Episode 83: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism – Russell W. Stevenson

In this episode of LDS Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews Russell Stevenson, author of For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism. Stevenson’s book details the relationship between African and Afro-diasporic peoples and the Mormon tradition, particularly regarding the temple and priesthood restrictions.  Latter-day Saints are often aware of the priesthood/temple restrictions but feel ill-prepared to discuss it. Stevenson provides some points of entry for Latter-day Saints who hope to acquire to information necessary to speak about Mormonism and racism in a way that is faithful to the documentary record.

Stevenson emphasizes the centrality of the contemporary documentary record in assessing the history of blacks and Mormonism; these records provide a check against projecting current values onto past events (a fallacy historians call “presentism”). Stevenson situates racism within the LDS community not merely as a “product of the times,” but as a societal sin reflective of broader systems excluding black Americans from American life. Racial exclusion was not distinctive to Mormonism, neither was it uniform across American society. He analogizes the era of Mormon racism to the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness for the embrace of foreign gods: while the Israelites accepted an Egyptian deity in the form of a golden calf, the Mormon people embraced the American deity of “Whiteness.”

He engages the origins of the restriction, guiding readers through the full extent of the documentary trail: what documents are known and what documents are not. He highlights Joseph Smith’s mixed record on slavery, his support for the ordination of Elijah Able, the ordination of several other black men to priesthood office. Stevenson illustrates how many of these Mormon racial discussions were inflamed through local circumstances, such as William McCary’s attempt to establish interracial polygamy in Winter Quarters.

Further, he traces Brigham Young’s transition from supporting black ordination in March 1847 to prohibiting it in February 1849, detailing how prevailing fears of miscegenation (e.g. Enoch Lewis, a black Latter-day Saint in Massachusetts’, having a biracial child with his legally-wed Caucasian wife) and prevailing Biblical theories shaped Latter-day Saint scriptural exegesis, such as “the curse of Cain” and “the curse of Ham.”  Additionally, Latter-day Saints injected their own views about the pre-mortal existence of the human soul into race discussions.

For the first time, Stevenson engages how Mormonism resonated in West Africa and followed the networks of colonial influence in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Stevenson details the experiences of William P. Daniels, the only known black branch president who did not hold priesthood office and Anthony Obinna. Stevenson illustrates the many kinds of Mormonism within the African diaspora. He highlights how the LDS Church’s genealogical arms were used to ensure that only those without black African ancestry received priesthood office and temple blessings.

Stevenson also discusses the circumstances under which the temple/priesthood restrictions were lifted. Dismantling the restriction required a multiplicity of influences: domestic, global, political, and cultural. A variety of “turning points” influenced the timing of its lifting, such as the Wyoming and Stanford protests, Hugh B. Brown’s efforts to lift the restriction, the rise of Mormonism in Brazil, the rise of self-identified Mormon groups in West Africa, and the publication of Lester Bush’s 1973 article, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine.”  Each event re-shaped Mormon cultural identity, from the bottom-up.

Engaging Mormonism and race is not an issue confined to the past; it is of immediate relevance to Mormon engagements in African and African diaspora communities throughout the world: from Bahia, Brazil to Durban, South Africa, to Aba, Nigeria. This conversation can serve as a point of departure for readers/listeners who aspire to teach that “all are alike unto God”—and how it was that Latter-day Saints could ever see it otherwise.

About Our Guest: Russell Stevenson has centered his work primarily on the growth of Mormonism in Africa, which is a story of Africans adapting and “translating” Mormonism as a cultural text.  He has published on a variety of aspects of race and Mormonism, ranging from his first book—a biography of Elijah Able, the first black priesthood holder in the Mormon tradition to the role of “prophetesses” in forming the Mormon church in 1960s Ghana.

His second book, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830–2013 won the Mormon History Association’s Best Book Award. It provides, for the first time, a chronologically complete and internationally-minded history of Mormonism’s interactions with the global black community in the Americas and Africa.  In the book’s second half, he provides an anthology of annotated primary sources to accompany the narrative text. Currently he is pursuing a PhD in African Studies at Michigan State University.

Extra Resources:

Episode 83 Transcript

For the Cause of Righteousness: a Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830–2013

“Race and Priesthood”

“No Know Records Exist”: the Fallacy of Racial Restriction Origins

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LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 83: A Global History of Black Mormons with Russell W. Stevenson

 (Released May 30, 2018)

This is not a verbatim transcript.

Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity.

 

LAURA HALES This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Russell W. Stevenson to talk about a global history of blacks and Mormonism.

As a historian of race, religion, and gender in America, Russell has centered his work primarily on the growth of Mormonism in Africa, which is the story of Africans adapting and translating Mormonism.

He has also published on a variety of aspects of race and Mormonism, ranging from his first book, the biography of Elijah Abel, the first black priesthood holder in the Mormon tradition, to the role of prophetesses informing the Mormon church in 1960s Ghana.

His second book, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism 1830–2013, won the Mormon History Association’s Best Book award—not an easy feat. It provides, for the first time, a chronologically complete and internationally-minded history of Mormonism’s interactions with the global black community. In the book’s second half, he provides an anthology of annotated primary sources to accompany the narrative text.

Currently, Stevenson is pursuing a PhD in African studies at Michigan State University. I want to share with you a back cover endorsement for Russell’s book, written by Terryl L. Givens. “Russell Stevenson has produced a terrific compilation, invaluable as a resource and as a troubling morality tale. The array of documents compelling reveals the tragedy and inconsistency of racial attitudes, policies, and doctrines in the LDS tradition and the need for eternal vigilance in negotiating a faith that must never be unmoored from humaneness.” Congratulations, Russell, and welcome.

R. STEVENSON Thank you. It’s good to be here with you, Laura.
LAURA HALES I can’t believe it took us so long. You used to be a podcaster for LDS Perspectives, and we never sat down and talked about your research.
LAURA HALES Well, good. I was actually at the release event for this book and Tama Smith of Sistas in Zion. She said something to the effect that you wouldn’t be invited to any parties at the church office building because of this book. And at the time, it just kind of went over my head because I thought, “Oh, this is just transparent history that people aren’t used to,” but then I read it. Have you been invited to any parties, Russ?
R. STEVENSON I think part of that is just because I’m awkward at parties, I’m not the most charming guy. But I just emailed Elder Snow this morning about getting lunch with him and he responded in two minutes, so.
LAURA HALES So you’re not on the outs?
R. STEVENSON So far. I don’t think they have some kind of nasty dossier on me. But who knows, right?
LAURA HALES Seriously though, this book is more bold than I expected it to be because I’m used to tiptoeing. I don’t even feel comfortable being “that person” in Gospel Doctrine class, and you’re “that person” teaching Gospel Doctrine class.
R. STEVENSON Well, I did just get a note from my students. I’ve been teaching Gospel Doctrine in my home family ward for the past several months, and I’m leaving for Nigeria. They gave me this note saying, “Thank you for the blasphemy. Affectionately, your Sunday School students.” It’s funny because dancing is kind of what my family does, right. I’ve got two siblings, they’re amazing dancers, they’re very graceful. I could never pick up dancing, and I think that’s the case in my writing, too. I could never be that graceful, smooth diplomat that so many people aspire to be. That comes with positives and negatives.
LAURA HALES So, let’s talk about your book, Russell.
R. STEVENSON Yes. Let’s do it. Dive right in.
LAURA HALES Your thesis is not only blunt but thought-provoking: “Religion is made on the ground, as well as it is revealed from Mount Sinai, that Godly communities can render themselves unworthy of revelation is a well-established tradition in Judeo-Christian and Mormon texts.” This is not something we hear often in LDS dialog, but it’s something that we’re definitely grappling with in LDS society.
R. STEVENSON I used the verbs that I did in that formulation for intentional reasons. I contrasted made versus revealed. As we see in a lot of different instances throughout LDS texts, you have cases where the Latter-day Saint community forsake or disregard or neglect covenants that they have made not just on the individual level but also on the collective level. The Lord speaks to the church collectively on the regular. I made the argument in the way that I did because I believe that collective sin is, in fact, a major part of the LDS tradition, and we have no reason to believe that racism would be excluded from that. In fact, we have every reason to believe that, especially after reading the Book of Mormon. By the end of the Book of Mormon, you see the dire, fatal, and apocalyptic consequences of ethnic and, if you will, tribal animosity.
LAURA HALES Let’s clarify what you just said to set a basis for this discussion because I have heard this from you. We had a discussion just informally a few years ago, and I was not receptive to this concept of collective sin. I think in the case of the priesthood and temple ban, especially with the essay, we really want to pin it on a few individuals. In this book, you make a case that these people were responsible for putting the ban in the place, but members of the church rank and file need to seriously look at what part people on the ground or the mainstream membership had in keeping that ban in place.
R. STEVENSON Yes. And I would even add to that not only keeping the ban in place but creating the circumstances in which the ban could eventually become articulated and become policy. I make that case in part because, too often, we see the Mormon community as being this isolated silo, as being separate and apart from the American experience, as though the only forces that were influencing them were words coming from Brigham Young, or Joseph Smith, or what have you.

But that’s far too simplistic of a picture. I mean the reality is, the Latter-day Saint community, they were drawing from a number of different forces, a number of different ideas that were prevailing at the time, that had been articulated for literally centuries. You can even go back to ancient Egypt where you see some of these racial ideas being expressed as pertaining to Sub-Saharan Africans versus the Egyptians.

Latter-day Saints, as being both Mormons and Americans, opted into this discourse; they opted into these kinds of structures that defined race in American society throughout the 19th century. As a result, they created an environment in which the priesthood and temple bans could be articulated and could resonate, more importantly.

LAURA HALES That’s a great framework for us to begin this discussion. In two days, there will be a celebration in the conference center commemorating 40 years since the end of the priesthood ban that was in place in the LDS church for about 126 years, officially—maybe longer unofficially.

Let’s start from the beginning. What happened? Joseph Smith reveals the Book of Mormon, and what does the Book of Mormon teach us about different color skinned people, different ethnic groups? Who is eligible to receive the gospel and the ultimate blessings of exaltation?

R. STEVENSON The ultimate message of the Book of Mormon, especially through figures like Samuel the Lamanite and many others that you can see through various missionary activities, is that regardless of one’s ancestry, one can, in fact, be worthy of the fullness of Christianity and the gospel blessings. And if you refuse to see others as being equally worthy or potentially worthy, then the outcome could be cataclysmic. It could be full-on tribal warfare.
LAURA HALES That is very clear toward the end of the Book of Mormon, when the Lamanites are no longer an ethnic group—they’re a religious group, they’re non-believers, and Nephites are believers regardless of the color of their skin. Joseph begins this church, he sends out missionaries to all ends of the earth. Does he send missionaries to people with different skin colors?
R. STEVENSON We have evidence that Joseph Smith called Elijah Abel, who was the first documented person of African descent to hold the priesthood, on a mission to Ontario, Canada, which happened to be a pretty large African American enclave of mostly runaway slaves. We don’t know exactly what the purpose of Elijah serving that mission was but we do know that Elijah was preaching in that area. And I think it highly likely that he preached to people of African descent there. Elijah ended up serving as an authority in Cincinnati from 1842 until about 1853. While he was there, he was explicitly given the directive to preach to African Americans. So we do know that Joseph Smith intended for African Americans to be preached the gospel.
LAURA HALES When the Saints began to settle in Missouri, a slave state, what happened that might have changed the attitude of some of the leadership of the LDS church?
R. STEVENSON W.W. Phelps, who was one of the early Mormon settlers in western Missouri, was the editor of the Evening Morning Star. And he was a fun guy, right. He was witty, he liked turn of phrase, he liked to provoke. In one of his news columns, he referred to the abolition of slavery as being one of the great accomplishments of their time. He also suggested that it might be okay for African Americans to emigrate to Missouri on a limited basis. Now, that was against the law according to Missouri law, so that did not sit well with the local Missourians. That, in addition to some other issues, particularly conflicts over land, religious identity, that led to the forming of a mob that destroyed the newspaper press of the Evening Morning Star, and the Saints were expelled from Jackson County.

Within a few months, we see that Phelps was flipping a page, right. He was kind of pulling a 180, and he said, “I know I said this one thing about African Americans coming to Missouri. Just so you know, I didn’t really mean that and, moreover, we are ultimately a white church. We do not allow African Americans into our church.” This is one of the earliest articulations of a discriminatory approach towards African Americans. Now, to be sure, Joseph Smith didn’t exactly adopt this approach but we do see evidence for this in some of Phelps’s writings at this point.

LAURA HALES If Joseph Smith was in Kirtland, by the time he saw the newspaper, it had been printed for a long time.
R. STEVENSON Yes. And at one point, he even joked to someone that he loved reading W.W. Phelps’s writings. He was good as a satirist, but he wasn’t good at being the kind of cool hand needed to guide public opinion.

We do know that Joseph Smith was facing a lot of attacks for being a perceived abolitionist. In 1836, Governor Daniel Duncan sent a letter to Phelps, which was, by extension, also directed at Joseph Smith, saying, “Listen, all the persecution that you faced for being perceived as abolitionists, well, that’s your problem. And frankly, you’re guilty until proven innocent. And until that time, vox populi vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Essentially, he was legitimizing mob conflict with the Saints over the issue of slavery.

LAURA HALES It’s no fun when a mob tars and feathers you.
R. STEVENSON It’s kind of a bummer.
LAURA HALES Yeah. It is. And it is traumatic. And it didn’t happen once to one person. The Saints were a marginalized group. You say in your book that as the Saints developed their racial attitudes, they were also a profoundly small minority struggling to survive in an America ill-disposed to welcoming them. Why don’t you speak to that?
R. STEVENSON Numerically speaking, the Latter-day Saints were minuscule by comparison to most other religious groups. Adding to that, they also had some fairly radical ideas about religious governance, about the second coming, about continuing revelation. We do see acts of religious violence taking place throughout the American frontier at this time. In some ways, the Latter-day Saints were not distinctive. Other religious minorities experienced persecution, like the Roman Catholics, like groups like the Quakers. They had experienced religious persecution as well. So we need to understand where the Saints were coming from at that point. They felt very vulnerable. They felt like all it took was one wrong move, one wrong word from somebody like Phelps, who was a bit of a loose cannon, and you would have the mob coming your way.
LAURA HALES How did the minority status of that first generation of Saints affect their racial attitudes? A lot of them were coming from northern states, or from Great Britain later, you would assume that they would naturally tend to sway towards abolitionism.
R. STEVENSON This is a common misunderstanding amongst observers of American race relations. They assume that because you’re from a northern state, that means that you are an “abolitionist,” but that’s not actually the case. Often what you see amongst northern states is less an attitude of abolitionism, and let’s define abolition for a moment. The idea that we should end slavery right away, not tomorrow, not 10 years from now, not 50 years from now, today—most northerners, they just weren’t that radical. They didn’t want it in their backyard; they didn’t want to see it; they didn’t want to see slaves running around; but they also didn’t see slaves as their social equals. They saw Africans and African Americans as being less than. The reality is, if you’re growing up in Vermont, you’re not going to see that many African Americans in general. In some ways, it shouldn’t surprise us that many Latter-day Saints might not have been terribly ardent in the cause of ending slavery. They might have been friendlier to black people than, say, somebody from Mississippi, but that’s a very different thing.
LAURA HALES Since the Gospel Topic essay was released in 2013, I have heard this comment over and over again. You probably have heard it, too: the ban was put in place because Brigham Young was a racist.
R. STEVENSON Yes. I’ve heard that comment made quite frequently.
LAURA HALES However, in your book, you make efforts to show that by the time the Saints had settled in the west, the Great Basin, they had already achieved a racial equilibrium. This wasn’t something that was coming out of the blue after the death of Joseph and the trek across the plains. Explain that to us.
R. STEVENSON Unfortunately, many observers of Mormon race relations, again, assume that the way Mormon history is made is by fiat, as though all it takes is a word from Brigham Young or Joseph Smith and that suddenly instigated development. And in the case of race relations, that absolutely is not correct.

In March of 1847, for example, we have Brigham Young going on record, not only supporting something like racial equality but also supporting black ordination to the priesthood. He was interacting with a runaway slave by the name of William McCary who was feeling ill at ease in the Latter-day Saint community, and Brigham Young said, “Listen, one of our best Elders is an African living in Massachusetts.” Brigham Young’s racism, whatever it was, did not necessarily lead him to exclusion of black people from priesthood ordination or temple ordinances. It took other events.

LAURA HALES Would that have been William McCary at Winter Quarters?
R. STEVENSON That was William McCary at Winter Quarters.
LAURA HALES Explain a little bit for our listeners.
R. STEVENSON Sure. So, William McCary was a runaway slave, amazing musician, and great showman. He ended up having quite a successful career in theater after his interaction with the Latter-day Saint community. And he eventually comes to the Mormon community in Winter Quarters, he meets a white gal named Lucy Stanton, they marry, and immediately—and this is quite predictable—the white Latter-day Saint community became quite confrontational when it came to this union. They kept referring to him as, “There goes that old N-word and his white wife.” So while William McCary was interacting with Brigham Young on one occasion, he was saying, “Hey, listen, am I really welcome here? Is this the kind of place I can be?” And Brigham Young says, “William, all flesh is of one blood. And one of the best priesthood holders that we have is a black man in Massachusetts.” He was referring to Walker Lewis, who, gained renown for having a reputation of being a very faithful Latter-day Saint. So what this shows is that Brigham Young went through a transition. His ideas changed over time due to a series of events. And that’s one of these complexities that requires us to maybe see the narrative as more layered than just a matter of Joseph Smith supporting black ordination and Brigham Young opposing it.
LAURA HALES Do you maintain that after Winter Quarters, they decided, “Okay. We need to put a stop to this,” and that’s how the race relations were cemented at the leadership level?
R. STEVENSON The first documented statement that we have connecting ethnic ancestry, specifically African ethnic ancestry, to priesthood worthiness comes from Parley P. Pratt in April of 1847. And this is only a few weeks after William McCary was chased out of the Winter Quarters community. As best as we can tell, it was the circumstances surrounding William McCary that created the environment in which Parley P. Pratt would give ways to that kind of sentiment. Now, understand that as far as Brigham Young was concerned, William McCary was not inherently cause for a priesthood ban. Granted, Brigham Young was not fully aware of William McCary’s activities. As it happens, after Brigham Young left Winter Quarters, William McCary began to implement a kind of polygamy; he began to sleep with a number of white Mormon women and that is not going to sit well with white Mormon men of the 19th century, or any white man of the 19th century for that matter. It’s those circumstances that we need to situate this against.

There is another event that took place that also played a role in forming Brigham Young’s attitude. In December of 1847, he became aware that Walker Lewis’ son, Enoch Lewis, had married a white woman and had a biracial child with him. Now, for Brigham Young, this was beyond the pale. It’s one thing to marry an African American; it’s quite another to have a child with them. You are now, in his eyes, and in the eyes of many scientists at the time, having a child who is barren and incapable of producing offspring.

LAURA HALES And he’s quite blunt in saying that. Probably of anything you hear from Brigham Young, that’s going to be the most disturbing thing.
R. STEVENSON That crosses the pale. I mean he literally says that, for this act, this couple should be executed. Now, to be sure, this statement that he makes, it is put in conversation with wildly contradictory statements. He goes back and forth, back and forth over the course of maybe a minute. On the one hand, he says they should be executed, but in the next sentence, he says, “But maybe they should be given temple blessings.” And then in the next sentence, “But mulattos, so called, they can’t have children and they’re going to be barren.” But in the next sentence … He just could not quite decide what this meant for how he saw black people. But clearly, it triggered him as it would many other white men at the time.
LAURA HALES Let’s move to 1852. There’s debate in the state legislature over servitude. Two people are debating: Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. What are they debating over and how does that affect the temple ban? Or do you think it did?
R. STEVENSON We need to put this particular debate against the context of national politics. In 1850, we have the Great Compromise, which, for the purposes of Mormon history, basically stated that the Utah territory could decide for itself whether it would be a slave territory or whether it would be a free territory. Now, by this point, we have some Mormon settlers who are slave owners, right. They owned slaves in the south, and now they’ve come to Utah. The question is how do you deal with this? Do you acknowledge these slaves to be property, as the southern states did, or do you free them as some northern states would? The territorial legislature tried to come up with a compromise, and they called it “An Act in Relation to Service,” meaning that these African American slaves would be treated as bonded servants. They had a legal obligation to perform service for their white masters, and they would be prosecuted as such if they failed to live up to that service. At the same time, though, we have rhetoric from various policymakers saying, “Okay. This isn’t exactly slavery, right. We’re trying to sort of walk this strange middle road between freedom and slavery as such.”

We see Brigham Young trying to do this too in some of his speeches. He says, “I believe in slavery but I also believe that slaveholders in the south should treat their slaves better, that they should not abuse or beat their slaves.” Ultimately, he says, “Slavery is nothing more than moral, honorable service.” He wasn’t very good at slicing and dicing the legal terminology, but he was trying to get at the essence of this particular law. As he’s advocating for this law, he says, “I say unto you now, as a prophet,” essentially, “That the negro cannot hold one particle of priesthood because they are the descendants of Cain.” And then he expressed other ideas about race and about slavery, and he also reiterates his belief that interracial couples are deserving of the capital punishment. In this speech, you see him make public in ways that he had not done before these ideas about race, about priesthood ban, about servitude. Now, you asked the question, “Does this debate end up informing the priesthood or temple ban?” I’m inclined to think that the priesthood and temple ban existed well before this point, dating back to 1847. Maybe this provided a venue in which these ideas could be articulated but in and of itself, it wasn’t a causative factor in bringing this ban into being. Now, you mentioned that there was another individual who was debating Brigham Young.

LAURA HALES I love his rebuttal.
R. STEVENSON It’s a really touching rebuttal.
LAURA HALES It’s beautiful. He says, “To bind the African because he is different from us in color is enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.”
R. STEVENSON It’s a really powerful and compelling statement. It’s what you would expect from Orson Pratt. He was a wordsmith. He was given towards publishing these kinds of things. Now, I do want to make clear that this was not a tete-a-tete that was happening in real-time—this took place over the course of about a week.

But for Orson Pratt, he did believe in a racial curse. He believed that Africans were cursed, and he believed that their bodies were cursed. However, he did not see it as the job of humanity to enforce that curse. He said, “Listen, that curse is going to be carried out by God. That’s His problem. That’s His business. That’s not our business.” But again, Pratt did believe that peoples of African descent were socially inferior, that they were somehow less worthy in the pre-mortal life, but that slavery was a line too far.

LAURA HALES If the priesthood ban did not originate at this time, would you agree that it was cemented at this time?
R. STEVENSON This is the time in which Brigham Young puts it on paper in official public discourse. We do have a statement from Brigham Young in early 1849, he’s having a conversation with Lorenzo Snow. Lorenzo Snow, he’s an interesting guy because he went to a university where some of the very first African American undergraduates were admitted. He was more accustomed to seeing African Americans as his social equals. Lorenzo Snow was like, “Brigham, when are we going to allow Africans to have the priesthood?” And this is when Brigham Young says, “Okay. They’re descendants of Cain, and they will not receive the priesthood until all the children of Abel are able to receive access to it in the worlds to come.” It did exist prior to this time, but it’s in 1852 when Brigham Young makes it public, makes it explicit. It is not in some kind of hidden document somewhere. He wanted the territorial legislature to hear it as his official words, both as the territorial governor and as the president of the church.
LAURA HALES Would you explicate the ban for us?
R. STEVENSON Peoples of African descent were not allowed to receive any kind of priesthood ordination—deacon, teacher, or priest—at this time. Additionally, they were not allowed to receive their endowments or ceiling ordinances. We do have evidence that they were allowed to perform baptisms for the dead. And we have records of that in 1875, but those records were kept on a separate roll, specifically for the “Children of Cain.”
LAURA HALES We’re going to take a break here in the recitation of chronology and just think about what’s happened. You’re pretty strong in your evaluation of the power wielded by Brigham Young in your book—stronger than I would ever have the nerve to be. That’s a teaser for any of your listeners who would like to read the book. This is a quote I would like to share, “The Mormon race question is, at its roots, a question of power—who wields it, to whom it is delegated, and who must partake of its fruits.” Let’s talk about this power question. Was it because Brigham has absolute power? I think you have competing theses going here because you’ve told me that the people on the ground have this racial attitude and they never would have accepted it had they not had that attitude to begin with. But then also, you have this very totalitarian leader saying, “I don’t care if no other prophet has said it. I’m going to say it.”
R. STEVENSON I might push back a little bit on your use of the word totalitarian. In the introduction to my book, I do use literature from totalitarian studies, specifically the Soviet Union. But in that literature, I cite different authorities who say, “Even within a so-called totalitarian dictatorship, it’s more complicated than we might suppose.” Even totalitarians must, to some extent, listen to those over whom they are ruling, right. And we see in this in the Soviet case with the work of revisionist scholars like Sheila Fitzpatrick and J. Arch Getty who talk about these kind of subterranean structures that made it possible for Stalin to wield the power that he did. In the case of Brigham Young, I wouldn’t suggest that he is any kind of Stalin figure. That’s just not what any of the evidence indicates, even if, at times, he really thought highly of his own power and influence.
LAURA HALES Sorry, I was reading it like we usually read the Old Testament.
R. STEVENSON Proof-texting.
LAURA HALES Exactly.
R. STEVENSON Understandably. As much as Brigham Young might have thought about his influence and his power—and I’ve had conversations with Lester Bush to this effect—when Brigham Young said what he did, his words resonated. Maybe he played a role in reifying or consolidating or making official or institutionalizing these kinds of sentiments, but with the exception of these radicals like Orson Pratt …

Another example is someone like James Moyle, who was fresh from the UK; the United Kingdom had recently abolished slavery throughout all of its territories. He was coming from a place that Africans should not be enslaved; they should be seen as humans like anybody else.

But individuals like Orson Pratt and James Moyle were outliers. And the reason I highlight that is to say even though we have these individuals who are challenging the status quo, even though they’re inviting people to see it in a different way, the power structure is in a different place and breaking in a different direction. And because of that, men like Brigham Young and John Taylor and others feel comfortable expressing these things in public. We have lots of evidence of Latter-day Saints pushing back against comments made by church leaders, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young alike. The fact that these comments were not widely challenged tells us something about the state of the Latter-day Saint community at large.

LAURA HALES Through the excellent research published in recent years by yourself and other great Mormon historians, we can reconstruct how this ban came to be. In fact, we just did it. In the last few years, this argument has gained traction that we don’t know why that practice was in place. And the quote that people use to support that is either from Jeffrey R. Holland in an interview with Helen Whitney for the Mormons documentary, or a very similar quote from Dallin H. Oaks. Elder Holland’s quote is, “How well-intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. We simply do not know why that practice was in place.”

I think now would be a good place to say we need to look at current research. At the time that Elder Holland and Elder Oaks were speaking, this research had not been published. This was all within the last decade.

R. STEVENSON The comments by Elder Holland and Elder Oaks, I think, are obviously relevant, right, and they deserve our close consideration. And I respect their positions as leaders of the church who have been tasked with establishing the consensus for official discourse where it is at a particular time.

What we can do with this particular question of, “Why?” right, at the very least, we can say, “All right. Well, whatever one thinks about how God understands the ban or understands its perpetuation, we can speak to why Brigham Young or John Taylor or others thought the ban was necessary.” As a historian and as a researcher, I see that as being first and foremost my duty, saying, “All right. You can craft your theology as you see fit, but here is why those who established the policy and perpetuated the policy,” or if you want to call it a doctrine or if you want to call it a practice, whatever word you want to use, each and every single one of those policy doctrine practice makers had doctrinal underpinnings and ideas that they believed supported those practices.

LAURA HALES So, what would be the underpinnings supporting it?
R. STEVENSON We have a number of different ideas. Brigham Young, for example, was a strong advocate that peoples of African descent were descended from Cain. Now, this idea was not even close to original to him. We can trace this idea all the way back to the second century, for example.  And this idea really gains traction over the course of the next millennium. You can find it in Medieval Irish texts, and you can easily find it in 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th-century texts. Even Phyllis Wheatley, the famous African American poet, uses this reference in one of her poems.  In 1829, abolitionist David Walker called those who used the Cain theory, especially those who traded slaves, “avaricious and ignorant wretches” who acted like the seed of Cain through their complicity in slave traffic.

Brigham Young absorbed this idea at some point over the course of his life, and it’s very easy to see how he would have. Others, they believed that African Americans were descended from Ham. Now, Ham had, according to Old Testament texts, seen his father Noah naked and was therefore cursed by Noah. And for many people, they saw the name Ham, in Hebrew, as meaning burnt or black, so it must be connected to peoples of African descent. But again, as it happens, the Masoretes almost certainly mis-transcribed that particular word. And what that name exactly meant, we’re not sure. but that was the theory that Parley P. Pratt invoked when he was discussing William McCary.

Now, towards the end of the 19th century, we have other Latter-day Saint leaders invoking ideas about pre-mortal life, right, saying, “Okay. Well, this idea about being descended from somebody and, therefore, being unworthy, that seems to me to be unjust. So surely they did something in pre-mortality to merit this kind of cursing.” B.H. Roberts tries to walk a line; he tries to say, “Well, no, being black, it’s a special trial, right. It’s a burden they have to carry, and, therefore, they’re going to have access to special blessings because of this spiritual burden.”

You have all these Latter-day Saint general authorities trying to make sense of this. And Brigham Young, he rejected the pre-mortality thesis entirely. He wouldn’t have it. When Lorenzo Young brought it up to him, he said, “That’s simply not true. It is because of Cain.” And then by the mid-20th century, you begin to see Latter-day Saint leaders adopting more of the agnostic perspective, saying, “Okay. Well, for reasons known only to God but unknown to man, peoples of African descent were banned from holding the priesthood or temple office.” These same leaders did mention the pre-mortality, but they didn’t necessarily connect it to the ban as earlier figures had.

You have this matrix of different ideas trying to explain this thing, and, eventually, it has come into being that, “Listen, we don’t know.” That is now the established consensus within the Mormon community. And then, of course, you have historians who say, “Well, we actually know more than maybe we’ve supposed that we do. We have documents X, Y, and Z; we’ve got this set of meeting minutes. We may not know everything that we want to know about it. We may not know when Brigham Young specifically flipped from supporting black ordination to opposing black ordination, but we do know that there were reasons ascribed to it and that there was some kind of historical development, and that church leaders believed to have specific reasons given to them by revelation.”

All of that is to say that we need to recognize all of these reasons that are given to support this particular practice-doctrine-policy. They were rooted in longstanding intellectual discourse throughout the western world and the Latter-day Saints absorbed it. That’s how cultures work: we absorb things, and we pick up ideas from our surrounding communities both good and bad.

LAURA HALES You mentioned that the reasons for the ban remained fluid for a long time. I feel like it always remained fluid because I have heard those reasons that you have just expounded repeated to me in the last five years. I will just throw in one more—Egyptus was black and married Ham, so that’s how we carry Cain through the global flood if you want to go there.
R. STEVENSON There are all kinds of explanations that people come up with. When I say it was the established consensus, I mean that’s the center of gravity. People generally acknowledge, “Okay, we don’t really know,” but then they have their favorite pet theories. A particularly popular one, one that I don’t find viable at all, is that the Latter-day Saint community …
LAURA HALES Thank you for bringing this one up.
R. STEVENSON The church could not possibly have survived or thrived if they had integrated African Americans into their community. Now, on the main, I don’t find this theory to be terribly viable. However, I do see where they are coming from. After all, in the 1830s, we have the Latter-day Saints in Missouri where they are facing very real persecution. Lives are being lost in part because Latter-day Saints are being perceived to be abolitionists, right, to be real race radicals.

But when we use these theories and these explanations, we need to be very particular about the timing to which these reasons and explanations should be attached. For example, if you were to talk about the Latter-day Saints in Missouri in the 1830s versus the Latter-day Saints in Utah in the 1850s, you need to use very different theories for explaining why they viewed race in the way that they did. I mean after all, if we really believed that the priesthood ban had something to do with protecting the Saints, well, here you have the Saints practicing polygamy, which is seen as horrific to politicians up and down the eastern seaboard. Hardly a day goes by where somebody doesn’t talk about the Mormons’ awful practice of polygamy. So why is it, I would ask, that the Latter-day Saints were so doggedly committed to engaging this practice that would almost prove their undoing in the 1880s and 1890s, but they’re unwilling to integrate African Americans? To me, this idea that the Saints have to protect themselves at all costs from any particular criticism, in general, doesn’t hold water, especially during the Utah period.

LAURA HALES You call the period between 1890 and 1960 the Long Night. We tend to use Brigham Young, Jane Manning James, Lester Bush, and Spencer W. Kimball as markers on our timeline, not discussing the lived experience of thousands of black Latter-day Saints and critics of the ban as a whole in our collective consciousness. As the church expanded globally during the 20th century, what new challenges did the ban create?
R. STEVENSON This is the point in which the priesthood and temple ban is seen as established policy; there is no more real debate, at least within the Latter-day Saint community. You don’t have people like Elijah or Jane, who were publicly advocating to receive endowments because they had been promised something by Joseph Smith. Rather, you have basically a white hegemony within Utah society saying, “Okay. This is who we are now. We are functionally white. And then we’ll allow the Latinos and Asians in as well. But ultimately, we identify ourselves through our European descent. If African Americans really want to be a part of us, I guess we’ll allow it but you’re not going to actively proselytize it to them.” You see the church does expand globally, even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the way it expands, to some extent, reflects its racial attitudes.

For example, Mormonism does send missionaries to South Africa in the early 1850s. But in general, they do not preach to black Africans. They preach primarily to Africaners and the English. We know that some African women were baptized at that time, as well as some others, but, in general, that was not the practice. You see the Saints sending missionaries to Asia to Europe, but, again, it is predominantly based on their sense of common European descent. You see a handful of indigenous Indians being baptized but that was not the purpose for sending missionaries there. The purpose was primarily to preach to British colonists. You really see the Latter-day Saint community have to deal with the idea of a globalizing church when they begin to send missionaries to Brazil. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the established policy was to send missionaries to the deep south of Brazil because that is where the German colonizers were. And they had a reputation for not inter-marrying with anyone of African descent. They were racist enough that the Latter-day Saints could trust that they would not have African ancestry. But eventually, you find that there just aren’t that many Germans and it’s really hard to run a church based on such a small enclave of people. So you begin to have to look elsewhere. And you have people who look typically European but, in Brazil, it is genuinely a melting pot. You’ve got indigenous Americans, and you’ve got peoples of African descent. You’ve got all these different communities intermingling together and the church is not entirely certain how to handle it.

But one thing that church leaders knew is that “we have the best genealogists in the country, and  we are committed to finding out people’s ancestry.” So they sent genealogists down to Brazil and asked every single priesthood and/or temple endowment applicant to submit their genealogy. This practice would take place in South Africa as well. Essentially, you were deemed to be African until you were proven to be European. If you could not trace all your ancestry out of either Brazil or South Africa, then you were considered to be African and, therefore, you were ineligible to either receive priesthood office or the temple endowment/ceilings. Eventually, this proved to be unsustainable because how many people could actually provide that kind of documentation? Relatively few. And you even have some people trying to game the system, producing documentation that is not entirely viable, but yet it’s still documentation, so they can, in fact, pass as white, both typically and in documentation.

LAURA HALES Brazil provides a good opportunity for us to talk about how people on the ground handled the ban. There was no explicit policy from Salt Lake on what to do to determine whether someone was from African descent, so the mission president had to come up with his own system. And you detail that. It’s not pleasant to read; it’s very uncomfortable. That’s where we get back to what you said before. It may have been a top-up ban, but there were people all along the way who had to decide, “What am I going to do here?” I listened to a podcast with Matt Harris and he was describing what the mission president in Brazil had done. He had taught the missionaries how to subtly ask for photo albums …
R. STEVENSON Look on the wall to see if they have that black grandmother. And eventually, they implemented a seventh discussion for anyone who was deemed to be of African descent. If you really insisted on being baptized, you see it all the way through to the sixth discussion. Eventually, you give the seventh discussion and you say, “All right. So we have this rule in our church that if you’re of African descent, here are the things you cannot do or cannot have, and we want you to fully know what you’re getting into.” If you read the text of the discussion—and this is easily accessible; this is not hidden away in the archives somewhere—they really don’t pull any punches, right. They make it very clear that you will not be able to do many, many things within the church. You will not be able to pass the sacrament; you will not be able to do anything that is ascribed to the priesthood.

It’s almost difficult to imagine someone sitting there and saying, “Wait, so I’m going to be asked to essentially be a second-class citizen?” And understand that Brazil had a reputation by this point of being the “land of racial democracy.” This is something they celebrated about themselves because everyone is everything. Everyone’s a little bit African, everyone’s a little bit European, everyone’s a little bit Italian, perhaps, a little bit Portuguese. We are racially equal. At least that’s the rhetoric, right. Now, whether that was true in practice is another issue. But that is certainly how Brazil branded itself. There was even a statue that was modeled after an African wet mother. It was called “Black Mother,” and it was meant to communicate the unity between the black and white races in early 20th century Brazil. So understand that the church was sort of pushing against the trend in Brazil at this time. Whereas others were celebrating racial democracy, they were very committed to preserving a Euro and indigenous-descended priesthood body.

LAURA HALES The mission president is put in this situation. He’s trying to implement the policy, doesn’t know how to do so, and, ostensibly, is doing the best he knows how.
R. STEVENSON Right. And when he was sent on a mission in Brazil in the late 1930s, the First Presidency told him very directly, “Preach only to the Germans because they and only they can be trusted to not have African ancestry.” It’s an interesting situation in which, even though there is no official formal decree about how to handle race on the ground and in this racially complicated country, people improvise, right. They come up with new ways to negotiate this overarching structure. And as some really excellent scholarships come out, you could argue that because of the global dimensions of the ban, it was never fully sustainable. Paul Reeve has argued that, at any given time in Mormon history, there was somebody of African descent holding the priesthood and/or having temple ordinances.
LAURA HALES They leaked through the system?
R. STEVENSON They leaked through. They found the loopholes.
LAURA HALES You tell a number of stories in your book that show us the lived experiences of members of the church under the ban. We’ve talked about someone in leadership. Let’s talk about another leader in Africa, President William P. Daniels of the Branch of Love.
R. STEVENSON Yes. He is a really fascinating character. So he was a tailor living in a little town called Mabre, which is right outside of Cape Town. He became acquainted with Mormonism in the 1910s and he was fascinated by it. But he was also told that, “If you are going to join this church, then you can’t expect that you’ll be holding the priesthood.” And he said, “I want to hear it from your president himself. I want to hear it from his own mouth.” So he travels to Utah and President Joseph F. Smith communicates to him that, indeed, he will not be able to hold the priesthood. The account that we have is that Daniels was crying and Joseph F. Smith was crying, and here you have this genuinely sincere African man who wants to be a member of this church so badly, and, yet, both men knew what that would mean. He returns to South African and he becomes a very public defender of the church, he speaks highly of his experience in Utah, and he begins attending church services. Now, understand apartheid, which is the restrictive laws put in place by Africaan government in the late 1940s, it was not fully in effect yet. You have some laws that were speaking to that, getting towards it, but not to the same degree. As it happens, though, the church membership in South Africa didn’t need these laws in order to feel inclined towards segregation. When William P. Daniels would attend church on the regular, church members just did not treat him well. They ignored him, they ostracized him, and he rarely stayed around for the entirety of the meeting. However, the mission president at the time, Nicholas Groesbeck Smith, the half-brother to George Albert Smith, saw what was happening, and he wouldn’t stand for it. Now, he didn’t feel like he had the power to re-shape that ward into being more racially progressive, so again he had to accommodate. And in this case, he accommodated in favor of racial inclusion rather than against racial inclusion. He approaches William P. Daniels, and he supports William P. Daniels’s efforts to begin to hold church services in his home rather than with the other white Saints. By the late 1920s,  Daniels had developed a regular church service functioning out of his home. President Donald M. Dalton saw this, and he said, “We need to institutionalize you. We need to give you official legitimacy as a branch of the church.” He called the branch the Branch of Love, and he names William P. Daniels the branch president of this branch, making Daniels the only person of African descent, to my knowledge, that held the office of branch president.
LAURA HALES Tell us the role that Lowry Nelson played in beginning this groundswell of criticism.
R. STEVENSON Lowry Nelson was one of the established academics within the church education system, and, eventually, he went on to become a noted sociologist of rural Cuba. He knew race really well, and he was attuned to race relations. Now, growing up, he claimed that he had never even heard of the priesthood or temple ban. And in fairness to him, frankly, David O. McKay hadn’t heard of it growing up either. He was out preaching a mission once, and he came across a person of African descent, and he had heard that this person could not be ordained, and he wanted to check. George Albert Smith said, “That’s right, he cannot be ordained.” So the fact that McKay wasn’t entirely sure tells us that this topic of conversation didn’t really come up a lot in the early 20th century.

Lowry Nelson is working as an academic, and, one day, he receives correspondence from Heber Meeks, who was the church leader tasked with scoping out the potential of having a mission in Cuba. Over the course of this correspondence, Lowry Nelson realizes that there was, in fact, a priesthood and temple ban in place. He had always known that Brigham Young was racist in one way or another, he had always known that there were various things said by church leaders, but he never realized that this was an institutionalized practice.

He begins to write letters to the First Presidency and said, “Listen, this is outrageous. How dare we send a mission down to Cuba when we’re going to be focusing on those of pure blood, as it were.” Well, he didn’t receive a very warm response. The First Presidency rejected all of his arguments and the specifically said, “If we were to allow peoples of African descent to receive these ordinances, it would encourage intermarriage, and we just cannot have racial intermarriage.” There were several states in the United States at that time that explicitly outlawed intermarriage, to be sure. So with that, Lowry Nelson writes an article for the nation, and in this, he publicly calls out the LDS church for embracing racist dogma. As an academic, he was certainly on the more, what we would call today, the more progressive wing of things. He would have been on the edge of society. You could find lots of white Americans who had vehemently disagreed with this or that aspect of his arguments, right, especially in the south, but even in some parts of the north as well.

He became increasingly disturbed with Mormonism’s racial practices, and he sees it as his duty and his responsibility to call out his faith community. If you read some of his comments at the time, he saw himself as a faithful dissenter. He genuinely believed in the beauty of Mormonism, but he saw this as being a really ugly and awful mole that should be left in the 19th century.

LAURA HALES So, in 1952, he reads a Deseret News article about the church’s genealogical records program in South Africa, which reported the plight of a dying woman who needed to prove non-African genealogy before she could receive her temple endowment, even vicariously. So here’s this Deseret News article that was probably trying to highlight the genealogical system, but it kind of really annoys Nelson. He requests of church leaders to write a critique. He actually goes to the first presidency and says, “Can I write an article about this?” and then what happens?
R. STEVENSON He receives a negative response. The First Presidency is not receptive to any of his arguments. They reject them out of hand and they say, “If we incorporate blacks into the LDS community, we will be encouraging intermarriage. That is unacceptable.” So with that, Nelson is utterly frustrated. He goes public. He feels no more obligation to deal with the first presidency directly anymore. He writes an article for the Nation, which is a widely-circulated, popular magazine, and in this, he calls out the church’s racial practices and doctrines. He says that he feels bonded to the Mormon community, he sees a lot of beauty in the Mormon community, but this has got to stop. If there ever was a time for this—and he would ultimately say there really never was a time—but if there ever was a time, it has long since passed and we need to get into the 20th century.

He was in tandem with other LDS intellectuals at the time as well, like Fawn Brodie and Sterling McMurrin, who similarly believed in this idea that was becoming more popular, that, okay, maybe this ban was a product of the Missouri prosecutions and was kind of an effort to self-preserve to make sure that the Saints didn’t lose their lives and their property, but that was the 1830s, folks. We’re now in the 1950s, and we can forget that.

LAURA HALES Was there a response from the First Presidency?
R. STEVENSON To the Nation article? We don’t have a response from the First Presidency proper, but we do have a response from BYU professor Roy W. Doxey. In it, he defends the ban. He does throw a bone to the racial progressives, and he says, “It is the Latter-day Saint responsibility to seek out the welfare and the well-being of the ‘negro,’” but, ultimately, he doesn’t really see any of Nelson’s critiques as being legitimate.
LAURA HALES His responses are eyebrow-raising to say the least. I was astounded that he was saying these things. He was actually a really respected theologian at BYU, and so when it’s coming from him, people are genuinely assuming he knows what he’s talking about.

One argument he makes is truly apologetic. He goes, “We don’t discriminate. In fact, you can say that we’re more expansive than other Christian religions because …” it’s hard for me to say this. “Because the priesthood is conferred on all worthy males, unlike other Christian churches.” Blacks, by their very nature, were deemed unworthy.

R. STEVENSON And this is a fairly common sentiment at the time. Roy W. Doxey, like you said, was an established Mormon intellectual. He was not a crank, he was not on the fringe. In the 1960s, John J. Stewart, who was a professor of communications at Utah State University, again, prolific, established, widely respected, writes this text called Mormonism and the Negro. In this, he offers an extensive defense of the priesthood and temple restrictions. He goes as far as saying that Heavenly Father is merciful to African Americans for not casting them out of the pre-mortal realm into perdition from the beginning. After all, he said, they were neutral, and they deserved to be cast out. The fact that Africans and African Americans exist at all is because of the mercy of Heavenly Father.
LAURA HALES You quote business professor Ronald Heifetz’s study on leadership. You say, “If a society lacks a general climate of urgency, the feeling that something must change, the society may do nothing until it is too late.” I think we can say there was no sense of urgency to get this ban removed. But things begin to change in the 1960s. Scholarly interest was piqued. LDS historian Armond L. Mauss says, “If one finds the church’s policy no negroes discomforting, the explanations for it offered by well-meaning commentators on all sides are often even worse. Historians, scholars, people on the ground start looking at these explanations instead of just accepting them point blank.” You’ve named a few people who have done that, some of the prominent critics of the time, but also, during this same period, what is going on in Africa?
R. STEVENSON From the late 1940s onward, you begin to see a groundswell of various individuals in certain African countries, specifically Nigeria and Ghana, to some extent in South Africa, but that’s a different kind of scenario, beginning to call themselves Latter-day Saints. Even though they have not been officially baptized, they have no established Mormon leadership. They send letters to church leaders saying, “Please send missionaries to us. Please establish LDS communities.” This is fairly common for the time, to be sure. In Calabar, Nigeria, for example, C.A.O. Essien, who was something of a Christian visionary, reaches out to the Church of Christ in Tennessee and asks to be affiliated with them. Throughout West Africa, you see a variety of people trying to affiliate with what’s called the Faith Tabernacle, which is this kind of Pentecostal Christian movement in the United States. They’re calling themselves part of the Faith Tabernacle, even though they’re not officially established as such. So the fact that we have people doing this with Mormonism, for students of Africa, that’s not terribly surprising, right. That’s about what we would expect to happen, even though, ironically, if you bring this up to various Africanists, it still shocks them, right. Because the idea of Mormonism and Africa, they’re seen as ideas that are fundamentally opposed to each other, right? How could you be an African and a Mormon? I mean that’s a fairly common question and I’ve received it on a couple of occasions after presentations.

But nevertheless, you have these various adherents who badly want to be associated with Mormonism in some form or fashion. It becomes so loud of a voice that even David O. McKay and the First Presidency decide to send an exploratory mission to Nigeria in the early 1960s, with the idea being that, “Okay. If these people are for real, if they’re legit, then we will send missionaries to establish an official LDS structure among them. But they will not hold the priesthood.” After this exploratory mission, both missions, both Lamar Williams and Marvin Jones come away converted to the idea of African Mormonism. Before, they were pretty skeptical, both the First Presidency and them. They were like, “Well, do these people, do they really want Mormonism, or do they just want an American handout?” But ultimately, they said, “These people want the church. Yeah. There are people who may want money but there is a core here and we need to pay attention to them.”

By 1963, however, politics had gotten in the way. John Stewart’s book, referenced earlier, had been published by this point. There was a Nigerian student attending school in California. He got his hands on a copy of this text when he attended a Mormon church. After reading it, he was livid, outraged. “How dare these people, one, say these things about Africans and, two, dare to send their missionaries to our country.” By this point, Nigeria was an independent country. There was some kind of hope towards being a cornerstone and a leader amongst the African nations, as being the most populous nation in all of Sub-Saharan Africa, for Mormons to come there and say, “Okay. Well, we will not see you as being ecclesiastical equals.” It was unacceptable to him. He writes an article in the Nigerian Outlook newspaper, and in this, he calls Mormons religious madmen who have no business coming to Nigeria. This eventually leads to any talk of Mormon missionaries being allowed into Nigeria. Scuttled. All visa applications were denied. The senior missionaries who were set to go to Nigeria were basically sent home.

It was within a few years after that that the Nigeria­–Biafra war broke out. And that was a horrific war. I mean it’s kind of the iconic African civil war in the American consciousness. You’re seeing starving babies on TV and starvation as a means of war and bombing after bombing. In many ways, it was not an ideal situation for American missionaries to be there at the time where Mormonism was really cropping up. It was in the Igbo communities of Eastern Nigeria, which also happened to be where the successionist movement of Biafra really took hold. From a military and a safety perspective, one could argue that Mormon missionaries shouldn’t have been there at all anyway. That being said, though, it’s not as though other missionaries were fearful. I mean up until the time of the Nigeria-Biafra war, the Irish Holy Ghost fathers had almost 1,500 missionaries on site in Eastern Nigeria. Could the Mormons have handled sending a few there at the time as well? Maybe, maybe not. That’s a counter-factual that we don’t need to get into here. What’s relevant to this particular conversation is that, even as you’re seeing this groundswell of criticism and opposition to Mormonism’s racial policy in the United States, you’re also seeing a groundswell of self-identification with the Mormon tradition in Nigeria and in Ghana as well.

Like I said, in South Africa, you have people like Moses Mahlangu who wants to join the church, but he is facing discrimination. It’s during the time of apartheid. He’s not having a lot of people being welcoming to his being baptized. He ends up not joining the church until 1980, but he, too, is striving to become a Latter-day Saint at that time as well.

LAURA HALES Can we credit Lester Bush’s 1973 dialogue article “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: A Historical Overview” for setting off the Rube Goldberg machine that would remove the ban?
R. STEVENSON I think it would be reductive to point to Lester Bush as being the sole factor in changing how Mormons conceptualize the history of African Americans and Africans in Mormonism. If I had to point to another catalyst in addition to that one, one in which we do have documentation, contemporaries saying that this triggered a change, it would be through an unexpected venue, and that is through intercollegiate sports.

BYU had come under heavy fire from several universities, most notably, University of Wyoming and Stanford University, for their affiliation with the LDS church and for the LDS church’s racial policy. Sporting events had become a very popular venue for black activists to express their discontent with the state of American race relations. BYU was not singular in this regard,  but that event triggered the LDS church to begin to reframe the issue. They commissioned Heber Wolsey, who was a Professor of Journalism at BYU, to go on a bit of a charm offensive. He visits church units throughout the country, he gives lectures in a number of different sites, he engages with the press quite explicitly on the issue, and he begins to reframe this less as a matter of being cursed or less as a matter of African Americans being unworthy for the priesthood and more as something that we’re doing right now, but, ultimately, is not terribly significant. He cites the stories of various African American believers who say that, “Everything is cool. Whatever it is that you’re doing with black members, I’m fine with it. I don’t see it as being essential to my ultimate salvation.” He really tries to highlight the LDS church as being a racially progressive institution.

Now, for many people, that’s a very tough sell, right, but that is the approach he’s taking. He’s trying to take control of the narrative, which is what public relations officials are trained to do. In the course of this charm offensive, he does make the comment that it’s the University of Wyoming, and Stanford, and other institutions that got this ball rolling. This is back in 1969. So at this time, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve engaged in a vote on whether to retain the priesthood and temple ban. It was unanimous except for one person who was absent, and that was Harold B. Lee. He was away on business, and when he returned, he convinced the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to rescind their vote, thus retaining the priesthood ban in place.

In 1970, a book by a young graduate student at Cornell, Stephen Taggart, is published, and it’s called Mormonism’s Negro Policy. Now, Stephen Taggart’s fundamental argument was that the priesthood and temple ban was the product of 1830s tensions with Missourians. He believed this was evidence that we should leave it behind—this is anachronistic. It might have served a provisional or temporary need in the 1830s, but it no longer serves that need.

Now, his book is kind of a tragic story. He ended up dying before it was published of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and his wife had it published posthumously. But this book, for the very first time, connects the priesthood ban not to some kind of cosmic force, not to some kind of a theological reasoning, but to the situation of the here and now, right. It’s because of what the Saints experienced in Missouri, not because of divine favor. Now, his argument was limited in some ways. In fact, it was even flawed in some ways because he suggested that the ban could be attributed to Joseph Smith. As we know from evidence regarding Elijah Abel and others, that simply cannot be documented, right. We know that Joseph Smith at least authorized African American men to be ordained to the priesthood. His argument could only go so far.

Lester Bush took Stephen Taggart’s argument, and he went even further. He said, “Okay. So Taggart, he did not get it right on Joseph Smith. Rather, we should contribute this directly to Brigham Young,” and he identifies the February 1849 comments that Brigham Young made to Lorenzo Snow. But as it happens, those are not the first comments that Brigham Young made, right. We know that Brigham Young was making opposite comments in March of 1847. That article reframes this issue as an evolutionary process, right, change over time. Stephen Taggart had said, “All right. We have this moment in time in which the priesthood began in Missouri, and it has endured to the present,” whereas Lester Bush says, “Okay. Well, we have this phase of the priesthood ban, or non-priesthood ban in the case of Joseph Smith, and then we have the initial implementation of the priesthood ban by Brigham Young, and then we have the institutionalization of the priesthood ban.” He particularized into various eras, and for that reason, it was very compelling. It even made its way into the hands of various church leaders, including people like Spencer W. Kimball, who marked it up. And we know that that article, to some extent, had influence on his thinking.

I would be loathe to say that was the only article that changed things. I mean we have an article published by Newell Bringhurst in 1978 that changed Mark E. Petersen’s mind. You have all these different influences shaping various church leaders. I mean you don’t just have articles and publications—you also have the rise of the church in Brazil, and you have the onslaught of West African proselytes to Mormonism.

I often refer to the process of changing the environment as a constellation of forces colliding together to create a perfect storm in which the priesthood ban could eventually be lifted in 1978.

LAURA HALES Unfortunately, the pain of the ban did not end in 1978. It still hasn’t ended. Tell us a little bit about who you refer to as the repairers of the breach.
R. STEVENSON I got that phrase—I mean it originates from Isaiah—but it was Catherine Stokes who referred to many Latter-day Saints as being repairers of the breach and how we have this obligation to repair the breach. Now, I use that phrase not to suggest that both African Americans and Caucasian Americans have equal responsibility in doing so. This is not just a case of massive misunderstanding. This is a case of various teachings being used that were harmful to a particular community, and those who were harmed do not have an equal responsibility as those who were doing the harm. But how did the church try to come to grips with their racial past?

In the early 1970s, for example, church leaders commissioned Alex Haley to give a commencement address at BYU. Alex Haley had become famous for his work with Roots. And Roots was wildly popular among Utah Latter-day Saints because it’s all about family history, right. You’ve got Kunta Kinte going and finding out who is ancestor is. Now, as it happens, the work of Roots was heavily plagiarized and is heavily problematic. It’s one of those works that should not be seen as serious Africana scholarship, but rather it was indicative of how many white Americans were willing to come to grips with African identity. Maybe they were racist in other ways, but they could appreciate somebody trying to find out who they are and where they came from.

Alex Haley provided a nice point of entry for the Latter-day Saint community to begin to bridge this divide that had existed between African Americans, Africans, and white Mormons for so many years. You see similar efforts in the 1980s, 1990s, of the church’s massive genealogical arm in reaching out to African Americans, saying, “Hey, listen, we know that because of the slave trade, many of you have struggled to find out who you are and where you came from. Well, we have the resources to find out who you are.” This is what ended up informing the church’s efforts to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, in which they digitized and indexed the entirety of the Freedmen’s Bureau records. For those who are unfamiliar with this institution, this was the institution that was established for helping freed African American slaves to establish themselves as laborers and as functioning members of the community. And in the process, various genealogical data points were recorded in documents. You could find out a lot about the African American and enslaved community in the mid-19th century through these records. That’s another case in which church leaders tried to extend an olive branch to the African American community. But you have many other individuals, people who joined the church after 1978, like Catherine Stokes, where she ended up serving as a kind of goodwill ambassador for the church in Ghana when the church had been expelled from Ghana in 1989 because of the Jerry Rawlings’ administration’s opposition to many American religions. She has been, in many ways, an unorthodox ambassador and an unorthodox spokesperson, but her commitment to the church has never been in question. And as such, she’s been in a position to speak truth to white Latter-day Saints who might have been less inclined to hear it because of her fidelity to the church.

LAURA HALES You noted that the degree of unanimity in the Saints’ position is shocking. That’s sobering. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
R. STEVENSON It’s interesting to me—and we see this in a lot of scholarships, such as the work of Paul Reeve and others—that the Latter-day Saint community bought so thoroughly into this idea of whiteness. They wanted so badly to be accepted by the American populace; they wanted to be white, even though many people assumed that they were something else because of their practice of polygamy and their belief in ongoing prophets. They said, “Okay. Well, whatever you are, you’re not like us and that means, okay, maybe you’re kind of like the Muslims from the Middle East, or maybe you’re kind of like the African Americans because of your supposedly immorally degenerate practices.” According to Paul Reeve, this bugged them. It got under their skin.

I think there is some merit to that. I mean we know from a conversation that George Q. Cannon had with some southern politicians that the fact that the Latter-day Saints were as opposed as they were to African Americans receiving the priesthood, it went over really well with some of these politicians. They liked it. They said, “You’re all so Aryan, you’re so Anglo-Saxon. We love how committed you are to preserving the Anglo-Saxon race. And we know that George Q. Cannon made this very public in the Deseret News. He said, “Utah is the most Anglo-Saxon out of all the territories and all of the states in the United States, and that’s something that we’re proud of, right. We’re not like those mongrels over in the south.” And missionaries would use this kind of as a proselytizing tool. “Come away from the miscegenation of Babylon. Come away from all the intermarriage. Come to the white haven that is Utah.” And statistically speaking, they were not wrong. Utah was heavily Anglo-Saxon. But the fact that they saw themselves as such, and they saw themselves as a haven for Anglo-Saxons who wanted to stay Anglo-Saxon, that tells us something about the state of racial discourse on the ground.

I point to the Latter-day Saints’ unanimity in an effort to highlight that you could argue that the Latter-day Saints had established for themselves an idol of whiteness in the same way that the children of Israel had established for themselves a golden calf. I think of Spencer W. Kimball’s comments in 1976 about the false Gods we worship, how you can worship patriotism or you can worship nationalism. Similarly, you can worship racial identity, and that is a false God, right. That is not the God that will save you, your common solidarity with your fellow Anglo-Saxon brothers and sisters, like the Latter-day Saints clearly believed in into the late-19th century.

You could see all this kind of discourse as a few different things. You could see it as indicative of change over time, but you could also see it from an ethical perspective as evidence of the Latter-day Saints erecting for themselves false deity, hoping for blessings from this idea that really had no salvation in it. There is no salvation in whiteness, there is no salvation in racial identity. According to LDS dogma, there is only salvation in the son of God, Jesus Christ.

LAURA HALES This has been a great discussion. Good luck. You’re headed off somewhere.
R. STEVENSON I’m heading off to Nigeria in a few weeks, and I’ll be there at least until January and maybe even longer.
LAURA HALES Thank you.
R. STEVENSON It’s been my pleasure.

Disclaimer:    LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.

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