Dispelling the Black Myth
by Renee Olson
First, I want to thank my father for being here with me today. Together with my father as the ranking black priesthood holder, and me as the token black of FAIR, we absolve all of you of your white guilt and say unto you, “be healed.”
As apologists, two of the biggest concerns we deal with are the seed of Cain and blacks and the priesthood. I will address both of those issues. Now, I know these are big issues that antis use, because I used them myself when I was an anti. I thought no self-respecting black person in their right mind would ever consider joining a racist church if they only knew the truth…or at least the truth as I knew it.
My Life Before Mormonism
As many of you from the FAIR list know, I started out as an anti. I became an anti because my best friends, who lived right across the street and used to be Roman Catholic, all of a sudden became Mormon. So instead of going to mass, now they wanted me to come to homemaking. I went to my pastor and asked if my church had any info on the Mormons because I knew nothing about them. Of course he told me to stay away from them because Mormons brainwash their people into believing they are the only correct church on the Earth and only through them can one go to heaven.
Gee, isn’t that what I was taught as a Southern Baptist? Go figure!
Then I learned that two men were coming to my church from the Home Mission Board in Atlanta. They would be doing two workshops; one on Mormonism and the other on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Guess which one I chose? Of course I went to the workshop on Mormonism. After taking the two-day seminar, I was told I could earn a certificate that would make me a “lay volunteer,” knowledgeable in that faith group. So I took the opportunity, determined to learn all I could to help get my friends out of Mormonism.
To make a long story short, after doing my “calling” for six years, I spent another 10 in the “desert” or “wilderness” of life where my pride was completely broken down to nothing, until the Master felt I had been sufficiently softened and was ready to be used for His purposes. Now, I’m on the other side and realize just who did the brainwashing. If anyone desires to hear the whole story with all its gory details, see me later.
I want to discuss some of the myths surrounding the Mormon Church. I’m sure we’ve all heard that blacks didn’t fight valiantly in the pre-existence. (I used to teach that one.) I’ve also heard that because Noah’s son Ham married a black Egyptian, which was outside of the approved lineage, Ham’s posterity would not hold the priesthood. Another one I’ve heard is that Egyptus wanted a matriarchal line rather than honoring the man as patriarch and so the priesthood was denied her people for that mistake. There’s also the myth that black people just aren’t as intellectually superior. Now I really take offense at that one! The fact that I’ve joined the Church makes me infinitely intellectually superior to any and all of our critics–including the white ones! Anyone want to add any other myths to the list?
In their book Mormon America, the Ostlings quotes Brigham Young as characterizing descendants of Cain as “black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind.”1 And these are our good points! But I swear this only happens when we’re angry!
Ostling says that Young specified that the biblical “mark” God put on Cain was “the flat nose and black skin.” I feel slighted! I have a European nose rather than a black nose. And by the way, one thing I’d really like to know is if one drop of black blood makes you African American, does one drop of white blood make me white European? I have good reason to ask…I’m over 35% white!
OK. I think we all know the truth of this statement about black people or, rather, the lack of truth about it. I’m sure there is no one here who thinks a black person is automatically intellectually inferior just because he’s black.
Before I proceed to answer this claim, I want to share some more from other prophets/apostles to help us understand just how rampant this is. Had it been only one person, the Church could have dealt with it rather easily. But what do you do when it’s General Authorities like Mark E. Petersen.
Elder Petersen, in his talk, Race Problems As They Affect The Church, said,
Is there any reason to think that the same principles of
rewards and punishments did not apply to us and our deeds in the pre-existent
world as will apply hereafter? Is there reason then why the type of birth we
receive in this life is not a reflection of our worthiness or lack of it
in the pre-existent life? We must accept the justice of God. He is fair to all.
He is not a respecter of persons. He will mete to us according to what we
deserve. With that in mind, can we account in any other way for the birth of
some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or
among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here
in the United States?
Well, gee, I guess I should be grateful that Heavenly Father saw fit, in His infinite mercy, to at least allow me to be born in the United States!
I submit to you, brothers and sisters, that Heavenly Father did not punish us by giving us black skin and He didn’t show preference by allowing some to be born here while others endure different circumstances. Notice I didn’t say bad or evil circumstances, just different. But let’s continue, because I think in order to understand the priesthood ban, we must understand the prevailing attitudes of the day.
Elder Petersen goes on to talk about how the Lord separated the races and we shouldn’t have brought them together again. He further reiterates the Church’s stand on interracial marriage by saying,
We must not inter-marry with the Negro. There are 50 million
Negroes in the United States. If they were to achieve complete absorption with
the white race, think what that would do. With 50 million Negroes inter-married
with us, where would the priesthood be? Who could hold it, in all America? Think
what that would do to the work of the Church!
(I wonder how many people in this audience have done their genealogies only to find out they have a black relative somewhere. Hmmm…)
Oh, and speaking of intermarriage? Brigham Young said,
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
Let’s not tell my white husband about that one! And let’s definitely not tell the father of my children–he’s white too!
Now that we’ve heard from Brigham Young, let’s hear from someone more modern, like Bruce R. McConkie. In his wonderful book, Mormon Doctrine, we read,
Cain, Ham and the whole Negro race have been cursed with a
black skin, the mark of Cain, so they can be identified as a caste apart, a
people with whom the other descendants of Adam should not inter-marry.3
Here, Elder McConkie hits both the curse and the fact that the races shouldn’t mix.
At the time both of these Elders wrote these things, they had already been ordained to the Quorum of the Twelve, so we can’t say they didn’t know any better. However, let me ask you this: Does an apostle of the Lord speak for the whole Church? No. Only the prophet can do that. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped General Authorities from making damaging remarks.
Another unfortunate thing is that lay people, as well as our critics, either don’t know or don’t care. The statements were made by someone “in authority” whom we all sustain as “prophets, seers, and revelators.”
Dealing with Charges of Racism
What are we supposed to do when someone makes an accusation against our Church leaders, either past or present, of being a racist? Agree with them–they certainly won’t be expecting that! But, by agreeing with them, all the “arguments” cease, and you can begin to really teach them. If you disagree and try to defend the Church, you’re already fighting a losing battle. Our Church leaders have made more than enough damning remarks to give our critics all the ammunition they need to accuse the Church of racism.
Now that we’ve agreed there is just cause for accusing the Church of racism, how do we deal with that? Well, I think we need to understand that our Church leaders are human. As a matter of fact, they are human first and Apostles second. As human beings and children of their Heavenly Father, they are entitled to their own thoughts, opinions and feelings, just like anyone else. Just because one is ordained to the Quorum of the Twelve doesn’t mean Heavenly Father all of the sudden imparts all of His wisdom and knowledge to them! I think we also have to operate from the premise that no General Authority would intentionally do or say anything to deliberately hurt the cause of Christ.
Now, before I go on, I just have to add this one. It’s a favorite of mine. After the 1978 revelation, Elder McConkie wrote, “Negro members of the Church may now perform missionary service and should bear the burdens of the kingdom equally with all other members of the Church.” Just who did he think was bearing the bigger burden before? Hello!
It’s not only General Authorities that have made damaging remarks or have written less than stellar books, but lay people have also gotten in the act. For example, the book, The Church and the Negro, by John Lund, is not a book I would recommend. He not only perpetuates the myth of blacks not being valiant in the pre-existence, but also blatantly speaks out of turn by saying that any white person who marries a Negro and has children with them forfeits their crown in heaven as well as a whole “nation of Priesthood holders.” Books such as this are outdated and should not be referred to. Yes, it does have some correct information; but overall, the book is antiquated.
As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that except for the scriptures, anything written before 1978 that speaks of blacks should be avoided. This is why we have a living prophet on the Earth today. As Latter-day Saints, we have the most up-to-date information available. Even Elder McConkie said to forget everything said before, because the Lord had now revealed new light to man. We have to give him credit for that. His views before the ban was lifted may have seemed racist, but his attitude was on target for an apostle of the Lord. No matter how we as individuals may feel about something, when the Lord speaks, we are expected to listen, which means bringing our thinking in line with His.
The Priesthood Ban
Why the ban? The official statement from the Church is, “We don’t know.” However, we did not say the Lord instituted the ban. As a matter of fact, there is nowhere in scripture that says the Lord banned blacks from holding the priesthood. We know He allowed it because He didn’t put a stop to it. He could have spoken at any time to His servant Joseph Smith or any of his successors. He didn’t. Nor did the Lord speak up when the priesthood was confirmed on Elijah Abel. Now it’s been said (again, another myth) that the priesthood was confirmed on Elijah because he was a light-skinned black man and they mistook him for white. But when it was found out that Elijah was, in fact, a black man, he was stripped of his priesthood. Berrett says he was, “one-eighth Negro and light of color.”4 This myth, as my father will attest, is not true. Elijah died a full priesthood holder as well as faithful member of the Church.
What can we logically conclude from this? Only that the Lord knew of the ban, but did nothing to stop it. As to the exact reason why, only He knows.
But after much prayer and many talks with God, I think I might have an answer. Now, mind you, this is the “gospel according to Renee.” This isn’t something any General Authority has said, so I take full responsibility for my feelings. And speaking as a black LDS, this explanation has helped me more than any other…
The Lord has tried many times to make Himself known to His people. Since the beginning of our world, I believe His biggest wish is for all of His children to make it back to Him. But in coming to this world, we were given free agency. And sad as is it may be, not all of Heavenly Father’s children have used their free agency wisely. Christ Himself dealt with much opposition. The apostles dealt with opposition. Christians have always dealt with opposition. Finally, God had had enough, and when the last priesthood holder died, that was it! No more priesthood on the Earth…until the Church was restored.
We aren’t saying there were no more believers in Christ; there were–there always have been. But being a believer and having the priesthood are two entirely different things! The priesthood was now missing. Why the Lord chose to wait all those years to restore the Church, I don’t know. But He did, and now that He was ready to restore the Church, He still had to deal with the issues of the day. Slavery had not yet been abolished. So, Heavenly Father worked around it. He went ahead with His plans to reorganize His Church again. Remember, this would be the last time He did this on our Earth before the return of Christ.
Black people had been calling on God for years. They were already a tried and proven people. They were faithful in the midst of hardships. They had survived slavery; they had survived the taskmasters, they had survived the whip, the beatings, the hangings, the selling of their children. Heavenly Father knew He could count on them. So even though He didn’t give the word for the priesthood ban, He used it to further His purposes.
Sure enough, the people who had been calling on Him all through their days of slavery didn’t let Him down. When they heard the Gospel call, they responded. Saints like Jane Elizabeth Manning James, Elijah Abel, Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Samuel Chambers were among those who heard the Gospel message and responded. And since then, black people have continued to hear His call and respond to His voice.
The Curse of Cain
Brothers and sisters, black skin isn’t a curse. The curse of Cain was eternal separation from God. The curse was never being allowed back in the Father’s presence. The curse was knowing that he (Cain) had listened to the wrong voice and failed his mortal mission. That was the curse, not the skin. The dark skin was given as a protection. As my father has so beautifully taught me, black skin isn’t a curse, it’s a calling. I’d like to think that in the pre-existence, when told I had the opportunity to come to Earth, I chose this skin color just like I’m told I chose my parents (although I’m not so sure about that one). My father and I agree that we’ve become rather partial to our black skin and certainly hope we take it with us to the next life. After all, we make black look good!
I have a poem here written by Margaret Blair Young entitled He Gifted Us Our Race. Even though Sister Young is white, I think her poem accurately describes our feelings.
It’s not a curse but a gift t’us,
The best path we could seek
A place where God can lift us
We kneel; our knees is weak
And when one of us is kneelin’,
We understand his fears.
We know what all us is feelin’
We cry each other’s tears.
That’s just what Jesus done
For all us human folk.
He agreed to come get born
To feel ever’ pain and poke.
So’s he could understand us,
What it is to be a slave.
So’s he could get beneath us
And push us outa the grave
Would you rather be the massa
Or the Roman with his whip?
Would you rather nail the Savior–
Put vinegar to his lip?
Or learn the lessons of sufferin’–
How we nothin’ without grace.
Jesus, He give us a callin’
He gifted us our race.
Just makes ya wish ya were black, huh?
I’d like to move on to some other issues, if I may, before my time runs out.
How can we as a Church break down the barriers and move the Lord’s work forward? Well, first of all, we can begin to show respect for each other. By that I mean respect for each other’s culture, language, rites, customs, etc. Black culture is not white culture. Black music, better known as gospel music, is not white music, better known as contemporary Christian music. When black people join this Church, they often (not always, but often) have a great deal of adjusting to do. When was the last time you heard some good black gospel singing in your ward? A few years ago, a senior sister missionary actually told me that we can’t have black music in Church because black music isn’t reverent! Excuse me!? Telling someone the music of their culture isn’t reverent before God is not a good way to start, nor is it showing respect for that person’s culture. How many of you have heard of Soul Saints before? This is an LDS group that sings the hymns of the Church with a bit of rhythm.
Another thing we can do is keep our hearts and minds open to people of other cultures and faiths. I’m not only talking about black people, but anyone! I was made to quit trying to destroy the Church and then subsequently brought into the fold because someone dared to get to know me, befriend me, understand me, and most importantly accept me where I was for who I was without judging me or my current beliefs. We need to stay open and listen to the Spirit more, and then be willing to obey that still small voice. There are still many of the old traditions and myths being taught in the homes of Church members during family home evening. And although many of you here today would probably say you don’t have a problem with racism or people of other cultures, ask yourself how you would feel if your son or daughter came home and told you they’d fallen in love with someone of African-American or Chinese descent or some other culture or ethnic group you find less than desirable. Are you still okay with it? Of course if you just said to yourself, “I don’t find any group ‘less than desirable,”‘ then congratulations, you’re probably well on your way to being part of the solution. If however, you sat there and actually had to think about that; then maybe you need to start with yourself and truly examine your own feelings before trying to help others. Ask Heavenly Father to show you where your issues are and help you to deal with them. Then help your brothers and sisters.
How can we drop racial barriers and come together? The quickest and easiest way I know of is get over it! Realize we’re all God’s children and He loves us all the same. In working at the Nauvoo Temple dedication I realized in a very real way that Heavenly Father loves little ole me just as much as He loves the prophet or any apostle. He looked out for me in wondrous ways and gave me miraculous on-the-spot answers to my prayers.
How do you fellowship a black person? Good question, cause ya’ll know we can whip that “black attitude” out in a heartbeat, huh? Stop being afraid of a color! Realize there’s a person under that skin color. A person just like you with fears, hopes, dreams, and issues. We all have issues. The best thing you can do when you see a black person or anyone new come to your ward for the first time is go up and introduce yourself. Ask if they need help, are they here searching for someone, can you help them find anything. I’ve been to some wards that were so friendly I felt like I was home. I attended a deaf ward in Salt Lake City on a fast and testimony Sunday. I was made to feel so at home that I felt comfortable giving my testimony and even volunteered to say the closing prayer in Relief Society. Those sisters made me feel right at home. That’s the way it should be everywhere.
When I was back home in Ft. Madison, Iowa, I took my grandmother with me to Enrichment Night. It was her first time in the LDS Church, even though they meet in the Community of Christ building. She even made a dish to be served at the dinner. It was awesome! Even though that ward had never had a black person before, those sisters made my grandmother feel welcome. They talked with her and she got to know all of them. When Sunday rolled around, I invited her to come to Church with me. She came. Why? Because those sister made her want to come back. When we got to Church, the sisters who had come to enrichment the week before already knew her and were quick to come up and welcome her to Church. She actually stayed all three hours with me and had a wonderful time sharing some of her wisdom in Relief Society. Now, she’s been put in touch with the full-time missionaries and has volunteered to help the sisters with whatever she can do.
You see, she had just as many issues about the Church as some of our members do with blacks. Before I even came, she (my grandmother) told her best friend that I was coming and we’d all be going through the Nauvoo Temple together. Her friend asked if I was black and was totally astonished when my grandmother said yes, I was black and LDS. Her friend (who was white) had no idea there were black members of the Church, even today! This is sad!
There are still some people out there (white and black) who still haven’t heard the ban has been lifted. There are still some people out there who think blacks can’t join the LDS Church. There are still some people out there who think the LDS Church is racist. We know the truth, so it’s up to us to be proactive and do something about it. First, we start at home. We make sure that we ourselves are living up to the Lord’s standard; that our thoughts and feelings are in line with His own. Then we deal with our families. Are we teaching correct principles in family home evening? Do we teach our children to be friendly to everyone at Church or school, including those who are different?
The next time a black person or someone of a different persuasion comes to your ward, what will you do? Can you see past the color to the person, the child of God inside? Can you just go up to them and introduce yourself and offer a helping hand? Can you open your mind and your heart to ways that might seem different from your own? Can you listen to music or hymns with a beat you’re not quite used to and still think it reverent? Are you open to having a new experience with people you’ve never met? Are you willing to humble yourself and be teachable and learn from someone of another race, ethnic group or background?
Recognize that not all of us are in the same place in our spiritual growth. It doesn’t matter if we’re white, black or whatever. We all have to pass this Test of Life. Our “tests” are individualized, so our trials will be different. Don’t let race be a stumbling block for you in your test anymore.
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1 Richard Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2000), 100.
2 Ostling and Ostling,
Mormon America, 101.
3 Bruce R. McConkie,
Mormon Doctrine, Second Edition (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 114.
4 William E. Berrett, “The
Church and the Negroid People,” quoted in John J. Stewart, Mormonism and the
Negro, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960).