LDS church celebrates 4 decades since reversing ban on black leaders; still grappling with race relations

Mormon women Tamu Smith, left, and Dr. LaShawn Williams in Lehi, Utah, June 2, 2017 | Photo by Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via The Associated Press, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church on Friday celebrated the 40th anniversary of reversing its ban on black people serving in the lay priesthood, going on missions or getting married in temples, rekindling debate about one of the faith’s most sensitive topics.

The number of black Mormons has grown but still only accounts for an estimated 6 percent of 16 million worldwide members. Not one serves in the highest levels of global leadership.

In this May 17, 2018, file photo, Mormon church President Russell M. Nelson, center, and Leon W. Russell, chairman of the NAACP board of directors, right, walk into a news conference, in Salt Lake City, Utah | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has worked to improve race relations, including calling out white supremacy and launching a new formal alliance with the NAACP, but some black Mormons and scholars say discriminatory opinions linger in some congregations from a ban rooted in a belief that black skin was a curse.

In a 2013 essay , the church disavowed the reasons behind the ban and condemned all racism, saying the prohibition came during an era of great racial divide that influenced early church teachings. Blacks were always allowed to be members, but the nearly century-long ban kept them from participating in many important rituals.

Scholars said the essay included the church’s most comprehensive explanation for the ban and its 1978 reversal, which leaders say came from a revelation from God.

But it didn’t include an apology, leaving some unsatisfied.

A lot of members are waiting for the church just to say, ‘We were wrong,'” said Phylicia Norris-Jimenez, a 30-year-old black Mormon and member of the grass-roots Black LDS Legacy Committee, a group of women who are organizing a conference Saturday in Utah to honor the legacy of black Mormon pioneers.

Norris-Jimenez said non-black church members still struggle with how to talk about the ban or understand the pain it causes. She said the anniversary celebration honors something that should have never existed but that it’s a good gesture and hopefully leads to more discussions about race.

A fellow group member, LaShawn Williams, said she finds comfort in her belief that the ban was a “policy of people, not a policy of God,” made during a racist time.

She and her three children are the only black members of her congregation in Orem, Utah, and she tries to talk about race issues regularly with the teenagers she teaches in Sunday school.

Williams, an assistant professor in social work at Utah Valley University, would like an apology.

If we preach repentance, we should definitely embody it,” she said.

The theme of the anniversary celebration in Salt Lake City was “Be one,” a reference to a Mormon scripture. Gladys Knight, one of the most famous black Mormons, performed, and top church leaders gave speeches.

President Russell M. Nelson said comprehending true brotherhood and sisterhood can inspire people to “build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.”

Nelson’s first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, acknowledged the “pain and suffering” the ban caused while urging members to “look forward in the unity of our faith.”

Prior to event, Ahmad Corbitt, a church employee who led the effort to organize the event, said the celebration was “a call to the entire church, and by extension, the entire world, to let go of prejudices and come together as one unified family.”

Corbitt declined to address a church apology, saying the faith is focused on a forward-looking approach to unity.

This June 5, 2013, photo shows Darius Gray, co-founder of a support organization founded in 1971 for black Mormons called the Genesis Group, in Midvale, Utah. Gray said the Mormon church and its doctrine aren’t racist but that racism lingers in the religion as it does in the culture | Photy by Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via The Associated Press, St. George News

Darius Gray, co-founder of the Genesis Group that supports black Mormons, said the church and its doctrine aren’t racist but racism lingers in the faith as it does in society.

He said he’s been plagued by calls from Mormons concerned about how they’re being treated, which he attributes to a rise in racism in the U.S. since President Donald Trump was elected.

He said he wouldn’t be opposed to an apology for the ban but that he’s more interested in helping the faith make progress in rooting out racism. Gray, who helped plan Friday’s event, said it’s a step toward healing.

“An apology is here today and gone tomorrow,” Gray said. “More significant is what an organization does long term. The LDS church has been moving forward and changed its paradigm in massive ways.”

The Utah-based church doesn’t provide ethnic or racial breakdowns of its members, but independent Mormon researcher Matt Martinich said those of primarily African descent account for about 6 percent of worldwide members.

In the U.S., blacks account for about 1 to 3 percent of 6.6 million Mormons, according to Pew Research Center surveys done in the last two decades.

It’s not the only faith that struggles with a lack of black members in its U.S. congregations: The United Methodist Church, Catholic Church and Judaism also have similarly low rates, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study .

Mormons probably shouldn’t wait for a rare apology from church leaders, said W. Paul Reeve, a Mormon studies professor at the University of Utah. The church seems to be trying to walk a tight rope by disavowing past beliefs while not apologizing for the ban to avoid members questioning other doctrine they think should be changed, he said.

“What else are they wrong about? Are they wrong about gay marriage? Are they wrong about female ordination?” Reeve said. “If they got race and the priesthood wrong, what else could they be wrong about? I think that’s part of the fear.”

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Twitter: @STGnews

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  • 42214 June 2, 2018 at 1:38 pm

    Institutional racism is hard to change. Let’s give the church another 40 years and see if they make any more progress.

    • uprightandmovingforward June 2, 2018 at 5:58 pm

      It’s funny how people think the church’s policy is based on man’s thinking, when in fact the policy is Christ’s policies. It is His church after all. The whole basis of the church is it is led by a prophet of God just like Moses, Abraham and Isaac. The Prophet can only do as directed by the Lord by revelation. It’s how God’s church has been directed from the beginning of time and will be forever.

      In ancient times, the right to the priesthood was given only to the first born son. Also anciently, the Levitical priesthood was giving only to direct descendants of Levi. Is this racism or nepotism or favoritism? None of the above. It is Christ’s church and He can direct it however He wants. Any follower of Christ is entitled to personal revelation about any subject that comes from the Prophet. Through study and prayer everyone can receive answers to questions about Church Doctrine.

      The Prophet Moses led the Israelites out of bondage to the Egyptians and within a month or 2 they wanted to go back to slavery and to Egypt for food. Because men thought it better to go back to Egypt, did this make Moses’ prophetic revelation to free them bondage as the wrong policy of a man? No. The revelation to free them came from God and God with His infinite knowledge knew what he was doing. The Lord’s ways are higher than man’s ways and always will be. Every individual is free to choose to receive their own personal revelation that the Prophet’s directions come from Christ himself.

      Life is a test of faith. Each one of us can choose to receive revelation that the current Prophet is Christ’s prophet and follow him or chose to rely on our own limited knowledge and understanding and return to Egypt and to bondage. We all are God’s children and have the rights to personal revelation. The choice is within each of us to use it to our eternal benefit or not.

      So the answer to the question is: Study the issue at hand with an open mind, research what the scriptures have to say on the subject, read the words of the Prophet on the subject, then get on your knees and pray with a humble heart and an open mind to God and wait patiently for an answer to come from him. When your faith has been tested sufficiently, He will answer through a comforting thought in your mind that you will know it is from Him. I know, I know , it isn’t easy. I personally would rather get a quick email with the answer, but who am I to tell God how to do things (big smiley face here). Hang in there, it can and will work for you too!!!!

      • comments June 2, 2018 at 7:13 pm

        You sound like a good little brainwashed cult member. I’m also a member of the cult, but I’m what, I guess, they’d consider a “bad member” or a nontither/inactive. I’m also an unbeliever. Nonetheless, my membership within the LDS cult/church/corporation is valid and ongoing, and I have been a member since 8 years old–fully baptized into the organization. I bear my testimony here, with a full and open heart, that I KNOW, I KNOW, Brother Uprightandmovingforward, that the policies of THE ONE TRUE CHURCH are fully based on and motivated by… YOU GUESSED IT: MONEY$$$. Money and self-preservation are the driving forces of the organization. There is no “living prophet”. The LDS corporation operates like any for-profit corporation. As a long time and faithful member this is my testimony, and I know it to be true. AMEN. In time you may learn the truth.

        • uprightandmovingforward June 3, 2018 at 6:15 am

          What a sad and depressing world you have created for yourself. I feel bad for you. My guess is you would be best served by removing your name from the records of the church so you will no longer be a hypocrite to your own non-belief. Maybe then you will be a little happier and not waste so much of your time trying to destroy others happiness. Best of luck to you!!!

          • comments June 3, 2018 at 1:23 pm


            SHAME ON YOU.

          • comments June 3, 2018 at 1:33 pm

            and i aint even mad with all that capslock, but you a plainly a hypocrite. You are so very typical of hypocrite LDS’ers. Your type are the reason people have issues with us mormons.

          • uprightandmovingforward June 3, 2018 at 6:30 pm

            Respect People? Look at your comments, mine have show nothing but respect. You’re the one with the offensive comments and rash behavior. No one has to be mormon no matter where they were born. People have been free to remove their names from the records of the church for as long as the church has been around. Your membership in the church doesn’t seem to me making you happy so maybe removing your name from the records will make you happy. It is worth a try. We are all about making people happy!!!

          • comments June 3, 2018 at 8:11 pm

            no no no, and no. you have absolutely no right to tell me I should not be a member. Requesting my name removed from the official roles would not change a thing. Plus, I am a member and you need to respect that. This is my church/cult as much as it is yours and I have every right to criticize it and badmouth it. If they sent their foot soldiers (missionaries) around trying to “reactivate” me and bothered me I might consider requesting removal, but when I stopped attending I was a nontither–actually, I’ve never been a tithe payer, so they simply don’t bother me, because they know they can’t get $$$ out of me–if my name is pulled up in their computer records I suspect there is a big red slash across my name or something, indicating that i’m a nontither, and signaling to the staff that I’m not worth the resources to try and “reactivate”. I suspect a person’s lifetime tithe payments are also listed in this record, and mine is a BIG FAT ZERO. So they don’t come around,and that’s how I prefer it, but I am a full LDS mormon cult member, same as you, whether you like it or not. Plus, it lends me more credibility badmouthing MY church since I have been a full member since 8 years old and I fully intend to retain my membership. So once again, shame on YOU. You’re so blinded by delusion you don’t even recognize your own hypocrisy.

      • 42214 June 2, 2018 at 10:47 pm

        Upright, explain the message the prophet got in 1896 about polygamy and statehood or the message the prophet got about blacks and the priesthood in 1974. Both were coerced by the federal government and the entire hypocritical church is delusional to claim otherwise. There is no difference between Jonestown and Salt Lake City.

        • uprightandmovingforward June 3, 2018 at 11:18 am

          Neither were coerced. Blacks in the priesthood is an easy one. There was no government law requiring any religion to accept blacks in the priesthood. Polygamy is a little more difficult. When the Mormons settled the Salt Lake Valley, it was not a part of the US. It was indian territory. They left partly to be able to freely practice their religion, Kind of ironic since the Constitution upheld their right to practice religion but they were constantly harassed about it. Polygamy was practiced as it was in ancient times to raise up a righteous generation under commandment from the Lord. Eventually the US annexed the indian territories and by then the federal government had created laws against polygamy, which subsequently put the church in a quandary to continue the practice as commanded by the Lord but they also believed in being subject to the laws of the land and upholding the law. For years the leadership tried to comply with the laws of the Lord and uphold their rights to practice their religion on the laws of the land. After much contemplation on the matter in the temple the prophet Wilford Woodruff received the following revelation. The practice was required of the Lord until He withdrew it.

          Official Declaration 1
          The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise (see 2 Samuel 12:7–8 and Jacob 2:27, 30). Following a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s (see section 132). From the 1860s to the 1880s, the United States government passed laws to make this religious practice illegal. These laws were eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the following Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.

          To Whom It May Concern:

          Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes, from Salt Lake City, which have been widely published, to the effect that the Utah Commission, in their recent report to the Secretary of the Interior, allege that plural marriages are still being solemnized and that forty or more such marriages have been contracted in Utah since last June or during the past year, also that in public discourses the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy—

          I, therefore, as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory.

          One case has been reported, in which the parties allege that the marriage was performed in the Endowment House, in Salt Lake City, in the Spring of 1889, but I have not been able to learn who performed the ceremony; whatever was done in this matter was without my knowledge. In consequence of this alleged occurrence the Endowment House was, by my instructions, taken down without delay.

          Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.

          There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.

          Wilford Woodruff

          • comments June 3, 2018 at 1:44 pm

            “Polygamy was practiced as it was in ancient times to raise up a righteous generation under commandment from the Lord.”

            uprightandmovingforward, you are truly delusional, naive and brainwashed, and you’re not a very good LDS apologist. LDS religious polygamy was an excuse by the powerful elite leaders within the LDS organization to have sex with many women and young girls, and to effectively retain them as concubines. Most of the lower level/low status mormons in those days–“peasant mormons” were monogamous. It was an example of powerful men getting away with what powerful men can get away with, very similar to a certain Warren Jeffs and crew. You are naive of LDS history.

          • 42214 June 3, 2018 at 6:02 pm

            The church was facing loss of tax exempt status due to violation of civil rights act and blatant racism. It never got to that point because the prophet miraculously got word from the Boss to change things thus avoiding the loss of the church’s most valued treasure, money.

      • Anejo June 3, 2018 at 7:36 am

        In your reply to the OP you state that “It’s funny how people think the church’s policy is based on man’s thinking, when in fact the policy is Christ’s policies.” and “read the words of the Prophet on the subject.”

        I offer you this as a rebuttal…

        “Having learned with extreme regret, that an article entitled, ‘Free People of Color,’ in the last number of the Star has been misunderstood, we feel in duty bound to state, in this Extra, that our intention was not only to stop free people of color from emigrating to this state, but to prevent them from being admitted as members of the Church.” Joseph Smith ~ History Of The Church 1:378-79.

        “Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species and put them on a national equalization.” Joseph Smith ~ History Of The Church Vol. 5 pp 218-219.

        “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” Brigham Young ~ Journal Of Discourses Vol 10, pg 110.

        “You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, un- comely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. ” Brigham Young ~ Journal Of Discourses 7:290 – 91.

        “How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.” Brigham Young ~ Journal Of Discourses 7:290 – 91.

        “You may inquire of the intelligent of the world whether they can tell why the aborigines of this country are dark, loathsome, ignorant, and sunken into the depths of degradation …When the Lord has a people, he makes covenants with them and gives unto them promises: then, if they transgress his law, change his ordinances, and break his covenants he has made with them, he will put a mark upon them, as in the case of the Lamanites and other portions of the house of Israel; but by-and-by they will become a white and delightsome people” Brigham Young ~ Journal Of Discourses 7:336

        “In our first settlement in Missouri, it was said by our enemies that we intended to tamper with the slaves, not that we had any idea of the kind, for such a thing never entered our minds. We knew that the children of Ham were to be the “servant of servants,” and no power under heaven could hinder it, so long as the Lord would permit them to welter under the curse and those were known to be our religious views concerning them.” Brigham Young ~ Journal Of Discourses 2:172

        “And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God…” John Taylor ~ Journal Of Discourses 22:304

        “Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. ” Joseph Fielding Smth ~ The Way To Perfection Pages 101 -102

        So if we are to follow Christ’s will as interpreted by the living prophet why weren’t men of color allowed to hold the priesthood until the late 1970’s?

        Did Christ suddenly change his mind in 1978 and then wait a few more years to edit the more inflammatory passages from the BoM? Or was that a translation issue from previous prophets? If it was a translation issue I’d assume that the church would have issued some kind of apology for institutional racism up to that point but as they haven’t are we to acquiesce that discriminating against men and women of color was ordained by the Lord himself?

        • uprightandmovingforward June 3, 2018 at 11:36 am

          Don’t forget, Prophets are human just like the rest of us. They aren’t perfect but that does not disqualify them to hold the office of prophet. Peter denied the Christ 3 times before the crucifixion and he became the prophet after Jesus died.

          Joseph Fielding Smith, a latter day prophet, was once asked if man would ever go to the moon. He answered, “No.” Later, someone questioned him on how could he be a prophet if he didn’t know man would make it to the moon. He replied, “I didn’t think they would. Well, I guess I was wrong.”

          In reality, it is good that we have prophets that are not infallible. When a revelation is received, the evidence of inspiration is even more obvious since an imperfect being could not have come up with it himself.

          It’s funny how after a man is call as prophet, people start to judge him based on statements made in his youth or biases that he made have previously had due to his inexperience in life. Only One has been perfect in life and ALL prophets are human and imperfect. So according to your analysis, Peter could never have been a prophet in the New Testament because he denied the Christ 3 times. Prophets aren’t perfect but when they speak on behalf of the Lord, it is best to follow their instructions because it does not come from them; it comes from above.

          • 42214 June 3, 2018 at 11:44 am

            What’s your favorite kool-aid flavor?

          • comments June 3, 2018 at 1:46 pm

            You don’t have “prophets” period. You are simply delusional.

          • Real Life June 3, 2018 at 1:48 pm

            Some really strong kool aid.

          • Anejo June 3, 2018 at 3:29 pm

            These comments were made whilst they were prophets of the church. The church forbade men of color to hold the priesthood until 1978! A full decade after the civil rights act was passed.

            What possible explanation can be given for this travesty? Were they speaking as men, or as prophets? How is it possible for those presented with such divine revelation and wisdom to be so utterly wrong?

            If a living prophet can admit the mistake of something like the moon landing why can’t they admit the mistake of subjugating an entire class of people?

      • high5 June 3, 2018 at 4:49 pm

        Sorry to wake you up!
        The LDS is and never will be Christ’s Church-

      • ladybugavenger June 3, 2018 at 9:20 pm

        Moses wandered for 40 years, never made it to the promise land. He disobeyed God and smote the rock instead of speaking to it.

        You’re mixing a whole bunch of things together

        Moses was the old testament. We dont live under the law. We live under grace. Joshua led the Hebrews into the promise land. It was symbolic of Jesus leading us into the kingdom separate of the law.

        You see, we are to follow Jesus, not men that call themselves prophets.

        The only way into God’s kingsom is through Jesus.

  • reddirt June 3, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Well said Anejo, Dare I say that the definition of a “prophet” falls by the wayside when the actual words of these uninspired men that you cited, is front and center for all to see. It has always been my conviction that we can have absolute confidence in God for two reasons, his love is unconditional (meaning he is no respecter of persons ie: gender, position, standing or color) and his methods and laws are one eternal round, he does not change, otherwise he would cease to be God. What a sad travesty it is to have such racism on display and then blame God for it. The one great commandment to love others ( that means everyone) as God loves us. Jesus spoke out plainly many times about those that put themselves above others , pride and vanity have no place in the heart of any man that would call himself a disciple of Jesus. The term priesthood is bandied about alot in the church, in it’s purest sense it would be to represent Christ as if he were there! I have no doubt that regardless of skin color he would freely embrace all that choose to seek him out. If there is racism, division , and strife among men it is by their own hearts and designs, hate is a learned behavior. God has not changed and never will to say that he “cursed” all or part of his creation , is to wander in darkness at noon day sun.

    • Anejo June 3, 2018 at 3:41 pm

      Thank you for your comments, reddirt.

      What continues to baffle me is that whenever a mistake is made the prophet was speaking as a man. Until that point, he’s the direct line to god. We should do as we’re instructed until we’re told to do something else by these men who make many mistakes whilst in positions said to contain divine revelation.

      From the founding of the church in 1830 until the change in policy in 1978 there was no revelation that institutional racism was abhorrent and therefore treating men and women of color with contempt was absolutely okay. That’s a very long time for any organisation that claims the moral high ground to be fallible. If they can be so utterly wrong, for nearly a century and a half, what other divine revelations will turn out to be misinterpreted, outright false, and be corrected without so much as an apology?

      • comments June 3, 2018 at 7:37 pm

        divine revelation = $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. Need more members and more money. The church adapts and adjusts with the times for the purpose of revenue, power, and its own survival. It behaves like any for-profit corporation that is run by men (no divinity required). The LDS corporate apparatus actually does a better job at retaining younger members than do other major churches/cults in this country, and I actually agree with a lot of their official views on certain issues, but overall I find the LDS organization to be self-interested, both very greedy and very niggardly, and hypocrites in many many ways. The hypocrisy and the greed are the hardest to get past. I believe mormonism and all other organized religions are man-made scams anyway–they’re all just businesses.

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