Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

African Americans and the Mormon experience

nobodyknows_titleLast week’s post on Brigham Young and racism sparked an interesting discussion about Mormonism and race. I just learned that those of us who are lucky enough to live in Cincinnati (best city in the Midwest, I kid you not) have the opportunity to learn more about race in Mormon history from one of the world’s most expert sources.

BYU professor and author Margaret Young will lecture in Cincinnati on Friday afternoon.

BYU professor and author Margaret Young will lecture in Cincinnati on Friday afternoon.

Margaret Blair Young, a BYU professor who has spent more than a decade researching and writing about blacks in Mormon history — often with her co-author Darius Gray, a founder of the Genesis Group — will be speaking here this weekend a couple of times.

On Friday afternoon, Margaret will be speaking at the University of Cincinnati’s Tangeman University Center at 2:00 on black Mormon pioneers, including those who were enslaved and those who were freeborn.

Then on Sunday evening, April 27, she’ll be doing a fireside at the Montgomery LDS Stake Center at 6:30 p.m.

I am bummed that I can’t go on Sunday, because I’m sure it will be a fascinating talk and Margaret is a lovely person. I’m trying to switch an appointment so I can attend on Friday.

I loved the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, which Margaret and Darius co-produced. Here’s the  trailer for the movie. (Darius is the man at the piano in the green vest.) Enjoy.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Jealous! What an opportunity right there in Cincinnati. I hope they put San Antonio on the list!

    A friend of mine asked a great question I hope they address in these firesides:

    “What does one do with the Book of Mormon itself, in which, time and again, skin color is determined by (or reflective of) moral behavior?”

  • There is a lecture on video in which Marcus Martins, PhD in sociology, and professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, discusses that and other questions related to racial atitudes and the meaning of the scriptures. Martins is the son of Helvecio Martins, first LDS Church general authority of African descent, and Professor Martins himself was the first missionary of African descent called in 1978. He is currently serving as a mission president in Brazil. In one address he gave in 2009, he spoke of

    “our scriptural stance on race relations found in the Book of Mormon where Nephi proclaims that “…[God] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ; 2 Nephi 26:33)”

    The principle peoples whose history is recounted in the Book of Mormon were all descendants of the tribes of Israel, including Judah, Ephraim and Manassah. They were not of African descent. If there is phrasing that seems to refer to a distinct appearance between the “Lamanites” and the “Nephites” it is nothing that has to do with actual racial differences, because they were all descendants of Israel, literal cousins, with lots of intermarriage and dissenters of one group joining the other. Whatever the Book of Mormon is talking about, it is not an actual racial difference, and it is definitely not speaking of people of African descent.

    What the Book of Mormon does teach is that God loved and redeemed people in both general groups, and some of the most exemplary people described there are people who were “Lamanites”, including the converts to Christianity who refused to take arms in their own defense and were slain by their angry Lamanite brothers. In the end, it is the formerly favored Nephites who become corrupt and evil and are destroyed as a nation because they have betrayed their heritage and the prophets of God. The main purpose of the Book of Mormon is stated to be to teach the descendants of the Lamanites that they are of the House of Israel and are a chosen people who are entitled to great blessings from God. So how is this message “racist”?

    The Latter-day Saints who believed in the Book of Mormon set out early on to take its message to the American Indians whom they believed had ancestry among the Book of Mormon peoples. That continued on through times when many other Americans thought Indians were not fully human.

    One passage in the Book of Mormon that speaks of a colony setting off on a ship and never being heard from again has inspired the folk belief that the people of Polynesia are among the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples. Over a third of the people of Tonga are now Mormons, along with many people who are native Maori, Samoan, Tahitian and Hawaiian. Many of them have dark pigmentation, but they have always been able to receive ordination in the priesthood. The campus of BYU-Hawaii and the community of Laie are a living heritage of the effort of Mormon missionaries to recruit Polynesians, even when they were looked upon as a “lower” race by many Europeans. The true story of John Groberg, a missionary to Tonga who loved the people there, is recounted in the movie “The Other Side of Heaven”.

  • I have attended several presentations by Margaret and Darius. They are very knowledgeable about this topic (and are faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

  • As this documentary points out, it is true that almost all religions have a racist past, but they question that troubles me is, how is it that the “true church” took longer than most other religions to correct this, more than a decade after the Civil Rights era, lagging behind the rest of society rather than being at the forefront as one would expect of a church being guided by divine revelation? And it was only in 2013 that the Church issued any kind of statement (authored by anonymous scholars on the church’s website, but not signed by any General Authority) that the teachings about black people used to explain the priesthood ban were incorrect, and still no apology and no admission that the banning of black people from the priesthood itself was a mistake (only the theories espoused to explain it). How can it be that the “one true church” where prophets, seers and revelators receive revelation on an ongoing basis and Jesus Christ is at the head, lags so far behind?

    Is history now repeating itself with LGBT people, who are not only being denied the priesthood/temple if they have relationships (even within the bounds of legal gay marriage) with the expectation that they remain celibate for life? As John Dehlin’s published study shows, quality of life is poor for many gays and lesbians in the Church. This lag behind others in positive social change is something I haven’t been able to explain. Instead, the leaders seem to be digging their heels in on these issues and maintaining that they are taking a courageous stand against a society with deteriorating moral values. I would have to disagree.

    Yes, the leaders are fallible, as in the case of the false doctrine on black people being taught for over 100 years that has now been renamed as a “theory”, but why is it, then, that members are expected to follow them and if public disagreement is expressed, there are negative consequences? I have no good answer to this and that is why I do not currently hold a Temple Recommend.

  • Instead of always trying to blame someone, eems one should be asking God, why. . . . and listening. . . .

  • Why would you assume I haven’t, Dan? You are making a presumptuous assumption because I have been praying about and struggling with this for years and the one certain answer I have is that this has nothing to do with God and everything to do with fallible men. Why were black people denied the priesthood for over 100 years while racist explanations were given? No way do I believe God was responsible for that and yes, I have prayed extensively about this and have certain knowledge of that God had nothing to do with the racism in the Church, nor the current policies towards LGBT people. This is not about “blame”. This is about dealing with and identifying what is and expecting leaders to take responsibility for their actions and apologize, where appropriate, as in this case it is, in my opinion.

  • There is a huge difference between skin color and who you have sex with.

    The document on on blacks and the priesthood doesn’t ever say that our Heavenly Father had nothing to do with it. It could be that Mormons and blacks were both persecuted, so He didn’t want black Mormons to be doubly persecuted. The problem is that there were numerous reasons postulated for blacks’ exclusion to the priesthood, and none of them were right.

    As for any sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman, it is considered sin. God will not change on that. The Church will not change on that. Do you really believe that, if society decides that murder is OK and good (as happened in Nazi Germany and other societies), that God will change that commandment, too?

  • I think it is most helpful to remember that the text of the Book of Mormon, if it is to be accepted for what it claims to be, is a product of the men who wrote and lived in those times past. I believe the relevant scriptural verses in the Book of Mormon dealing with race have a specific, non-general context. I believe there is no justification for stretching the interpretation of those versus to apply to all people of darker color in every place and in every time. Given the context, those versus simply can not be used to justify racism of any kind in the present day.

  • I think perhaps you get to re-asses your expectations regarding divine revelation and what makes the church the “true” Church of Jesus Christ. In my personal experience, and in all of my reading about church history, I have noted that not having all of the truth does not necessarily make what truth is already available any less true. But the revelation of new truth can change the perception, and the appreciation, and the application of existing truth. Also, I have noticed that the Lord seldom forces truth on anyone not prepared to receive it–prophets are not puppets and God is not a ventriloquist.

  • Monica, interesting questions. Have you not read in the New Testament, where Christ himself states that “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24) There is timing in all of God’s works, we don’t have the wisdom to understand His timing but we can have faith that His prophets will act when His timings requires them to act. There have always been people who were “left out” of the blessings of the gospel, not necessarily due to anything they could do or change, but because of a plan far larger than we can see. The statement “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first,” was a testament that the Lord has a specific timing to his plan. Rest assured, all men and women will have the opportunity to receive all that they are willing to receive in His timing, not theirs.
    As to the change in question from race to the “LGBT people” (based on actions not genetics) the issues are totally different. Where race has nothing to do with behavior, so-called “gay” people are labeled as such for a specific “behavior” that is outside the bounds that the Lord himself set in the beginning. There has never been a statement in all of Holy writ or by the prophets that I am aware of where any unnatural sexual behavior has been condoned or will be since it would destroy the great plan of happiness that God himself created for His children.

  • IMHO, one big reason why God waited until 1978 to make the priesthood available to ALL worthy male members was because, if it had been a decade earlier, then many people would have said “They only did it because of the ‘Civil Rights Movement'”.
    As for any apology, I think that there were those who apologized, like Elder Bruce R. McConkie. But, for some reason, some people seem to think that the LDS church must apologize to ALL blacks, when they don’t have to. Why should we apologize to someone who doesn’t want anything to do with us in the first place?
    Now, as to the LGBT lobby; the church’s stand was, is, and always will be, that all sexual activities are to be kept between a man and a woman, who are lawfully wed to each other. This is the way God wants it, the way He sanctifies it, the way He designed it, and us for it.

  • Raymond,

    You say “Over a third of the people of Tonga are now Mormons…” Please give us a citation for that.

    According to a 2011 Tongan census (Tongan Department of Statistics), 103,043 Tongans responded. Only 18,554 of those said they were Latter-day Saints. By my math, that’s 18%.

    Where are you getting the notion that “one third of the people of Tonga are now Mormons”?

  • Also, no one is asking anyone to remain celebate for life. Only those who are not married to someone of the opposite sex. And, believe it or not, there ARE those who feel same sex attraction, but who’s love and understanding of the Gospel, and God’s Plan of Salvation, is greater than their feelings of sexual attraction, and who are married to someone of the opposite sex, and have children and everything. And, yes, it’s hard for them, yes, they have to work harder at it than those who don’t feel s.s.a.
    But what it boils down to is, we all have choices to make, and this is when CTR comes into play. You have to decide which is more important to you; the Gospel/Plan of salvation, or your (sorry) baser urges.

  • Exactly!

    Many Mormons excuse the racism of the early LDS church by saying its leaders were “products of their times,” or that the leaders were “speaking as men, and not for God.” That is unacceptable defense.

    If these men were truly led by God, they would have been passionate advocates for justice for all people, and they certainly would not be saying (as Joseph Smith did) that their faith does not favor setting Blacks free. And worse, they most certainly would not have been saying Blacks are inferior.

  • It seems that some Mormons have advocated murder. I get the impression that Brigham Young advocated “blood anointment”enforcement of church laws, and seemingly advocated a death penalty for interracial marriage.

    “In the preisthood I will tell you what it will do. Where the children of God to mingle there seed with the seed of Cain it would not only bring the curse of being deprived of the power of the preisthood upon themselves but they entail it upon their children after them, and they cannot get rid of it. If a man in an ungaurded moment should commit such a transgression, if he would walk up and say cut off my head, and kill man woman and child it would do a great deal towards atoneing for the sin. Would this be to curse them? no it would be a blessing to them. — it would do them good that they might be saved with their Bren. A man would shuder should they here us take about killing folk, but it is one of the greatest blessings to some to kill them, allthough the true principles of it are not understood.”

    I think the Nazis and Brigham Young some sick scary things in common

  • @ Raymond Takashi Swenson

    It seems that Brigham Young was a racist and the LDS church adopted a racist doctrine/policies under his guidance.

    “What the Gentiles are doing we are consenting to do. What we are trying to do to day is to make the Negro equal with us in all our privilege. My voice shall be against all the day long. I shall not consent for one moment I will will call them a counsel. I say I will not consent for one moment for you to lay a plan to bring a curse upon this people. I shall not be while I am here.”

  • Prompted by this blog,I listened to two Margaret Young interviews last night. Interesting. It appears that the historical Mormon view on race was a reflection of the national view at the time of the founding of the Church. However, it seems, and this is my addition, that living in relative isolation, Mormons avoided the national dialog on race for a long time and are therefore behind in the conversation (1978). Just a thought.

  • If I remember correctly. She said that the LDS bought a church that used to be of another faith, in Walnut Hills (a suburban of Cincinnati Ohio). Most of the local LDS wanted to include blacks, but a higher level of the LDS dictated to exclude blacks. The missionaries continued to call on a black family that was excluded from the church, and apologized for the policy.

    I found her speech interesting, though was disappointed she did not address some of the major skeletons in the LDS closet. Was disappointed that much of the time was spent on unrelated stuff.

    The LDS church I went to on Sunday night to listen to Margaret Young, did not discriminate against me and my service dog, unlike another LDS ward.