[Editor’s note: This was a graphics rich presentation. This transcript does not include slides from the presentation.]
The title I’ve given this presentation is “Blacks in LDS History: A Faith-FULL History”. We’ll talk a little bit about some of the issues that we come across when people describe us. I recently looked at the Krakauer book to see what he said about race–because I knew that he was going to bring that up–and sure enough he’s got it that blacks were never given any rights in the Church; that there was discrimination until 1978 when it was suddenly lifted.
Let me just sort of open things up a little bit. How early do we have African-American converts to the Church? Just throw out a guess-
I actually heard the right number: 1832 when Elijah Abel (Br. Abel’s right there2) was baptized by Ezekiel Roberts and he actually did hold the priesthood and was even a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy–that was never changed. He has a most interesting obituary that talks about his certification as a seventy and his recertification as a seventy. It says, Elijah Abel died consequent to “old age and debility” after serving his third mission for the Church.
He was the first undertaker in Nauvoo–actually assigned that by Joseph Smith; given that assignment because Elijah was a carpenter and carpenters traditionally did those jobs. You can imagine that a carpenter would know how to build a coffin. Carpenters also did a lot of upholstery. I went back to some of the books of the time to look at advertisements for carpenters and they’ll say, ‘Upholstery, furniture, coffins’ the whole thing. And so Elijah Abel was one of the founding members of the carpenter society of Nauvoo and the first undertaker.
We know that he was at the bedside of father Smith at father Smith’s passing. And that must have been very, very tender for him. The books that Darius and I have written take some liberties so we put them in- I’d call them historical ‘faction’ because we have been really researching hard to try and keep things as accurate as possible but obviously we have to fill in the blanks periodically.
We don’t have a written history by Elijah Abel–we do by another woman, Jane Manning James, another black convert–so we look at the records and what other people say, mentions of Elijah Abel in the history of the Church and from that sort of gather what was happening in his life and what his contributions were. We know about his missionary service. We certainly know the esteem in which he was held.
The fact that he was a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy and that was verified for him in 1877 that indeed that calling had never been changed.
Let’s just do a couple of other word definitions because one of the things that we come across in literature about blacks and the Church is the word ‘curse’. So let’s- and I should tell you that it goes beyond blacks. I taught Spanish Institute for five years and my students would read in the Book of Mormon about a curse and ask if they were under some sort of a curse.
So what’s the definition of a curse? (Are you feeling like you’re in Sunday School? (Laughter)) Well etymologically a curse is a separation–a separation of God from men.
So how do you perpetuate a curse generation through generation? If a generation or a lineage is going to be cursed, how will that happen? Hatred will do it. Any false tradition will do it. That’s maybe the biggest teaching of the Book of Mormon.
If you look at the Book of Mormon, if you just- if you wanted to read it just as a text about race you actually would find some remarkable things. You would find the division of the races possibly being pretty superficial. It may deal simply with lifestyle where you have one- they become a race, the Lamanites living outside as savages, and you have kind of an ‘indoor people’. Hugh Nibley talks about this a little bit in some of his books. But eventually it becomes a full-fledged two races opposed to each other but it’s not real hard for the races to shift sides and then we get the righteous dark-skinned people, righteous Lamanites, the people of Ammon–some remarkable things, Samuel the Lamanite.
And there’s no mention of- ‘and his skin turned color’ but the curse is not there and there is mention of “they became a righteous people” (Alma 19:35) and they were no longer cursed. My interpretation is that the curse in the separation from God is lifted and the greatest example is in 4 Nephi where there are no -ites3 among them. They’re of one heart and of one mind, all together in Christ and what changes it? Exactly what we know will change it–they return to their divisions.
They return to the rich being very proud of their wealth; the poor becoming downtrodden and the -ites come back. There’s a whole scripture that goes through the new -ites, the new divisions that we will have and ultimately it ends in the destruction of one of the peoples–not the utter destruction but pretty close.
Probably the greatest theme- I think my very favorite scripture that I remember teaching in Spanish many years ago in Mexico that says, it’s in the very last of the Book of Mormon quoting Isaiah:
And awake, and arise from the dust … and put on thy beautiful garments … that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled. (Moroni 10:31)
Those covenants are not race specific, they are righteousness specific; those who choose to follow God will be a chosen people. And then the next verse says, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him”, and so the invitation goes out to all and of course we’ve already–in 2 Nephi 26–we’ve already had the scripture “all are alike unto God” and all are invited to partake “black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen” and all are alike unto God. (verse 33) It becomes thematic throughout the whole Book of Mormon.
So then we get to deal with our own history and I’m not going to go into- I think Armand Mauss is going to be talking a lot about the origins of the priesthood restriction. He’ll be doing that tomorrow. I’m not going to talk about that; we can maybe field a couple of questions. My co-author will field questions with me at the right time. But I want to tell you about these people. I want to tell you about the remarkable faith of the people that we have come to know.
The research for these books has been really, I would call it, miraculous. We just would have things drop into our laps. Darius met a man in a temple who said, ‘You’re working on those books about the black pioneers.’ There’s this black man, some of you may have heard of Abner Howell–if you’ve read our third book you’ve heard of him. He said, ‘He left me all of his life’s possessions, his patriarchal blessing, a letter from LeGrand Richards,’ you know remarkable things, ‘would you like those?’
And he came to my office where Darius and I were working and turned all of them over to us. Elder Marion D. Hanks took us through his house and just started pulling books off the shelves, ‘I think you could use this, a book by John A. Widtsoe typewritten. I don’t know if there is another copy in the world about his research on the issue.’ And then a tape, made by a remarkable man who I’m going to tell you about later, Len Hope.
Over and over we would have these experiences, you know, a sudden email contact from somebody who apparently needed their story told or an ancestor’s story. Somebody taking us aside and saying, ‘I’ve got all of these artifacts of Green Flake and did you know that my great-grandfather was at this pioneer appreciation day where Green Flake spoke and I have the words.’
All of a sudden we’re accessing stuff that I’ve never seen any place else and it really was the windows of heaven. It has been an absolutely remarkable project.
So let me tell you about- let’s move on to the next one, you’ve seen Elijah, I think the big thing I want you to notice about him is his race. Anybody have any questions? Is there a chance that he’s white? Probably not. Is this just somebody’s depiction? I actually talked to Richard Van Wagoner who helped write A Book of Mormons with Steve Walker and said, ‘Where did you get that?’ And he said, ‘We found it in a museum. The paper appears to be appropriately time-dated, we think this is an official likeness of Elijah Abel.’ We know from census records that he was listed either as black or as mulatto, but certainly he was of African descent. There really was no question of that.
We want you to know what attention the Church has been paying to Elijah Abel and to some of our other pioneers. This is the Elijah Abel monument4, the Genesis Group–and we’ll field questions about the Genesis Group–President Gray was just released as president after six years incredible years of service this past Sunday.
This is Elder Ballard with (the guy’s whose name I don’t remember), the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation, anyway this is the monument to Elijah Abel that we dedicated this past summer- last year that talks about who he was. It’s right next to his grave in the Salt Lake Cemetery and mentions his priesthood, that he held it. And Elder Ballard spoke about it, he spoke about the priesthood revelation of 1978, paid tribute to this black man and did say that he was a black man–the reason I emphasize that is that there actually did arise some controversy over whether or not- people said well there were two Elijah Abels, one was white and one was black and there were some other things as soon as his race was discovered he was dropped from the quorum and so we just want to kind of put those to bed quickly and move on, don’t need to spend a lot of time with them. If you want to go out to the Salt Lake Cemetery and find Elijah Abel, he’s buried next to his wife Mary Ann, and the monument is right there beside him.
We had wonderful support from the Church. We’ve had general authorities present at a number of things where we’ve been able to pay tribute to our black pioneers.
Jane James is probably the most famous of the pioneers. How many of you have heard of Jane? But not everybody! Interesting.
This is her brother, his name was Isaac; we call him Lew in the books because her husband was also named Isaac and this is the best picture we have of Jane.5 There’s another picture where she’s with a lot of the pioneers but let me just give you sort of the basics of her life because what- my goal here has a fairly liberal focus–I just want to give you a sense of the black legacy in this Church. I can’t do it in a full- I can’t tell you everybody who joined the Church and recite their testimony but I can tell you of a few of them and then you consider that they are not the only ones.
Consider that all of us are dealing with a racist history in this nation. That at the time the Church was founded in 1830, at the time Elijah Abel joined in 1832 the Nat Turner case (1831) was fresh news. There was fear of slave uprisings, there was all sorts of fear of what was going to be happening because of the race issue all throughout the nation and we’re not even going to go into what happened in Missouri with the driving out of the Latter-day Saint people and the association of the slavery issue with that.
But Jane Manning James came in contact with the missionaries, Charles Wandell (I’ll mention him in case any of you are related) in Connecticut and became converted and in fact had a vision of Joseph Smith. And if you heard the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple by- when Elder Monson spoke on the Thursday (I didn’t hear it), my husband came home just absolutely thrilled because he had quoted Jane Manning James; and it was from an interview she did with the young women in the Young Women’s Journal where she said, ‘I saw Joseph Smith’s face, I saw it plain and I had to gather to Nauvoo.’
Now it wasn’t easy for black people to go anywhere especially if you’re moving from Connecticut which was a free state to Illinois where very recently we’ve had the execution of an abolitionist publisher, Elijah Lovejoy. And in fact they were stopped in Peoria, Illinois. Let me backtrack just a little bit to give you some of the most poignant parts of her life history.
They began walking from Wilton, Connecticut, intending on taking a canal boat from Buffalo, New York, but they were told they couldn’t get on the canal boat unless they could present their money immediately, which they could not do. But again, it’s- if the boat is to take on so many people of color we expect something a little different of you and it’s certainly not uncommon in the time. So Jane says, ‘So we began to walk. We walked 800 miles, we walked until the soles of our shoes wore out and we could see the blood- our footprints in blood on the snow. We knelt in prayer, “we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet. Our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith. …we went on our way” singing praises to God and thanking him for his goodness and mercy and healing our feet as he had.’6
That was her attitude. Shortly thereafter they were stopped by a sheriff who threatened to put them in jail unless they could show their free papers and she said the only papers we had were our membership records in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since they had never been slaves. Her mother had been a slave but Jane had not.
Then finally they came to Nauvoo and we don’t know what all happened. She goes- she has one sentence where she says, ‘We met much rebuff.’ Certainly there must have been suspicion even from the Saints, we would hope that we would be better but we know what the times were like and they experienced some difficult things that she summarizes just in that phrase, ‘We experienced much rebuff.’
And then finally Orson Spencer led them to the Mansion House where Joseph and Emma were living and interestingly, now you have you imagine they’ve walked 800 miles. We know that Jane did not have the clothes that she had planned on having, she had put her trunk of clothes on the boat in Buffalo, they hadn’t arrived–they never did arrive in Nauvoo. So she’s probably wearing the same dress she’s been wearing for 800 miles through all of the- they’ve gone through rivers up to their necks, she talks about, they’ve slept outside where the snow would fall on their faces and here they are at the Mansion House. Emma Smith meets them at the door and says, ‘Come in, come in all of you.’ And these are from- these are the words from Jane’s own life history.
So they went inside, Joseph Smith came down and said to some women in the parlor, ‘We’ve got company come’ and then invited this black family to come inside and told them, ‘I want to hear about all of your trials.’
Jane was the spokesperson and Joseph Smith said to her, “You have been the head of this little band, haven’t you!” and she said, ‘I have, sir.’
Then, the way she puts it, ‘I told him all we had experienced–and much more than I can now recount, as my memory has faded.’ Some of us can identify with that.
Dr. Bernhisel was with him, Joseph Smith turned to Dr. Bernhisel and said, “Isn’t that faith?” Dr. Bernhisel replied, ‘I rather believe it is. I think if it had been me, I would have turned around and returned to my home!’
Of course her trials did not end there. Her husband left her for 20 years–returned, they were divorced but he died in her home and his funeral was held at her home. Not only that but she had begun petitioning for Temple blessings. Interestingly, the date of her first petition is the date of Elijah Abel’s death. So we associate those two things together. Elijah Abel died Christmas day 1884, Jane James goes to John Taylor on that very same day–which we know from a letter written the 27th where she says, ‘I called at your house last Thursday to have some conversation with you concerning my future salvation.’ She goes on to petition for temple blessings saying, ‘Inasmuch as this is the fulness of times and through Abraham’s seed all mankind may be blessed is there no blessing for me?’
Well from that- that’s only the beginning of the petitions that are going to go from president to president; she’ll go to Zina Young; she’ll go to John Taylor- she’s already gone to John Taylor she’ll go to Joseph F. Smith; she’ll go to Wilford Woodruff’s house, he will write about it in his journal. But after the death of her husband–and this is the man who abandoned her–she goes and asks if he can be adopted into Joseph Smith’s family. She wants to be adopted, Emma had told her that Joseph had wanted her to be adopted as their child and so she not only asked for herself but asked for her husband.
This- I think you’re not going to see this terribly well but I want to give you a sense of who Jane was. Of course that’s me, that’s my co-author, what you’re seeing here is the monument7 we dedicated to Jane Manning James and I wish there were time to tell you about the day we dedicated this monument and the day before which was evidence of the bells of Hell. This must have been awfully important to have the things happen that happened for us to get this up!
David B. Haight presided at this, actually David Haight’s ancestor Isaac Haight was in James’ company and he talked about Jane Manning James and said, ‘I know that she took care of my family because that’s the kind of person she was.’ What we’ve depicted here, and the sculpture is done by a man named Leroy Transfield, is Jane giving two pounds of flour to Eliza Partridge Lyman. We would not know of this event were it not for Eliza’s journal and I love the way Eliza is so subtle sometimes. She talks about the California missionaries, Amasa Lyman, her husband, Porter Rockwell, (I just found out that one of my great-great grandfathers was in the group- great-great-great-) and she says, ‘My husband has been called to go to California with,’ and names everybody else, ‘may the Lord bless and prosper them on their way. They left us nothing in the house nor any way to get it!’ (Laughter) Now is that subtle?
Another she says that I love is, ‘I do not think,’ when she comes to Salt Lake, ‘I do not think our enemies need disturb here. I do not believe they will envy us this locality.’ (Laughter)
Anyway, two weeks later after she’s put that entry, ‘They left us nothing in the house nor any way to get it’ she says, “Jane James, a colored woman, let me have two pounds of flour, it being about half she had.” To me, this sculpture from a time we thought of what we ought to have pictured, this to me has been Joseph in the Old Testament who his own brothers didn’t recognize, who they had harmed, who they had sought to kill or to enslave, and it was he who delivered them and told them that what they intended for evil, God meant for good. (Genesis 50:20)
To me this is another vision of Joseph and it’s why we called the play, “I am Jane”, the play about Jane Manning James. For me that’s why that title was the chosen one because it harks back for some to the words, ‘Brothers, “I am Joseph”‘ (Genesis 45:3) The first time he spoke to them in the language they all knew, the language of their childhood which acknowledged their common parentage and their brotherhood and gave him an opportunity to return good for evil. This to me is Joseph.
Let’s go on to the next one, Green Flake. Now I don’t know if you realize that there were three, they’re called colored servants, if you go to the Brigham Young monument just west of the Salt Lake Temple and look at all of the pioneers listed, all of the names that you’re very familiar with, and then there are three bracketed and it says “colored servants”. And those three are Green Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby.
Green Flake was a wedding gift at age 10 with a young girl named Liz Flake, remarkable stories for both of them. Green was told that his mother had died–which was not true–they didn’t want him running off to find her and I think that’s one reason that his gravestone (which we’ll show you in a second) says what it does. Family became very important to him. But I want to talk about him as a Mormon convert.
You may think that a slave would have been coerced to join the LDS Church, if his master did–and I don’t know what the circumstances were I just know that in John Brown’s journal it’s recorded that one of the slave boys, Green, was baptized into the Church. What we do know is that he stuck with it. In fact, in Idaho he was called, ‘the best damn missionary we have.’
He had gone to Idaho to call his son to repentance, his son had a little drinking problem, and Green Flake went up there and ended up dying in Idaho. His body was sent back to be buried next to his wife in the Union Cemetery.8 It was a good gravestone, I’ll just tell you about it, you can go visit it in the Union Cemetery (the words are very hard to read on that picture anyway) the words that he chose and helped to carve on his gravestone are “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” And, as it was explained to me by a friend of his descendants, that was intended to be a message and an invitation to his children, that they did not to be separated as Green had been separated from his family; that the gospel in fact gave them the possibility of dwelling in a mansion on high.
Now, we come to Len Hope. We were so thrilled to get these pictures of Len Hope; this is Len and Mary, if you’ve read our books they don’t come up until the third book. Do you recognize the young missionary with them? That’s Marion D. Hanks.
I’m probably not going to get through the whole PowerPoint so let me just tell you Len’s story because I think it’s a really good place to finish up with, I was going to do a little warning of some of the literature that’s out there. I’ll just tell you to beware of the Elijah Abel Society; it is not what it pretends to be. If you find that on the Internet–and you will if you look up Elijah Abel or anything like it–it has an agenda and I had that included in the PowerPoint as a warning that there are some people out there who are coming across as great missionaries who actually have the agenda of talking about the curse of Cain and the official Church position on that is we do not know why the restriction existed and erase everything else. It should not be taught, that that is in the past. So we move on from that and I’m not even going go there, I’m going to finish up with this remarkable story of Len and Mary Hope.
Let me first of all just set the stage for you and let me do it with Len’s own voice. (Can somebody turn on that CD?) This is Len. I just wanted you to hear his voice, he’s a little hard to understand, that recording was made back in the 40s in Elder Hanks’ living room when Len came to visit in Salt Lake City and we’ve tried to improve it, his accent is strong and the recording has- that’s as much as we’ve been able to improve it.
But he talks about wanting to get religion. And joining the Baptist Church and then feeling, actually having a dream of himself being baptized again and realizing there was another baptism ahead of him.
When he read about the Holy Ghost, and he was a sharecropper’s son, lived in a very isolated farmhouse, probably just a little cabin, a ramshackle shack that had corn stalks- he describes everything around the cabin, how it was all grown with- they didn’t waste any of the soil so there wasn’t a walkway leading up to it, there was just corn stalks and whatever else and nonetheless he could read and he had a Bible and he wanted to find out about the Holy Ghost because as he read in the scriptures he saw that the Holy Ghost could “bring all thing to your remembrance” and “teach you all things” (John 14:26) and as he put it, ‘I thought if that gift was available, everyone ought to have it.’
So he made his way to a place where wanted to feel isolated and cast off so the Lord would take pity on him. What it was, was another sharecropper’s cabin that had been long since abandoned, the roof was half torn off, the floor was mud and there Len Hope knelt and he was ready to tell the Lord that he would stay there until he died so that he could get the gift of the Holy Ghost but felt he shouldn’t make that offer because what would his mother say when his body was discovered and he didn’t want to bring that kind of grief.
But he did say that he would pray as long as it took and he prayed all day and all night long. Finally the rain started coming in and just- you can imagine the scene of this young black man, this is pre-World War I, praying for the gift of the Holy Ghost as did Enos in the Book of Mormon, all day and all night long as the rain is coming through, the floor is muddying his knees and finally he feels the strong impression, ‘You will receive what you desire, go home.’
He goes home, he has to meet his mother; he has to explain where he’s been. They make their peace and a few days later he comes in from working the fields and his sisters said, ‘Some ministers brought you something.’ He said he wondered why she thought it was for him, and the way he says, ‘Now can you imagine those Latter-day Saint missionaries coming all the way out to our little cabin, they had never been out in this direction before.’ The pamphlet they left was a tract by John Widtsoe called The Holy Ghost: Who is it, who is he and how does one receive the gift?
He made his way to the missionaries. He looked in Magnolia, Alabama, found the address of the missionaries and went and said, ‘I’m ready to be baptized.’ And they said, ‘Don’t you think you ought to know a little something about the religion first?’ And so gave him a number of books, he had the Book of Mormon with him as he served in World War I and said, ‘I felt that I was in a partnership with God and was preserved.’ He came home a decorated war hero and then was baptized and received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
And he talked about how he had seen others cutting somersaults after they received the gift and he wanted to do something dynamic and jump up and shout and a missionary said, ‘No, Br. Hope it don’t come that way. The gift will come as you need it. You just keep doing what you need to be doing.’
The next part–and just think of this in the time, we have the rise of Ku Klux Klan, the production “The Birth of a Nation”9 and it’s actually- in a re-release but right after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan is in its heyday and Len gets a visit. He’s at his brother’s house and the Knight Riders come, demand that Len come out to meet them and, imagine it, you know as a black person what this means. If there’s a mob of Knight Riders telling you to come out and talk to them, you know that you’re probably not going to live for very much longer.
They said, ‘We aren’t going to hurt him we just want to talk.’ And Len, and this is in his recording said to his brother, ‘I think if they wasn’t going to hurt me they’d have left their guns at home.’ (Laughter)
They have sawed-off shotguns, pistols, all manner of weaponry and as Len comes out the one in charge says, ‘So what’s this we hear here? You’ve gone over the seas or you joined this white church or you find out something about the white folk and now you think you can be one of them is that it?’
And Len said, ‘No sir. I found out about this Church before I went over the sea and they agreed that I could be baptized.’
He then was told, ‘You get your name scratched off that record or we will hang you by a tree and shoot you full of holes.’
So chagrined, Len Hope goes the next day to where they’re holding District Conference and says that he’s ready to see the missionaries with heads downcast, and instead, and I’m quoting, he says, ‘I seen the beautifullest smiles you ever saw on Latter-day Saint faces and they said, ‘Why Len, this is just the persecution of the devil. We’ll scratch your name off the records if it will save your life, but you should know your name is written in the Book of the Lamb of God and it’s written in Salt Lake City so what would you have us do?” And Len told them to keep his name on the records.
He survived. He married Mary Hope, sadly they experienced what was common in the time when they moved to Cincinnati, just by Kentucky and when they went to Church the white members made it known that they did not want a black family present.
Soon after that, apparently the report that we got from Mark E. Petersen was that the white members told the branch president that they would quit coming if there were a black man present and so that’s why we have Elder Hanks with Br. and Sis. Hope. The Hopes went once every three months to Church to pay their tithes and offerings. Every month on Fast Sunday, the missionaries, which included Marion D. Hanks, went to the Hope’s home and gave them the sacrament and held a testimony meeting with them. ‘There was music; ribs and homemade ice cream,’ Elder Hanks told us, ‘and great spirit, great testimony.’
Elder Hanks became ill while he was staying with the Hopes and remained there for a number of days, became dear, dear friends, this friendship lasted throughout the Hope’s lives. Became dear, dear friends and when finally he had to leave, just a little dusting of snow had fallen on the steps and he- Elder Hanks, was led to the car to be with his missionary companion and then he found out later that Mary told Len, ‘Len would you sweep the steps?’ And Len said to Mary, ‘I’ve treated you like a lady all of our married days but don’t you ever ask me to do anything like that again. Don’t you know what the scriptures say? “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace.”‘ (Romans 10:15) ‘Don’t you ask me to sweep away that missionary’s footsteps.’
I think that’s actually an appropriate place to end, I’ve just given you little snippets of faith. To me, these are a much better answer to the race questions.
We, as a nation, we’ve been dealing with race issues from the founding. You know that this was an issue in establishing the Declaration of Independence. Would we talk about equality? In establishing the Pledge of Allegiance? Would Equal Rights be mentioned there? This has been something that has been with us for all of these many years.
The faith of these remarkable members of color which continues yet today and there are a couple of them here, Rob Foster, Renee Olson, Darius Gray, three who I can see in all of you white faces, who have their own stories of faith and endurance through some remarkable trials.
1 The Eleventh Hour: Blacks in the LDS Church
2 See photo on
3 4 Nephi 1:17.
4 See photo on
5 See photo < http://www.blacklds.org/photos.html> (accessed on 30 December 2005).
8 < http://www.blacklds.org/flake.html> (accessed on 3 January 2006).
9 Originally premiered with the title The Clansman in January, 1915 in California, but three months later was retitled with the present title at its world premiere in New York, to emphasize the birthing process of the US. The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s anti-black, 1905 bigoted play, The Clansman.