LDS blacks, scholars cheer church's essay on priesthood

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 3:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 9 2014 7:23 p.m. MDT

Rees was the editor of Bush's article. He knew friends and associates who left the church over the issue in the ’60s and ’70s.

"I also had the greatest admiration for the black brothers and sisters who continued to be faithful without the priesthood and without the blessings of the temple," Rees said. "In some ways, that's the most amazing story, people like Darius Gray and so many others who against all odds, in a sense, stayed faithful."

Harwell welcomed the disavowal of all teachings that blacks had been cursed for Cain killing Abel, folklore common in 19th-century America, and that they were less valiant in premortal life — an idea rejected by Brigham Young but later taught by a number of LDS leaders after the Cain folklore fell out of favor in U.S. culture. Harwell believes the essay will help blacks throughout the church.

"This makes it official," he said, "and it feels good."

That feeling should extend deeply and widely into LDS culture, said Paul Reeve, who teaches Mormon history at the University of Utah and is the author of a book to be published by Oxford University Press on Mormonism and race.

"I think where this has its direct impact is in the pews of Mormon congregations," Reeve said. "You continue to hear stories of people citing or clinging to old racist teachings. This latest statement disavows those old teachings, and so the hurt and harm of those teachings can hopefully start to fade and diminish."

Moving forward

Some frustration remains for Alexis Henson, 20, who completed her sophomore year at BYU this spring.

"When the essay came out, I was super excited," said the interdisciplinary humanities major from Norton, Kansas. "I already knew those things, that it wasn't church doctrine, and I hadn't been a fence-sitter, but before I had no way to back it up.

"Now I'm a little frustrated because nobody even knows about the essay. Here in Utah or at BYU, where there is one black student per thousand, nobody even knows about it. It should be important to everyone, especially Mormons, black or white or whatever. They should read the statement. If you're a Mormon, you need to know Mormon history. That's just being responsible."

Devan Mitchell, a 28-year-old black member in Seattle, said some who have seen the essay haven't accepted it.

"I have seen some people in online forums twist (the disavowal) around a little bit and say it is not repudiating some of the previous teachings, that these are still in effect," Mitchell said. "We might still need something a little more explicit if we still have people defending (the folklore), but at some point you never know if anything's going to be good enough for some people."

Some black Mormons feel an apology from church leaders would help.

Harwell, speaking for himself and not as president of Genesis, said that hurt and harm can fade without calls for an apology.

"They don't owe us an apology. They were not there when those opinions were made. They've made a strong effort, they have stepped up and made a full statement. If Brigham Young wants to come back and apologize, OK, thank you, I'll listen, but the people there now, in my opinion, do not owe us an apology. I don't think we have a right to demand anything other than what we got. The church did the best thing they could do.

"It's here, they said it, they meant it, and now we can move on."

Others also saw the statement as a sign the church could move forward.

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