Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
The Oral History Project and Survey
[p.79]LDS African-Americans are not a homogenous group. They vary in age, educational background, and occupation. Some live in black inner-city neighborhoods; others live in affluent, primarily white communities. The unavailability of church records and impossibility of targeting the total black population made statistically random sampling impossible. Consequently the profile presented in this chapter cannot be generalized to all LDS African-Americans.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
In 1984 Alan Cherry proposed that the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies pursue the history of blacks in the Mormon church. He believed that unless the stories of current black Mormons were collected, they would continue to be omitted from history books. His experience with white Latter-day Saints indicated that most accepted the stereotypes. Without a clear picture of the diversity of the black experience, people had asked Cherry if he hated whites as much as Mary Frances Sturlegson, who wrote a book about her conversion. Cherry made a convincing argument that studying LDS African Americans would be valuable.
The interview questions focused on religious experiences. Recognizing that most black Mormons are converts and that the majority became acquainted with Mormonism after the 1978 announcement, the interviews first included open-ended questions about early family life, church attendance, personal religiosity, and educational and work [p.80] experiences. There was no attempt to gather uniform data on each person. As a result information differed greatly. Some people told about conversion in great detail; others gave only sketchy accounts. The rest of the interview focused on experiences in the LDS church. Questions included the difference the church had made in the person’s life. A section of the interview also focused on how blacks felt they were accepted in a predominately white church, their relationships with black and white Mormons, and the effects of their membership on associations with other blacks. There were also questions on the priesthood restriction.
Cherry gathered names from a variety of people, and compiled a shorter list of people from different walks of life: married and single, professional and blue collar, longtime members and recent converts. Some of these men and women could not be interviewed because of schedule conflicts. Usually people who had been in the church for less than a year were not included because it was assumed they had not had enough experience as Latter-day Saints to answer some of the questions. Occasionally Cherry did not realize that they had only been members for a short time until he started the interview.
Over the succeeding four years, Cherry interviewed 224 men and women; I interviewed Cherry himself and Charles W. Smith, Jr., a retired Chicago pharmacist living in southern California who was visiting Utah when Cherry was out of town. We hoped a black interviewer would be able to solicit information and attitudes the narrators would not tell someone from another cultural and racial background. Although I have no evidence to support this conclusion, I feel the interviewees were open about their feelings and talked about both positive and negative experiences they had as Mormons.
Cherry conducted the initial interviews in Utah. He and I recognized that being around people who shared their beliefs and accepted them as “fellow Saints” was reinforcing for these black members. Sometimes they were treated as a novelty. People wanted to get to know them because they were different. This type of attention was simultaneously flattering and embarrassing. Since most Utah Mormons had little contact with blacks, those in Utah inevitably dealt with prejudice, discrimination, and, most of all, ignorance. It also meant losing contact with African-American culture. According to the 1990 census, less than I percent of Utah’s population is black. Even in Salt [p.81] Lake City and Ogden, which had the highest concentrations of blacks, African-Americans numbered only 1-1.5 percent of the population.1 Most clung to their black churches as a refuge from what they perceived as a hostile, dominant Mormon society. Some viewed black Mormons as traitors to black culture.
As Cherry continued his interviews, the Redd Center secured grants and donations from the BYU College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences and from the Silver Foundation to continue the interviews. As a result he was able to travel throughout the United States. This included trips to northern and southern California and Arizona in October 1985 and to North Carolina in 1986. In the Charlotte area he had difficulties scheduling interviews. He had made initial appointments with twenty people before he left Utah, but nearly all decided not to be interviewed. One woman told him she was going back to her black church; she preferred its music. In Greensboro, 100 miles northeast of Charlotte, he found a completely different situation. Johnnie McKoy, a quiet, unassuming brick mason, had been a member since 1980 and was responsible for many others joining the Mormon church. Cherry found faithful Latter-day Saints in other areas across the state.
A third trip in September and October 1986 took Cherry to New York City, where he had grown up, and other areas in the northeast. Cherry then traveled to the Washington, D.C., area and Richmond, Virginia. Seeking blacks in an area of ethnic diversity, he conducted the next set of interviews in Hawaii in November 1986. Finding blacks in Hawaii was more laborious. In 1989 African Americans made up 1.7 percent of Hawaii’s population.2 But contacts through friends and church leaders produced nine interviews.
A fifth research trip took Cherry back to the South in June 1987. He traveled from Atlanta, Georgia, to Gulfport, Mississippi, with stops in Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, Baker, Louisiana, and New Orleans. A sixth trip in March 1988 took him to the Midwest, where thousands of blacks had moved in search of work in the 1920s.[p.82] In Chicago’s Hyde Park Ward near the University of Chicago, he found a diverse blend of lifetime Mormons from the West and local members, including converts from half a dozen ethnic groups. He also went to several towns in Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and Springfield, Illinois.
Oral history interviews ask open-ended questions that people can answer however they wish. They can express feelings and bring up related issues without being controlled. This format worked well for LDS African-Americans, allowing them the freedom to share a variety of experiences. Most people were anxious to participate. In every area except Hawaii Cherry had more potential interviews than he could accommodate. Only in Charlotte did people agree to be interviewed and then cancel their appointments. Although not all interviews contained the same information, basically the same questions were asked each time. With this in mind Cardell Jacobson, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, analyzed the basic characteristics of the sample. The results of this and other statistical analyses are presented throughout the rest of this book.
As Cherry conducted interviews, he talked about how he wanted a more exact profile on some issues. For example, gospel music was important to some, but others did not mention it. He felt that a survey that asked more direct questions would help appraise the position more accurately. He wondered if being Mormon meant black members spent more time with whites, especially visiting in their homes. With just a few questions in a survey, he could ascertain information that would require leading and hence possibly biasing questions. In addition Cherry wanted to know if blacks perceived prejudice as intentional or simply because of ignorance. He had encountered uncomfortable situations when people assumed he was in the wrong place when he walked into an LDS chapel. He wanted to know if other blacks had experienced the same things and if these experiences bothered them. Finding answers to these questions required a different format. A survey would also allow us to increase our sample size without having to travel and held the advantage of anonymity—people could respond without using their names.
With the assistance of A. LeGrand Richards, a friend who had [p.83] worked on surveys, Cherry developed target areas and Richards put them into standard format. The survey covered seven areas: (1) interaction with non-blacks at church functions, (2) self-initiated socializing outside of church meetings, (3) inclusion or exclusion because of cultural conditioning, (4) perceptions of prejudice, (5) peer pressure from nonmember blacks, (6) ability of black and white Latter-day Saints to communicate and understand cultural language, and (7) acceptance by white Latter-day Saints.
We also added questions from standard religiosity surveys so that blacks could be compared to other Latter-day Saints and to Americans in general. One set of questions measured orthodoxy regarding the divinity of Jesus Christ, God’s existence, life after death, whether the Bible is the word of God, and Satan’s existence. A second focus was distinctive LDS theology. Did respondents feel the president of the LDS church was a prophet, if the Book of Mormon was the word of God, if the LDS church was the only true church, and if Joseph Smith actually saw the Father and the Son? Other questions asked about religious commitment, closeness to God, the significance of the Holy Ghost, love for God, and willingness to do God’s will, as well as belief and adherance to Mormon doctrines, programs, and restrictions. Church attendance before and after joining the LDS church and the importance of family religious practices before and after the respondents were Mormons were also of interest.
The survey included questions about general demographic information. What religion did they belong to before joining the Mormon church? How important was religion in their lives? Where do they live in the United States? What kinds of cities do they come from? What social and economic classes do they feel they belong to? How old were they when they became Latter-day Saints? All of these questions fit well into a written survey form.
Again there was no way to randomly sample LDS African-Americans. We solicited information through the weekly Church News that is mailed throughout the United States. We asked those who responded if they knew of other black Mormons in their area. Eventually approximately 500 people received the survey, and 201 were completed and returned for a response rate of 40 percent.
The survey was also mailed to all those who had been interviewed, so there was some overlap. A comparison of survey responses and interviews shows that those surveyed were less likely to attend church [p.84] than those interviewed. A criticism of the interviews had been that they represented mainly practicing Latter-day Saints and not lapsed members. The surveys may help explain why black Mormons disaffiliate. We also assumed a higher degree of candor in the anonymous surveys. In reporting results in this and subsequent chapters, I identify whether the information comes from oral histories, surveys, or both. Each has strengths that the other lacks: specific responses from the survey and detailed examples from oral histories. These data sets are used throughout this study.
STATISTICAL PROFILE OF PARTICIPANTS
Who responded to the survey and participated in the oral histories? How do the results compare with other surveys with black Americans or with Latter-day Saints? Table 4.1 helps in answering the first question. Slightly more women than men participated in both the interviews and survey. Those interviewed were on average approximately five years younger than survey respondents (41 compared to 46). The General Social Survey (GSS) samples 1,500 Americans conducted annually since 1972. Because random sampling methods sometimes include only a small percentage of blacks, for example, occasionally the GSS has conducted an additional survey which “over-samples” blacks. Our LDS sample was similar in most respects to the GSS samples. For example, just under a quarter (22.2 percent) were in their thirties and three-quarters (74.8 percent) were between ages twenty and fifty in both our LDS surveys and the GSS surveys.3
Nearly half of both the LDS survey respondents and interviewees were married. More never-married persons appeared in the oral history interviews. A higher percentage of widowed individuals responded to the survey. The GSS included almost the same proportion of divorced people as the LDS Afro-American Survey, but it included a category for “separated” which the LDS survey did not. The LDS respondents were more likely to be married than the GSS sample.
Historically most blacks have lived in the South. However, since World War I they have migrated north. Those responding to the[p.86] survey reflect that movement. Although over 40 percent grew up in the Deep South, only 30 percent live there now. Many have moved to the Pacific Coast. The survey respondents were most likely to have grown up in urban areas, and most continued to live in large cities. However, the LDS Afro-Americans were less likely to live in urban areas than the black oversample in the GSS.
We wanted to know whether geographical locale made a difference in how blacks felt about being members of the LDS church. We also wanted to know if younger or older black members were more likely to be active. We tried to determine if coming from a fundamentalist or a denominational religious background influenced their experiences in the Mormon church. To answer these questions we computed cross tabulations, breaking down the survey responses into several categories. Region, age, gender, and education were not influential factors in any of these areas. Older people from the South and younger people from California generally gave the same responses. For example, in response to the question, “in general white members of the church are aware of the needs and problems of black Latter-day Saints,” there was no significant difference in the responses given by age or education. Older people—who had grown up during segregation—were slightly more likely to feel misunderstood, but the difference was not significant. Those who agreed “when I am with my black friends I speak almost a different language than when I am with non-black friends” was not affected by educational level. We compared a number of items in this way, but most were not affected by education, region, age, or gender.
The most significant variable was church attendance. Those who attended sacrament and priesthood/Relief Society meetings were more likely to feel that their church leaders and other church members understood them. A similiar correlation holds between church attendance and positive relationships with whites. Those who attend church regularly did not feel that white Mormons “expect me to forget my ‘blackness’ and to fit into a ‘white world.'” Likewise they were not likely to feel that “non-black members are often insensitive to blacks because of culture.” Those who attend church irregularly were more likely, however, to feel “when I am with my black friends I speak almost a different language than when I am with non-black friends”; those who regularly attend church were less likely to feel this way.
It is impossible to know whether those who do not attend [p.87] sacrament and priesthood/Relief Society meetings shun these gatherings because they feel unaccepted. It is clear, however, that the majority of the survey respondents attending formal church meetings do feel accepted, and this was generally true for both the educated and the uneducated. It was also true for those living in both the North and the South, for men and women, and those of all ages.
Mainline Protestant churches have been losing members since the 1950s—especially during the 1970s and 1980s—while proselyting churches with a unique lifestyle have continued to grow since the 1950s. Black mainline churches have held their ground in most cases but have not grown significantly, while black Pentecostal and Holiness churches such as the Church of God in Christ have had marked increases in membership. Most American blacks have belonged to and continue to be members of black denominations. For example, a 1920 study found 88 percent of African-Americans in black churches. In 1987 sociologists Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney estimated that 85 percent of American blacks still attend black denominations. The remainder belonged to white churches, but most attended segregated congregations.4
Most LDS converts who returned a survey came from denominational rather than fundamentalist backgrounds. Almost 60 percent of interviewees and nearly 50 percent of survey respondents had been Baptists. Only a small proportion—15 percent of those interviewed and 9 percent of survey respondents—had been Catholics. Less than 5 percent in both the survey and the interviews were former black Methodist Episcopalians. However, 11.5 percent of those surveyed and 15.5 percent of those interviewed came from traditional white Methodist and Presbyterian churches.
More than two-thirds of both LDS black samples were former members of black congregations, but in 65 percent of the cases their new LDS congregations were all white. In over 80 percent of cases their new wards were mostly white. However, black Latter-day Saints[p.88] in both data sets had substantial contact with whites before joining the LDS church. Their contact with whites in other settings may have made joining a majority white church a more comfortable process for them.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND
Sociologist Wade Clark Roof and theologian William McKinney have examined the social and economic classes of members of various religions. Members of the Mormon church rose from the bottom of the lowest scale in the 1940s to the highest portion of the middle category by the 1980s. Black mainline churches, on the other hand, remained in the lower half of the bottom rank. According to Roof and McKinney, in the 1980s only 41 percent of U.S. blacks had incomes over $10,000. Over 77 percent of Mormons had incomes above that level.
In determining economic classes of various denominations, Roof and McKinney examined the “mean occupational prestige.” (These ratings were first determined in the 1960s by the National Opinion Research Center. Respondents were asked to estimate the social status of 23,000 occupations. These ratings were updated in 1989 by the GSS. Based on their responses numerical prestige ratings were assigned to each profession. For example, a physician rating would be 86; most professors, 74; a chemical engineer, 73, an elementary school teacher, mid-60s; a janitor, 22; and a food preparer, 17.) The mean score for black Protestants in the 1980s was 30.9; the mean for Mormons was 38.8. The index also places 69 percent of black Protestants in the lower/working class with 31 percent as middle/upper class. In comparison 52 percent of Mormons are lower/working class and 48 percent are middle/upper.5
The profile of LDS African-Americans more closely resembled other Mormons than it did black Americans. Of those responding to the survey, 72 percent had incomes of over $10,000. Using the prestige scale, we found that black African-American interviewees had a prestige score of 47 compared to a national black rating of 32 as measured by the 1982 and 1987 GSS. Note that black Mormons score[p.89] higher than Mormons generally on the prestige scale, though this may be due in part to our sampling methods.
Evidence of selectivity in proselyting appeared in the oral histories. Fifty-five-year-old Reginald Allen, active in a drug prevention program in New York City when he was interviewed in 1986 and a former federal government employee, told Alan Cherry that when he was a ward mission leader, he and the missionaries “would discuss the fact that many of our black brothers and sisters who were converts were of higher caliber than the whites. Most of them were better employed and had more education. They presented themselves as being more sincere and more spiritually guided.”6 Allen implied, and our analysis supports him, that African-Americans who join the Mormon church and remain active are usually middle-class and well-educated. They have had significant contact with whites at work and in school and feel at ease in an integrated setting.
A self-rating by those responding to the survey shows that: 22.4 percent classified themselves as lower/working class; 66.2 percent were middle/upper; 1.5 percent rated themselves upper class. Our analysis of interviewees found that most were middle-class as well (1.5 percent, upper; 23.4 percent, upper middle; 51.5 percent, lower middle; 35.1 percent, working class). These ratings, once again, were closer to Mormons in general than to other black Americans.
Black Latter-day Saints like other Latter-day Saints were more educated than blacks and Americans generally. According to Roof and McKinney, 7 percent of black Protestants were college graduates; 18 percent of black Mormons surveyed had graduated from college. In 1984 BYU sociologists Stan L. Albrecht and Tim B. Heaton found that over half of Mormon men (53.5 percent) had some post-high school education compared to 36.7 percent of American men in general; 44.3 percent of Mormon women had similar training, contrasting with only 27.7 percent of American women.7 Nearly three-quarters of black Mormons surveyed had some post-high school education.
Sociologists have identified a variety of reasons why people leave one religious tradition to join another. Roof and McKinney identified three movements in the “circulation of the saints.” The first pattern is the “upward movement” where as people move up socially and economically, they switch to a religion which more closely matches their new status. According to Roof and McKinney, upward “switchers” are usually over forty-five. The second pattern is a conservative movement that occurs in reaction to secular trends in the society and religion. These people, usually younger, less educated, and of a lower social standing, take conservative positions on such social issues as abortion and gay rights. The third movement is away from church affiliation and usually consists of young people in their teens or twenties.
Moving from black Protestant churches to the Mormon church could be viewed as an upward movement. Those interviewed exemplify the upper mobility described by Roof and McKinney. Although 60 percent grew up in working class homes, only 35 percent remained in that category. Though not wealthy, more than half are solidly middle class. Over 40 percent of the survey respondents classified their childhood homes as lower middle class. More than 70 percent now have white collar jobs.
Roof and McKinney also pointed out that almost all converts who are part of the upward stream are over forty-five. Only 27 percent of black Mormons were over forty-five when they converted. Thus blacks who join the LDS church may be part of an upward stream, but they are not typical.8
The Civil Rights movement provided equal access to blacks in many areas of American life and changed the racial landscape dramatically. A social motive for the religious reaffiliation experienced by some men and women during the 1960s might be that reaffiliation represented a form of integration resisted by traditional black churches. In addition, during a time of changing values Mormonism’s conservative doctrines, literal interpretation of the scriptures, strict [p.92] moral code, and traditional family structure may have appealed to black converts. For example, one interviewee, Burgess Owens, mentioned that the LDS church taught him the role of the husband in the family. It may have been essentially a Victorian view of the man’s role, but it appealed to him.9
PERSONAL REASONS FOR CONVERSION
As missionaries confirm, only a small percentage of convert baptisms result from a door-to-door canvassing (tracting).10 But because few blacks have contact with Mormons, the statistical profile for them is different: 59.7 percent of those interviewed were contacted by tracting; 36.6 percent from referrals.
People cited a number of reasons why they found the Mormon message appealing. A significant group was searching for something they felt was missing in religion. For example, Delphrine Garcia Young was born in Oklahoma in 1937, where he attended the CME church. He moved to Kansas after high school and went to a Methodist church. Yet he did not find religious satisfaction. “I was in and out of different churches because I could not get a fullness of the gospel,” he told Alan Cherry. “There was something always missing, and there was something that I could never understand about the gospel of Jesus Christ because of the way they were teaching.”11 Randolph E. Latimer, an attorney active in politics in New York City, said, “My wife, Beverly [a school teacher involved in drug prevention programs], was very interested in making a church a home …. I knew we needed to go to church because of the children. The children needed structure.”12
For some, the missionaries were an answer to prayer. James[p.93] Johnson, a heavy drinker, was praying for religion to come into his life. Those who were already religious often prayed for additional guidance and felt that the missionaries were an answer. Barbara Lancaster, a nurse in Massillion, Ohio, was confused about religion. Her husband Charles, the pastor of the Massillion’s St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal church, was unsure about his continued ministry. Both recalled praying separately that their lives would be more fulfilled by religion. As Barbara recalled in her interview: “Within the last several weeks before they [the missionaries] approached me, my husband and I had been praying about some problems …. This particular day… I remember that at the end of my prayer I was saying, ‘Lord, there must be something more to what we should be doing here …. Would you just send somebody or show us the way?’ … It was a matter of minutes when the doorbell rang.”13
For another significant group initial contact with missionaries was negative. Eva Willis grew up in the St. Louis area as a Baptist, then joined the Catholic church, and attended a non-denominational church where her husband Jerry was pastor. She “didn’t like it at all” when Jerry invited the missionaries to discuss religion “because they had denied the blacks the priesthood.” In fact she described her reaction as “quite hostile.” She “thought I was satisfied where I was.” Because her mother had taught her to be “at least cordial” to guests, she sat through the discussions with her husband. When Jerry decided to be baptized, Eva initially joined only because her husband did.14
Oddly enough, verbal attacks from former church members and her children helped to confirm her decision. In earlier religious discussions with her husband, she recalled she had commented: “In the days of old, Christians were thrown to the lions just for their beliefs. I don’t see that happening today. I don’t see the persecution of the saints, and I don’t understand it. Something’s wrong.” The day after they were baptized, someone called, demanding to know if she had become a Mormon. “By the time we could turn around, it had spread through the community like wild fire. I was director of the choir[p.94] at the time, and we were discharged from the church.” A daughter “said she wasn’t going to talk to us anymore.” Willis added: “That’s where my conversion really began, not with the baptism and not with the reading of the Book of Mormon but with the persecution.”15
While neither the surveys nor the interviews are representative samples, they suggest that LDS African-Americans more closely resemble LDS Americans than black Americans. This match suggests that they may be part of an upward mobility stream. But the characteristics of the target church, the one they joined, are also important. The remaining chapters will use these two sets of data to study the experiences of African-Americans as Latter-day Saints.
6. Reginald Alien Oral History, 20, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1986, 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).