Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
[p.95]Sociologists Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock state in their 1968 study, “Both organizationally and theologically, the heart of religion is commitment.”1 They described five categories of commitment: belief, religious practice (public ritual and private devotions), experience, knowledge, and consequences. “Belief” is an individual’s views of God and theology. Public ritual includes such public religious acts as baptism, worship, and communion. Private devotions are personal prayer and scripture reading. Most religions anticipate that members—whether new converts or lifetime members—will have a religious experience in which they receive a spiritual confirmation of the church’s tenets. Churches also assume that members have some knowledge of their teachings. According to Stark and Glock, “The knowledge and belief dimensions are clearly related since knowledge of a belief is a necessary precondition for its acceptance. However, belief need not follow from knowledge, nor does all religious knowledge bear on belief.” Finally, the “consequences” dimension is the working of the other four categories in a person’s daily life.2
The LDS Afro-American Oral History Project and Survey collected information on two of these categories: belief and religious practices. This chapter compares the responses of black Mormons to three other groups: (1) white Mormons, (2) general U.S. samples, and [p.96](3) black Americans. The general American information comes from the works of several sociologists who have examined religious beliefs in the United States. The Stark and Glock study, published in 1970, is the oldest. Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney’s study of American Mainline Religion is dated 1987.3 Andrew N. Greeley published Religious Change in America in 1989.4 Greeley’s and Roof and McKinney’s studies examine religious views in general. Stark and Glock questioned the value of looking at all Americans together by studying active members of congregations in northern California in the 1960s.
Black Latter-day Saints can be compared to LDS survey data published in an article in Review of Religious Research by Marie Cornwall and others. The authors used 1986 “data collected as part of a large-scale project on individual and family religious behavior among …. Mormons in the United States.” The thirty-two-page survey was mailed to 2,160 people. The study went to eighty people—thirty-two practicing and forty-eight nonpracticing Mormons selected at random from twenty-seven randomly selected wards (parishes).5 Since the survey was drawn from the general membership of the LDS church, essentially all respondents were white. Religiosity questions included in the LDS Afro-American Survey were identical to questions used in this survey.
Despite an apparent decline in religious beliefs, sociologist Andrew M. Greeley found in his 1989 study that people who responded to various surveys from 1944 to 1981 had strong basic convictions of Christian values. Their answers to questions about the existence of God and life after death were positive and varied little.6
In their 1970 study Stark and Glock critically pointed out that the Gallup polls did not differentiate among denominations· In their own surveys Stark and Glock found belief in the existence of God varied from 22 percent among Unitarians to 93 percent among Southern Baptists.7 Liberal Protestants scored the lowest on orthodox Christian convictions, while more conservative Protestant groups such as Southern Baptists and Pentecostal churches had the highest. This finding, although dated, is similar to results from more recent surveys. According to Roof and McKinney’s 1987 study, conservative Protestants were likely to respond positively to the query, “Do you believe in life after death?”8
Stark and Glock also reported that among those studied in northern California, those who went to churches were more likely to accept traditional Christian beliefs than other randomly selected respondents.9 In other words, those who actively associated with a congregation held more established beliefs than those who simply claimed church affiliation.
Respondents to the LDS Afro-American Survey most closely resemble Stark and Glock’s 1960s conservative Protestants who were actively affiliated with a congregation. In response to general questions about their religious views, black Mormons were extremely positive. Ninety-five and a half percent “agreed strongly” with the statement, “I have no doubts that God lives and is real”; 4.5 percent simply “agreed.” The intensity dropped slightly when the questions became more specific. To the statement “I love God with all my heart,” 87 percent “strongly agreed”; 10.5 percent “agreed.” A few less, 84.4 percent, “strongly agreed” and 11.1 percent “agreed” with the statement, “I am willing to do whatever the Lord wants me to do.”
In response to all the general religious belief questions, LDS African-Americans surveyed rated higher than the national samples and only slightly lower than the 1960s Southern Baptists. For example, 99 percent of church-attending Southern Baptists in northern California accepted the divinity of Jesus Christ; 97 percent of black Latter-day [p.99] Saints (93.9 percent “strongly agreed”; 4.5 percent “agreed”) agreed with the statement, “I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.” Similarly, 97 percent of Southern Baptists believed in life after death, and 96 percent of LDS African-Americans accepted the concept (92.4 percent “strongly agreed”; 4 percent “agreed”).
A comparison can also be made between blacks in the LDS Afro-American sample and U.S. Mormons. Black Mormons were more likely to agree with each item than those in the larger U.S. Mormon survey. Furthermore they were not only more orthodox on standard religious items about the Bible and so on, they were also more orthodox than the Mormon sample about their particular religion, the LDS church. However, black Mormon survey respondents expressed less conviction about unique Mormon doctrines. Compared with the general sample, black Mormons were more committed to both religion in general and to the LDS church in particular. The only area of agreement was the statement “Some LDS doctrines are hard to accept.” Even there blacks gave more orthodox answers than U.S. Mormons in general, but the differences were not significant.
The intensity of conviction drops off for more distinctive Mormon claims. For instance, survey respondents accepted Joseph Smith’s first vision and the Book of Mormon, but their rate of acceptance was lower than their beliefs in the existence of God: 94.5 percent believed Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, but only 82 percent “strongly agreed.” Again while 96.1 percent believed the Book of Mormon was “the word of God,” only 86.1 percent “strongly agreed.”
Religion has always played a meaningful role in the lives of black Latter-day Saints in this sample. Before they converted, 57.7 percent said religion was “very important”; only 17.5 percent said it was “not important.” Not surprisingly, considering the emotional weight attached to changing religion, conversion to Mormonism made religion even more central to these respondents. About three-quarters of the survey respondents (76.1 percent) “strongly agreed” religion was “now more central” to their lives; 88.5 percent “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the LDS church “greatly enhanced their views of religion.”
As Stark and Glock point out, ways of expressing religious [p.100] beliefs vary. For some denominations weekly attendance at church is essential. For others regular attendance is less important than key rituals such as marrying in church and having one’s children christened.
The importance of “going to church” has changed for Mormons over time. Historian Jan Shipps described how modern-day Mormons would be surprised by nineteenth-century observances. For example, during the 1880s, individual congregations in Salt Lake City and other cities often did not hold sacrament meetings. Instead those interested attended a citywide afternoon meeting in the local tabernacle. She continued, “Hypothetical Saints… in a time machine would have been astonished to find so few Saints at sacrament meeting because the twentieth century sacrament meeting is a visible worship sign, whereas in the pioneer era more expressive worship signs were irrigation canals or neatly built or nicely decorated houses or good crops of sugar beets.”10 As Mormons gave up such distinctive practices as polygamy and communal cooperatives, the responsibility of “boundary maintenance” shifted from the church to the individual. According to Shipps, “The LDS dietary, behavior, and dress codes” are now important boundary markers, and, similarly, “worship activity … seems almost mandatory.”11
The importance of attending worship services is reflected in contemporary Mormon church statistics. For example, a 1980 and 1981 study shows that 68 percent of lifetime Mormons in Utah attend church weekly. Converts are even more devout: 74 percent attend weekly. Roof and McKinney’s survey of black Americans showed that attending worship services was also a measure of institutional commitment. Conservative Protestants were rated number one in terms of church attendance, black Protestants were second, and Catholics were third.12 Other studies of randomly selected national populations show blacks attend weekly religious [p.101] services more than white Protestants (44 percent compared to 40 percent) and are also more likely to attend midweek meetings (37 percent versus 31 percent).13
LDS African-Americans surveyed were in general already committed church-goers. Before joining Mormonism, almost three-fifths (58.7 percent) attended services weekly. An additional 14.4 percent went a few times a month, 8 percent went monthly, and 11.9 percent went a few times a year. Only 2.5 percent never attended church. Information compiled from interviews were similar: 59.8 percent went weekly, 22.4 percent went somewhat frequently (monthly), 12.8 percent went infrequently, and 4.6 percent never or very seldom attended. That figure increased for sacrament meeting after their conversion to Mormonism: 81.1 percent said they went weekly. These figures dropped slightly for Sunday school—78.6 percent and 72.6 percent for Relief Society/priesthood meetings.
All three of these meetings are now held in a three-hour block on Sunday, but before 1981 meetings were scattered throughout the week. On Sunday priesthood meeting and Sunday school for all ages were typically held in the morning. The worship service—sacrament meeting—was usually in the evening. Primary (a meeting for children from three to twelve), Young Men and Young Women Mutual Improvement Associations (organizations for teenagers twelve to eighteen), and Relief Society (for women over eighteen) were weekday activities. Partly as a result of the gasoline shortage of the late 1970s, these meetings were consolidated. Church leaders hoped this would not only reduce travel on Sunday but allow families more time to worship together. Most respondents have joined since 1978, so they are only familiar with the consolidated schedule, yet a significant number do not endure the entire three-hour block.
It is more difficult to compare how often black members attend social activities, which vary in frequency depending on the ward. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents said they went to activities “a few times” a year; 42 percent went monthly or “a few times” a month. Since each ward determines how many socials it will hold, it[p.102] is impossible to estimate percentage of participation. However, four-fifths of black members attend at least some socials. No comparable information is available for white members.
Blacks also participate in exclusive LDS rituals. Three-quarters of survey respondents had participated in temple ordinances. Probably because of distance 43.8 percent attend only a “few times” a year. For the 30.4 percent of survey respondents who live in the deep South, the only temple is in Atlanta, Georgia. The 17.6 percent in the near South and Northeast must travel to Washington, D.C. For the 19 percent in the Midwest, the only temple is in Chicago. Only those in the Intermountain West (3.9 percent) and in the Pacific Coast states (16.4 percent) have closer temples. Just over a quarter (26.4 percent) go more frequently than a few times a year, and slightly more than half of this group attend monthly.
Although genealogy is not an exclusive LDS activity, its strong link with temple worship provides both a theological and a practical connection between the two. Almost 30 percent (29.9 percent) of survey respondents never did genealogy, while half (50.7 percent) do research a few times a year, and 14 percent work on family history more frequently. Inconvenience, not unwillingness, seems to be the main obstacle for blacks in participating in temple ordinances and researching their genealogy.
Another important element of religious practice is an individual’s personal relationship with God. While church attendance may be socially motivated and socially rewarding, prayer, scripture reading, and meditation are private functions of the believer. For example, in the 1960s Catholics were more likely to attend church than Protestants. But only 14 percent of Catholics in Stark and Glock’s survey read the Bible regularly. No studies have examined changes among Catholics. With a long tradition of emphasizing Bible familiarity, 46 percent of Protestants included Bible reading in their lives. These figures vary by denomination. Only 20 percent of Congregationalists read the scriptures “frequently” in contrast to 86 percent of Southern Baptists and 89 percent of Pentecostal groups.14 More specifically 35[p.103] percent of Southern Baptists read daily, 28 percent weekly, and 23 percent “often” but not regularly.
Black Latter-day Saints who responded to the survey did not read the scriptures as frequently before their baptism as Southern Baptists. The option of daily reading was not included in the LDS African-American Survey, but a few people wrote that in and almost certainly more would have marked it. A quarter (24.4 percent) read scriptures weekly before joining the LDS church; 15.4 percent read “a few times” a month. After conversion these figures rose dramatically with 81.6 percent reporting weekly reading and 9 percent reading them monthly.
Another aspect of personal devotion is prayer. In the 1960 northern California survey, 75 percent of Protestants and 83 percent of Catholics prayed at least weekly. Ninety-two percent of both Southern Baptists and Pentecostals reported praying at least once weekly. Only some Congregationalists (10 percent) and Methodists and Episcopalians (9 percent each) “rarely” or “never” prayed.15 A decade later in Albrecht’s Utah sample, 36 percent of Protestants and Catholics prayed “daily” and 42 percent prayed “often.” Of the rest, 22 percent “never” prayed or prayed only for “special occasions.” Utah Mormons rated higher: 63 percent of lifetime Mormons prayed daily and 25 percent often; 12 percent said “rarely” or at “special occasions.” Of converts 72 percent prayed daily, 20 percent often, and 8 percent “never or only on special occasions.”16
Although this question was not included in the LDS Afro-American Survey, prayer apparently played an important role in respondents’ lives. Those interviewed were asked about their daily religious lives: “Tell me about your current daily life in terms of prayer, scripture reading, and home evening.” Since the answers were open-ended, the responses varied, but many mentioned the importance of prayer. For example, Michelle Evette Wright, a student at Southern University in her early twenties, explained, “I have personal prayer in the morning and at night and sometimes throughout the day. Most of the time it’s when I need Heavenly Father to help me[p.104] through something. I pray before some of my tests.”17 Joelle Margot Aull, also a young college student at Brigham Young University, talked about her difficulties in praying about her mother’s death and her dating relationships with non-Mormon blacks at BYU. Yet when she was interviewed, she felt “I’m better [about praying] now than I was last year …. I’ve grown a lot closer [to God] since I just decided that is what I want to do. I want to be close to my Heavenly Father.”18 Tom Porter, a businessman who joined the LDS church prior to the 1978 revelation and did not attend for several years, recalled his experiences when he returned to church: “When I became active again, I set a goal to myself. First I have my morning and evening prayer. I am uncomfortable if I don’t have it.”19
The LDS church has emphasized family worship for years. This includes family scripture reading and weekly family meetings (now called family home evenings). The practice of family gatherings started in the Salt Lake Valley in 1909. Families were instructed to set aside time to study church teachings, participate in activities, sing songs, read the scriptures, play games, and enjoy refreshments.20 Six years later in 1915 the First Presidency of the church officially endorsed the locally-organized program. They asked “presidents of stakes and bishops throughout the church [to] set aside one evening each month for a ‘Home Evening'” where “fathers and mothers may gather their boys and girls about them in the home and teach them the word of the Lord.” The First Presidency promised, “If the Saints obey this counsel, … love at home and obedience to parents will increase. Faith[p.105] will develop in the hearts of the youth of Israel, and they will gain power to combat the evil influence and temptations which beset them.”21 The program was formalized in 1965, as local leaders were encouraged to set aside Monday for the weekly family meetings. They prohibited ward or stake functions on that night and provided lesson and activity manuals.22
This formal emphasis on family worship has influenced LDS African-Americans. Responses to a question about how often they discussed religion with their families before joining the Mormon church were 43.8 percent “never” and 29.9 percent “a few times a year.” Even fewer read the scriptures as a family, 60.2 percent never did and 14.4 percent did a “few times” a year. Once they became Latter-day Saints, the figures were almost reversed; 46.8 percent discussed religion “weekly” with their families and 18.9 percent were not always consistent but discussed religion “a few times” a month.
Another Mormon practice is daily family prayer. In the Albrecht survey of Utah adults, 42 percent of lifetime Mormons had “daily” family prayer, with another 27 percent specifying “often.” The comparable figures for converts were 45 percent and 23 percent respectively. Although the figures “never” or “only on special occasions” were quite high (31 percent for lifetime members and 32 percent for converts), Mormons prayed as families more often than Catholics and Protestants who collectively reported 16 percent had daily family prayer, 13 percent less frequently, and 71 percent “never” or “only for special occasions.”23 Black Latter-day Saint survey respondents showed marked behavior changes in this area. Although 53.2 percent said they “never” prayed as families before baptism, 51.7 percent prayed together at least weekly after baptism, and 10 percent were not completely regular but tried to pray together “a few times a month.”
Because interviews asked about family religious practices in an open-ended format, it is impossible to compare responses accurately. However, of 93 people who discussed family prayer, 73 percent held it regularly, 18 percent sometimes, and 8 percent never. Seventy-two[p.106] men and women described family home evening practices. Of these, 49 percent held them faithfully, 31 percent occasionally, and 21 percent never. (The total is 101 percent because of rounded figures.) Sixty-two talked about family scripture reading, and 56 percent held scripture study regularly, 29 percent did “sometimes,” and 15 percent “never” did.
Interviewees also discussed some of the problems they faced in including family devotion in their lives. For example, twenty-five-year-old Angela Brown, her husband, and their young son had been members for two years when she was interviewed in 1986. She explained, “On a scale of one to ten, I would say they [family home evenings] are going about seven right now. But in comparison to my life before joining the church it is ten. Prayer and studying is a really vital part of our family relationship. It is not as active as I would like it to be.” Getting the whole family together for family home evening was difficult, but “I like the feeling that I get when we have them ….I remember the missionaries taught that families can be together forever.” She also liked family scripture study: “I know if we study the scriptures together we learn to live them together.”24
Charles Lancaster, a truck driver since 1986 when he became a Mormon and lost his job as an AME minister, pointed to the competition for family home evening time. When he was interviewed in 1988, he explained, “I wish I was as diligent as I should be, but the job that I have kind of throws a monkey wrench into my family home evening on Mondays.” He added, “We do pray together. It’s usually in the evening at bedtime.” He also listened to scripture tapes and took the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Gospel Principles to work. “I try to do as much reading as I can in between stops.”25
Alva Baltimore was born in 1964 and joined the church in 1982, the summer after her mother was baptized. A single working mother when she was interviewed in 1986, she lived with her mother. “I think our family home evening is probably Sunday when we get in from church.” They both worked in the Primary nursery but with different[p.107] age groups. After meetings they shared their Sunday experiences and discussed scriptures. Another “probably unusual” time for religious activities was in the car. “We sing a lot of spiritual hymns in the car and read a lot of scriptures to each other…. We’ve always said prayers in the car. It’s a time when we’re both together, and it’s quiet.”26
When a family has mixed religious affiliations, activities together are more difficult. Rosetta Moore Spencer, who grew up in Chicago, met her husband at Lamar College in Colorado and attended the Lutheran church with his family when they returned to Chicago. She was thinking of becoming a Baptist when she met the missionaries in 1981. She and her husband Charles were baptized Mormons, but his activity later lapsed. When she was interviewed in 1988, she answered a question about family religious practices realistically. “We’ve been in the church now six and a half years, and it seems like there has been a steady decline in family home evening. Recently within the year there has been a decline in family prayers and family scripture reading …. I guess it’s making excuses, but I have recently felt if I had the support of my husband I would have more strength.” Earlier “we enjoyed family home evening,” she said, but her husband’s work as a bus driver made scheduling a problem.27
Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea in his study of Mormons observed that the church’s lay ministry means “the church has provided a job for everyone to do and, perhaps more important, has provided a formal context in which it is to be done. The result is a wide distribution of activity, responsibility, and prestige.”28 O’Dea explained lay structure as historically influenced. Mormonism came into being “when lay responsibility in church government was widespread and developed in circumstances that demanded lay participation for the survival of the group and the carrying-out of the program.
…If western conditions caused older and established churches to make use of laymen, a new and struggling religious movement had all the more reason to do so, and no inhibiting traditions.”29 However, even a fully established Mormonism did not shift to a professional system. O’Dea contrasted Mormonism with “the Disciples [of Christ (Campbellites)], who also obliterated the distinction between the clergy and the laity by holding that no man be called a priest.” He continued, “Mormonism accomplished the same thing by making every man a priest and giving him the rifles of office.”30 Mormonism’s already expansive definition of priesthood broadened over the years, becoming increasingly universal.
Church callings serve a variety of purposes for new members of the church. First, having a responsibility can give converts more reason to become and remain involved; they recognize they are needed and wanted in the church organization. Bryan Waterman, a white missionary in Newark, New Jersey, described the dynamics of an inner-city branch with a mostly black membership. Missionaries told soon-to-be-baptized members that they would be interviewed by the local leaders and asked to serve. But because of high drop-out rates, local leaders were reluctant to offer callings, thus contributing to a negative spiral. “If they had to … pay the bus fare just to get to this Mormon church which is located on the opposite side of the city and they don’t have a calling, they don’t have any responsibility, then they can just go to church on the corner,” explained Waterman. “If they don’t have a responsibility, then there is really nothing at face value separating our church from theirs.” Local leaders’ view of new converts as potential backsliders became, Waterman felt, a self-fulfilling prophecy.31
Mazie Gathers of Pineville, North Carolina, expressed concerns about callings that were slow in coming. She felt that she and her husband David had been inspired to purchase a home in a white neighborhood so missionaries could find them. Mazie, who had been active in the Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness churches as a child in North Carolina, moved to New York City in her late teens[p.109] to live with her sister. She married David and lived in New York until their children were in high school. They then returned to North Carolina where they met missionaries in 1981. Mazie wanted to be involved, but their first experiences were negative. They were called on to speak extemporaneously and though the leader apologized for not giving them time to prepare, they were not asked to speak again for months. Although every adult in a congregation is ideally assigned two male home teachers and two female visiting teachers who make monthly visits of instruction and service, no such teachers contacted the Gathers nor were they asked to serve in such callings themselves.
One day Mazie told David that she was not going back to church: “I like the church. I like the teachings. It is one church that I have been to that I really feel that love as I walk in the door· I know that there is where I need to be. But Heavenly Father does not want me to sit in the corner.” After praying, she felt she should return. This time she was assigned to teach Primary and enjoyed it very much. “I really learned from my students,” she said, because they asked questions that she had to research.32
Other interviewees related the connection between callings and strengthened commitment. DeNorris Clarence Bradley, formerly with Holiness and non-denominational churches, became interested in Mormonism after a roommate joined. Bradley was baptized in 1985 and was serving as the ward librarian in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when he was interviewed a year later. He explained: “A good thing about the church is they do try to get you working as soon as you get into the church. I think that is good because you need to get involved in something to stay a member and to make you not feel like you are an outsider …. You have to work well with all the white members if you have a calling.”33 Emma Williams, a widow from Hickory, North Carolina, had been a member for over a year when she was interviewed in 1986: “I teach every first Tuesday in the Relief Society, home management. I am a visiting teacher. I am a Sunday school secretary. I enjoy[p.110] these callings. They laid their hands on my head and gave me those callings. I appreciate them and I try to live up to their expectations.”34
The survey included an open-ended question asking for current church calling and leaving space to list previous callings. One-fifth (19.9 percent) of respondents listed no current church position. This number correlated closely with almost one-fifth (18.9 percent) who said they did not attend sacrament meeting weekly.
Respondents with callings served throughout the organizations. Eighteen percent had stake positions (more than 60 percent of these were part-time missionaries). Seven percent of the total number were clerks or members of high priest/elders’ quorum presidencies, with an additional 5.6 percent of the total serving as members of bishoprics or executive secretaries to the bishop. (Of the 75 men responding to the survey, 13.3 percent served in bishoprics.) The majority, 60.1 percent, were involved in ward auxiliaries: Relief Society, Young Men and Young Women, Primary, and other callings such as the music committee, home teaching, visiting teaching, and singles programs. More people (85.5 percent) had a previous calling, suggesting that some less active individuals may have been more involved at some point. Nearly three-quarters (73.8 percent) of these positions were in ward auxiliaries. Most people listed only one or two previous church callings. This indicates either limited experience or selective reporting of the most significant positions.
Another way to evaluate church callings is to assess the degree of responsibility involved. In a hierarchical system responsibility is often equated with status, despite frequent assertions that all callings are important. Converts are not slow to draw the same conclusions. For example, Clement Charles Biggs from Birmingham, Alabama, a member since 1978, called being a counselor in the branch presidency “one of the greatest honors I could have had . . . With that calling came a lot of responsibility.”35
Sherrie Honore Franklin, who joined the church with her husband and children in 1984, told an anecdote that captured the perception[p.111] of status. In one ward in New Orleans, Sherrie’s husband Harvey was a member of the bishopric while Sherrie was a counselor in the Primary. When they moved to a new ward, Sherrie’s mother asked, “Do you carry your positions with you?” When Sherrie said no, her mother said, “I guess you have to start from the bottom, work your way on up.” Sherrie said, “It doesn’t work like that” and had trouble diffusing her mother’s view of “politics in it.”36
For the purpose of analysis, we devised a rating system based on level of supervision. “Major” leadership responsibility was defined as bishopric, auxiliary president, or priesthood quorum president levels. “Medium” responsibility was assigned to counselors in priesthood quorums or auxiliaries or ward clerks. “Minor” responsibility was seen as being held by people in all other positions, including teachers. This analysis showed that 23.3 percent of black LDS respondents held major current ward or stake callings; 19.4 percent held medium leadership positions; and 57.3 percent minor ones.
Only half of those interviewed volunteered information about current church positions and less than half (about 40 percent) mentioned previous church positions. Four percent of these were currently home or visiting teachers, 19.6 percent had teaching or “minor” ward callings, 8 percent were counselors or clerks (“medium”), and 10.7 percent had “major” administrative callings. In terms of previous church positions, 11.2 percent had held “major” positions.
Black members also commented on the public image aspect of their callings. For example, Winston A. Wilkinson of the Washington, D.C., area, was an attorney for the U.S. Department of Education. He had worked in several positions, including a bishopric, and was a high councilor at the time of his interview. Having blacks in visible church positions “helped in terms of the whole mystique that blacks have about the church,” he observed. “They can come in and see blacks in leadership roles, which I think is very helpful in terms of the church and the outreach.”37 Roger Grayson, who was baptized in 1981, had served as ward mission leader and was a high councilor in Monroe,[p.112] Louisiana, when he was interviewed in 1989. He said: “The primary reason I was assigned was because they needed a black leader in the area. Sometimes I wonder whether I was actually qualified.” Then he added, “I guess the Lord qualifies you whether you’re ready to do something or not. That’s a growing experience.”38
Other interviewees also mentioned reluctance to accept callings for which they did not feel “qualified” and testified to blessings they felt they gained from them. Benjamin R. Washington, a truck driver, was one of eleven children in a multi-religion family. His mother was Methodist, his father was Baptist, and his aunt was Holiness; Washington attended all three churches. He had been a Latter-day Saint for only eight months when he was interviewed in January 1986. His first calling came quickly: “When I first became a member of the church, instantly President Keele wanted me to be his counselor. I was baptized one Sunday, and a few weeks later I was sustained as his counselor and into the priesthood, all in one operation.”39
Vivian Collier, a divorced mother from Richmond, Virginia, who had little religious training as a child, a Baptist before her conversion in 1982, recalled being asked to speak in church after she had been a member for six months. “I was petrified. It was only for five minutes, but I didn’t think I was going to breathe through it. I made it through it, and since then I’m not afraid to get up and give talks.” She also served as a Primary teacher and then taught mother education lessons in Relief Society. “That was a challenge for me because I was not used to getting up before people.” She also served as a stake missionary and then as Relief Society president. “The church builds you as a person and lets you know what you are capable of doing,” she summarized. “It puts you in positions where you grow as a person …. With each calling, it’s like it’s always been for me because I’ve been the one who needed to learn something.”40
Others expressed similar feelings. James Ashley Fennell II, a[p.113] twenty-seven-year-old medical student in Greenville, North Carolina, had been baptized in 1980 but was inactive until he “was converted” in 1984. In the two years since then he had taught children ages four, five, and six, worked with Cub Scouts, and had been a counselor in the elders’ quorum. He commented: “My spiritual development has been like a staircase. It has been going forward in so many ways. I am surprised sometimes at the choices that the Lord makes for me, but I cherish every calling that he extended to me and try to do my best in every one.”41 Maxine Wardlaw, who was born in Charlotte, had been a member for two years when she was interviewed there in 1986. She had taught Primary and was currently a counselor in the Primary presidency. Her patriarchal blessing had promised her that she would “get a lot of callings in the church and there [would] be a lot of challenges.” She said she was “really looking forward to it because I feel anything the Lord calls me to do has got to be worth doing. I enjoy the callings I do have.”42 Rosetta Moore Spencer, a thirty-seven-year-old mother when she was interviewed in 1988, ticked off a long list of positions in Sunday school, Young Women, Primary, and Relief Society in the Hyde Park Ward in Chicago, adding, “Each time I’ve had a calling, I’ve learned so much and everything that I’ve learned has improved my life.”43
Emma Jean Ida Dickerson, an older widow, lived in Philadelphia with her divorced daughter and grand-daughter, also Latter-day Saints. She had been a member for three years when she was interviewed in 1986. She was often ill and could not leave her home, but her ward found a way for her to help:
Right now I am sort of the one that they use for compassion. I send out letters to the different members. I send out Relief Society books to the different members. I send out get-well cards for those who are sick. If any of the members are sick and in the hospital and they have left families behind, I call the different members and get food sent there …. That is[p.114] my missionary work that I do here from home. I enjoy that. I know I am working for the Lord.44
Another benefit for some was the opportunity to see how the church operates. Winston Wilkinson had that view: “There have been some great callings in terms of my learning about the church, not only the spiritual part, but understanding the administrative part of how the church is run.”45 Gloria Turner, who grew up a Baptist, attended the Catholic church, and then converted to Mormonism in 1984, was serving as a Relief Society president in Baton Rouge when she was interviewed. “That’s when my testimony of the church began to develop,” she affirmed. “I received inspiration that caused my testimony to grow and to know that this was truly the Lord’s church with the organization of things and the order that things were done.”46
Jerry Watley, the seventeenth of twenty-two children, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s. In 1978, working at a convenience store, he met a white woman, an inactive Mormon, who later became his wife. When she started going back to church, he became interested and joined. In recalling his church positions, he said that as “the elders’ quorum president …. I have to get to know each and every member. I must know their needs, their problems, and things they may come in contact with.” He also talked about being a ward clerk. “It was headaches! I don’t think I ever want to be a clerk again. Too much paperwork! … [But] by being a clerk … I got to know so many… people.”47
Another benefit some blacks saw in callings was developing a sense of community. Lester Jefferson, elders’ quorum president of the Hyde Park Ward in Chicago, had been a member since 1982. Involvement in group family home evenings, Boy and Girl Scouts, literary classes, and signing classes for the hearing impaired helped[p.115] bring the ward close together because “we’ve got something to do together.”48
Having church positions was not always a positive experience. Prejudice from whites unused to working with blacks was a persistent problem. Mazie Gathers, called as second counselor in the Relief Society, admitted, “It was hard for me. I did not know what to do. I was told I had to go ahead and do the job myself if no one else would.” When she told the branch president that she was having trouble in the calling, he held a meeting with the whole presidency. One of the women “was so upset that she said I owed her an apology. The president of the branch asked if I would apologize to these sisters because I said my feelings and they felt that I did not want to participate. They had it all turned around.” She did apologize, but problems continued. Prepared by a premonition of her release, she was not surprised when the branch president released her because of “some confusion in the Relief Society.” He asked if she would leave the church over the incident. She assured him that she knew about the release spiritually and she would not become inactive.49
Edwin Burwell, who lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1986 where he was interviewed, had been a member for eleven months. He noticed that one member of the elders’ quorum would not accept assignments from him, though he would from other members of the presidency.50
Sarah Kaye Gripper, who lives in Springfield, Illinois, and became a Mormon in 1985, was struggling with her feelings about the church when she was interviewed in 1988. She felt “totally alone in Relief Society. I hate it. It’s just very cliquey.” She enjoyed being a Primary teacher, but “then the Primary president was calling us every Saturday afternoon and talking about gossipy things to me. She was cutting people down …. It was just too much for me …. I asked the bishop to release me from that calling because it got so bad.” Her next calling[p.116] was ward chorister even though she had “no musical background whatsoever.” Eventually “it just didn’t gel together. I did learn something out of the calling which is what the bishop said. Again, I asked to be released.” After that, she said, “I fell into a valley.” She felt that she didn’t fit in, not only because she was black but for other reasons she didn’t fully understand.51
For Robert Brown, trained as an AME minister, fitting in was not a problem. He became a Mormon in 1975. After the priesthood announcement, he served a mission to Brazil and was a counselor in the bishopric when he was interviewed in 1987. As “a black man that’s in the bishopric,” he acknowledged, “he could become bishop” but felt that it was not an issue for the members.52
Home teaching and visiting teaching ideally function to keep members in contact with each other and to take care of each other. However, because they are low-visibility positions, virtually universally available to all interested adults and outside the Sunday meeting hierarchy, there is often a sense that these are not important callings and they are sometimes neglected. The oral history participants reported mixed reviews on these callings. Bryan Waterman expressed frustration that one new family received neither callings nor regular visits from home teachers. The white home teacher lived outside the branch boundaries and was one of several men assigned “imported” to the branch to provide leadership. This home teacher lived half an hour away “and he has his full work schedule.” Waterman was sure “there is someone who lives close to them that could fill the role,” adding, “There are a number of times the members don’t even know that just on the other side of their block is another member of the church …. They could be responsible for each other.”53
Crystal Gathers Clark, who attended a ward in Raleigh, North Carolina, had been a member for over a year when she was interviewed in 1986. She and her visiting teacher partner got “along great,” but her husband and his home teaching partner did not. “The partner[p.117] could care less about us. It is like he speaks only when we speak to him first …. He won’t even call Matt to go home teaching. Matt will have to ask him, and he is supposed to be the senior partner.”54
In contrast Richard Lowe had the opposite experience when he was investigating the church in the 1960s. He and his wife had moved to California from Hawaii. Someone from the telephone office came to connect their phone and invited him to church. When Lowe said his wife was LDS, the telephone representative wrote something down. “Three days later the home teachers came over. Since I have been in the church, home teachers don’t ever get anything in three days.” One of the home teachers was a stake missionary, so they asked Lowe if he wanted to know more about Mormonism. The home teachers helped the Lowes move. He recalled one “just picked up the stove and walked out with it.”55 He was baptized after they moved.
Catherine Stokes, who served as a Relief Society president in Chicago’s Hyde Park Ward, used the visiting teaching program so that people from different cultures could get to know each other individually. She told the visiting teaching coordinator to assign “new converts with experienced members and black sisters with whites” and chuckled as she recalled one example of culture shock. A single convert innocently asked the visiting teachers to take her to the drugstore to refill her birth control pill prescription. In a more personal vein, Stokes recalled her automatic assumption of bigotry when one sister she visited had a sign on the door, “Please use the back door.” Deliberately she stifled her response, went to the back door, and had an enjoyable visit with the Chinese sister who knew nothing of the significance of back doors.56
A comparison of primarily white American Mormons with black Mormons shows blacks to be religiously committed. There are several[p.118] reasons for this. First, almost all black respondents were converts and are more likely to be religiously active and theologically orthodox. (The snowball technique of finding blacks through referrals probably resulted in selectivity, as well.) Also both the LDS Afro-American survey and the general LDS church survey had higher response rates from people who consider themselves practicing Mormons. All this aside, blacks in the United States are more religious than whites. The black church is central to the lives and community of most blacks, and this centrality of religion transfers to the LDS church when blacks become Mormons. They seem to be more believing and committed than other members of the LDS church. An overwhelming majority of black Latter-day Saints are religious people who came from religious backgrounds and who continue in that tradition. They believe strongly in traditional Christian doctrines. They attend church services as much as other Mormons and more than Protestants and Catholics. They continue a personal relationship with God through private devotions and try to heed Mormon church leaders’ counsel to worship in their homes as families. They are also slowly emerging in ward- and stake-level leadership positions, a further reflection of their devotion.
10. Jan Shipps, “In the Presence of the Past: Continuity and Change in Twentieth-Century Mormonism,” in After 150 Years: The Latter-day Saints in Sesquicentennial Perspective, eds. Thomas G. Alexander and Jessie L. Embry (Provo, UT: Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1983), 23.
13. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 382.
17. Michelle Evette Wright Oral History, 9, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1987, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter LDS Afro-American).
20. Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986), 108.