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Huck Finn, Mormons, and Racial Messiness

Postponing dicussion of Stallionic Axiom #3 – it’s coming, but I’m more interested in this ludicrous decision to publish a version of Huckleberry Finn without the N word.

However, I’m always reluctant to write anything about race, because, frankly, I’m not particularly enamored with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ record on the subject. I have spent a great deal of time defending the Church’s exclusion of black members from leadership prior to 1978, and my arguments have fallen flat with others and, frankly, with me.

The facts are very complicated and messy, and it’s taken me quite a long time to sort them out and reconcile a blemished ecclesiastical history with the bedrock principle that “God is no respecter of persons,” (Acts 10:34) or, in Book of Mormon language, God “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free… all are alike unto God.” (2 Nephi 26:33)

After the Church reversed its policy excluding black leaders a little over thirty years ago, several church leaders dusted off this scripture and made it the centerpiece of several very good sermons on the subject. I particularly like Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s sermon, which contained this startlingly candid admission of error.

“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

– Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” August 18, 1978

Fine. So why do so many members of the Church feel it necessary to defend some of the more racist nonsense that these people were spouting prior to the 1978 revelation? Those who honestly and open-heartedly examine the life of Brigham Young will come to the conclusion that he was a mighty man called by God to lead the Church and do a great work.

But anyone who believes he was infallible is missing the boat.

Indeed, pretty much all of the racism that wormed its way into Church policy can be traced back to Brigham, who gave more credence to popular 19th century theories about the ancestry of the African people than he should have. It certainly doesn’t come from Joseph Smith, who received the fundamental revelations that form the spiritual foundation for the Church as it existed then and today. That scripture quoted above from 2 Nephi, for instance, has been around for over 180 years. Joseph Smith himself ordained several black men to the priesthood. When asked about “the situation of the negro,” as was the language of the time, here was Joseph Smith’s reply:

“They came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine of many of those they brush and wait on.”

– History of the Church, Volume 5, page 216.

That’s not to say that Joseph Smith was Martin Luther King, but the view expressed in the preceding paragraph is remarkably enlightened for that time period. I doubt even Abraham Lincoln, who firmly believed that blacks were inferior to whites, would have been nearly as egalitarian.

The idea that the African people descended from Cain and were a cursed race did not originate with the LDS Church. It was a popular 19th Century justification for slavery, and while Brigham Young certainly believed it, there is no scriptural justification for using that idea to exclude black members from Church leadership. Indeed, the idea was not codified as church policy until long after Brigham Young’s death.

David O. McKay, president of the Church from 1950 to 1970, made this very clear when he stated,

“There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”

David O McKay, 1954

The idea of “scriptural precedent” disturbs me somewhat. Critics of the church seize on volatile statements in the Book of Mormon that talk about a curse being placed on the Lamanites which included a “skin of darkness,” but the irony is that the Lamanites are believed to be ancestors of Native Americans, not people of African descent. Indeed, Church leaders, both then and now, consider Native Americans to be part of the House of Israel and heirs to a magnificent destiny. No one has ever tried to use those inflammatory passages in the Book of Mormon to justify keeping the priesthood from Native Americans, even though these passages are far more explicit and defamatory than the cryptic verses used to link Africans to Cain.

President McKay repeatedly stated that the priesthood ban was a policy, not a doctrine, although it would take a revelation to reverse it. My question, as well as everybody else’s question, is if it’s just a policy, then why would it take a revelation to reverse it? And why didn’t the revelation come to President McKay, who reportedly prayed very ardently to receive such?

There’s no definitive answer. I believe, however, that since President McKay was, like many of his generation, a believer in segregation, he had difficulty imagining a colorblind world. It took someone willing to fully accept the idea that “all are alike unto God,” and all the ramifications of that to open the door for the revelation. I don’t think that someone arrived on the scene until Spencer Kimball became President of the Church in 1974.

This is a fine line for many people to walk, because many believe that a church guided by revelation wouldn’t be capable of making a mistake like this, given how much damage and pain this mistake has caused over the years. But the reality is that the Lord has always guided his people line upon line, precept upon precept, according to their capacity to receive. (Isaiah 28:10) There has never been a time when the Lord’s people have been infallible, or a time when they have been led by infallible leaders. Joseph Smith himself said, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.”

Given that there was no revelation excluding black men from the priesthood, we ought not to feel the need to defend a policy that, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, clearly originated as the result of the fallibility of man, not God.

I didn’t say another word about Huck Finn, dag nab it. Maybe next time.

Stallionic Axiom #2: Electric Boogaloo
Bad Lovin'

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  1. After not understanding, then studying this issue, I have come to very similar feelings about this subject. In the few instances I’ve shared this opinion with others, I get a look like: ‘heretic! how dare you question a prophet.’

    I’m still learning to walk an interesting line between questioning church leaders (living and dead) and policies without looking like, sounding like, or actually becoming an apostate. I think there’s something to be said for those who can work within the Church on policy and not threaten other’s loyalties.

    • That’s the trick, isn’t it, WE? The fact is that the prophets themselves have more or less admitted that this was a mistake – see McConkie and McKay, above – but when members reach that conclusion, somehow they’re faithless. I think those who ride this issue out of the Church try to ignore all the positive and focus solely on the flaws. The fact that Brigham Young’s views on race were consistent with the prevailing wisdom of the day ought not to surprise anyone, nor should it diminish what he and the Church were able to accomplish.

  2. What I am curious to know:
    Why did the church restrict the priesthood from african americans, and yet allow asians, native americans, and other non-white dudes the priesthood? Eh? EH?

    • Officially, the answer is, “we don’t really know.” Unofficially, Brigham Young believed that a) descendants of Cain were to be denied the priesthood, and b) people of African descent were descendants of Cain. He therefore stopped the practice of ordaining black men, despite the fact that the church’s first leader, Joseph Smith, had no such reticence. After that, I think nobody really felt it appropriate to cross Brigham, and a bad practice became church policy by inertia more than anything else.

  3. It is so hard to think thoughts from an untainted influence. I don’t believe that prejudice thoughts are emotions we inherently feel. But because of unforeseen mistakes of thought, thought by otherwise good persons, biased opinions are inadvertently passed down to their children (or as often the case it is “picked up” by the next generation even when it isn’t taught)

    It is nearly impossible to move forward, and continue learning the lessons that come from life here on the Earth without making any mistakes. The only way to not make any mistakes in this learning process, is to stop learning. To choose to stop learning I feel is far more foolish than to continue on, with fear to set aside moment to look back and reflect with open and honest hearts. To ensure this symphony of life together living and learning in, doesn’t have a sound that has become flat. When we hear that it does, there is nothing wrong with tuning up. It is exactly what we are supposed to be doing.

    and the longer we play out of tune, the more obviously out of whack the sound will become. We shouldn’t worry too much about making temporary errors in judgement. There are always be people looking to halt the process, whatever part of it they try to pick apart doesn’t matter. The persons that do matter our wanting to hear, needing to hear the good music.

    Hit It Jim!


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