Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
The Future of LDS African-Americans
[p.233]In their own way LDS African-Americans are as much pioneers as the early Mormons who crossed the Great Plains in the nineteenth century. Virginia Johnson of Los Angeles, who joined the Mormon church in 1981 after a “black power” phase, articulated the black pioneer theme well: “We did not come from the pioneer stock or Utah stock, but we are… pioneers in our own right because we are laying down the ground work for the future of blacks in the Mormon church. … The more blacks that become … strong in the Church… by their sheer example and being able to testify to others, it will be a positive thing.”1 Johnson is a product of the Civil Rights movement and a new era in Mormon history.
In many ways LDS African-Americans are “firsts.” They are the first Mormons in their families, the first blacks in an all-white congregation, or the first blacks to hold the priesthood. In all of these circumstances, they are setting a pattern for future members. The LDS church’s historic discrimination against blacks—barring men from priesthood and men and women from temple ordinances—may not have been a unique religious practice. But as official policy it was often[p.234] branded as discriminatory both within and outside of the Mormon church, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.
This policy affected the church’s contact with African-Americans in a variety of ways. Although the LDS church is known as one of the most missionary-oriented churches in the United States, few blacks joined. This was not only because of the discrimination policy. The LDS church’s geographical isolation combined with embarrassment, concern about recrimination, and prejudice on the part of at least some members resulted in an unofficial tradition of not proselyting blacks. If they wanted to investigate the church, blacks had to request the information. Since the Mormon church lifted the restriction in 1978, increased missionary efforts in black neighborhoods have led to a growing presence of African-Americans in the church.
Although there are still relatively few LDS Afro-Americans, their experiences demonstrate the range of possibilities for blacks in a predominately white church. The LDS Church News consistently reports optimistic anecdotes about blacks and whites working together. Yet the church’s image has been that it is racist. The lack of contact of many Utah Mormons with African-Americans sometimes fulfills expectations on insensitivity and cultural clumsiness. In reality the experience of most LDS Afro-Americans lies between the extremes of aversion and acceptance.
Most black Americans who have joined the LDS church experience genuine and heartfelt acceptance; at the same time they have concerns over the past priesthood exclusion and latent forms of racism and prejudice exhibited by some white members. While fractional minorities of black Mormons reported only acceptance or only discrimination, most experienced both from white Mormons. Many were not concerned about the dual messages since the pattern is similar to that found in the larger American society. Both those interviewed and survey respondents had mixed reactions about continued connections with the larger black community. They are unsure about their relationships with other black Mormons, as well. And they all must decide how to adapt to the new Mormon culture and still retain their African-American identity.
Time will tell how well the Mormon church, its leaders, and individual members succeed at welcoming into full fellowship the increased black membership. Undeniably prejudice remains, yet it [p.235] seems likely that as Euro-Americans have more contact with blacks and members of other ethnic groups, stereotypes will fade. Instead of having a single image of all African Americans, for example, they will meet “John Brown” and “Jane Jones” who will not match perceived ideas. The same holds true for LDS Afro-Americans who interact with white Mormons. Overcoming racial prejudices takes time, and the LDS church will change as black and white children are raised as Mormons in common wards and accepted as necessary ingredients in a beef-and-potato stew rather than a puree of bland uniformity.
The survey asked the respondents to agree or disagree with the statement: “When I look at my future in the church, I am very hopeful.” Over half (56.0 percent) “strongly agreed” and about one-quarter (25.5) “agreed” that they were hopeful about their future as Mormons. Thus more than three-quarters of black Mormons thought there was a place for them in the LDS church. But about a fifth (18.5 percent) did not share these hopes. Questions in both the survey and interviews attempted to probe the needs of black Latter-day Saints and determine how well they were being met by the LDS church. The questions elicited several positive themes as well as some negative ones.
The survey asked an open-ended question about what black Latter-day Saints “enjoy most about their experiences as Mormons.” Of course, there was no single answer. Two-fifths (40.9 percent) said that learning about the LDS gospel was the most positive aspect of Mormonism. The next three highest responses were relationships with other Mormons (16 percent), relationship with God (14.4 percent), and LDS teachings (12.2 percent).
These responses were echoed in the interviews. Despite cultural misunderstandings, most members felt their church had a positive influence on their lives. The common themes included:
1. Developing a personal relationship with God and understanding the LDS plan of salvation
For Vivian Collier, Mormonism “was just not a church” where people attended meetings. She reported: “If you’re really striving, you really come to understand better who Heavenly Father is, who [p.236] Jesus Christ is, who you are, and how you fit in the realm of things. You develop a personal relationship with Jesus and Heavenly Father.”2 Thomas Taylor, who was born in 1951 in Virginia and raised as a Baptist, also believed that the church “really opened my mind up as far as why I’m here and what I’m supposed to do here. If I continue to do this, I believe that I’ll return to be with Heavenly Father.”3
Doris Marie Wilson, who joined the church in 1981 at age forty-seven, stated: “[The church] has changed our lifestyle… . Our black friends certainly don’t understand. We have a greater goal in mind.”4
Delphrine Young recalled his enthusiasm when missionaries “began teaching me the truthfulness of the gospel… . They made me understand things that I had never understood before. They had brought a light into my life.”5
2. Personal growth
While joining the church did not remove problems, it helped some black members cope. Margie Ray White commented that the two years she had been a member had “been the happiest two years of all my life. I know the Lord didn’t say we would have sunshine every day. He didn’t promise us a bed of roses every day. Things are still hard; things still get complicated. But now there is something that I have to always go back on.”6
Samuel Coggs, a Baptist until he was fourteen, attended college, served in Vietnam, worked for the Department of Labor, and was baptized in Chicago in 1987 at age forty-seven. Something was [p.237] “missing from my life,” he said, but baptism “filled that void.” He added, “I … look forward to growing.”7
Deborah E. Taylor explained that in lave years of membership “my family and friends tell me how happy I am and how contented I am with my life… . I want to tell them about how special the church is, the peace I have now, joy, happiness, and how the pure love of Christ has lifted my inner soul and set me on a burning fire for his presence to be with me at all times.”8
Janet Brooks of St. Louis was working several jobs to support herself and her one child living at home. Yet she said: “I floated for two weeks. I don’t feel like I have a heavy building inside me anymore. Everything seems so light. Even though I’ve had heartaches, trials, and tribulations, they don’t feel like they used to.” Despite a stroke, a difficult marriage, threats of losing her home, and “all types of problems that were heavier than I thought, … I never felt them because the burdens were light.”9
William B. Jenkins, a retired military and civil servant, found a new perspective after his baptism in 1981 at age sixty-seven: “Things that used to upset me don’t anymore. I seem to have more patience and to have a better understanding of human beings.”10 Charles Frazier Chisolm, who grew up in the Methodist-Episcopal and the Episcopal churches, summarized his feelings about the LDS church: “I have been blessed by my involvement in the Mormon church. It is the lighthouse of my life and the power that keeps me going.”11
3. Relationship with Family
Along with personal growth one of the most dramatic changes black members reported was improved relationships with family [p.238] members. According to Thomas Taylor, a truck driver from Chesterfield, Virginia, who joined the LDS church in 1980, the concept of eternal families helped strengthen bonds.12 Winston Wilkinson described his former personality as cold, considering it a sign of weakness to hug his children. But as he watched other Mormon men hugging their wives and children, he tentatively followed suit. His oldest son was confused by the change, but in time, Wilkinson said, the physical closeness brought them closer in many other ways. “I now believe that in raising kids you must keep them talking, and I have to be more than just a father. I have to be their friend.”13
James Johnson’s marriage had ended in divorce partly because of his rowdy lifestyle. He commented: “Before when I was drinking, [my children] would not come and see me …. [They] are just overwhelmed with me being a member …. They said, ‘Daddy, we are so proud of you.’… They are prouder of me now than they were when I was at home because the things I was doing at home they did not half approve of, especially when I got drunk and had fights. This quiet life and good life that I am living now is what they wanted when I was at home.”14
4. Relationship with other church members
Many African-Americans felt that church membership had helped them overcome their own prejudices and hoped that the entire church would become less color-conscious than society in general. For example, Mary Angel Wilbur felt that many of the blacks at her high school were prejudiced and “afraid to get close to white people.” She believed they would feel differently if they would come to her Young Women classes or ward dances. Despite prejudice from some members, she said she felt “such a closeness” in her ward. “It is almost like a family.”15
5. Changed goals
Converts identified changed goals as an effect of their baptism. With the emphasis on families, many developed goals to be sealed in eternal marriage in a Mormon temple. Many wanted to serve full-time missions, especially as retired couples. Others found a new emphasis on family and spiritual activities over career ambitions.
When asked about her goals, Janis E. Parker explained that she had earned a B.A. at age twenty-two, worked for a Chicago newspaper, and married. When she joined the church in 1986, her husband did not. She remarked:
If you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have answered it in terms of career… . Now I have found through the church and also by having a child, that a job is a job is a job. My goal is to be a righteous person, to be a good mother, to be an understanding and patient wife, to be a good daughter, to be a loving sister, and a wonderful friend …. One day you may turn on CBS and you may see me. You may not, and that is not …. important. I have found out that the time and the energy that you give to a job or to a career is not as important as being home at all.16
Similarly Annie Wilbur, raised a Baptist but looking for another religion when missionaries contacted her in 1983, said her new faith immediately made her feel “better about myself. I did not have the bitterness. I had a desire to change my life… . I did not hate my [former] husband any more, and I did not hate the [white] people at work. I did not have this hostile attitude. I knew that it had something to do with this religion.”17
6. Different views about money
Alan Cherry specifically asked, “How have LDS values influenced the role money plays in your life?” Over three-fourths (78.6 percent) said that their views of money had changed. A third (34.8 percent) mentioned the impact of paying 10 percent of their income as tithing. The next most common responses were that they had learned how to[p.240] budget better (21.6 percent) and that money occupied a less important place in their values (22.2 percent).
Catherine Stokes commented that the gospel “had a lot of influence because when you pay tithing you have to figure out how to be a better steward with the rest of it…. I believe in the law of tithing. I have a testimony of it. I think that’s the basis for whatever financial security you’re going to have.”18
Delphrine Young painted a vivid picture of his financial plight when he first met the missionaries: “I had fourteen credit cards, and I had charged on thirteen of them. I had a first and a second [mortgage] on a home. I was really heavy in debt and was terribly depressed…. A couple of years after I joined the church, I was able to pay off my credit cards and pay off all my debts except the [mortgage] on my home …. My life was totally straightened out and totally put in order.”19
7. Outreach to other blacks
Because of the positive changes that Mormonism has made in their lives, black Latter-day Saints expressed a desire to share these same values with other African-Americans. Carol Edwards, formerly a member of the Shiloh Baptist church, exclaimed: “You know what I see the gospel as? I see it as freedom for our people …. The values and that doctrine are going to help clean up people to be able to go to the celestial kingdom, to gain eternal life.”20
Darryl Kenneth Gaines felt that blacks “are being led in all different kinds of directions. They are just wasting their lives away.” To prevent that he said, “I hope to serve a mission and spread the word to more black people.”21
Cecelia Johnson, baptized in Pennsylvania with her husband,[p.241] saw fellow blacks “hold[ing] grudges.” The gospel, she believed, would teach them “how to progress and how to forgive others.”22
Victor Soil saw economic as well as psychological hope for blacks: “LDS principles, to me, are the only salvation for black Americans… . Ninety percent of the people I work with in the four schools I service are on welfare. Eighty or ninety percent have one parent. With the emphasis that we place on family and the emphasis we place on economic development and self-improvement, the principles of the church are the only way to go …. We have to develop pride in ourselves. We have to develop the work ethic.”23
Some black members saw hope in the gospel for what has widely been called a crisis in black families. Peter Gillo, a teacher in Chicago described a bleak picture: “Many… men will not accept responsibility. Many women and men do not get married. They just have children. The men go away, and the women are left with the kids. But the church teaches us that the families stay together. Families are forever. That’s a very good value. If they use that, women have to be strong and men have to be strong.”24
Diane Amelia Hughes was born in 1961 to a black father and a Panamanian mother and felt discrimination both in Panama and in the United States. After joining the LDS church in Belgium where she was serving in the U.S. Navy, she felt that the gospel had the answer to the quest of the “black race… for an identity” that would give them “unity” and let them “feel proud.” She explained, “The unity is in Jesus Christ,” and without it “black Americans… will be drowned, literally.”25
She was not alone in her hope that her church held the answer to bigotry. Ruby Ann Womble spoke of the de facto isolation of blacks and whites in Atlanta that resulted in some blacks “feeling that white[p.242] people are better than they are. The gospel will help them overcome that. They will no longer feel that ‘they are better than I am’ but ‘we’re equal; we’re all the same.'”26 Edwin Burwell agreed: “LDS principles have made me see a ray of hope. If we all can get together and keep our heritage but remember that we are all the same we can stop having the dividing line” between whites and blacks. “I am looking forward for a day when you could move next door to somebody and they do not get upset because you are one color, because you talk differently, or because your hair is not straight. You can go to church and worship with that person and there is no problem.”27
Nevertheless, not all is well in the new Zion these converts have found. Even blacks who expressed hope about their future in the Mormon church listed negative aspects. And a fifth of survey respondents saw a bleak future. The survey asked the open-ended statement: “What I enjoy least about my membership in the LDS church is.” The most common negative answers were prejudice (20.5 percent), a sense of not belonging (15.7 percent), and not knowing the music and other parts of LDS church worship and procedure (13.4 percent). The survey included an open-ended question: “The most serious church-related problems I face currently are.” Of the 127 answering that question, dating was a problem for 19.7 percent. Prejudice (12.6 percent), unfriendly members (11.8 percent), and trouble obeying the commandments were also seen as problems. The survey also included a more impersonal question: “The most serious church-related problems of black members of the church are.” Among the 142 who responded, prejudice (19 percent) and lack of fellowship (16.2 percent) were again the most common answers.
How do blacks respond to these problems? Almost certainly many withdraw. The survey asked the open-ended question: “I know black members who have become inactive because of.” Of 140 responding to the question, the most common answers were racial discrimination[p.243] (26.4 percent), inability to adapt to another culture (14.3 percent), and problems of adapting to a white church (7.1 percent). Only 5 percent said problems existed because there were no other black members.
Personal voices illustrate many of the same concerns. Prejudice has already been discussed. But prejudice is often subtle. Eva Joseph, a single mother in Oakland who was not attending meetings regularly, explained that African-Americans
are very sensitive and we are very easy to pick up where we are wanted and where we are not. I can walk into a room and from the atmosphere I know that the people there accept me… . But if I walk into a room and I do not feel good in that room, then I know I am not wanted. This is something I guess you could call a sixth sense that we have… . [White Latter-day Saints] do not have to speak with words because we know without your even opening your mouth.28
David E. Gathers from Pineville, North Carolina, identified slow-growing testimonies as a hindrance for his daughter and son-in-law: “They still are not fully embedded in the [LDS] gospel as I feel they should be. But maybe in time something will happen that will explain to them that the gospel is true and will not leave any doubt in their minds.” For them, belief was far from instantaneous, and they had protested, “How do you expect us to see you do a ninety degree turn from one religion to another and expect us to make a fast transition like that?”29
One participant in the interviews, William Thompson of Decatur, Georgia, felt that callings “put too much pressure on a person in the beginning.” He commented that if he were a new convert and were called “to go and home teach somebody that I knew had been a member for a long time, it would put extra pressure on me because what am I going to tell these people when I get there?”30 Callings are paradoxical. Too much pressure on the one hand, or feeling left out on the other; either situation can lead to inactivity.
[p.244] Dan Mosley explained that some blacks felt that by joining a white church they were “losing their identity.”31
Others, according to Angela Brown, “are just not used to being around whites. They may not feel comfortable so they don’t come.”32
Mary Angel Wilbur, a teenager, found no Latter-day Saint young men willing to date her. New Latter-day Saints, she observed wryly, “think members are perfect, and then it is hard when they find out… members are just normal people.” The adjustment was painful: “I guess ! kind of resented Heavenly Father for a while because I thought, ‘If these people are righteous and they’re doing what Heavenly Father wants to do, how can He be good?'” She concluded: “I wouldn’t want anyone to feel the way I did, or go through any of the depression and have that resentment …. It is really self destructive.”33
Although some respondents became inactive, others sought different solutions. Betty Ann Bridgeforth compared the church to home. “Leaving home… is not the way to build it up. You stay and work at it and you make home better.”34 Suggestions for possible courses of action were solicited in an open-ended question in the survey that asked, “With regard to helping black members of the church feel a more integrated part of the church, non-black members need to… . “Of 151 respondents, over half said whites could be more accepting (55.4 percent). Others said there needed to be greater fellowshipping (16.6 percent) and greater understanding of black culture (10.8 percent).
Ways were identified to help whites see the needs of blacks. Elizabeth Pulley, who attended school and church with only blacks, pied for more acceptance by “knowing that our white brothers and sisters can love us and accept us as children of our Heavenly Father[p.245] and be able to learn about us and understand us. They can really show that they really care and that they can really shake my hand without rubbing it off. They can really give me a hug and be sincere. They can cry when I cry and share experiences in their lives that have helped them.”35 Eva Joseph asked white members to “accept us for who we are and be real to us.”36
It was not white prejudice but white “ignorance” that bothered Sharon Davis. “I don’t think we need to just accept ignorance,” she asserted. “I think we need to teach the members of the church through examples that there isn’t a difference between us and them spiritually.”37
Others recommended simple interaction to defuse ignorance. Vincent Lewis of Pittsburg, California, suggested the church have “a cultural class or something. Sometimes when some of them first meet you, they are kind of afraid of you. They are kind of leery because they do not know exactly where you are coming from. You could be this big black demon coming from some place. Maybe one time you could have a soul-food dinner and invite the white LDS members or have some classes together to be able to interact.”38 A black member in Detroit agreed that sharing food made a simple bridge: “When we invite[d] some of our [white] friends over,… we had a good time with chittlings. There’s a difference, but nothing so deep it can’t be crossed.”39
Such positive and negative experiences are just a sampling of the odyssey of interviewees and survey respondents. Each has a unique story about his or her life as a Latter-day Saint. What is impressive is that although they come from all walks of life from the uneducated to Ph.D.s, all reported they found something they could enjoy in the[p.246] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has provided a religious home for them.
Yet, as Virginia Johnson stated, black Mormons face new adjustments. While they were not driven from their homes in Missouri and Illinois, as were traditional Mormon pioneers, their trials are just as real. Their isolation can have the same effect as being forced from one’s home. And the occasional prejudice, slights, and discrimination from their new religious community are as traumatic as federal marshals invading nineteenth-century Utah territory to stamp out polygamy. The lack of acceptance they sometimes experience comes through in both interviews and the survey as all-too-common experiences.
The interviews were conducted between 1985 and 1989. In the time that has passed, the interviewees’ lives have changed. While no attempt has been made to maintain formal contacts, the “Mormon grapevine” and informal methods of communication have brought news that some of the most active have stopped attending Mormon meetings for a variety of reasons: returning to a former way of life, not feeling accepted, feeling unachieved spiritual and social needs, being under pressure from friends and family, and yearning for reimmersion into a black church and culture. Their description of their experiences when they were participating Latter-day Saints, however, communicate their individual uniqueness and their relationships with God. Whatever their current status, those insights are valid and can help increase interfacial understanding, eliminate stereotypes, promote cultural awareness and acceptance, and strengthen the religious community not only within the LDS church but also in the black and white American communities.
1. Virginia Johnson Oral History, 18, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1985, 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).