. (photo: Flip Schulke/Corbis)Comments
Krista Tippett, Host
On Thursday night before the debate, I wrote something that meant a great deal to me. It was about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August and the incredible symbolism of that the debate on that campus, a cultural triumph it signified far larger than who won or lost.
The drama in financial markets nearly stopped the debate completely, and overshadowed a few hours of reflection we might have allowed ourselves on race. But Scott Simon did a lovely piece on Saturday morning, and Slate produced this: "Negro to Address Ole Miss Class" (The headline you won’t be reading about tonight’s presidential debate.) A white presidential candidate in civil debate against a black presidential candidate is a monumental, quiet victory of a milestone worth pondering, and celebrating, in a world in which bad news gets all the attention.Comments