Mormonism and Race

This is to compile some of my personal history on the issues surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and race.

For some very good broader background elsewhere, check out these pieces by Ardis at Keepapitchin.org and by her guest blogger, W. Paul Reeve here and here. [update of 9/2/2012 - and this excellent article by Sam Brown] [And . . . as of December 6, 2013, the LDS Church has posted a very forthright history of the Church and Race on lds.org, the official website. You can find that here.]

My perspectives follow:

From Sunday March 11, 2012:

I deeply regret my past racism and have been in recovery for years now as I try to progress in my understanding of life and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

As another "eye-witness to history," I went back to check my missionary history of President Kimball's announcement that the Priesthood ban as to men of Black African descent was lifted. The embarrassing part is that my racism is evident along with erroneous speculations about scripture and doctrine that the LDS Church has since disavowed. Most recently, the Church issued this statement:
The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.
For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.
My recent views about race, the priesthood ban, and yes, even politics, are reflected here.

The good news is that at the time of announcement, I accepted the Revelation with joy. And while erroneously speculating on the reasons and previous interpretation of scripture principally the whole "seed of Cain" business that I now face with regret, I was actually right about one thing. I correctly predicted there would be an addition to the canon of scripture even as I failed to understand existing scripture. I made another interesting "prediction" I will discuss at the end.

From my letter home:
Monday, June 12, 1978

GOL BRASIL! GOL BRASIL! GOL BRASIL!
Dear Family,

What a day yesterday was! Brasil beats Austria and is qualified for the semifinals. We hear the big news of the new revelation. (I hope It’s not just gossip.)

Sunday morning in Priesthood, Newton came in late, sat down by us and said, “You know about the revelation President Kimball had? The Negroes cans have the priesthood.” We asked how he heard and he said his sister was in Porto Alegre and heard it from the Stake President’s 1st Counselor’s wife who had heard it from 2 elders who had said the news had come by phone. Well, we really didn’t believe it. His sister came to Sunday School and confirmed as much as he said, but we still didn’t believe it.  Then Paulo Grahl, Counselor in the Mission Presidency, came also to visit our branch (he is also the seminary director for South Brasil) and he confirmed it saying, “Yes, it’s true.” We believed it then and the shock of it came. I thought, “Now they’ll call me on another mission to Angola.” Oh, well.

It means so much down here. Not because there are lots of Blacks (maybe 50 % of the country) but because 80% of the population and a good number of church members have some lineage of Cain in their blood and therefore could not have the priesthood, could not go through the Temple. A good example is the Bishop’s wife in _____. She doesn’t even look much darker than I am. The Blood of Cain has mixed with the Blood of Israel here in Brasil. The way I see it, the Lord had to prepare Blacks. They had to prepare themselves becoming educated, cultured, self-governing and a free people. The blacks have come achieving greatly in the past years and it looks like the curse was being removed and now is.

(I hope in saying all this that it’s true – the Branch President also heard the news and received permission to ordain any black member from the Stake President yesterday in a meeting.)

We have official word as far as our leaders are concerned. Pres. Bangerter called Pres. Souza and the 1st Presidency sent a telegram to the mission also.

It has such great implications here in Brasil. I’m sure in the U.S. too. And will the Africa missions soon be open???

I’m sure it won’t appease the enemies of the church. They’ll just say “Oh look!! – The Mormons changed under pressure.” Oh well. They had the same thing with Plural Marriage, they just can’t grasp the basic idea of Revelation.

We realize that there will be many people apostatize from the church for this. That’s sad, but it has to be. Separating the sheep from the goats.

It’s just fantastic to think about it all. I realize prejudices exist everywhere. The members here greeted the news with joy. (We have no black members in this branch.) We went and told Irmã ____ (Grandma). (She’s 74 years old) “But I don’t like Blacks!” We sort of laughed. It was funny. At least she’s honest.

It had to come. The gospel is for all the world – when they’re prepared. If the gospel must go to the Gentiles and then to the Jews then that’s the way it must be.

It’s all fantastic news. I know Spencer Kimball is a prophet of God.

Writing this letter it’s still hard to believe. I’d like to hear about the revelation. We thought that it would probably have to be written and accepted as part of The Pearl of Great Price because it’s sort of like an amendment to the constitution. The Books of Abraham and Moses say that Cain’s lineage can’t have the Priesthood.
The interesting prediction that I would be called to a mission in Angola hasn't happened yet. But who knows? I'm not quite ready to retire and still have kids at home but my wife and I have a great desire to serve a mission together - and more than one if life and health permit.

The odd part of that idea flashing in my head is that Angola now has LDS missionaries and the church is growing there. It does not have it's own mission yet, but is part of the Mozambique Maputo Mission. The current President is my friend, and former missionary companion, Loren Spendlove.

Elders Renato Bertani, Loren Spendlove (with Jair Gomes), and Ralph Topham
São Borja Chapel, Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil - June, 1977

And a 2009 video of President Spendlove in Mozambique:

____________________________________


Race is so very, very difficult to discuss in this country. It was much more directly addressed in Brazil when I served there on my LDS Mission. Brazil is not without its racial issues. I'm side-tracking yet bringing myself back to LDS themes as I was in Brazil when the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood extending all church authority and rights to all members including black Africans or those of that heritage. The Temple under construction in São Paulo had to have been part of the motivation for President Kimball's hard work to get that revelation. Just before the revelation, there was a bishop's wife who told me that she thought there might be some black blood in her husband's family. She said that if it had been her, he would drop her in an instant. Of course that might say more about gender issues rather than race.

For my part, I accepted the priesthood ban in my youth without too much thought. My parents tried hard to be fair and respectful on race matters. They were far from being civil rights activists and they inherited some general prejudices on race, but they tried. And that's to their credit. My grandparents even tried. My paternal grandmother who passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 99 acknowledged the positives of her surprise, that she had never expected to see a black President. Grandpa, a bit more crudely, and some years earlier, had said that racial conflicts would only end in this country when there was enough mixing that everybody was born the same shade of brown.

When I went to Brazil in 1976, the policy of the mission was to inquire about the family backgrounds of potential converts. If they had black ancestry of any degree, we could baptize them but could not ordain the men to the priesthood. I accepted that with a little discomfort but didn't think or do too much about it. We had an unofficial discussion in the mission on mimeographed copies to "teach" about the priesthood ban. It was full of all kinds of ideas that were later declared to be false doctrine. I only used it once when I was a District Leader with a black family that had been taught by the other elders to prepare them for baptism. I wanted to make sure they understood what they were were getting into.

Early in the year of 1978, our Mission President - a native Brazilian of European ancestry - directed us that we didn't need to worry if we had questions about a convert's ancestry. He said that without any clear evidence of African ancestry to go ahead and ordain the men to the priesthood, "The Lord would sort it all out." I was fine with that. There was a Brazilian elder who told me he thought the President was apostatizing. My sentiments were with the President. And then the Revelation came.

I was pleased and somewhat surprised by how well it was received in the church. There was not a mass schism or even smaller break-away groups on race policy in my general awareness. The church work proceeds in Africa with Temples in predominately black nations. In fact, besides the Brazilian Temple, there was a large impetus for the revelation because of the several Mormon groups that had self-organized in Africa without the benefit of priesthood authority connected to the presiding authorities at Church Headquarters.

Coming back to President Kimball and the Revelation, I was stunned by the frank chapters in Edward Kimball's book on his father. I have a digital copy on disk from BYU Studies of Lenghthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, (Deseret Boook, Salt Lake City 2005) (Kimball). There are five chapters to tell this story. They are honest and respectful on a challenging and difficult issue.

Edward begins with compliments noting his father's advanced age and his ability to change as he began to question the reasons for the priesthood ban without finding any clear explanations as to why it existed. He also directly yet respectfully deals with contradictions and conclusory statements from past church leaders lacking historical  evidence or scriptural basis for their positions. Similarly to the experience with my Mission President, Kimball reports on indications of spiritual promptings among members of the church of all races as well as leaders indicating that this was a matter the Lord would address to the blessing of faithful members.

One interesting quote reminds me of an inclination that I often have regarding difficult controversies in the church:
To an unbeliever the Church position looked like simple bigotry; to Spencer there seemed no way to explain the policy without being misunderstood, so he talked very little about it. . . .
Kimball, at  211. Yet here I go right in.

President Kimball worked hard to get the Revelation. A concise explanation was provided by President Gordon B. Hinckley:
'Here was a little man [in stature],' President Hinckley is reported to have said, "filled with love, able to reach out to people. . . . He was not the first to worry about the priesthood question, but he had the compassion to pursue it and a boldness that allowed him to act, to get the revelation.'
Id., at 215. One of the more surprising aspects of this pursuit was that:
In June 1977 he invited at least three General Authorities to write memos about the doctrinal basis of the policy and how a change might effect the Church. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote a long treatise concluding that no scriptural barrier existed to a change.  
Id., at 216 (emphasis added). I find that rather astounding. It also helps explains Elder McConkie's later statement to:
'Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
'. . . It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation.'
Id., at 238. Even if  Elder McConkie's rhetoric still got away from him at times, I like this statement and choose to accept this over all other "doctrinal" statements he ever pronounced as it reflects his best side, both on race and on the humility of admitting error. All the previous "explanations" of the curse of Cain, pre-mortal fence-sitting, contorted interpretation of scripture, and certainly, racial inferiority justified by whatever argument--all dissipate as previous error.

And that's where I go with this. None of us human beings are perfect. The important thing is this ability to correct mistakes especially as we seek out with deep spiritual struggles to determine the will of the Lord. Perfection is a process of completion that is only accomplished by the Lord's Grace "after all we can do." We just need to do more and trust more in Him.

Yet there is another very important aspect of President Kimball's struggle. Chapter 22 of his son's book lays out President Kimball's strong desire and patience to allow each member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to come to their own conclusion to accept this as the will of the Lord for unanimity in their leadership of the Church. And he was so careful not to force his personal view on them by "pulling rank" as the prophet and presiding apostle. He once described their final discussion, after all his spiritual struggles, this way:
'. . . I want to know. Whatever the Lord's decision is, I will defend it to the limits of my strength, even to death.'
He then outlined the direction his thoughts had carried him--the fading of his reluctance, the disappearance of objections, the growing assurance he had received, the tentative decision he had reached, and his desire for a clear answer. Once more he asked the Twelve to speak freely and without concern for seniority. Elder McConkie spoke in favor of the change, noting there was no scriptural impediment. President Tanner asked searching questions as Elder McConkie spoke. Elder Packer also favored the change, speaking at length, quoting scripture (D&C 124:4956:4-558:32) in support. Eight of the ten volunteered their views, all favorable. President Kimball called on the other two, and they also spoke in favor. Discussion continued for two hours. Elder Packer said a few weeks later, 'One objection would have deterred him, would have made him put it off, so careful was he . . . that it had to be right.'
Id., at 221. Then they sought and received their spiritual confirmation. Revelation doesn't come but by an awful lot of struggle and work. I'll leave you to seek out the reports of the spiritual confirmation or to receive one yourself.

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