Mormonism and racial issues/Blacks and the priesthood/Double standard

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Do critics of Mormonism apply a double standard when attacking the Church on race issues?

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Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith make derogatory racial comments in the 22 October 1963 issue of Look magazine?

The critics appeal to an audience that is ignorant of the abysmal history of most of Christianity's dealings on race issues

A statement by Joseph Fielding Smith in the 22 October 1963 issue of LOOK Magazine is used as an illustration of the Church's racism,

I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Negro. "Darkies" are wonderful people, and they have their place in our church.

President Joseph Fielding Smith Look magazine, 22 October 1963, 79 [sic][1]

Racism has become one of the most strident and damaging accusations that can be leveled in our society, and as such has become a useful weapon for those who wish to harm an organization or individual. As Southern Baptists know, "Few chapters in American religious history prove as embarrassing as the response of the American churches to the issue of race."[2]:33 Thus, the critics appeal to an audience that is ignorant of the abysmal history of most of Christianity's dealings on race issues. They are obviously hoping their target audience will not notice that Latter-day Saints have always had integrated churches while other Protestant churches struggle with the residual division brought about by their own prolonged discrimination or outright expulsion of black members. Emerson and Smith assess the problem in the following manner:

Our examination of a variety of data and consideration of a variety of levels of social influence suggest that many race issues that white evangelicals want to see solved are generated in part by the way they themselves do religion, interpret their world, and live their own lives. These factors range from the ways evangelicals and others organize into internally similar congregations, and the segregation and inequality such congregations help produce; to theologically rooted evangelical cultural tools, which tend to (1) minimize and individualize the race problem, (2) assign blame to blacks themselves for racial inequality, (3) obscure inequality as part of racial division, and (4) suggest unidimensional solutions to racial division.[3]:170

LDS are, of course, not immune from the same human foibles. We, like all Christians, might wish that we had played a larger role in correcting social injustices. We must all look at our past and learn from it. But for the here and now, the LDS do have a decided advantage in our centralized leadership and our historical practice of maintaining congregations based on geographical boundaries rather than personal preference or race. Our members have never traveled past a white or black church to get to their own. We cannot fire ministers who do not succumb to the wishes of a congregation to remain racially segregated. Yet, we join all concerned followers of Christ in acknowledging that we have work ahead of us in putting aside differences accumulated through centuries of misunderstanding and intolerance.

We can only hope that the critics will desist in their racially divisive campaign against other religions. We challenge them to focus their talents on the important question of pastor Gregory E. Thomas as he says, "we must again note that a predominant pattern of church life for black churches has been that of racial separation. The question remains: why?"[4]

Bruce R. McConkie: "We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness, and all the views and all the thoughts of the past"

One statement alone, given by Bruce R. McConkie to Church seminary and institute teachers shortly after the 1978 revelation granting priesthood to all races, answers each and every objectionable statement or action that the authors can dredge up from bygone eras:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things… All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. 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. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness, and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter any more. It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year [1978]. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles.[5]

A Look Through LOOK Magazine: Not one article, photo, or ad in a full 154 pages of this colorful oversized magazine interrupts its perky Caucasian landscape by featuring an African-American

Now that the reader is aware of the true position of the LDS church on the subject of racism, let us review the authors' favored medium for authoritative information, LOOK magazine. It provides an excellent lesson in how easily sources can be excised from the very surroundings that explain them when the intent is to sensationalize rather than to inform.

The cover of the October 22, 1963 issue reflects the prevailing social culture of the nation. It pictures a radiant Jackie Kennedy-like woman sitting in a new car, smiling with her laughing toddler who is standing on the car seat next to her. The child is dressed in an unbuttoned red cardigan, the collar of her crisp white blouse peeks over the sweater and her pleated plaid skirt is accessorized with stylish black and white oxfords and bobby socks.

This issue highlighted new 1964 cars. The full-page ad on page 55 tells us "what every girl should know." Women of that era evidently needed to know that "the man who drives a Super Torque Ford is a man of substance" and that she should "marry him at the first opportunity."

Not one article, photo, or ad in a full 154 pages of this colorful oversized magazine interrupts its perky Caucasian landscape by featuring an African-American. They are not to be seen in ads, Catholic schoolrooms, or even on a featured college football team. Looking at this slice of life from the sixties, the only reason one would have to think blacks even lived in the United States is one photo on page 118 where a few blacks are pictured as the recipients of charity. The patronizing hypocrisy of examining one small church's "attitude toward Negroes" in this sort of environment has, of course, not yet settled into the mainstream of American consciousness.

"Memo From a Mormon: In which a troubled young man raises the question of his church's attitude toward Negroes" is an article that indicates a growing awareness by the magazine of the need to talk about "Negroes," but there is no urgent need to talk to them or with them. The article itself is well done and fairly presented from the point of view of a young man who wished an end to the practice of allowing blacks full membership but restricting them from participation in the lay priesthood. The rogue quote used by the authors is only found in the "Editor's Note" attached to the article. William B. Arthur, managing editor of LOOK, interviewed Joseph Fielding Smith, then acting president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. The full quote, following an explanatory paragraph, is as follows:

"I stand by every word in the article," President Smith said, after reading it aloud in Mr. Arthur's presence. "The Mormon Church does not believe, nor does it teach, that the Negro is an inferior being. Mentally, and physically, the Negro is capable of great achievement, as great and in some cases greater than the potential of the white race. He can become a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, and he can achieve great heights. The word 'inferior' is indeed unfortunate."

Mr. Arthur asked President Smith if a Negro boy can pass the sacrament in the Mormon Church, as 12- and 13-year-old white Mormon boys do. President Smith replied, "No". He then was asked whether Negro boys could prepare the sacrament, as 14- and 15-year old white Mormon boys do. The answer was "No." "Can he bless the sacrament or perform baptism, as the 16-, 17-and 18-year old white Mormon boys do?" Mr. Arthur asked. Again the reply was, "no."

"The Negro cannot achieve priesthood in the Mormon Church," President Smith said. "No consideration is being given now to changing the doctrine of the Church to permit him to attain that status. Such a change can come about only through divine revelation, and no one can predict when a divine revelation will occur.

"I wouldn't want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Negro. 'Darkies' are wonderful people, and they have their place in our Church."[6]:97

Interestingly, the article ends here. However, a statement from the body of the featured article is worth noting as it pinpoints the uncomfortable situation for LOOK's selectiveness in highlighting only Mormons.

The Negro who accepts the doctrines of the Church and is baptized by an authorized minister of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is entitled to salvation in the celestial kingdom, or the highest heaven spoken of by Paul.

It is true that the work of the ministry is given to other peoples, and why should the so-called Christian denominations complain? How many Negroes have been placed as ministers over white congregations in the so-called Christian denominations?[6]:76

A Convenient Double Standard

Perhaps the annoyance of President Smith over the double standard being applied to Mormons would be better understood if placed next to the image of Ferrell Griswold, pastor of the Minor Heights Baptist Church, addressing Klan supporters as Birmingham public schools began their first week of desegregation in the same year.[2]:41 Would the critics really have the reader believe there were no Christian leaders among those who refused blacks their basic civil liberties and denied them entrance to their churches, schools, civic centers and voting booths? While President Smith was quoted as saying "darkie" in 1963, what were other high profile white religious leaders saying and doing to give blacks basic rights, let alone positions of leadership within their own churches? Two scholars outline how white leaders left the battle for civil rights to the black churches.

In response to King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech that his children might one day play together with white children, [Billy] Graham, who had been invited but did not attend the 1963 March on Washington, said: "Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children." This was not meant to be harsh, but rather what he and most white evangelicals perceived to be realistic.[3]:47

Three years later on October 9, 1966, Martin Luther King gave his "The Pharisee and Publican" sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in which he said:

So often Negroes in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and other places have been taken to that tree that bears strange fruit. And do you know that the folk lynching them are often big deacons in the Baptist churches and stewards in the Methodist churches feeling that by killing and murdering and lynching another human being they are doing the will of Almighty God? The most vicious oppressors of the Negro today are probably in church.[7]

It is easy to look at the worst in one another, as the critics have chosen to do. There are enough quotes indicting every religious tradition to make any thoughtful person cringe. There are also well-researched, honest and informative books and articles available from scholars on every aspect of race and religion. So one has to ask, with so many others, why do critics persist in this course of action? What purpose does it serve for them?

The critics' barrage of the most negative and obscure data they can muster against the LDS might lead one to conclude that all other Christian churches were fully integrated with all races participating in leadership positions in 1963, or even in 1978 when blacks were given the priesthood by the LDS Church. The following quotes from varied and respected sources are provided so the reader has the appropriate historical context. They are not meant in any way to criticize other churches who are working so diligently to close the racial divide.

Virtually all Protestant denominations have separate Negro churches, and thus the areas of association for religious purposes have been very small.[8]

By the 1830's most southern evangelicals had thoroughly repudiated a heritage that valued blacks as fellow church members.[9]

The black Methodist church, created not from a desire to be separate but from a desire to worship without discrimination at the hands of white brethren, was to become the most enduring legacy of Methodism's refusal to accord the black communicant all of the rights and privileges of membership in the body of Christ.[10]:318

After the war the southern churches, continuing the legacy of slavery, were among the first institutions to call for the separation of the races; by the twentieth century they had become bastions of segregation. With no desire to intrude into places where they were not welcome, most black Southerners were more comfortable in their own congregations.[10]:293

By November 1968 a survey research by the Home Mission Board revealed that only eleven percent of Southern Baptist churches would admit African-Americans.[11]

The most extensive research on integration was undertaken jointly by the United Lutherans, Congregational Christians, and Presbyterians (U.S.A.). They found that 1,331 out of 13,597 predominantly white churches have nonwhite members or attenders. That is just short of 10 per cent.[12]

Still in 1964, no more than 10 per cent of the white Protestant congregations had Negroes worshiping with them. Even these 10 per cent had only a few members or occasional attenders, so that throughout the US probably no more than 1 per cent of all Negroes worshiped in integrated congregations on Sunday mornings.[13]

According to the 1998 National Congregations Study, about 90 percent of American congregations are made up at least 90 percent of people of the same race.[3]:136

About eighty percent of all black Christians are in seven major denominations.[14]:68

In 1977, the American Baptist Churches in the USA had a larger number of blacks than any other non-black denomination… An interesting irony of the racial overtones still prevalent is that the American Baptist Churches of the South are now predominately a black sub-convention of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. There has been little white involvement since the influx of black Baptists.[14]:68-69

As can be seen by this parade of statistics, the critics' talents might be more profitably spent in their own congregations rather than in pointing at the proverbial mote in their neighbor's eye.

Critics' attempt to pass off centuries of Christian belief in a "curse" as being a uniquely Mormon invention

Now let us look at the critics' stumbling attempt to pass off centuries of Christian belief in a "curse" as being a uniquely Mormon invention. The authors of Mormonism 101 ask, "If the Mormon God has removed the curse that was once on the black race, why has he not also removed the mark?"[15] Again, we should review the widely available literature on the origins of this unfortunate concept:

This interpretation of Noah's curse was no southern invention; indeed, it had been in circulation long before the discovery of America. Even so, it proved especially useful to white masters of the South because they had been put on the defensive by the powerful emancipationist movement.[16]

The story of Noah's Curse was so ingrained into the orthodox Protestant mind that it was sometimes invoked far from the pulpit. Speaking before the Mississippi Democratic State Convention in 1859, none other than Jefferson Davis defended chattel slavery and the foreign slave trade by alluding to the "importation of the race of Ham" as a fulfillment of its destiny to be "servant of servants."[10]:107

Once again, the reader is left to decide whether critics are completely ignorant of the history of race theory, anthropology, and the centuries-old Christian use of the Bible to justify slavery or if they are simply race-baiting. One is truly forced to ponder this as they selectively use quotes and remove portions that may reflect positively on Mormons. They turn to such sources as little-known "Mormon writers" instead of using authoritative sources that the LDS recognize as accurately representing their beliefs. They relentlessly refuse to deal with modern Church practice and teachings that are well attested to by living leaders, preferring instead to use dated and out-of-context quotes that obviously clash with our modern social sensibilities.

Gospel Topics, "Race and the Priesthood"

Gospel Topics, (2013)
Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, wrote in 1907 that the belief was “quite general” among Mormons that “the Negro race has been cursed for taking a neutral position in that great contest.” Yet this belief, he admitted, “is not the official position of the Church, [and is] merely the opinion of men.”

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To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 233. ( Index of claims )
  2. 2.0 2.1 Andrew M. Manis, "'Dying From the Neck Up:' Southern Baptist Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement," Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 1999)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Richard O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  4. Thomas, "Black and Baptist in the Bay State," 75.
  5. Bruce R. McConkie, "All Are Alike unto God," an address to a Book of Mormon Symposium for Seminary and Institute teachers, Brigham Young University, 18 August 1978.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jeff Nye, "Memo from a Mormon: In which a troubled young man raises the question of his church's attitude toward Negroes," LOOK (October 22, 1963)
  7. Marty Bell, "Fire in My Bones: The Prophetic Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.," Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 1999), 13.
  8. Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of An Idea in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 447.
  9. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989), 107.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Forrest G. Wood. The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
  11. Dana Martin, "The American Baptist Convention and the Civil Rights Movement: Rhetoric and Response," Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 1999), 44.
  12. Robert Root, Progress Against Prejudice: The Church Confronts the Race Problem (New York: Friendship Press, 1957), 59.
  13. J.C. Hough, Black Power and White Protestants: A Christian Response to the New Negro Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 177.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Gregory E. Thomas, "Black and Baptist in the Bay State," American Baptist Quarterly (March, 2002).
  15. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 243.
  16. H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But… Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1972), 131.