Proving out scripture: How Mormons Became White and Delightsome
Every so often, I’ve seen an article or review or Q&A that references Paul Reeve’s book “Religion of a Different Color.” To be totally frank, I have not read the book and up until very recently, the various posts discussing the book haven’t really interested me in it. The talk about Mormons as being seen as racially compromised seems just…too disconnected from present reality. I have felt that by focusing on this past, this would somehow distract from talking about how the whiteness of modern Mormonism pervades today.
Paul wrote an article on the Oxford University Press’s blog answering the question: “Are there black Mormons?”, and that got me rethinking about the subject.
As he discusses the history:
The irony lies in the historical evolution of that public perception. Black Saints were among the first to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and have been a part of the Mormon experience from its beginnings. The first documented black person to join this American-born faith was Black Pete, a former slave who was baptized in 1830, when the fledgling movement was less than a year old. Other blacks trickled in over the course of the nineteenth century and are woven into the Mormon story. At least two black men were ordained to the faith’s highest priesthood in its first two decades.
Mormons were so inclusive in the nineteenth century that accusations from the outside tended to focus on the perception that they welcomed everyone. In an American culture that favored the segregation and exclusion of marginalized groups, the Mormons stood out. The allegations leveled against them included that they had “opened an asylum for rogues and vagabonds and free blacks,” that they embraced “all nations and colors,” that they maintained “communion with the Indians,” and that their missionaries “walk[ed] out” with “colored women.” The perception was that they welcomed “all classes and characters,” received “aliens by birth,” and integrated people from “different parts of the world” into their communities and congregations.
As I read this, I think about what could have been. The LDS church could have been so different. It could have stayed inclusive. It could have stayed radical and prophetic.
But as we all know, it didn’t.
Reeve puts it in the article very succinctly like so:
In the nineteenth century, one way to measure whiteness was in distance from blackness—and so it was with the Mormons. Over the course of the nineteenth century, they moved away from their own black converts toward whiteness. In an uneven process, Mormon leaders barred black men from the lay priesthood and black men and women from the faith’s crowning temple rituals, policies firmly held in place by the early twentieth century.
So successful were Mormons at claiming whiteness for themselves that by the time Mitt Romney sought the White House in 2012, he was described as the “whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.”
“They moved away from their own black converts toward whiteness.” Isn’t that interesting?
There is a part immediately after the quoted section that I’m not a huge fan of, but I’ll share it here just to comment on it:
Even though the Church of the Latter-day Saints includes over one million members in Brazil and 400,000 in Africa and is more racially diverse in the United States than mainline Protestant churches, public perception lags behind.
Most American Christian denominations have racial problems, yes, but I dislike this contrast of Mormonism to mainline Protestantism that makes it seem like the LDS church’s race problem is more of a problem of “public perception” than any reality. The church has one million members in Brazil (how many of them are active, though? How many of them would self-identify as LDS, though?) and 400k in Africa…but who is represented in leadership?
But the thing I’m more intrigued about is the idea that the church — whether consciously or unconsciously — moved toward whiteness. Because the thing I thought about was…isn’t that exactly what LDS scriptures talk about.
For however inclusive early Mormonism was, it still has to grapple with 2 Nephi 5:21 vs 2 Nephi 30:5-6… —
5 And the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them; wherefore, they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, which was had among their fathers.
6 And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people.
Mormons actually did it. They let the scales of darkness fall from their eyes and became a pure and delightsome people.
It didn’t involve necessarily a transformation of individual bodies, so much as a transformation of the church body as a whole.