The perseverance of black LDS Church members

February 5, 2014

“Race and the Priesthood” became a sensation within the Mormon community and beyond recently. This despite it having been inconspicuously posted as the latest of dozens of alphabetically arranged entries under Gospel Topics on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is the most straightforward official acknowledgment given by the LDS Church that “for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.” Though a handful of black men were ordained to the LDS priesthood during founding prophet Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Brigham Young announced the ban in 1852—22 years after the founding of the church, and eight years after Smith’s death. Subsequent LDS Church leaders maintained the ban by citing precedent.

The article disputes any notion that the ban was rooted in correct Christian (or Mormon) teaching, and emphasizes that, as the Book of Mormon states, “all are alike unto God,” including both “black and white,” and that God “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness.” Furthermore, the article disavowed many of the theories that had emerged over the decades to explain the ban or from where it came, including distinctively Mormon versions of the myth of Ham (and/or Cain). “Church leaders today,” the article emphatically affirms, “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

For scholars of the subject, nothing in the article was new. The forthright treatment of it, however, including repudiating myths that had been used to legitimate the ban, was a matter of rejoicing for many longtime advocates of racial equality within Mormonism.

The heroes of this story are not the church leaders and historians who wrote and approved the article, though they should be commended. The heroes are not the church leaders who overturned the ban in 1978, though they were courageous enough to listen to the voice of God’s Spirit.  

The real heroes are those black members of the LDS Church who refused to leave despite being afforded second-class status, whose presence testified to the inconvenient truth of the failure of leaders to conform fully to Christ’s teachings of love and inclusion. The prophetic presence of black Latter-day Saints from the Church’s earliest years forced a sometimes recalcitrant white leadership and membership to ask hard questions about what it means for God to be the Father and Jesus Christ the Savior of all humanity, as they had always proclaimed from the pulpit.

The real heroes of the story are women such as Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a free black woman who was baptized into the LDS Church in the early 1840s and then traveled with a small group of black converts from Connecticut to Illinois in winter, the last 800 miles on foot. “We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground,” James recounted in a brief autobiography several decades later. James walked to Utah with the Mormon pioneers in 1847 and remained a devoted member of the Church until her death in 1908, outliving its first five prophets. Upon her death Church leaders recognized James as a pillar of faithfulness—after having denied her access to Mormonism’s most sacred temple rituals by virtue of her race.

The prophetic presence of those who persevered, who persisted, who protested, never to receive their due in their lifetimes, stands as a testimony to hope and to the long moral arc of justice, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s language. The Jane Jameses of the world embody the query of the fiery antebellum black pamphleteer David Walker to Christians of his day:

“Of what kind can your religion be? Can it be that which was preached by our Lord Jesus Christ from Heaven? I believe you cannot be so wicked as to tell him that his Gospel was that of distinction. What can the American preachers and people take God to be?”

Our weekly feature Then and Now harnesses the expertise of American religious historians who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans. It's edited by Edward J. Blum.


To David & Tiffany....I like

To David & Tiffany....

I like to look at it this way…I brought a copper pan some time ago.  When I purchased it the copper had this beautiful shine to it.  After repeated use, the shine wore off and it began to fade.  After about a year I ran across a product that claimed to remove the impurities that tarnished the copper and restore it to it’s originally beauty.  After using it, I was amazed to see the copper return to its original shine.  As far as the copper is concerned, nothing was added to it; rather the impurities that come with time and repeated use were taken away.

So it is with the gospel.  The LDS church isn’t adding or reinventing anything.  They are merely preaching the gospel in its original state; removing the impurities that came about due to man interjecting its limited (and probably good intentioned) opinion/knowledge into the mix. 

An example of that would be for someone to discount the Book of Mormon because they have not seen evidence of it.  The Bible is a collection of cannons written before Christ and after His death, yet the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1940s.  It’s great that the evidence was finally found, but blessed are those who believed all those years… centuries without physical proof.   You said it yourself… “Faith is the substance of thing hoped for and the evidence of things not seen”.  So it is with the members of this Church who like other believers, had faith in a set of scriptures before they ever saw the evidence. 

Why begrudge us for having faith that a loving God still speaks to us?  Why would anyone think that our loving God who Himself said He is not a respecter of persons only speak to one group of people?  Why would our God who made it abundantly clear that he was the same yesterday, today and tomorrow only give scriptures to those of yesterday?  It would appear that those saying God doesn’t continue to inspire divine scriptures for His children here in these modern days would in fact be changing the nature of a constant God. 

Believe or don’t believe...that’s entirely up to you.  One day the plates detailing the scriptures found in the Book of Mormon will be found and others will come to know for a certainty that it is and always has been the divine word of God.  But I applaud those who hold fast to their faith believing in something when there is no physical evidence to back them up; when the only proof they have is the feeling they felt in their spirit when they heard the gospel preached to them in its original state and they knew without a shadow of a doubt…that for them it was the pure and unadulterated gospel of their God.


David Tiffany...Maybe you

David Tiffany...

Maybe you should read the Nicene specifically states parts of the Bible (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) were left out because the Bishop who complied the original Bible felt some of the teachings, some of the books were blasphemous. The Creed itself was to ensure the Roman Empire and its subjects were taught and learned the exact same thing. 

And be careful as you beg for "a sign"; if your are a Christian as you say you are, then you know not to tempt Our Father in Heaven.

Not the first time

We don't understand why blacks were not allowed the same rights and privileges as non blacks for many year in the LDS church. But, we also don't know why only Levites were allowed to touch and carry the ark of the covenant and anyone else who did was struck dead. Christ came and taught and ministered primarily and almost exclusively to the Israelites - why? Were non Israelites  not good enough for God? We need to accept the past and embrace the present.