Brigham Young in Context

I’ve talked about my church’s checkered racial track record on this blog before, but I suspect the issue will become increasingly interesting to the mainstream press as Mitt continues to plod his way toward the Republican nomination.

(Tom Smart/WASHINGTON POST) - Darius Gray, left, and Don H. Harwell, both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah.

So, like many Mormons, I read this article in the Washington Post with interest, and I found it to be generally fair and accurate, although I cringed mightily as BYU professor Randy Bott spouted racist folklore to justify the exclusion of black members of the church from leadership positions and temple worship. (My brother-in-law incidentally wrote a great column on this for the Deseret News that was published this morning – I recommend it to you with the highest possible praise.)

As the story developed, I was thrilled when the Church issued a very bold statement denouncing Bott and affirming the church’s commitment to racial equality. I repeat the statement here in full.

The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.

The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.

Amen.

This whole episode prompted a lengthy discussion with my cousin who, as I chronicled previously on this blog, has left the LDS Church for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the racism found in statements by former Church leaders. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m betting you’re going to hear quite a few of those statements during this election season, and some of them are pretty gruesome.

So, to beat the pundits to the punch, I’ll share one of them with you.

Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.
– Brigham Young, as found in the Journal of Discourses 10:111 

Yikes.

My cousin then went on to link this statement to the horrific lynching of a black Mormon who was murdered for his courtship of a white Mormon woman. My cousin cites the preceding statement as the impetus for the crime, calling Brigham a “tyrant of a prophet” who was “commanding coldblooded murder.” I had heard Brigham’s previous quote, but not the accompanying story, and I found it extraordinarily disturbing.

Then I read Brigham Young’s full sermon in which that quote is found, and I had a remarkable experience that I recounted to my cousin in the following reply, which has been edited here from its original form:

__________

[Cousin], I had never read the full sermon from which your quote above was taken – until tonight. And I have you to thank for that, because I actually feel a whole lot better about Brigham Young’s racial attitudes than I ever have. Indeed, I think he’s getting a pretty bad rap here.

In the preceding paragraph to the one you quote, Brigham makes the following statement:

I am no abolitionist, neither am I a proslavery man; I hate some of their principles and especially some of their conduct, as I do the gates of hell.

What principles and conduct does he hate, then? In this sermon, he makes it clear that he hates how proslavery men feel they can abuse and savage their “property” at will. For instance, just two paragraphs after he makes the incendiary statement you posted, he says this:

If the Government of the United States, in Congress assembled, had the right to pass an anti-polygamy bill, they had also the right to pass a law that slaves should not be abused as they have been; they had also a right to make a law that negroes should be used like human beings, and not worse than dumb brutes. For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.

I am neither an abolitionist nor a pro-slavery man. If I could have been influenced by private injury to choose one side in preference to the other, I should certainly be against the pro-slavery side of the question.”

Already, those past two paragraphs make him far more enlightened than a good chunk of the 19th Century populace. Consider, for instance, this statement:

I am not now, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man.

– Abraham Lincoln

But could anything possibly justify the incendiary statement you quoted at the outset? Let’s look at the money sentence, where Brigham says that “[i]f the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.”

This comes in the midst of a sermon that, overall, has little or nothing to do with race. Every other mention of race is in the paragraphs I previously shared, and those are clearly derisive of white people who abuse slaves and treat them like animals. So why suddenly bring up the whole issue of a death penalty for interracial marriage?

Well, wait a minute. He makes no mention of marriage. And he only suggests one party in the group ought to be put to death – the “white man of the chosen seed.” Where is the mention of the black woman being put to death? It’s not there. Why isn’t it there? Because in the act Brigham is describing, those black women are victims who have done nothing wrong.

In 1863, when this sermon was given, there was no clamor for interracial marriage. The overwhelming majority of whites and blacks were repulsed by the idea, and Brigham would have had no need to rail against it.

So these “white men of the chosen seed” weren’t marrying these women; they were raping them.

Brigham, thankfully, wasn’t cool with that.

It was common practice, even among the relative handful of Latter-day Saints who owned slaves, to sexually assault their female slaves, causing some church leaders to decry the idea of men with “white wives” and “black concubines.” After all, the conventional wisdom went, there was no harm in doing whatever you wanted with what was wickedly considered to be mere subhuman property.

Brigham, again, is here saying that that’s just not cool. He’s saying that raping a black woman will call down the condemnation of God just as surely as the rape of a white woman will.

Incidentally, who are the “white men of the chosen seed?” If it’s all white men, then why does he add that “chosen seed” qualifier? Elsewhere in the same sermon, he rails against the pro-slavery whites in Missouri and their corruption and wickedness.

So they’re not the “chosen seed;” the Latter-day Saints are. So Brigham Young’s point, then, was that Latter-day Saints who rape their slaves deserve to be struck dead on the spot, and this “will always be so.”

I’m kinda OK with that.

Notice, too, that he talks about “the law of God,” and continually makes that the qualifier. In other words, that’s what these people deserve if God were fully in charge. But in many sermons, he also recognized the fact that the laws of God can only be enforced when God himself rules, and so, in the meantime we’re subject to the law of man – a law that Brigham himself was pretty much in charge of making.

So did Utah law call for the death penalty for interracial relationships? Nope. The law, according to an 1860 account, stated the following:

“Slaves coming into the Territory with their masters of their own free will, continue to be in all respects slaves, but cruelty and withholding proper food, raiment, etc., makes the ownership void. Every master or mistress who has carnal relations with his or her Negro slaves forfeits his or her right to the slaves, who thereby becomes the property of the commonwealth. Every individual man or woman who has carnal relations with a Negro or a negress who is sentenced to imprisonment not exceeding three years, and to a fine from 500 to 1000 dollars.” (A Journey To Great Salt Lake City 1:469-70)

So, with this context, suddenly Brigham looks pretty darned enlightened, really. Yes, just like far too many Protestants of his age, he believed black people were descended from Cain and carried a curse, but Brigham’s statement is actually a statement that rises above the prevailing sentiments of the day, a statement that says these slaves are human beings, not animals, and you priesthood holders will be held accountable before God for how you treat them.

Thus the linkage of the statement you quote and the horrific lynching of a black man who was Brigham Young’s friend and in his employ makes absolutely no sense. To claim Brigham was “commanding coldblooded murder” here is to completely invert Brigham’s intent. The murderers were breaking the laws that Brigham himself had placed on the books. They were committing the kind of act Brigham decried in his sermon – treating negroes like “worse than dumb brutes” and committing acts for which “the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.” So if they had heard Brigham’s sermon, they would have gotten condemnation, not encouragement.

This is not to say Brigham Young wasn’t a racist. Certainly, by today’s standards, he was. And if this quote had originated from a recent leader, I think there’s little question that whoever uttered those words should be removed from office, be it the President of the Church, an Apostle, or the guy who sets up the chairs.

In 1863, however, I think the Lord would have a very hard time finding leaders who had enough racial understanding to be as shocked by those words as we are today.

We’re told repeatedly that we learn line upon line; precept upon precept. Hymn #2, “The Spirit of God,” exults in the fact that “the Lord is extending the Saints’ understanding,” and I’m therefore very wary of judging social mores of 1852 by the light of what we now know as a church, a nation, and a world in 2012.

_____

Thank you for reading this all the way through. Drive home safely.

 

Pre-Michigan Mitt Misgivings
Good Men in Context

16 thoughts on “Brigham Young in Context”

  1. I just barely found this article and I really liked it. You have done an admirable job of deconstructing what Brigham Young said and of helping defuse in some small way the rampant misinterpretations of the man.
    I say ‘small’ because the vast majority of people quoting BY on websites and in blogs have a clear objective to defame and vilify both him and the LDS Church and for this reason quote (and sometimes misquote) only the most inflammatory statements, always taken out of context.

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