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LDS blacks, scholars cheer church's essay on priesthood

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 8:39 p.m. MDT

Darius Gray, center, displays the special citation given to him by Ronald O. Barney, right, executive director of the Mormon History Association. Richard E. Bennett, left, this year's association president, applauds.
 (R. Scott Lloyd) Darius Gray, center, displays the special citation given to him by Ronald O. Barney, right, executive director of the Mormon History Association. Richard E. Bennett, left, this year's association president, applauds. (R. Scott Lloyd)

SALT LAKE CITY — Darius Gray was working in his Zellerbach Paper Co. office on Third East one summer on a Thursday in 1978 when Dixie Baker, who worked in the paper company's credit office, poked her head through his doorway.

"The church is giving Negroes the priesthood," she said.

Gray didn't even look up. He thought it was nonsense. The grandson of a slave born in Missouri before the Civil War, Gray had joined the faith to which Baker referred — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — in 1964, and the church's restriction on blacks receiving the priesthood was a sensitive subject.

He thought Baker was making a poor joke in poor taste, and he told her so. When she insisted she wasn't joking, he growled at her to leave.

Baker finally convinced Gray by telling him she'd heard the rumor on the phone while talking with a representative of one of Zellerbach's largest customers — the LDS Church.

Gray's journalism roots kicked in. He turned on the TV and radio in his office but found no news, so he went straight to the source. He called the office of LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball. President Kimball's secretary told Gray the man he considered a prophet had just left but confirmed it was true, a revelation had been received and the priesthood would be available to all worthy males regardless of race or ethnicity.

The past six months have brought renewed focus to the history of the ban. LDS Church leadership disavowed old theories about its origins in an essay released in December. And on Friday night, the Mormon History Association honored Gray, who played a role in creating the essay, with a special citation for outstanding contributions to Mormon history.

New reason to rejoice

Worthy black men began to receive the priesthood immediately after the announcement the church made that Thursday — June 8 — 36 years ago when Gray couldn't believe what Baker was telling him.

Worthy black men and women also gained full access to LDS temple ordinances they believe are essential to eternal salvation. They were overjoyed. Still, many say today that old teachings about blacks, teachings that had been used to justify the priesthood restriction before it was lifted, have persisted among a minority of Mormons until now.

That's why many black Latter-day Saints rejoiced on Dec. 6 when the church issued a crystal-clear disavowal of those theories. It was part of an essay approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and posted under the title "Race and the Priesthood" on the church's website.

"Today," the essay says, "the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects 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."

"How else could you feel but great?" said Don Harwell, president of the church's Genesis Group for black Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. "They've renounced the silliness that blacks were fence-sitters and less valiant (in the premortal existence), all the things some members had used to justify the racism."

The essay was one of the first pieces in a broader effort by church leaders to use the Gospel Topics pages on LDS.org to help members and people investigating the faith find the best scholarly information available about the faith's doctrine and church history.

The gratitude in the black LDS community for the essay merged with cheers from members of the Mormon Studies community for the essay's history of the origin of the restriction in the early church. The page, which showed the ban was rooted in the racism of the mid-1800s, included new milestones in the use of scholarship in official church history materials.

Persistent folklore

"We've never heard from church leadership an express disavowal of all the mythology that had built up around the ban," said Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, "so that is extremely welcome, I think."

"It's by far the best statement and most responsible and forthcoming statement we have from the official church about the past," said Philip Barlow, the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Church leaders have repeatedly condemned racism but in recent decades had said the origins of the ban were not clear. The ban predates membership for most Mormons. There were 4 million Latter-day Saints in 1978. Today there are 15 million Mormons — more than half of whom live outside the United States. So the majority are either unaware of the old "folklore" surrounding the ban, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called it during an interview with PBS in 2006, or they had rejected the theories in 1978.

One month after the 1978 revelation, another member of the Twelve, the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, urged church religion professors and seminary teachers to do just that, dismiss everything he and other past leaders had said about those teachings.

But as recently as 2012, a religion professor at church-operated Brigham Young University restated some of those theories to a reporter at the Washington Post. Randy Bott said the reporter misquoted his attempts to describe the former teachings.

Still, the theories persisted in some corners of the faith.

"In 1978, among my friends and associates it was almost universal jubilation" over the revelation that extended the priesthood to black men, said Bob Rees, who last fall taught the first class on Mormonism at the University of California at Berkeley. "I think a lot of people have not known that the misinformation and mythology have continued in the church. You have a few people at BYU, people in seminary and institutes and people in Sunday School who have over the years, some of them, continued to talk about the curse of Cain and talk about less valiancy in the pre-existence."

The new Web page on race and the priesthood clears that away for good, Rees added.

"That clear, certain statement in a paragraph erases a century and a half of mythology, misinformation and misuse of scripture."

The history

Claremont's Mason believes the statement is welcomed by members concerned about outside charges of racism in the church.

"Of course there are few social and cultural sins in modern America as serious as racism," he said. "Lots of people said, 'OK, finally now when people ask me about it, I can show the church has repudiated that past and now we've moved on.' So I think there's a kind of collective sigh of relief that we can now move on from that troubled part of our legacy."

The church's essay says the church was established in 1830 during an era of great racial division in the United States. Church founder Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery and allowed the ordination of a few black men, one of whom participated in temple ceremonies.

In 1852, President Smith's successor, President Brigham Young, "publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood." He also said that year that in the future black church members would "have (all) the privilege and more" enjoyed by other members.

Those statements were made in speeches President Young gave before the Utah Territorial Legislature, a key finding in a 1973 article by historian Lester E. Bush.

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.

Louis Duffy, great-great-grandson of Jane Manning James but not a Latter-day Saint, wrote a note to a member that said, "I am pleased that the official word is being shared and I'm hoping that the 'masses' will acknowledge the declaration and most importantly, immediately put it to practice." James was a black woman and LDS Church member who came to Utah with the Mormon pioneers.

Work together

Gray, a former leader of Genesis who has written books and produced documentaries about the LDS black experience, declined interview requests in December after the release of the race essay.

Today he admits only to playing "some small part" in the essay and calls it "an absolutely marvelous document" of great clarity and sensitivity. He, too, still hears some dismiss the essay and disavowal as unofficial. He said it should be viewed as an official comment from the highest church leadership, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

"I'm very much aware, and this is important, that the Brethren wrote and contributed to that document," he said.

Another black Latter-day Saint, Cathy Stokes, asked church members to see the positive in the statement and look ahead.

"We need to get this out of the way and get to work. There's a lot of work to be done in this world. We need to live, work and worship together, as Jesus would have us do. If we can't do that as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who can?"

Human failing

Mitchell went through a faith crisis that began when he was a young student at BYU. He struggled with the church's history with blacks. He was "away from the church for several years," but returned in part because other black Latter-day Saints helped him see the context of the 1800s and accept that church leaders are human and can make mistakes.

"Those don't invalidate everything else I have experienced in the faith," he said. "I feel that if I had learned these things in this more open context growing up, I don't think they would have been as damaging to me."

During the church's October 2013 general conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a counselor in the First Presidency, bluntly reminded members their leaders aren't perfect.

"And, to be perfectly frank," he said, "there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

"I suppose the church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and his doctrine is pure. But he works through us — his imperfect children — and imperfect people make mistakes."

Latter-day Saint leaders have taught from the beginnings of the church that only God is infallible, said Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University and more recently adjunct faculty in religion at the Claremont Graduate University.

"Official church discourse (both in general conferences and in publications) has always emphasized the importance not only of following the prophet, but also of the ultimate individual responsibility for building our own testimonies and seeking our own divine witness of truth," Mauss said via email. "That two-part injunction has always carried the implication that prophets are not infallible."

Within canonized LDS scripture, Joseph Smith included two revelations that referred to mistakes he made, Doctrine & Covenants 3:6 and 93:47.

Stokes said these concepts are critical to a life of faith.

"People make that perilous leap from 'this church is true' to 'this church is perfect,' she said. "I am the church. You are the church. We are not perfect. … I have no expectation that any man is perfect. I support and sustain my leaders as good, and even holy, men, but they are men. The beauty of our belief system shows us that God takes ordinary people and does extraordinary things. I marvel at the work that is done in LDS Humanitarian Services, and the church's welfare system is praised by all who are aware of it, and that's ordinary folks doing that."

"The church," Barlow said, "is made up entirely of human beings with all of the implications of that, and errors and possibilities of human failings and faults that can entail. The Mormon people are human beings who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have been touched, including through prophetic leadership."

Faith and scholarship

Mason, Mauss, Barlow and other members of the Mormon Studies community responded positively to the enhancement of Gospel Topics pages at LDS.org with rigorous, transparent history, especially the "Race and the Priesthood" page.

"Naturally I was delighted to see it, as, indeed, I was to see the earlier one on the First Vision," Mauss said. These new (or revised) treatments of subjects listed in lds.org/topics indicate a new and greater level of candor and transparency in the church’s official handling of sensitive and controversial issues in its history, doctrines and policies."

Mauss studied the "Race and the Priesthood" essay and found 10 "newly recognized historical realities," pieces not new to scholars but perhaps so for some members.

His list included the fact the priesthood ban "did not originate in divine revelation" but "arose in the context of the national division over race and racial politics, in which Utah’s political situation was enmeshed." Mauss also said the justifications were "mostly borrowed from the national discourse outside," and that though they did not come from revelation and therefore were not official doctrine, they were taught by early LDS leaders.

For Gray, living for 14 years in the church without the priesthood added deep meaning to living with it for the past 36. The church's essay was a new chapter.

"There is more that could be said," Gray said, "and hopefully in days to come additional comment will be made, added, for even greater clarity, but for this day, it is absolutely stellar."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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