The Untold Story of Black Mormons by Guest

April 2, 2009
By

When I served a mission in eastern Canada in the early 90s, there were many things I was grateful for (warm boots, wool suits, fairly normal food). But above all, I was grateful that I was sent to a region with very few black people, as I was not looking forward to having to defend something in the Church’s past that had deeply troubled even a relatively immature teenager with a limited knowledge of Church history and doctrine.

By that point, the ban on male black members having the priesthood had been lifted for more than a dozen years. Yet, it still bothered me. And it seemed far from a settled issue. Plenty of influential writings from top Church leaders could be found in any ward house library that linked all black people back to Cain and postulated that they were “less valiant” in the pre-existence – hence, no priesthood. I never believed this, and would have had a very difficult time trying to teach this nonsense with a straight face. Luckily, I never had to.

I share that background to explain why – at Sunstone West this past weekend – I took such a keen interest in a screening of the film “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.” Produced by Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, this movie goes through the history of black people in the Church and the evolution of the priesthood ban, which is largely “credited” to Brigham Young. Apparently, he evolved (or de-volved) in his views, as the movie had some interesting early quotes from him that were far more kind and tolerant towards blacks than some of his later whoppers. The historical context painted by the film shows an influx of Mormon converts from the southern states who brought their slaves to Utah. Henceforth, Young made the decision to make Utah into a slave-friendly territory. Another bit of historical context that I don’t remember being mentioned in the film is that the Democratic Party (then pro-slavery) was also more tolerant of plural marriage, which was likely another factor in the decision.

Fascinating as the history was, the movie was far more touching for me on a personal level. I was utterly floored by the powerful testimonies shared by the many black LDS members interviewed on camera. Many of these folks joined the Church while the ban still existed. One African-American sister shared the heartbreaking observation that the first time she was ever called a “nigger” was in the Salt Lake temple. Yet, she was far from angry. Like many others of all races, her life had been touched in a positive way by the Gospel. That many of these folks retained a love and loyalty to an organization that had rejected them for so long was amazing. The Church apparently did not sponsor this project, but it should buy every copy that it can and send it out to all four corners of the Earth. Seriously, who better to share the hopeful message of the Gospel than a group of people who consistently getting the short end of the stick.

Another interesting tidbit from the film was a story about Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, retired pastor of the First AME Church of Los Angeles (which was founded by a former slave of Mormon pioneers). Murray shares a story on camera that he was once invited to meet with then-President Hinckley at the Church Office Building. At that meeting, he says Hinckley apologized to him for the Church’s participation in the slavery issue and for its part in perpetuating prejudice against black people. How broad he meant that is arguable, but it certainly seems a long way from just three decades ago.

Ms. Young was there and hosted a lively discussion afterwards. She is working on getting the film distributed. Apparently, Howard University has agreed to show it on its PBS station. Hopefully, BYU does the same. Anyone interested should start bugging their local PBS station. And maybe some e-mails to Netflix to spark their interest wouldn’t hurt, either.

Basically, two thumbs up here. Despite the lousy economy, I would heartily recommend dipping into your wallet for $25 to buy the DVD (it can be found at

http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com

) And no, I’m not getting a cut. Thanks for listening.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    My favorite part of the movie was when Paul Gill said, to the best of my memory, “God stomped on me and said, ‘It’s cool.’” What an amazing statement.

    I second James’ recommendation. This is an amazing project.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    Great film. I give it two thumbs up.

    It would be nice if the folks running that website would get a promotional trailer or something posted on YouTube. It would make it a lot easier to promote to people I know.

  • http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com Margaret Young

    Thank you, James. The first time I saw the last section of the film after it was finally put together–in which Black Latter-day Saints tell why they’re in the faith–I was brought to tears myself. Though I was familiar with all of the footage, and Darius and I had, with our editor, determined the edits, I hadn’t realized how powerful those testimonies would be in their final form.
    For me, the goal has always been bridge-building.
    I’ve been curious about the need for the film in Africa, where I have several missionaries from my time at the MTC. I definitely don’t think it belongs in the MTC itself, where focus needs to be on _Preach My Gospel_, but I wonder if the old teachings are making their way to Africa. I’ve heard they are in Kenya. My missionaries are in the Congo. The big challenge, of course, as I mentioned at Sunstone, is that some Mormons get very nervous about the slightest suggestion that the restriction or anything else in Church history might have been in error. I think AFTER missionaries know _PMG_ and are starting to face hard questions, our film might be a good resource. _Blacks in the Scriptures_ also has some valuable information.

  • http://www.mormonmatters.org Shawn Larsen

    Saw the film at last year’s Sunstone West. I agree it is fantastic and should be seen by all. I’ll be ordering a DVD very soon.

  • http://mormonheretic.org MH

    I have already highly endorsed this DVD, and I’ll do it again. The special features on the DVD are an awesome addition, and I posted about them at http://www.mormonheretic.org/2009/03/09/early-black-mormons/

    IMO, the special features really add a tremendous value. The film is excellent, but I almost love the special features more.

  • http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com Margaret Young

    Thanks MH. Though we didn’t have the money to sound master and color enhance special features, the information is just wonderful. I wish we had had a better background for Connell; he looks a little washed out because there’s a white wall behind him. But the information is superb. Btw, our editor got one thing wrong on the menu for special features: the name is LEN Hope, not Lynn. We’ll correct that when we do the next batch. His is a remarkable story, and came to us via Elder Marion D. Hanks. We gave a copy of the DVD to Elder Hanks, whose son called us the next day to say his father (in decline) had wept through the whole thing.

    I guess I should correct one other thing: James, for years we assumed the picture you have posted was Elijah Abel. I even talked to someone who had published it previously about the certainty with which we could claim it was Elijah (or a depiction of him anyway). All these years later, new information has come to light and we can say with some assurance that it’s NOT Elijah. The photo we have in the doc is definitely him, though, and the documents we show (patriarchal blessing, bill signed with his X) are all authentic.

    I like the idea of a you-tube trailer. The trailer we have on our site is a bit long. We’re planning on cutting a new one fairly soon.

  • N.

    I bought the DVD, and just watched it last Sunday.
    Powerful, wonderful, inspiring, frustrating, thoughtful, and finally hopeful.
    I loved it, and highly recommend it.

  • http://www.musingsonmormonism.blogspot.com gloria

    Yes, but one day you may have to deal with the “black” issue in LDS history. I know I certainly did. My husband and I adopted 5 children from Latin America. Upon entering the temple to have them sealed, the temple sealer proceeded to tell me that they would become “white and delightsome”, and would nto remain “brown”. Excuse me, I said? He proceeded to share with me all the mumbo-jumbo doctrines of B.Young and others who actually believed the Lord has cursed people with black skin. I promptly got up off my seat, and went to the office and asked for a new sealer. I told them I refused to have a white racist in my children’s sealing. They apologized and quickly removed the man.

    Or what about the expierence I had with an LDS woman who asked about my adopted children and expressed her desire to adopt, and upon telling her of the plight of the orphans in Ethiopia her response was ” I can’t do that. You know what the Prophets have said about black people”…….

    One day you will be faced with a person who will ask you about the racism within LDS teachings and history. It is unevitable. I hope you have some answers ready for them.

    As for me and my house, we serve the Lord and left the LDS formally in the fall of Nov.2007.

    God bless,
    gloria

  • http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com Margaret Young

    Gloria, I am so sorry that you faced such abominable ideas. I wish your story were unique, but I know it’s not. Let me say that we need people like you in the Church–people who will stand up for equality and truth. We are less than we might have been without you. Darius Gray and I would really like to talk with you further. Could you e-mail me at Margaret_Young at byu.edu ?

  • zionssuburb

    I too served a mission in eastern Canada in the very early 90′s. I had amazing experiences with many Africans, and some who joined the church, Ghana, Angola, Burundi. These were amazing experiences. But the most interesting dealing with the Priesthood ban was a member of the church who joined prior to 1978. He and his family exhibited a love of the gospel unequaled in my experience, and as he related his conversion story to me (someone who as a young person familiar with church history and doctrine who also flatly rejected traditional descendant of cain/not valiant traditional explanations) I was moved beyond words, the Spirit bearing witness to me of this family’s strength. I started to even theorize that maybe it’s us whitey’s that were the non-valiant, to be given the ‘ease of life’ that comes of our birth color.

    I find it very interesting that many of them had similar stories to many of South America that I met. These people were a mix of political refugees, immagrants from war-torn countries, and some didn’t seem much different than those from Iran/Pakistan that were also baptised. But certainly much different from my upper-middle-class-white-Utah life.

  • Darius Gray

    Sister Gloria,

    I know well the challenge of answering the questions about race and the LDS Church. I’ve been dealing with it now for more than 44 years and the pains and frustrations are very real. Dear Sister, please know that I have a personal appreciation for your experiences … including those that resulted from racist comments being made during temple sealings. Been there, done that.

    I cannot condone or alibi those beliefs and behaviors which are clearly out of step with the words of the Savior but I do wish you were yet walking directly among us. To paraphrase Sister Margaret, we are less than we might be because of your absence.

    Still, by your last sentence it is clear that you do yet serve the Lord and though we may labor in different parts of the vineyard we share the same Master.

    May you and yours continue to be blessed.

    I remain your brother in Christ,

    Bro. Darius

  • FireTag

    Margaret:

    Your intentions are good in #9, yet I don’t think you understand what Gloria is saying. You believe in the work and so take it for granted that you are doing something of vital importance to Gloria. But Gloria does not believe the LDS church is theologically correct in the first place (see her earlier post on the first vision). You phrase the appeal in terms of “this church needs people like you”; her position is that people like her have found truth in a different “biblical Christian” community and do not need this church.

    The irony is that the discussion of the film above seems to make the point that doing what seemed good for the survival and growth of the church in the 19th Century is what led to problems of racism in the first place. The church fell short of its calling precisely because it was supposed to be following a Lord who would not compromise on some things in order to survive.

    Some times people have to follow where they feel the Lord is calling, even if it isn’t good for the church. After all, one of the Twelve didn’t want jesus to go to Jerusalem.

    Go with God, Gloria.

  • sj

    Gloria-

    Wow. I am amazed how many people still make comments like that. I alos struggle with trying to rationalize the priesthood ban on blacks. I never really thought about the ban until my parents adopted my little brother and sister from Ethiopia. I have no idea what I’ll tell them if they ever ask me about the ban someday. The justifications people tell me in the church just don’t feel right to me. As I’ve pondered about it, I’ve just come to the conclusion that the church is not what I thought it was.

    Thanks for the information about the video- I’m sure my mom would love to show it to my little brother and sister.

  • http://mormonheretic.org MH

    Gloria, I am sorry to hear about your experience. My inlaws were just here, and I commented on your experience, stating how sad it is. I read your statement to my inlaws, “I told them I refused to have a white racist in my children’s sealing. They apologized and quickly removed the man. “

    My mother-in-law jumped in at that point and said, “But doesn’t she know that the Book of Mormon that talks about ‘white and delightsome’ and ‘dark and loathsome’ people? That’s what God said.”

    At this point, I told her that I believed in fallible prophets–that I believe Brigham was fallible, as well as Nephi and Alma, and I felt that was a racist statement in the Book of Mormon. Needless to say, the discussion got pretty heated quickly. In exasperation, I said, “Well if you want to have a testimony of racism, then go ahead, but I do not.”

    Long story short, I just posted a very long post on Abraham tonight, and I talked about Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian slave. Genesis records that Hagar had 2 angelic visits, both saving Hagar and Ishmael’s life. I told my mother in law that the apparently black Egyptian Hagar was was somehow worthy to receive an angelic visitor in 2000 BC, so God apparently didn’t think she was ‘dark and loathsome.’” (Remember Egyptians are apparently black because of statements made about Ham’s wife Egyptus being black.) Anyway, I know she didn’t agree with me, but she didn’t have a rebuttal.

    I let them borrow my DVD, but my mother in law is so mad at me right now, I’m not sure if she’ll watch it. But her husband will–he likes to talk about stuff like this. My wife recommended the movie to them, so hopefully they’ll take her recommendation.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    #11 – That comment alone shows why I love and admire Bro. Darius. I just thought that needed to be said.

    God bless you, Darius – and empower you to continue to do the marvelous work you do. You are an inspiration to all who understand your life story – and I’m sure God sees you as one of his most valiant sons.

  • David Stout

    Kudos on dealing with a most difficult and potentially embarrassing issue. Would that more religious bodies had the guts to face such challenges. And while this might sound really odd coming from a non Mormon pastor, I hope Gloria stays within the LDS. The effects of the racist past are clearly still present and need to be confronted and dealt with if the Church is to become a truly world wide movement. More importantly, these effects need to be confronted and dealt with if the Church is going to be true to its basic calling. I suspect that the sort of connections made possible by this website, the resource of the DVD (I SO want to see it.) and the rise of a generation for whom “white and delightsome” is just not tenable, might make Gloria’s potential contributions even more effective than she thinks. Anyway, I hope she might at least say a few more prayers and wait upon God’s direction in the matter, and I wish her God’s blessings in whatever path she might feel led. BTW, I trust that you are all aware that Joseph Smith, in the last edition of the Book of Mormon that he personally edited in 1840 (and therefore the product of his mature thought and understanding), changed “white” to “pure”.

  • http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com Margaret Young

    MH–????!!! Wow. That depresses me. Not that I’m surprised, just easily depressed.
    David Stout–who are you? Some of my favorite people are non-Mormon pastors (including Pastor Chip Murray, who’s in our doc). I love you already.
    Ray–as far as the Darius Gray fan club (I am at least the secretary, granting his wife the presidency), we’re happy to have you join us!

  • Tatiana

    I just received the DVD in the mail today and can’t wait to watch it.

  • http://ldsaliveinchrist.com Jared

    I remember the day the “ban” was lifted. I picked up the phone and called NAACP and excitedly told them how happy I was. I didn’t enjoy the pressure I felt as a white Mormon standing up for the Lord’s prophets and church. I prayed the Lord would bless His church and wondered how it would all turn out. It turned out just the way the Lord intended for it to turn out. At least that is how I feel, and most of the faithful members I know who lived through it feel the same way.

    Now all these years later there are those who want to belittle the apostles and prophets because of this issue. Many of them who have so much to say about it weren’t even alive in those days.

    I know very little about the movie spoken of here. I am not being critical of anyone or any group. The story needs to be told, but I don’t believe any of the early church leaders need to be judged by those in this generation because they didn’t live in their day. I generally won’t listen to any white or black person on this issue who wasn’t an adult in 1978. I don’t think they can speak with much authority.

    The culture in the 1960′s can be summed up by an experience I had as a solider on my way to Nam. I was in Mobile, Alabama. The bus I was on stopped at a cafe. I was sitting next to a black army buddy. When we stopped to eat I wondered why he wouldn’t get off the bus. He said I can tell you’re not from the south. I went into the cafe and voiced my feelings about my buddy not being able to eat–yet he is on his way to Nam. I was told that no one wanted any trouble but that was the way it was. That was my first experience with racism.

    I think faithful black members who were adults in pre-1978 have a right to talk about it–and wish that all others would leave it their hands. I find the black members much more reasonable about the ban than some of the young white members who want to use the ban as a means to stone the prophets.

    I’d be pleased if the new apostle called tomorrow to be a faithful black brother.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    Jared, watch the movie. It’s excellent – and “spirit-infused”. I would love it if every member of the Church could see it.

    It can be ordered at the bottom of the following page:

    http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com/

  • http://ldsaliveinchrist.com Jared

    Ray–

    I just followed the link and watched the trailer. It looks like a well produced film. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  • Wyoming

    I spent the night at an apostles home when the revelation was given. Although very young, I remember the excitement – the electricity of the moment. My aunt came in our room and shared the news with great enthusiasm. I didn’t understand the significance of the moment until years later but have felt great appreciation as I later served a mission in the South.

    Thanks to Brother Gray and Sister Young.

  • Tatiana

    I watched the documentary and all the features tonight. They were all wonderful. I’m so glad this movie got made. Thanks to Darius, Margaret, and all involved.

  • http://www.crooksandliars.com Tmaximus

    For a religion based on Egyptian hyroglyphs rooted/sousrced from Africa and/or the racial edicts rooted with “Mark of Cain”

    …it might behoove that mindset to remember that all of the mentioned above and in all those mentioned biblical history: were not Caucasian….they were and are Semitic.

  • Holden Caulfield

    “I think faithful black members who were adults in pre-1978 have a right to talk about it–and wish that all others would leave it their hands. I find the black members much more reasonable about the ban than some of the young white members who want to use the ban as a means to stone the prophets.”

    The millions of black people to whom the gospel was not taken, those who refused to listen to this version of the gospel because they were the subject of racist remarks and missionaries who were told not only to not preach to blacks and in some cases told to lie to them because they were black and should not have the gospel preached to them (according to some mission presidents) are all groups who not only have the “right to talk about it” but should talk about it.

  • Susann

    I am not a Mormon but have had Mormon students and have greatly admired them so when my daughter became pregnant after a date rape she put up the child for adoption. She wanted to keep in contact with the child. When we contacted a state agency we were told that the adoption would be sealed, so based on my classroom experience with the Mormon children I contacted a Mormon adoption agency. A representative came to our home and we talked about our daughter’s wanting an open adoption basically we were told this was not possible. We were told we would get updates for the first 6 months and that was all. As we talked I repeated this child would be biracial, something I had mentioned when first contacting the agency. I asked if there were many families looking to adopt he mentioned that there were many, when I mentioned the child was biracial he said there were some black families who wanted to adopt but no where near the number of white families wanting to adopt. I expressed some surprise about the placing of the child specifically with a black family. And his reply was “you want the child to be with her own kind don’t you.” We were all stunned. Needless to say this child was not placed with a Mormon family and it has colored my view of the church ever since.

  • Susann

    One other thing, this conversation all happened a little over 15 years ago. My grandchild has just passed her 15th birthday in an open adoption situation.

  • http://mormonheretic.org Mormon Heretic

    Susann,

    I’m sorry to hear that. Obviously, there is still much work for us (LDS) to do regarding race.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    I don’t know about LDS Social Services policy 15 years ago, and I cringed when I read the wording, but I know there are no prohibitions on race and ethnicity now. However, we believe in honoring family heritage, so when it is possible to place a baby with parents who share race or cultural heritage or ethnicity and “turn the hearts of the children to their fathers” I’m sure that is preferred.

    I have heard MANY people in the Black community complain that some adoption agencies automatically “give black babies to white parents ’cause they don’t believe black parents are good enough” – so I am sympathetic on that front. I have a hard time with the language, however.

    I want to hope that righteous desire was clothed in horrible wording, but I just don’t know. I’m sorry to hear of that experience, Susann.

  • Susann

    Thank-you for your reply, maybe I wasn’t clear, my daughter is a fair haired blonde and the father black. So the baby was, is , multiracial. My understanding is that even though there were over 50 white families, no problem placing the child according to our guest, when it was mentioned the father was black, the number came down to only a handful of black families. I never heard from him again. After she was born, she was a real beauty, I sent a picture and wrote of our distress at his comment. He never bothered to reply.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    Thanks for the added info, Susann. That’s just sad.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    That is sad, especially since I’ve known of a number of people who would have been delighted to have had her and the current policies allow for open adoptions (there was a time when people thought they (open adoptions) would be a very bad thing, but that perception has faded as experience has shown otherwise).

  • http://athinkingmormon.blogspot.com Andrew

    When an individual makes the mistake of assigning a generalization to a group of people based on the actions, words, or deeds of a small number of the same group, they are guilty of the same thought process that breeds racism, bigotry of any variety, and ignorance.

    A sealer who has devoted his life to living the gospel based on his understanding of his role, callings, and responsibilities should not be summarily dismissed as worthless because he still struggles with ignorance that has been fed to him, one mouthful at a time over the course of his life. For all the light he has experienced and shared with others, why his ruin because of a an acute case of shortsightedness?

    My wife has a great grandmother who took up drinking coffee because of a foolish comment made by her bishop. A comment? That evil man. He alone is responsible for her spiritual demise and the consequent drop in activity among her progeny. (Note the dripping sarcasm.) When one chooses to walk away from the LDS faith, I dare say, they never got the point of this faith to begin with. Receiving personal revelation cannot be snuffed by someone too unfortunate to have not received their own. The spirit, once trully enjoyed, offers peace, patience, and longsuffering (even of the faults of our fellow travellers.)

    When we look for a reason to give up, we will find it. And it will become a precious key to our “freedom” that we will defend tooth and nail as valid and worthy of our effort. The truth is, Heavenly Father, never, ever, not once, promised perfection. But he does promise blessings if we can choose to follow what is right while disregarding the mistakes of others.

    My wife and I adopted a baby girl from Tonga. She is beautiful. She is being raised in a family that refuses to classify anyone. She is simply a daughter of god, and we are blessed to have her in our lives. Have we seen people stare? Yes. Have we heard racially categorical comments both from within and without our family? Yes. Have we had to consciously choose to not be offended by the stupidity of others? Absolutely.

    God singled out only one tribe of twelve for the priesthood work of the temple. Did that make the other tribes inferior to Levi? I don’t think any scriptural record would support that supposition.

    The “racist” Mormon church continued preaching, baptizing, and bestowing the priesthood on native americans, polynesians, asian, and other “non-white” races throughout its history. That doesn’t seem very racist to me.

    According to our faith, God the father allowed the removal of the priesthood and his inspiration for a period of roughly 1730 years. That truly seems unfair, unless of course He has a plan to fix it. (Which of course He did as he does now.)

    Christ preached his gospel exclusively to the house of Israel, and it was only through his apostle Peter that he revealed his will to extend the invite to the gentiles.

    Why the separation? Who knows. God’s thought are not our thoughts. (As evidenced by all the theories postulated by apologetic members of our own fledgling faith in defense of a practice that was only called into question by the public for about twenty years before change occurred.)

    Thankfully, if it was a mistake, it has been corrected. Unfortunately we have to suffer with those among us who are slower to adapt to new realities. Cut them some slack. You are angry with something they were raised to believe their whole lives. In the end will it be entirely their fault if they can never achieve the enlightenment you have been blessed with as a wholly unbiased, accepting, and loving individual?

    Everyone struggles with concepts that are not true, but are carried thoughtlessly along the way, because their burden to us is inconsequential. When we do notice the useless baggage, it is not meet that we should stew and rue the choice to hang on to it for so long, as it is our duty, privilege and honor to have learned a valuable lesson and managed to choose to unload it by the wayside.

    We are here to learn. Often the best way to learn anything is the hard way. Knowing how to reconcile the decisions made by others in our past is painful, but a certainly hard to forget way to learn truths so essential to finding joy. If nothing else, at least thank your Father in heaven that the lesson was learned by those who needed to learn it the most thirty years ago, and not yesterday.

    The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is true. For some the new “wine” proved to hard to keep in old bottles. I am grateful for the progress they made however, so that my new bottle was well prepared to receive a fullness.

    God bless anyone who has suffered for Christ’s sake, and God bless those who do not know what suffering they currently cause because they can’t let go if useless baggage.

    I