A decade ago, I was writing historical novels about black LDS history. I was contextualizing the death of Mary Ann Adams Abel, wife of black LDS priesthood holder Elijah Abel, and reading newspapers of the day. What stories were those at Mary Ann’s funeral reading in 1877—the year Brigham Young also died? The most interesting article (for me) was one published in the Deseret Weekly News on December 5, 1877—a week after Mary Ann’s death.
Stanley . . .has furnished the world with a complete map. . . of the Congo, down in Africa. A fresh field is opened to missionary labor. The benighted tribes of the wilds of Africa will not long be left without the knowledge of the world’s Redeemer . . .
“Stanley” refers to Henry Stanley. Earlier that same year (1877), Stanley had written, “This is a blood-thirsty world, and for the first time, we feel that we hate the filthy, rapacious ghouls who live here” (Reybrouck, p. 35 –link).
Twenty years later, Joseph Conrad would be the Congo, and would create the character of Kurtz, who wrote in his journal’s margin, “Exterminate all the brutes!”
In 19th Century Utah, Africa was a mystery, but the belief in humanity’s divine nature apparently persuaded Mormons that even “benighted” Africans could be converted. There were already missionaries in South Africa—that mission opened in 1853—though the black population was not sought out.
The Victorian view of African blacks held them as almost a different species than whites. In LDS conversations and sermons of that day, speculations were repeated that some spirits had been “neutral” or “less valiant” in the pre-existence and were identified by black skin, or that they were judged according to their conduct in the pre-mortal world and sent either to “advantages” if they had been faithful or to “disadvantages” if they had been less faithful. The predominant idea in the Church was that “advantages” included birth into comfort and covenant.
When my co-author, Darius Gray, was contemplating past statements on race made by Mormon leaders, he was distressed and seeking understanding. As he prayed in August, 1998, he received a revelation .
He describes it as a “flood of knowledge,” during which he came to understand that “race”—that elusive division based on skin color and culture—was not a “curse” but a “calling.” Darius, when presenting this idea, often acts out a scene in the pre-mortal life:
So, God calls me and tells me, ‘Darius, I’m going to send you to a people who have been misunderstood, oppressed, and maligned. You will be born into a poor family and at a time of great turmoil. Can you maintain the love of Christ in your heart? Can you live without envy or bitterness?’ And, fool that I am, I said, ‘Yes.’ Then God talks to you and says, ‘You will be born into what many will consider an advantaged position. You will have material wealth. Can you maintain the love of Christ in your heart and resist the temptation to think that you are better than others? Can you focus on charity rather than on your wealth?’ And you said yes.
Darius has been my mentor throughout the sixteen years wherein I have studied race issues in the LDS Church. Before him, there was my dad, who showed me by his example how to treat others with unfeigned love, how to learn their languages and how to be unified with them.
With the life lessons these two men have given me, I plan on spending much of the rest of my life in the very place the Deseret News described in 1877. I will stand where Stanley and Conrad stood, but in a century when we recognize racism, or at least its symptoms.
I have already been to the Congo for initial filming of Heart of Africa and found nothing “benighted” about the people there. Quite the contrary. I found them peace-loving, intelligent, and eager to see progress. They are fully aware that their nation is perhaps the richest on earth in natural resources, but that political corruption, some cultural traditions, and conspiring foreigners have kept the poverty level high.
I was born into wealth with all of its blessings and all of its temptations and distractions. As I near age 60 and look towards how I will wrap up my life, I happily accept the CALLING to provide access, help, and comfort in the Congo, in exchange for friendship, French teachers, manioc makers, and godly examples, which I know are plentiful there—even in some who have completely different concepts of this world, humanity’s place in it, and how we must interact if we are to leave our posterity with a hope for peace.
The “calling” is not to a particular place, but to a state of heart. It is a call to responsibility, to live at the core of pure religion—“to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep. . .unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). I find that the closer I stay to the core, the more willing I am to be gently led, and the more I see a heart of light in my fellow mortals.