February is black history month. Many white members of The Church will say “who cares?” or “good for them!” or even “aren’t they over that yet?” and move on about their daily tasks. That’s unwise. With the presidential election in full swing, our faith and our history of race relations has come under the spotlight of public scrutiny and the intensity will continue to grow. As that happens, I am hopeful that we as members are educated to move the discussion forward instead of saying things that are harmful to the Church and hurtful to many of our members.
The United States has a long history of difficult race relations. My home teacher served in the Air Force in the South, and was shocked when he found it unlawful to share a cab off base with his black friend. They couldn’t go into the same restaurants or get their hair cut at the same barbershops. This was in the days of segregated restrooms and water fountains. Most of us, as members, have never had state laws dictating where we are allowed to go and with whom we are allowed to congregate. People can’t tell by looking at you if you are Mormon.
Many of us live in areas that are not racially integrated, so we have never had to examine our long-held beliefs and traditions. Just to give a hint of my thoughts on this–having one or two non-white members of your ward doesn’t really allow you to claim you have a lot of experience in race relations. The reality is that most Mormons live in the Western United States, which has a much lower concentration of blacks. In those those states where LDS are 5% or more of the population, the percentage of blacks does not reach the national average. (Source: US Census data)
Even in California, which has a large population of Church members, the percentage of blacks is only 6.2%, still below the national average. If one factors in how many blacks actually attend Church with you, it highlights the reality that you probably don’t frequently interact with black Americans. This translates into never needing to examine your traditions and beliefs. Even if you don’t have a racist bone in your body and you love all people as children of God, you may still not realize that some things you say are hurtful or simply untrue.
Here is a list of three myths that are often repeated, and simply must stop.
Myth #1: Blacks couldn’t have the priesthood because they had the curse or mark of Cain
This belief was commonly held by many Protestant denominations in early American history. It was often used as a justification for slavery and reached its peak about the time of the Civil War. Many people who joined the LDS Church brought this teaching into the Church with them. Most Protestants later changed their talking points on this to say the children of Cain were wiped out during Noah’s flood, so the cursing came though the flood through Ham. Therefore, the more modern phrasing of this belief is the so-called “curse of Ham.” But the curse of Cain continued to be taught in the then geographically isolated LDS Church.
While the scriptures do talk about a mark being put on Cain, there is no scriptural explanation of what that mark may be or how it relates to the priesthood. One member of my high priest quorum suggested the mark is likely to be male pattern baldness.
There is a scripture in the Book of Moses talking about the children of Canaan being black (Moses 7:8), but there is no given connection between Cain and Canaan. Just because a name sounds similar, doesn’t make it the same.
Even in the Book of Abraham, the priesthood restrictions were not put on “blacks”, but on the lineage of the Egyptian Pharaoh. This was at the time of Abraham, long before Jesus Christ. If you were alive at that time, it is likely you would have been restricted from that priesthood as well.
Myth #2: Blacks were neutral or less valiant in the pre-existence
This terrible teaching was repudiated by none other than Brigham Young himself. Unfortunately, it continued to be perpetuated by many members throughout our history, and even ended up in books authored by Joseph Fielding Smith.
In an interview, apostle Jeffery R. Holland said the following: “One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.” (Source: http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html#1)
For those who are troubled by the fact that explanations given historically are now being repudiated, we have to look at the words of Bruce R. McConkie, who was originally a proponent of those theories. He said, “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.” (Source: http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=11017)
Myth #3: The best example to explain blacks not having the priesthood comes from the Levites. The Levites were able to hold the priesthood, while others were not. This shows how God restricts people of certain lineages from receiving the priesthood just like he did with blacks.
While it may be true that Levites could hold the priesthood while others could not, it has little to do with this issue. The ancient practice where only one group is able to exercise the priesthood and work in the temple has little in common with modern times when everyone is able to hold the priesthood except for one group. Repeating this claim as an explanation doesn’t provide adequate support for the argument, and the claim completely falls apart when we recognize that Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, William Smith, and Orson Hyde all ordained blacks to the priesthood in the 1830s and 1840s. The explanation is not helpful and can be hurtful.
So why couldn’t blacks have the priesthood? Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.”(Source: http://www.abc.net.au/compass/intervs/hinckley.htm)
Men are slow to change in their beliefs. Even in the New Testament, Peter had to be lifted beyond his prejudice to sit and eat with the Gentiles. I hope we all take the time to familiarize ourselves with this topic and not perpetuate the hurtful and harmful myths that have been repeated for so long.
It is worth an hour or two of our time to read several articles on Mormonism and race, so we can help those around us. It will help us relating to African-Americans who join the Church. It will help us in teaching our children in such a way that they won’t make hurtful assumptions. It will help us in keeping our children from falling away as they learn about this past practice. Finally, it will help us in explaining our beliefs to those outside of our faith. It is not only simply worth our time to learn about black history, it is essential.
Important articles on this topic:
Black LDS History Timeline. This has been updated recently. If there is more that should be added, please let us know.
A study in Misplaced Apologetics
LAMANITES, THE SEED OF CAIN, AND POLYGAMY, part of a larger book review and well worth the read.
Blacks and the Priesthood
Origin of the priesthood ban
Understanding pre-1978 statements
Note: This article is republished from the FAIR Journal