It’s time for a discussion of Russell Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism: 1830-2013 (Greg Kofford Books, 2014; publisher’s page). I bought my copy at a book signing at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake. Deseret Book is carrying the book, but if you live in Utah County go pick up a copy at Writ & Vision, Brad’s new operation (on West Center in Provo, used to be Zion’s Books). We are fortunate to have Russell presently doing a guest blogger stint here at T&S, so I look forward to his responses to my review and to your observations or questions in the comments.
For the Cause of Righteousness is both comprehensive, as it takes a global view of the topic for the entire history of the LDS Church, and timely, coming just after the Church’s publication of the definitive Race and the Priesthood essay. And the issue of race and the priesthood is not just an isolated topic or chapter in our history; it is a central theme that runs right through the middle of LDS history, from the first decade right up to today. It’s not a pretty story, but it is one that you, as a Mormon, simply need to know.
The book is comprised of two distinct sections. The first section is a narrative treatment covering the LDS history of the topic in about two hundred pages. The second section is another hundred pages reviewing and presenting selected documents covering the same period, from Elijah Ables’ 1836 priesthood ordination certificate (p. 211-12) and 19th-century explanations of the priesthood ban by Brigham Young (p. 252-55) and B. H. Roberts (p. 290-92), to 20th-century arguments for and against the ban that finally get us to Official Declaration 2 in 1978 reversing the ban (p. 343-44), the 2012 press release at the Mormon Newsroom following the Bott Affair (p. 352-54), and ultimately the Race and the Priesthood essay published in December 2013 (p. 355-57). The documentary section is important. Anyone can write a narrative of past events with commentary and explanation; documents are fixed points that nail down an accurate, credible historical account to the real world of actual historical events and distinguish a credible narrative from speculative or even invented accounts.
The meat of the book is the seven-chapter narrative account in the first two hundred pages. Chapter 1 covers 1830-47, describing Mormonism’s encounter with both abolitionism and slavery, which was particularly difficult in Missouri. Chapter 2, “Cursed, 1845-90,” chronicles the rather puzzling shift, following the murder of Joseph Smith, away from ordaining African American converts. It happened quickly: “By spring 1849, [Brigham] Young began drawing a firm line, making his first comments explicitly denying priesthood ordination and temple blessings to those he considered to be tainted with the blood of Cain. These comments formed the theological foundations for the LDS Church’s race-based restriction ban for nearly 130 years” (p. 17). Chapter 3, “The Long Night, 1890-1960,” tells how the Church in various countries dealt with the priesthood ban in practice, as well as how faithful black LDS Saints persevered in the faith despite the doctrinal and personal prejudice they faced. Russell did a T&S post on one such Saint, William P. Daniels, who directed an LDS branch in South Africa in the early part of the 20th century.
The pace quickens in Chapter 4, which recounts how the Church established a small presence in various African countries, and in Chapter 5, covering the US civil rights movement. Boots-on-the-ground African experience forced those few Latter-day Saints who lived there to rethink the priesthood ban, including (of all people) Sonia Johnson of later ERA fame, who in 1967 was living in Nigeria with her husband. Russell recounts her observations:
Blacks were among “the finest, most intelligent, most moral, most level-headed persons” she had ever known. After experiencing Africa firsthand, the priesthood ban “just doesn’t make sense to me.” (p. 101.)
Chapters 6 and 7 cover events leading up to 1978 and the aftermath of that revelation. The right man was at the helm, President Spender W. Kimball. His 1974 announcement of an LDS temple to be built in Sao Paulo, Brazil led the leadership to confront the consequences of the priesthood and temple ban: “The widespread distribution of African genetic influence throughout Brazil had made it virtually impossible to draw strict racial lines between white, black, and others, forcing Church leaders to question the wisdom of building a temple there, even while they recognized the faithful commitment of black and white members alike” (p. 148). The 1978 revelation was a relief to everyone throughout the Church, but the leadership did not follow up with needed doctrinal redefinition. As Russell notes, “Bruce R. McConkie became an ardent defender of the Church’s new policy, even as he continued to entertain old racial dogmas about the origins of the races” (p. 155). Which, predictably, led eventually to a 2012 Washington Post story quoting a BYU religion prof spouting the “old racial dogmas” of McConkie and others, to the horror of LDS readers. Which finally led to a definitive statement by the Church refuting those views. Here is the key paragraph from the Race and the Priesthood essay, quoted by Russell on the last page of Chapter 7:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous 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.
I think this is now the primary scholarly treatment of the LDS race and priesthood history. There have been previous books by LDS authors looking at the LDS priesthood ban as policy and as doctrine. This book is straight history, in particular the 100-page documentary section. But even the 200-page narrative section plays it straight: it’s all history, with almost no commentary or criticism from the author. Reading the book, you may find yourself at various times feeling shame or pride or even anger at the statements or actions of various historical actors, but the author refrains from voicing any of those responses in the text. I think the book would have benefited from an additional Chapter 8 reflecting on the events recounted in the first seven chapters. After all, we want to learn from our history, so it is okay to offer a few apparent lessons. The closest the author comes is this statement on page 121: “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the ban’s intellectual history is the reliably inconsistent nature of its rationales.” On the other hand, we’re living in LDS Retrenchment 2.0; maybe stating the facts and letting readers draw their own conclusions is a wiser course for young LDS scholars. That, in fact, may be one of the lessons to be drawn from those who publicly criticized the LDS priesthood ban during the 20th century (see Chapter 5). Those who were scapegoats may one day be heroes.