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Many Mormons welcome church’s explanation on racist past

Updated: January 26, 2014 6:02AM

Many Mormons welcome the first comprehensive explanation from their church on why it previously barred blacks from the priesthood — a ban that ended 35 years ago.

And they commend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for disavowing once long-held views that blacks were cursed or inferior.

But some local black Mormons said they also would have liked an apology.

In a lengthy posting placed on the church’s website this month entitled “Race and the Priesthood,” the church said it “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.”

The former ban on blacks being ordained as priests traces back to an announcement in 1852 from then church president Brigham Young, the church said.

In the posting, the church blamed the racist times, an era in which some believed that blacks were descended from the same lineage as the bible’s Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Some believed that God’s curse on Cain was the mark of dark skin, the posting notes.

“The justifications for the restriction echoed the widespread idea about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude,’” the church states.

The posting is designed to help people better understand topics related to the church.

It will benefit the church, said Chicago residents Juanita Johnson and Michael Thomas, who are African-American and Mormon.

“I think it really will help the church as far as promoting better race relations especially [among] people of African-American descent,” Thomas said. “I think that’s where most opposition is. A lot of people say that the church is not conducive for American-Americans to attend or worship there. I think this will hopefully be another way of showing people of color that this church and this religion is welcoming to all.”

But Chicagoan Harold Teasley, who is black and attends a Mormon church in Hyde Park, where he has held leadership positions, said he’s unsure the statement will help attract more African-American members. But he thinks it will make it easier for the church to retain the ones they have.

His first exposure to the church came many years ago when a couple of missionaries from the faith visited his home and attempted to encourage him and his then pregnant wife to join. He said one of the members told him if he joined the faith he would be able to baptize his own child.

But another member quickly said he wouldn’t be able to do conduct the baptism because blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood.

“I kicked them out of my house,” Teasley said.

He later joined the church after the ban on blacks was lifted and has been a Mormon for 21 years.

The comprehensive statement is overdue, said Armand Mauss, an adjunct professor in religion at Claremont Graduate University in California and retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.

“I’m very pleased to see this statement, since it has been necessary for at least three decades,” he said in an email statement.

“It is the first full, candid, and transparent attempt by the church itself to give a full and understandable account of its traditional racist teachings and policies.”

Mauss, who is white and Mormon, added the church’s statement in part “is intended to purge, once and for all, from white Mormon thinking, the racist folklore that has been rampant among Mormons for 150 years, as among many other white Americans; and to refute the widespread belief that the racist priesthood policy of the church came from God. We’ll have to wait and see how fast the intended impact materializes.”

Teasley said he would have liked to have seen an apology, but he recognizes the Mormon church is not alone in having a racist past.

“The church at the time was the same as most Christian churches in terms of how it responded to black membership, and so if you put it in that context, the church doesn’t look as bad as it might seem at first blush. It is a church that had things right spiritually if not socially.”

Mauss said an apology would be “very desirable” in some ways, but added, “an explicit apology would not end the problem for the church, since many of its critics, and even some of its own marginal members, would jump on such an apology and follow it up with such questions as, ‘Ah-hah! So what other things in Mormon history or teachings have been wrong? Maybe there are other things requiring similar apologies. Maybe the leaders of the church are not divinely inspired after all.’”


Twitter: @KnowlesFran

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