Neither White nor Black:
Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church
Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, editors
And he inviteth them all
to come unto him, black and white,
bond and free, male and female;
and he remembereth the heathen;
and all are alike unto God.
—2 Nephi 26:33
Copyright 1984 by Signature Books
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Foreword [see below]
Introduction: Conflict and Commitment in an Age of Civil Turmoil [ses below]
01 – Mormonism and the Negro: Faith, Folklore, and Civil Rights
02 – A Commentary on Stephen G. Taggart’s Mormonism’s Negro Policy
03 – Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview
04 – Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks within Mormonism
05 – The Fading of Pharaoh’s Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks
06 – Whence the Negro Doctrine? A Review of Ten Years of Answers
Since its founding in 1966, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought has sought to publish the work of leading scholars whose research has examined or expressed Mormon culture, history, and theology. Over the years these articles have addressed important issues facing the Church and its members, and they have raised the level of discussion among Mormons and non-Mormons alike about problems of common concern. No series of articles illustrates this phenomenon better than those written by Lester Bush, Armand Mauss, and Newell Bringhurst about the origin, nature, and change of the policy that denied priesthood ordination to blacks.
During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s no issue so vexed the Mormon Church and its members as the categorical denial of the priesthood to black males. The subservient status of blacks in Mormon life and thought became a matter of national attention and internal stress. Leaders and members who were troubled by this paradox in a religion that had suffered its share of discrimination, and was otherwise committed to Christian ethics, scrambled for their scriptures and histories to explain what had become an acutely painful reality. There were those who found justification in Old Testament passages and in the Pearl of Great Price. Others, reading such Book of Mormon passages as II Nephi 26:33, found reason to believe—or hope—that the Church’s position was not rooted in doctrine. Those who searched the historical record found as many questions as answers. The denial of priesthood to blacks was easily traced to the era of Brigham Young, but evidence for the proscription in Joseph Smith’s time was hardly convincing.
In the ensuing years, some loyal members of the Church urged the leadership to reconsider the prevailing priesthood policy. At the same time, the Mormon community was the object of increasingly disdainful attacks from other sectors of the American community, as they too became more sensitive to the injustices of racial discrimination. A serious reassessment began. It was in this environment that Lester Bush, Armand Mauss, and Newell Bringhurst moved rationally to the center of the issue and sought, as scholars, to unravel the historical, theological, and sociological threads of the dilemma. Their articles, published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought from 1967 to 1981, are of such enduring interest that the Editorial Boards of Dialogue and Signature Books now deem them worthy of reprinting in this special collection, complemented [p.x] by introductory and concluding chapters that are published here for the first time. These new essays give perspective to the authors’ earlier efforts to understand the origins and dimensions of the Church’s former policy, and the processes by which change came.
Lester E. Bush, Jr., a native of Virginia, holds an M.D. degree from the University of Virginia and currently works in Washington, D.C. He served for six years as associate editor of Dialogue. Armand L. Mauss, Professor of Sociology at Washington State University, spent his early life in California and taught for several years in various community colleges there. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Newell G. Bringhurst received his Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, and taught at several colleges and universities in Utah and California. Currently he teaches history and political science at the College of the Sequoias.
In June, 1978, when Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation which accorded the opportunity for priesthood ordination to all worthy males, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took its place among the major Christian religions. It also assumed new moral authority in a world still torn by racial and religious strife. But even as this volume goes to press the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints begins to implement its historic decision to ordain women-poignantly reminding us of another issue that will surely persist and require the attention of our best minds and most earnest spirits. The light shed by this volume on important earlier chapters in Mormon and American history may prove particularly instructive as we look to the future.
L. Jackson Newell, Editor
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon ThoughtApril, 1984
Introduction: Conflict and Commitment in an Age of Civil Turmoil
by Armand L. Mauss
Twins of the Times:
Dialogue and the Race Issue for Mormons
It is more than coincidence that the decade of the 1960s gave rise almost simultaneously to the Mormon confrontation with civil rights and to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. It may also be symbolic and symptomatic that both should have begun outside of Utah. Not that Utah Mormons were unaccustomed to intellectual and social ferment or to the anguish of conflicts between church loyalties and other conscientious commitments. The history of Mormonism in Utah and well before has always had its share of hardy strugglers with conscience, from Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon to Edward Tullidge and B. H. Roberts to Lowell Bennion and Sterling McMurrin. Like many other Mormon intellectuals of equal or lesser notoriety (or none), these men at various times and places positioned themselves between the center and the periphery of official approbation-and sometimes beyond-depending upon their respective successes and failures in reconciling faith and reason. In general, however, Utah has largely been spared the civil turmoil over public policy that has from time to time engulfed campus, community, and conscience itself in the other areas of the United States.
Not so the Utah emigres who settled outside the Great Basin in increasing numbers from 1930 on. For them and their children, being Mormon has always meant having to answer for it regularly in the neighborhood, at school, at work, in politics, on the university campus, and ultimately to oneself. Such a predicament, however, was a blessing in disguise, as they were often reminded from the pulpit, for it presented many opportunities to share the faith. And rarely indeed were such encounters with the non-Mormon world actually acrimonious or hostile-rarely, that is, until the rise of the civil rights movement. For those becoming adults in the 1980s or later, it may be difficult to imagine the [p.2] American zeitgeist of the 1960s. Even those of us who lived through that period may have forgotten much about how it felt.
Up until about 1960, Mormons and other Americans living outside the South were able to enjoy the luxury of defining racial conflict as a Southern problem. That was the part of the country that had always had “trouble with the Negroes.” The rest of the country naturally deplored slavery, lynchings, the KKK, and certain of the harsher aspects of black treatment by the white establishment in the South. Most were not inclined, however, to question Jim Crow laws, segregated schools and neighborhoods, or laws against interracial marriages. Indeed, most of these same features were commonplace de facto, if not de jure, in the Northern and Western states as well. It was with some ambivalence, then, that most of us read and heard about such federal assaults against school segregation as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Little Rock in 1957; bus boycotts in Alabama in 1955 and 1956; and sit-ins at lunch counters and other businesses in various Southern states during the late 1950s and early 1960s. What the “Negroes” wanted sounded fair enough, on the one hand; but on the other hand, they seemed to be making an awful lot of trouble and perhaps should move “more gradually.” In any case, it was not something we had to worry about, since, fortunately, we did not live in the South.
The folly of such complacency, Mormon and non-Mormon, is clear enough in retrospect. However, in those early days, American public opinion was remarkably conservative. In a carefully drawn national sample, for instance, only 38 per cent of white Americans favored school integration even as late as 1964, and that percentage did not increase much in subsequent years. In the same survey, only 41 per cent of white Americans nationwide were willing to grant blacks equal access to hotels and businesses; a bare majority (53 per cent) favored open housing; and a mere 27 per cent approved of the general desegregation of the races. At the same time, 68 per cent were convinced that civil rights advocates were “moving too fast,” and 63 per cent felt that blacks had damaged their cause by their exertions on behalf of equal rights-and this was before any urban disorders in the North!1 Another major survey of white Protestants and Catholics, in the relatively liberal San Francisco area, found half of the sample agreeing that blacks did not adequately take care of their property, which was why their neighborhoods were “run down.” Nearly half also believed that there would be no racial strife if “Communists and radicals” did not stir up trouble. One-fourth preferred segregated schools and churches and subscribed to the stereotype that “it’s too bad Negroes are so immoral.”2 In the 1950s, a decade before these surveys, public opinion could only have been even more conservative.
Mormons, with a legacy of their own as victims of bigotry, might [p.3] wish in retrospect that they had been more progressive in civil rights than the rest of the nation; but given the historical context, this would have been expecting too much. Whether because Haun’s Mill, Carthage, and Johnston’s Army were too remote in the collective Mormon memory, or because the assimilation of Mormons since those days had made them too much like other Americans, or because prosperity and respectability had vitiated the general prophetic impulse in the Mormon heritage, Mormon attitudes toward blacks remained very much like those of the rest of the nation.3 The traditional denial by the Mormon Church of its lay priesthood to its few black members (the only ethnic group so excluded) was generally regarded by Mormons as their own business; and they preferred to avoid the subject whether within or outside the church. Mormons who questioned the exclusion policy, either as social criticism or out of a personal anguish of conscience, usually generated suspicion about their own loyalty to the Church, for it was nearly universally assumed that the policy had had its basis in revelation. Accordingly, few critical voices could be heard within the Church before the 1960s and not many more from the outside.4 Even sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea, author of a distinguished 1957 work on Mormonism, did not think the Mormon policy toward blacks important enough to mention among the “strains and conflicts” to which he devoted his concluding chapter.5
The “Negro issue” within Mormonism took on increasing urgency only as the civil rights movement expanded outside the South after 1960. With a more sympathetic federal administration elected that year, civil rights pressure groups began to carry their protest northward and to enjoy a rapid growth in numbers and resources. Especially active were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the latter having arisen out of the Alabama bus boycotts of the 1950s and led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Before long, however, these newly aroused organizations came to seem moderate in comparison to the startling doctrines, goals, and tactics of the mushrooming “black power” groups, sometimes called “black separatists” or “black nationalists,” like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Muslims, and the Black Panthers.6 From across the entire ideological spectrum of the national civil rights movement came a swelling crescendo of lawsuits, boycotts, sit-ins, voter registration drives, and demonstrations of all kinds. Opponents of such activities frequently reacted with violence, in the North as well as in the South, and even routine interracial contacts became increasingly tense, sometimes erupting into major urban riots and disorders like the one in Watts (Los Angeles area) in August 1965. In this context, it was unrealistic to hope that a racially discriminatory policy within a major religious denomination [p.4] could any longer be defined as strictly a parochial matter.
The Mormon collision with this burgeoning civil rights movement is recounted in some detail later in this volume so little need be said about it here, except to recall that it was a product of the 1960s, not earlier, and that it was the single most crucial issue in Mormon relationships with others during that entire decade. Mormons outside Utah may have had to face it first: it was clearly an issue in 1961-62, for example, when George Romney ran successfully for governor in Michigan. But Utah was not spared for long. NAACP plans to picket Temple Square during the October 1963 General Conference were apparently forestalled only by President Hugh B. Brown’s unequivocal declaration in favor of civil rights at the beginning of the conference. However, picketing and other forms of public pressure on the Church in Utah later became commonplace, climaxing with the campaign against Brigham Young University at the end of the decade. National media, which had paid no appreciable attention to the Mormon race issue before 1960, greatly increased the scope and frequency of their generally unfriendly coverage, and the press often badgered Church leaders for public statements.7 Of course, the civil rights movement was not the only source of social ferment during the 1960s. Others included the controversial ameliorative programs embodied in the New Frontier and Great Society movements; the wholesale assault on traditional values, mores, and fashions epitomized by the “hippies” and their Age of Aquarius; and, perhaps most corrosive, the war in Viet Nam. Yet for Mormons, the race issue presented the most troubling and unavoidable conflict between conscience and commitment.
The Dialogue Response to the Race Issue
Dialogue, born in such a social and political environment, naturally addressed the matter of race and civil rights often in those early days. The first issue of the journal in the spring of 1966 carried a short but significant article by Robert Christmas describing a lecture series that had been sponsored by the LDS Institute at the University of Southern California in August 1965 on the Watts rioting earlier that month. The series featured speakers from various interest groups directly affected by the riot, including Mormons and non-Mormons, blacks and whites, all seeking to promote understanding about the causes and consequences of such disorders.8 The next issue carried Karl Keller’s memorable account of his own pilgrimage to the South one summer to help with a civil rights project there.9 The 1967 issues of Dialogue carried a large number of letters to the editor on the race issue, starting with a lengthy one from former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (Summer 1967), which sharply criticized Church policy. That letter provoked an outpouring of others in response, most of them in opposition to Udall and many of them very intense. That [p.5] same issue of Dialogue also carried a brief article by sociologist Glenn Vernon reporting the findings of another social scientist on the admirable record of New Zealand Mormons in race relations, as though to remind us all that Mormons weren’t doing as badly everywhere as in North America.10 The final issue of that second year contained my “Mormonism and the Negro” (reprinted here as Chapter 2), the first Dialogue essay to consider explicitly (if briefly) the vagueness of the scriptural basis for Church policy and the separate question of that policy’s impact on Mormon civil rights attitudes.11
In 1968, every issue contained at least a few letters to the editor on the topic, some in continued response to Udall, some in response to my essay, and some on other aspects like the perceived inadequacy of official Church reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King. The winter issue carried an article by Dennis Lythgoe on the changing public image of Mormonism with an assessment of the price paid in bad publicity for the racial policy, and Royal Shipp’s contribution to a “Roundtable on the Struggle for Justice and Order,” in which he looked forward to a change in Church policy and called for a renewal of brotherhood in the meantime.12
In Dialogue’s fourth year, 1969, the final issue coincided with and reprinted the first formal, public statement from the First Presidency on the priesthood policy in two decades. In the same issue was an extensive review essay by Lester Bush, which first raised the crucial question of the historical origins of the traditional position on blacks (see the commentary on Taggart’s book, Chapter 3 of this volume),13 a question that he would later treat more definitively. (See his historical overview in Chapter 4).
By 1970, the civil rights movement and most of the other exhausting issues of the period had begun to peak. The critics of the Mormon racial policy, having seen several universities break off athletic relations with Brigham Young University, seemed to relax the public pressure somewhat. Dialogue that year carried a cogent critique by Marvin Hill of an important lecture by Fawn Brodie on the transformation of Joseph Smith’s racial ideas and a review by Lowell Bennion of a small book on the predicament of being a black Mormon.14 As the final three chapters in this collection will demonstrate, other significant pieces on the race issue appeared in Dialogue after 1970, with an occasional letter to the editor as well. But never again was there such a concentration of articles and letters on that issue as during those first five formative years. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Dialogue itself was born in large part out of the travail of a generation of Mormons struggling to deliver itself of the burden of racial anachronisms.
That burden was, after all, only a particular manifestation of the [p.6] classical dilemma of religious commitment vs. personal conscience experienced by anyone who has trouble reconciling the teachings and policies of his or her religion with the values and rationales acquired from secular sources. While such a dilemma may be more common among the well-educated or “intellectuals” in a religious community, it is by no means limited to them. It occurs wherever a person cares enough about his or her religious heritage to take it seriously in the face of challenges from the social and intellectual fashions around him. There are, of course, facile resolutions to the dilemma. Some turn their backs on their religion and dismiss it as irrelevant to the sophisticated mind and life; some flee to the bosom of blind faith and refuse to consider the relevance of ideas or issues not validated by official Church pronouncements. Those who have grappled with the Mormon race question (and many others) in the pages of Dialogue have chosen neither of these easy solutions. Instead, they have probed the substrata of Church doctrine and history, on the one hand, to delineate as fully as possible the origin and status of the traditional Mormon teachings on blacks; and, on the other hand, they have plumbed the depths of reason to ascertain the applicability and meaning of such teachings in the context of a universal gospel, trying all the while to avoid the shallows of sheer apologia. These efforts have helped illuminate the possible reconciliation between faith and reason. Not all questions have been answered, of course-at least not in the short run; but such truths as have been discovered have made thinking Mormons freer than before of uncritical dependence either upon ecclesiastical tradition or upon the collective social conscience of a secular and uncertain generation.
The chapters that follow, with the exception of Lester Bush’s comprehensive concluding summary, have appeared as articles in Dialogue. They span nearly its entire history, now approaching two decades, and represent a major portion of the most important scholarly articles published on Mormon teachings and policies about blacks. While reedited here for stylistic consistency, they reflect the state of knowledge and the perspectives of the authors existing at the times when they were respectively first written. Together they constitute a history at two different levels simultaneously: (l) a history of the rise and fall of the Mormon policy of denying priesthood ordination to its black male members; and (2) a history of the efforts of Mormon scholars to grapple with that policy, to understand its origins, its meaning, its evolution, and its implications. In retrospect and when arranged, as here, in chronological order, these articles seem to pose, and then to answer, a logical sequence of questions, as indicated in the Contents. We invite the reader to join us now in reliving both of the histories mentioned above.
3. See my “Mormonism and Secular Attitudes Toward Negroes,” Pacific Sociological Review 9 (Fall 1966), pp. 91-99, for an explicit comparison of Mormon attitudes to those reported in Glock and Stark Christian Beliefs.
4. For the few outside criticisms of Mormon race policy before 1960, see Dennis L. Lythgoe, “The Changing Image of Mormonism,” Dialogue 3 (Winter 1968): p. 50. The best-known, and perhaps only, insider to go public with criticism of the Church on this issue was Lowry Nelson, a sociologist with some history of service to the Church and also of internal criticism in the form of letters to Church leaders. See his “Mormons and the Negro” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952): p. 488. Two early authors critical of the Church’s policy at least in the scholarly sense and hence by implication in the polemical sense as well-were Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed., (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), and L. H. Kirkpatrick “The Negro and the L.D.S. Church,” Pen (Winter, 1954): 12, 13, 29. Whether Brodie’s book (originally published in 1945) should be considered here as “inside” or “outside” is hard to say, since she had not yet been formally excommunicated. Kirkpatrick, as far as I know, was not a Mormon. In any case, both of these early critics embraced the thesis that the exclusionary policy originated in Missouri, later to be more fully explored by others like Jan Shipps, Naomi Woodbury, Dennis Lythgoe, and Stephen G. Taggart in the 1960s.
5. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons. University of Chicago Press, 1957, especially Chapter IX. Like everyone else, O’Dea had discovered the race issue by the time he wrote “Sources of Strain in Mormon History Reconsidered,” in Marvin S. Hill and James B. Allen (eds.), Mormonism and American Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
6. Extensive treatments of some of these organizations and their activities will be found in Norval D. Glenn and Charles M. Bonjean (eds.), Blacks in the United States, San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1969; and in Lewis M. Killian, The Impossible Revolution?: Black Power and the American Dream, New York, Random House, 1968. A briefer treatment will be found in Chapter 14 of my Social Problems as Social Movements, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1975.