The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.