Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

African American Mormon convert: LDS Church needs to “make amends” for past racism

Over a year ago, the LDS Church issued a Gospel Topics statement about race that should have laid to rest the folk doctrines that had once propped up its racist priesthood ban. That statement put the blame for the ban on “widespread ideas about racial inferiority” that characterized 19th-century America, affirming that God is “no respecter of persons” or of race.

Unfortunately, the statement has not yet been incorporated into the Church’s curriculum, and earlier racial views still prevail among some Latter-day Saints. Today, guest blogger and Relief Society President Bryndis Roberts calls on the Church to stop hiding its Gospel Topics statement under a bushel, and use it to take a bolder stand to rectify the racist sins of the past. — JKR

 

BWR face at weddingA guest post by Bryndis Roberts

Before joining the Church in January 2008, I struggled mightily with the fact that, before 1978, there was a ban on men of African descent having the priesthood and a ban on all persons of African descent participating in temple ordinances. In practical terms, this ban meant that all of the people who looked like me were relegated to a second-class form of Church membership.

From the first time I learned of the priesthood/temple ban, I knew without a doubt that no part of the policy was from God. That knowledge made it possible for me to join the Church despite the ban’s previous existence and the many hurtful statements Church leaders and members had made to justify it. Consequently, when the Church issued the Race and the Priesthood essay on December 13, 2013, as part of its series on Gospel Topics, that essay simply confirmed what I already knew – that racism was the only reason for the ban.

Almost every religion has some history of racism. However, the history and sanctioned Church-wide practice of racism in the LDS Church lasted way too long. Moreover, the effort put into justifying that history and practice left investigators and members of African descent feeling doubly wounded.

I have heard so many accounts about those wounds. Here are a few of them:

  • In 1977, an African American woman was ready to join the Church. When she learned of the priesthood/temple ban, she did not join.
  • In 1997, a white teacher told a young African American man that the reason for the ban was that “Blacks were less valiant in the premortal realm.” The pain from that statement ultimately resulted in him becoming inactive.
  • In 2007, an African American woman was investigating the Church. She was repeatedly informed that the priesthood/temple ban had come from God and that her faith simply needed to be strong enough to accept that fact.
  • In 2014, an African American woman was told that the Race and the Priesthood essay did not mean that the Church had been wrong; instead, God had simply changed his mind about the “worthiness” of people of African descent.

As an African American, these stories fill me with a combination of anger and sadness. When I think about how my brothers and sisters of color were denied the opportunity for blessings and exaltation simply because of their ethnic heritage, I feel the same emotions I experienced when, as a little girl, I was told I could not sit in the “whites only” waiting room, or drink from the “whites only” fountain, or use the “whites only” bathroom.

In fact, my emotions about the Church are even stronger, because the Church’s exclusionary practices affected the eternal life of my brothers and sisters of African descent.

I commend the Church for issuing the Race and the Priesthood essay, but I do not believe it has done nearly enough to rid itself of the stain of exclusionary practices of the past. Here is what I wish the Church would do:

  • Issue the Race and the Priesthood essay as a letter from the First Presidency, an Official Declaration, or a proclamation.
  • Have that official document translated into all the languages that the Church uses to communicate with its worldwide membership.
  • Read it at General Conference and make it clear that neither the ban nor the justifications for the ban came from God.
  • Direct that it be read from the pulpit in every ward, branch, “cluster” (see here), and mission in the world.
  • Incorporate it into all levels of the Church’s curriculum and teachings.

By doing these things, I believe the Church will begin to make amends for the racism that permeated Mormon life in the past and the racist remnants that continue to haunt us in the present. Preaching the truth about racism out loud, from the pulpit — repeatedly if necessary — will hasten the day when there are no distinctions in the Church because of race.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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