Last Updated on June 18, 2020 by Jason Harris
The Murder of George Floyd
George Floyd, a Black man, was recently murdered by several policemen in Minneapolis. Floyd cried for over eight minutes for breath and wasn’t given it, a knee smugly to his throat. Like many others, I was appalled and sickened to witness the video account(s) of this. Understandably, this event has triggered marches and even riots across the nation… and even the world. It also triggered strong condemnations and loud admonitions by Russell M. Nelson, current prophet of the Mormon Church. He said in the strongest terms not to be racist or practice racism. To love everyone. I agree wholeheartedly with what President Nelson said. So did the NAACP.
Implicit and Explicit Racism and Bias
I no longer believe overcoming racism is as simple as just loving and respecting everyone. Listening and seeing the experiences and world views of others is crucial. Often, I’ve found in my own life it is too easy to feel I “love” and “care” for others without really listening to or validating their experiences. To be clear, I was NOT raised in an environment of overt racism within my home. My parents taught me all are equal regardless of skin color. I heard the same messages shared at church. I believe most Mormons today have a reputation for being polite, kind and respectful to people of all races.
Growing up, I also heard and learned within Mormon groups various explanations for why Blacks were actively discriminated against within the Mormon Church until 1978. Less valiance in a pre-mortal realm was one common explanation given. In some ways, this explanation is similar to beliefs elsewhere in the world that are responsible for caste systems and despicable discrimination as well. This isn’t unique to just Mormon culture. Another common explanation I heard was that the past openly racist (by definition) practices of the Mormon Church were commanded from God for “unclear reasons.” “Someday we will understand.” Looking back, I now see these explanations as appalling. I wish I had at the time. At the time these seemed like comforting explanations to justify past racist practices that I felt deep inside were wrong. As I have strived to listen more to the experiences of my Black friends and acquaintances, I have come to realize there was so much more I was exposed to growing up that on a deeper level is also full of implicit beliefs founded in varying degrees of racism and ethnocentrism as well.
For instance, pictures of white Jesus are everywhere. I don’t recall seeing any Black angels in any Mormon paintings. The VAST majority of top Mormon leaders are older white men. LDS scriptural canon STILL clearly teaches God gave dark colored skin as signs of divine disfavor or curses (even though the teaching is God’s will on this all changed after 1978). Acceptable Mormon “sacred music” has its origins in white Europe and white America. Drums in formal Mormon church services will never be heard. They aren’t sacred. And there are many other ways the implicit biases rooted in white Victorian culture are a massive part of Mormon Society.
Adam and Eve Were Probably Black. Jesus Probably Wasn’t White.
Here’s the thing… Metaphorical Adam and Eve were made in God’s image hundreds of thousands of years ago and were probably Black (though even earlier ancestors may have had lighter skin with very hairy coats). We are all ultimately of African descent. White skin was likely a later mutation as some of our species migrated north out of Africa. Jesus very likely wasn’t white. Historical Jesus was of Middle-Eastern descent. White Jesus is most likely a later reflection of European ethnocentrism. Or maybe God is just running around deceitfully planting evidence supporting the above as true. But I personally believe God Can’t Lie.
If reading this jars the sensibilities of the reader… perhaps the reasons for this should be explored.
Institutionalized Racism and Discrimination
As mentioned, overt institutionalized racial discrimination was formally taught and practiced (using the name of God) throughout the Mormon Church until 1978. Following is one of the most concise statements from LDS history I am aware of that encapsulates some of the racist views and behaviors of Mormon leadership as doctrine from God. George Albert Smith was the Mormon prophet when the following statement was made:
August 17, 1949Statement of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 17, 1949, Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, as cited by fairmormon.org (also HERE)
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”
President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.
The First Presidency
On December 15, 1969, the LDS First Presidency restated the Black priesthood ban was of divine origins.
When Did the Most Severe Racism by Mormons in the Name of God Start?
To be clear, despite what the 1949 statement from the First Presidency says, there absolutely WERE African Americans who were ordained to the LDS priesthood in the early days of the Mormon Church under Joseph Smith’s watch (and hands). Active discrimination against Blacks increased under Brigham Young’s leadership (picture of his statue above). This discrimination included the formal banning of the Mormon priesthood and temple ordinances from those of perceived African descent. As the Mormon prophet, he claimed all of this was God’s will, that he was speaking for God. In addition to instituting a blanket priesthood ban against Blacks, Brigham Young viewed the “Negro race” as “inferior” and actively advocated and facilitated Utah becoming a slave territory. This despite Joseph Smith’s earlier opposition to slavery before his own death.
I have this section in my hand, headed “An Act in Relation to African Slavery.” I have read it over and made a few alterations. I will remark with regard to slavery, inasmuch as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses, which they have in their families and their classes and in their various capacities brought upon themselves. And until the curse is removed by Him who placed it upon them, they must suffer under its consequences; I am not authorized to remove it. I am a firm believer in slavery.Brigham Young, January 23, 1852 as cited at churchofjesuschrist.org to the Utah Legislature in regards to African slavery.
There are numerous other quotes from Brigham Young within LDS archives FAR more incendiary about race (and many other matters as well) than what is quoted above. Brigham Young clearly was strongly influenced by many of the common racist views of his day. Even by 1800’s standards, Brigham Young absolutely wasn’t leading any charges for equality of Blacks. This isn’t to imply everything about him was bad. He was a very strong leader who did genuinely care for the welfare of most of the people under his leadership. He truly helped a people outcast for their religious beliefs (many of them my ancestors) survive in a harsh desert environment, to truly “blossom as the rose.” Where other settlements in similar circumstances had failed, Young’s settlements succeeded. In many ways, Young was a remarkable individual. His views on race wasn’t one of them.
After Brigham Young, deep institutionalized racism continued to be perpetuated by Mormon prophets as the will of God. There is good evidence some of them were very uncomfortable with the racist priesthood ban, but they all claimed they had received no revelation from God to reverse the ban. They believed in being loyal to past revelation and to past prophets. “Follow the prophet, he will never lead you astray.”
The 1978 Reversal
After many decades of ever larger numbers of Mormons struggling to understand how God could possibly advocate active discriminatory practices against Blacks, the Mormon Church finally reversed the nearly 150 year African priesthood ban in 1978 under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball.
This was framed as being a fulfillment of long-awaited prophecies that those of African descent would one day have the Mormon priesthood and be entitled to Mormon temple ordinances. It is understandable this was framed this way given it made acceptance easier for a variety of reasons. If one actually goes back and reads these prophecies (made by Brigham Young and others) it is clear Blacks were not to be ordained to the Mormon priesthood until everyone else had. It is quite clear the intention of these prophecies was that Blacks would have a chance in the “next life” or at very best, at the end of a long Millennial reign.
Where the Mormon Church Stands Today
In 2013, the Mormon Church shared the following official stance regarding this matter:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that Black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that Blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.Race and The Priesthood Essay (as approved by the LDS First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and found on lds.org, first published December, 2013). Also archived on wayback.org.
To my knowledge, this is the closest the Mormon Church has ever come to an explicit apology for the racist views, behaviors and doctrines of the past. It’s a HUGE step from where the Mormon Church was and is to be commended! If one is to take the last sentence of the quote above for what it actually means, the priesthood ban has been unequivocally condemned. The priesthood ban was by definition discriminatory in nature and was by definition based upon the race and skin color of the person being discriminated against. Therefore it was by definition a manifestation of racism (whether one believes it to be inspired or not).
But to be absolutely clear, there has NEVER been a frank, direct and clear admission or apology from top Mormon leadership that the prior priesthood ban itself was NOT from God.
As recently as June 1, 2018 in the world-wide “Be One” Celebration, celebrating 40 years since the priesthood ban was lifted, Dallin H. Oaks, (next in line to become the Mormon prophet) said the following:
I observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons. I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them. As part of my prayerful study, I learned that, in general, the Lord rarely gives reasons for the commandments and directions He gives to His servants. I determined to be loyal to our prophetic leaders and to pray — as promised from the beginning of these restrictions — that the day would come when all would enjoy the blessings of priesthood and temple. Now, on June 8, 1978, that day had come, and I wept for joy.Dallin H. Oaks, “Be One” June 1, 2018 as cited in thechurchnews.com
Note, there is still absolutely ZERO admission that the ban was NOT inspired of God. There wasn’t a single such admission the entire celebration. There are yet to to be the words “WE. ARE. SORRY.” Until this happens, calls from top Mormon leadership to eradicate racism, such as I have seen in recent social media posts, ring hypocritical and VERY hollow to many, myself included. This may be expecting too much of the Mormon Church though.
As Dallin H. Oaks has famously said:
I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them… The Church doesn’t seek apologies and we don’t give them.Dallin H. Oaks, 2015, while discussing homosexuality
To me, at the present time the biggest issue with the past racism of the Mormon Church isn’t that it happened. Early American culture permitted slavery. It was absolutely wrong and past racist practices were atrocious. That was also their culture, their lenses. Not that this excuses it. It doesn’t. I’m also sure many of them would have behaved very differently if they had 21st century lenses. My biggest issue with the past racism of the Mormon Church at present is how it continues to be dealt with today. The prevalent attitude is that the past ban and the racist scriptures are not from anybody’s shortcomings. It is GOD who was the racist. These aren’t the exact words used. However, by definition some of the past practices of the Mormon Church as well as practices and views within the Pearl of Great Price, Book of Mormon and even the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) are racist. Race was the defining criteria for how these practices would be instituted. I don’t believe God is or was a racist, and I don’t believe any of these past practices or scriptural passages reflect God. This was one (of many) reasons why I left the Mormon Church. I felt I could no longer stay and be true to my conscience. I know others will and do feel differently.
For my own part, I am sorry I ever subscribed to any ideas or explanations as still contained within LDS scriptures that darker skin colors were signs of ancient curses from God. I am sorry I ever entertained ideas taught within Mormon classrooms that Whites, especially Mormon Whites were favored to be born as such due to increased valiance in a pre-mortal realm before 1978. I’m sorry I ever believed God would institute discriminatory practices in the past involving the color of skin or genetic heritage for “unclear reasons.” The wide variety of ethnicities across humanity are in fact glorious manifestations of the beauties and miracles of creation. I’m sorry I suppressed my own individual conscience and voice to believe prophets actually spoke for God to give harmful directions that “we just don’t understand.” Doing so I denied the light of Divinity residing within myself. A light I believe we all have. I’m sorry for harm I may have perpetuated to others around me, even if unknowingly. I was wrong. I am sorry.
It is tempting to point fingers at past Mormon leadership as the cause for past overt and current covert white supremacy throughout Mormon circles. However, they are not the ones ultimately at fault. I am. We all are, any of us who are or were members of the Mormon Church and didn’t speak out against these beliefs and take the time to really listen to the perspectives of those who have suffered or are suffering. Beliefs and practices such as these CAN’T thrive unless we support them to include by staying silent despite disagreeing.
God is Not a Racist.
In my own view it is time humanity stopped blaming God, or for that matter deferring responsibility to any “higher authority” for our own inner personal and cultural demons.
God is not a racist. At least, that is my belief.
Jason Harris is a Neurologist/Neuro-Ophthalmologist, Dad and Husband who shares his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View. He believes all religions and scripture are man-made and believes there is Divinity in all of them.