Below is my response to a group of millennial ex-Mormons who post on the blog Zelph On a Shelf. In their article, they ask if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still racist. It is my contention that the Church, nor its priesthood ban were ever rooted in racism. Some of the attitudes of the early saints may have been influenced by the prevailing racism in the U.S., but a more thorough examination reveals the LDS Church has a racially-unifying message, one that seems to have been lost on some, as demonstrated by Zelph. I’ve included their article in the plain font and my comments in bold.
Zelph: Every Mormon knows that the LDS church isn’t racist. How could it be racist AND have a black person in the Tabernacle Choir?!
–Me: The first plank of common modern liberal critiques: if there isn’t enough diversity in a group, it must be racist, right?
Zelph: The contemporary racism of the LDS church is more subtle than supporting slavery, restricting blacks from priesthood and temple, opposing the civil rights movement, or forcing Native American children into adoption by white families (though the church did all those things).
–Me: The Church never had a position that supported the enslavement of people, but at one time they did take the biblical position in regards to the laws of the land as did the apostle Paul. Nice try.
–Me: Forcing Native Americans into adoption? Wrong. It was voluntary. And it wouldn’t be adoption if it was forced, that would be kidnapping.
Zelph: Contemporary LDS racism self-manifests in the false narratives it tells about race.
For instance, the Book of Mormon tells the story of a Hebrew family that traveled by boat from Jerusalem to the Americas and thereafter divided into two factions, the righteous Nephites and the wicked Lamanites.
Because of the rebellion of the Lamanites, “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” This was done so that, “as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, they might not be enticing unto [the Nephites],” (2 Nephi 5:21).
–Me: Being that the Book of Mormon authors wrote in a language very close to Hebrew, black and white, some scholars conclude, could mean apostate or sanctified respectively. Some of the language in the Book of Mormon might include skin change, but it might all just be metaphorical. While skin pigmentation change could have happened, as there are different people with all different shades of brown across the world, the church takes the position that people with darker pigmentation is not an indicator of one’s worthiness or standing with God. This requires more nuance. The Book of Mormon also tells of God chastising the Nephites for reviling against the Lamanites because of their skin color. Did you forget that part in your research?
Zelph: If you’re thinking, “That’s not how skin pigmentation works,” or “Wow, that’s racist af,” then you’re absolutely right! But wait, there’s more!
–Me: If God caused a “skin of blackness” to come upon them it wouldn’t be unlike what he did at the Tower of Babel to separate the people. Besides, if you think “white” in 2 Nephi 5:21 means Anglo-Saxon, you need to pull out a dictionary and find all the meanings of “blackness.”
Zelph: For 176 years, the introduction to The Book of Mormon claimed that these Lamanites were “the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”
–Me: In the theology of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, it would be of most importance if any Native American had any connection to Israel. Considering the Book of Mormon ended 1400 years before Joseph Smith, that is plenty of time for the Lamanites who survived to have been absorbed into the greater population of Native Americans who had Asian origins, thus giving the Asian groups some claim to Israel over time. Some evidence today suggests that Native Americans have Eurasian and Middle Eastern DNA.
Zelph: This claim doesn’t JUST contradict all the available genetic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence about Native American origins, it completely disregards all the indigenous people’s own oral histories, supplanting them with a 19th-century WASP fantasy where God cursed them with dark skin to make them too ugly for white people.
–Me: Same as previous
Zelph: This is literal cultural identity erasure.
To add salt to the wound, The Book of Mormon also praises the tyrant, Christopher Columbus: “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land,” (1 Nephi 13:12).
Zelph: Church leaders have always cited this verse to glorify the bloodthirsty Columbus as the proto-saint of imperial Christianity. Yet they have never once mentioned the torture, rape, enslavement, and murder that Christopher Columbus brought to the natives who welcomed him with open arms because their imaginary narrative takes precedence over historical accuracy and moral sensitivity.
This is also the case with the church’s treatment of black people. The Pearl of Great Price teaches that God cursed Cain and his descendents. “For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the bareness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people” (Book of Moses 7:8)
–Me: Again, blackness could have meant blackness as in apostate and disobedience. I don’t think Moses was writing with Anglo-Saxon white supremacy in mind. Just a thought. An archaic definition of blackness or black simply means a state of being evil or wicked. I think that description of Cain fits pretty well. Again, you’re only looking at your critique of U.S. history and race relations and juxtaposing that onto Mormonism.
Zelph: Church president Brigham Young added his insight, saying:
“Cain slew his brother…. and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race – that they should be the ‘servant of servants,’ and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree,” (Journal of Discourses, v. 7, pp. 290-291).
–Me: The Journal of Discourses are not considered scripture. You would have to find an alternate soure in the Church’s theology where it talks about a “flat nose” if you’re trying to determine what the Church accepts as either speculation or doctrine.
Zelph: The LDS church may disavow 160 years of racist teachings and restrictions, but it retains in its canon a racist fiction — that is, that blackness came after whiteness as a result of sin.
–Me: The canon originates from Middle Eastern sources. Blackness and whiteness are often symbolic for sinful and faithful. Why does this writer view everything in the liberal critique of American Anglo-Saxon white supremacy? Clearly, Hebrews were not white people from Scandinavia.
Zelph: The reality is that homo sapiens started out with dark pigmentation. Whiteness is a genetic mutation that occurred later as people migrated farther away from the equator.
–Me: According to some. Has this been updated? Besides, how can archaeology determine the skin color of people from African from thousands of years ago?
Zelph: Black was first. White came later. Yet this historical truth is turned on its head by scripture in favor of a false, white-centric narrative.
This is literal white supremacy. And it led to the maltreatment of black members for 160 years, something for which the church has never apologized.
–Me: The author has cleverly placed the atrocities committed by real white supremacist at the feet of members of the Church, who were from the North and who had an abolitionist as their first prophet.
Zelph: For far too long, members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have turned a blind eye to racial injustice (or have even inflicted it themselves) due to the false narratives they believed about race. –
–Me: Surely some blacks have felt like second class citizens, but all throughout time people have enslaved and marginalized their minority groups. The Church’s theology just happens to provide a better and more accurate interpretation of the curse of Cain than did those who used it to justify slavery. A priesthood restriction appearing in 1835 would have been a rebuke against Christians in the South using the Bible to justify slavery. It would have also made sense of an ambiguous double curse given to Cain and then Ham. You know, like the Restoration did on may topics. Also, the “servant of servants” isn’t a command, but more of a prophecy. No Christian should have used that verse to justify the brutality of Southern slavery.
Zelph: These are the foolish traditions of our fathers that must go. The church has changed scripture before and it can change it again. And until it does, it should be branded for what it is: racist.
–Me: Nothing in the scripture needs to change because it wasn’t written with Anglo-Saxon white supremacy as the foundation. Any past ignorant or racists comments that are not doctrinal have been rejected.
While it is tempting to want to ally the Church’s theology and the priesthood ban with Anglo-Saxon white supremacy, one would have to do the same with the Bible and Book of Mormon authors, none of which knew an Anglo-Saxon from a hole in the ground. The millennials at Zelph on a Shelf can ignore the facts and sources presented here all they want, but they should know that going forward they can expect to be called out for their intellectual dishonesty from time to time. As for believing Mormons, we need to drown out the critics with good sources and take back the narrative that these eager aspiring writers think they own.
In time, as it is with much of liberal revisionist history, more nuance will shed light on their heavy-handed and self-righteous critiques. In the study of History, it has become clear that liberals and their revisionist history tend to take sides (generally attacking anything that is white, Protestant, or male) when looking at a given topic. There are others in the practice of History known as “cultural constructionists” who incorporate various fields of study to widen the narrative. Liberal spin can only exist when just enough information is given to satisfy their agenda, but when more evidence and detail are opened, the story is more complicated than they are willing to deal with.
We can see then, that not only was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never rooted in Anglo-Saxon white supremacy but that it had its own unique explanation that harkens back to the Bible. I will concede that it is possible that Brigham Young may have had some prejudice attitudes, but that is not inconsistent with other Biblical figures, such as Jonah and Peter, both who looked at other races as unworthy of “their God.” The difficult part for those in and outside the Church is in separating some of the ignorant and more racist-sounding comments from what the Church teaches as doctrine and the root of the ban.
The bottom line is the priesthood ban had enough backing rooted in scripture and not Anglo-Saxon white supremacy.
Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and is currently teaching U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academia, the Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State University, LDS Living, Meridian Magazine, and East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.