How out-of-context quotes damage the church – And how to respond

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One of the most infamous quotes from the second president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that critics of Mormonism love to use for shock value is as follows:

“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.”

At first sight, the quote is repugnant and it is hoped by critics of Mormonism to portray the Restored Gospel as a racist organization and to elicit feelings of contempt for its claim as the one true church. For many former Saints, it hurts to find out that their leaders are human and that every detail from every sermon from a hundred and fifty years ago did not make the cut for mainstream Sunday school material and have been cunningly brushed under the rug.

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As usual, reading anything in its complete context – as you will see below – provides a much more intellectually honest understanding of history than it does to take short cuts.

For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.”

As demonstrated by the rest of Young’s thoughts below, the above quote is actually a condemnation of the abuses of the African race by white men and was recorded about the time of the American Civil War, a time when interracial marriage was illegal. Here is the quote again with more surrounding text.

“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. The nations of the earth have transgressed every law that God has given, they have changed the ordinances and broken every covenant…”[1]

First, looking at this statement in isolation makes it difficult to come to the conclusion that Mormons believed the death penalty was justified for interracial marriage. However, the quote begs a few questions? One, who is being threatened with death, and what is meant by “death”? What does it mean to be the “chosen seed”? Finally, who are these people who have “broken every covenant”? As expected, the statements from Brigham Young that continued from the text above will complete the train of thought:

“If the Government of the United States, in Congress assembled, had the right to pass an anti-polygamy bill, they had also the right to pass a law that slaves should not be abused as they have been…For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.”[2]

Simply stated, if the U.S. government possessed the power to ban polygamy, it must have surely possessed the power, at a minimum, to protect slaves from abuse. Further, whites and not blacks, Young said, were to be cursed for their actions unless they changed their ways.

It would seem apparent that if anyone with the priesthood, or the “chosen seed,” (Gentile, and especially priesthood holding males) had relations in the context meant by Brigham Young, that of sexual relations outside of marriage – again, it being illegal to intermarry – meant spiritual death, or excommunication – not physical death.[3] Notice there is no surrounding statement related to the death penalty. In context, Brigham Young was referring to fornication and excommunication, or spiritual death, for any church member who broke both the spiritual laws of fidelity and temporal laws of the land.

Further attesting to the character and worldview of President Young and his contempt for the white man’s behavior (the slave masters, and or pro-slavery crowd), he continued:

“I should certainly be against the pro-slavery side of the question…I have not much love for them, only in the Gospel. I would cause them to repent, if I could, and make them good men and a good community. I have no fellowship for their avarice, blindness, and ungodly actions.”[4]

Brigham Young continued in the same approach to the slave question in the manner of his predecessor, Joseph Smith, towards the U.S. South and slavery, which strongly desired that slave masters forsake their ways and come to know the true gospel, a position Joseph Smith learned form the New Testament.[5] The optimism behind this approach hoped that slave masters would peacefully end slavery themselves, or at the very least, treat their servants as brothers in Christ, even if that meant freeing them. Clearly, Young demonstrated no love for the pro-slavery crowd in his remarks. Such diplomacy ideally would have been more desirable than the Civil War’s devastation and terrible loss of life.

If a statement is overused again and again for an apparent agenda, in this case to smear an organization, it is unwise to jump to conclusions before viewing all the available evidence. As Latter-day Saints we are faced with the two-fold challenge of spreading the Gospel while coming face-to-face with those seeking the truth, and whose progress has been hindered by negative spin against the Church.

The lesson here is to recognize the tactics of modern-day Pharisees, understand the misconceptions that keep truth-seekers away, to build bridges on their understanding, and to reclaim the sources anti-Mormon critics would seek to use against the Gospel. Although the information in this article primarily comes from the Journal of Discourses, which are not considered canonized scripture, a careful reading can still salvage a repudiation of the critic’s twisted interpretation.

This quote barely scratches the surface with what some take issue with against the church. I hope to continue to address several more in the near future.

Notes:

[1] Journal of Discourses, Brigham Young, Vol. 10 BYU, Provo, UT (1865) page 110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Walsh, John. Interracial Marriage a Sin? Light Planet: http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/response/qa/blacks_chosen.htm (Accessed August 18, 2015).

[4] Young, Ibid., 111.

[5] JS, Letter, Kirtland, OH, to Oliver Cowdery, Kirtland, OH, ca. Apr. 1836; Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1836, pp. 289–291.

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