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Broken Hearts and the Body of Christ
"...that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been."
Hugh Nibley said that the place church members get closest to the unfettered Christian ideal of Zion is in our temple work. He himself was moved by the sight of many people waking up in Provo in the wee hours of the morning to traipse to the house of the Lord to perform ordinances vicariously on behalf of the deceased as the “one brief shining moment” where, amidst an ever more self-centered culture, Saints focus almost entirely on the needs of others. But temple work isn’t the only way we can generously labor towards the redemption of the past. We can also do so by remembering and reflecting on difficult and painful aspects of Church history.
For that reason, I found myself engaging with ongoing sorrow and renewed solidarity while reading the story contained in one of the most important books ever printed by Deseret Book: Race and Priesthood by Paul Reeve. I specifically direct my essay to those who, like me, have never known first-hand the sting of racial prejudice. I imagine those who have suffered such treatment themselves will have a very different experience in reading the book, one to which I cannot speak. But for those who are in my position, I hope Mr. Reeve’s book serves as part of an education we, specifically, very much need. As Darius Gray promises in his introduction: “The journey you undertake when reading this book will be fraught with eye-opening a-ha moments, often followed by feelings of disbelief and maybe a few tears. Trust me—it will all be for your good.”
This book may come as a surprise—if not a shock—for many faithful members. I can only report my own experience, but here is what I can say: even as someone who was passably familiar with the history of the temple and priesthood restrictions, and even as someone who is comfortable with the flaws of church leaders, the book deeply shook me. It broke my heart. It left me so terribly sad. It made me ponder deeply questions of faith and trust. It was a harrowing read.
Given all of this, one might ask why we would read the book at all. We find our answer in counsel from modern prophets and our own inner compasses, which direct that we must abandon every vestige of racism. As both Germany and South Africa have taught us, moving into the future cannot happen effectively without first confronting and truly reckoning with the past. The broken heart and contrite spirit we’ve been enjoined so often to seek are of vital importance here.
One easy way to avoid asking hard questions about racism, after all, is to see it only in others. If “racism” can only look like men burning tiki torches with white hoods covering their heads, then it’s easy enough to rest on our assumed virtue and superiority: “If that is racism, then I know I’m not racist.” But this book will not allow for any such comfortable distance. This is a book that shows how racism has operated inside our church, including—as the historical record tells us—in the minds and hearts of our fellow saints.
Indeed, the issue here is not even that those we admire and respect have been guilty of past racism. Rather, the problem, as multiple church leaders have preached recently, is that racism still exists today and is still harming the body of Christ.
Denying the existence of racism in the church will not stand up to scrutiny. It is evident in the percentage of our members who do not believe racism against black people is a current problem. It is evident in the multiple occurrences of anti-black racism in Davis County, Utah. It is evident in the stories of our own members in our own church. And it is on every page of the official report of the President’s Commission on Race, Equity, and Belonging at BYU. While we would like to think we are beyond reproach—while we point fingers at members of the Klu Klux Klan and think “all is well in Zion”—these and similar examples demonstrate that racism remains with us. Not for nothing are our leaders preaching that we still need to root it out. A joint statement from President Nelson and leaders of the NAACP reads, “Unitedly we declare that the answers to racism, prejudice, discrimination, and hate will not come from government and law enforcement alone. Solutions will come as we open our hearts to those whose lives are different from our own, as we work to build bonds of genuine friendship, and as we see each other as the brothers and sisters we are—for we are all children of a loving God.”
Reeve is the author of Religion of a Different Color, widely considered to be the definitive history of anti-black racism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reeve’s research demonstrates that Joseph Smith had revealed to him a fully universalized gospel that offered the priesthood to men of all races and temple blessings to all people, including those of African descent. Priesthood and temple privileges were later taken away from Black church members with no recorded revelatory impetus. Thus, as far as can be determined by the historical record, the revelation in 1978 was actually a restoration of blessings offered in the earliest years of this dispensation, as taught by Joseph Smith. Furthermore, Reeve’s research also demonstrates that anti-black racism became a persistent force within the church after the death of Joseph Smith and that its influence could be seen and felt in the institutional practices of the church and in the actions and lives of individual members.
While Religion of a Different Color is an academic treatise, Race and Priesthood is entirely different: a slim volume written in engaging, plain prose. It is the kind of book we might digest over a weekend—except that it forces us to grapple with questions about faith, prophets, history, racism, discrimination, revelation, mortality, and a host of other issues. Thus, while the book itself is short, the issues it raises will stay with us forever.
For example, though Joseph Smith preached a gospel of universal inclusion, Brigham Young is quoted in Reeve’s book as saying (at a session of the territorial legislature): “What we are [debating] today [is] to make [the] Negro equal with us in all our privileges. My voice shall be against [it] all the day long.” Later in the same discourse, he says that black people being allowed to vote would be like giving the franchise to mules. Similarly, President Young repeatedly rehearsed his belief that black people were Cain’s descendants and therefore that they could never hold “one jot nor tittle” of priesthood authority, even though he acknowledged he was likely the first prophet to preach such a doctrine. (p 67-69)
Along the same lines, it is far beyond jarring to read a First Presidency-approved policy from 1907 that reads: “The descendants of Ham may receive baptism and confirmation, but no one known to have in his veins negro blood (it matters not how remote a degree), can either have the Priesthood in any degree or the blessings of the temple of God; no matter how otherwise worthy he may be.” (p 82)
I do not know how to confront these and similar passages—replete throughout the book—and do anything more than be brought to a searing sense of collective and pervasive sorrow.
But that’s precisely the point: on this subject, my heart needs to be broken. My broken heart can allow me to more fully imagine in some very small measure the suffering and longing of faithful Latter-day Saints of past eras who wanted desperately to partake in the full blessings of the gospel but who were not allowed to do so if they were thought to have even a single drop of “Negro blood.”
In witnessing and remembering the suffering of these saints of color, we will likewise be called to confront those whose actions reflected racism and prejudice. This will challenge us. Ironically, it will challenge us precisely because in some other realms we as a people have succeeded marvelously in fostering connection to those who came before us. We reflect with fondness and sometimes even veneration on the Utah Pioneers, for example. At first, it may seem difficult to square a candid appraisal of racism in our own history with the courage, selflessness, and loyalty so many of us honor in those individuals. But when confronted with this paradox, we would do well to remember Moroni’s nakedly blunt exhortation: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection . . . but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31).
What may first strike us about this verse is his bold command that we not condemn—and that’s fair as far as it goes. But push past those first words and we find something altogether more surprising: Moroni is inviting us to thank God when we become aware of the imperfections of our ancestors—even prophets—because God can thereby teach us how to be more like Jesus. Thus our veneration should be of virtues, not of people. We can admire this woman’s grit or that man’s courage, while still acknowledging the same woman’s racism and the same man’s misogyny.
None is perfect but Jesus; pretending otherwise makes idols of our ancestors and distracts us from the healing and salvific power of Jesus.
The discomfort we experience as we read this history together is but a faint echo of the suffering of these saints in years passed, but the burden of educating ourselves is incumbent on white members. Our privilege for too many years has been to be spared any sense of this suffering precisely because our skin color assures these are questions about which we simply never have to think. But by willingly educating ourselves, by doing our forever imperfect but still sincere best to put ourselves in the shoes of black members, we reach just that much closer to living our founding baptismal covenant to “mourn with those who mourn.” This collective mourning can fit us together to draw nearer to a place where we will begin to be able to “comfort those who stand in need of comfort. ” Then—and only then—will we eventually rise to a place where we can hope to truly “stand as witnesses of God” in all things, times, and places.
Too many of us have fallen short of our covenants in this regard, and in so doing we have allowed racism to linger in our midst. When we fail to recognize the deep pain of past racism, we support, however indirectly, the conditions that tacitly uphold current racism. We cannot heed the prophetic call to “lead out” in eliminating prejudice of all kinds unless we have first fully recognized the racism that operated in the church’s past—and the vestiges that remain today. We can come to understand that this racism caused and still causes real pain; that it took and still takes an immeasurable toll on our own members of color; that black brothers and sisters have joined US congregations in smaller numbers than might have been for reasons for which we are responsible. Without such direct confrontation, we will beat forever against the tide of our own past.
This act of historical empathy and solidarity will challenge us. It will complicate our faith and may appear to make the burden of discipleship heavier. But this heaviness comes not because the burden itself is actually growing, but because those who have been in a position to ignore this burden’s existence will finally be acknowledging its weighty reality. This does not truly relieve the burden from those who carry it—a task that is only possible for Jesus is his perfect and all-encompassing empathy—but it nonetheless constitutes a willful act of sister- and brother-hood, and strengthens the bonds of love within the body of Christ.
Tyler Johnson is a Wayfare contributing editor and a Clinical Assistant Professor of oncology at Stanford University.