By Paul Reeve
In May 2012, Susan Saulny, a reporter for the New York Times published a story, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an investigation into how black Latter-day Saints grappled with their decision between a Mormon Republican and a black Democrat in the 2012 presidential election. The online version of the story featured a “TimesCast” four minute video which included a fellow reporter from the Times interviewing Saulny about her story. The conversation began with an expression of “surprise” that there were in fact black Mormons for Saulny to interview. The exchange then entertained a bit of speculation over how many black Mormons there are in the United States, with a “very small number,” a “couple of thousand max,” and “500 to 2,000” offered as possibilities. The “TimesCast” did rightly note that the LDS Church does not keep racial statistics on its membership, so that the number of black Mormons is difficult to know.
Even still, a quick Google search may have yielded the fact that a 2009 survey of 571 Mormons conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that African-Americans comprised three percent of U.S. Church membership that year. If that survey percentage held true for the overall US Church membership, then there were around 180,000 black members in the United States in 2009. Even if we cut that number in half to account for variances in the way people self-identify versus official LDS membership reports, 90,000 black Mormons is significantly higher than a “couple of thousand max.” The Pew Center survey also found that one in ten converts to the faith was black. It noted that the percentage of white Mormons in the US was at 86%, an indication that US Mormonism is more racially diverse than mainline Protestant churches (91% white), Jews (95% white), and Orthodox Christians (87% white). Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims were all much more racially diverse.1
As an historian, I immediately situated the “TimesCast” conversation within the chronological evolution of public perception regarding Mormons and race, something I want to trace in broad strokes as my contribution to the Juvenile Instructor’s celebration of Black History Month. At least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the LDS priesthood in the first fifteen years of the Church’s history. Abel received his washing and anointing ordinances in the Kirtland Temple and Abel and Jane Manning James (another black convert), were baptized for deceased relatives in Nauvoo and the Logan temple respectively.
In the Church’s early years, then, the “surprise” for some outsiders was Mormon universalism and the lack of racial restrictions. Mormons allowed blacks to worship with them and that worship sometimes took place in strange ways. The first known African American to join the LDS Church was Black Pete in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. By February 1831 The New York Albany Journal reported that among the Mormons in Ohio was “a man of color, a chief man, who is sometimes seized with strange vagaries and odd conceits.” In August of the same year, The Sun, a Philadelphia newspaper, announced that “The Mormonites have among them an African . . . who fancies he can fly.”
As one outside observer saw it, Mormon notions of equality may have contributed to their troubled sojourn in Missouri. He noted that Ohio Saints honored “the natural equality of mankind, without excepting the native Indians or the African race.” It was an open attitude that may have gone too far for its time and place. That same observer suggested that the Mormon stance toward Indians and blacks was at least partially responsible for “the cruel persecution by which they have suffered.” In his mind the Book of Mormon ideal that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white,” made it unlikely that the Saints would “remain unmolested in the State of Missouri.” In fact, accusations regarding Mormon plans to instigate slave rebellions and the fear of black Mormons arriving in Missouri to prey upon white women were among the charges leveled against the Saints during the Jackson County expulsion.
By the 1880s, however, public perception began to shift in the opposite direction. Some outsiders suggested that Mormons facilitated race mixing even as others questioned if black Mormons existed at all. In 1883, A. M. E. bishop, Henry McNeal Turner, visited Salt Lake City. His report noted racial boundary transgressions inherent in Mormonism. Turner described polygamy on the wane in Utah, but nonetheless congratulated the Mormons because “they are just as willing for their daughters to marry colored men as to marry white men.” “As there are no colored young ladies here all the colored young men marry white Mormon girls,” he noted, “nor are they driven from white society for it.” Polygamy, however, was a different matter. Turner suggested that black Mormons were banned from participating. A “colored Mormon appealed to Brigham Young . . . for permission to take another wife,” he said, but Young rejected the request. Young explained that “the negro race was under a curse” but that Jesus would return “soon” and remove the curse thus making it possible for “the negro Mormons” to “marry as many wives as they desired.” In this telling, interracial monogamy was approved, but black polygamy was not.
Other reports only added to the confusion. One account from Salt Lake City published in a Nebraska paper attempted to dispel misperceptions. It refuted the claim that “nobody ever saw a negro Mormon” and suggested that “[a]ny one interested can find a number of colored ‘Saints’ in Salt Lake City.” The story nonetheless clarified that the presence of black Mormons did not automatically signal that Mormons tolerated racial mixing: “Some few cases of miscezination [sic] have occurred in this territory, but public feeling amongst the majority is strongly opposed to such unions.” One 1882 story in the Los Angeles Herald announced that “there are negro Mormons in Utah, and that there have been colored followers of Brigham Young almost from the very foundation of the church.” It correctly reported that Young “made no distinction as to race, color or previous condition of servitude among his proselytes, but he had a prejudice against colored saints taking unto themselves white wives.” It then made an unsubstantiated claim that “more than one colored brother was ‘blood atoned’ for taking unto himself a white woman.” (I am fully aware of Thomas Coleman’s murder, here; the “blood atoned” accusation is unsubstantiated in my estimation). The following year a report from Nebraska said that “A dozen colored Mormons arrived last week at Salt Lake” while a year later a Minnesota paper wrote that three blacks had converted to Mormonism in Tennessee and left for Utah; it described them as “the first colored Mormons” the faith had known.
By the early 20th Century Mormon leaders only added to the muddle. They did their part to forget black Mormon pioneers, especially the priesthood of Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis. Despite that reshaped memory, black Mormons continued to worship with their white counterparts across the course of the twentieth century and some black Saints continued to hold the priesthood. Elijah Abel’s son Enoch and grandson Elijah, Jr., received the Melchizedek priesthood in 1900 and 1935 respectively.
Black Mormons have always been a part of the Mormon story from its founding in 1830 to the present, most of that time without priesthood and full temple privileges, but black Mormons nonetheless. Integrated Sunday worship has been a hallmark of the LDS Church from its early days to 2013. Certainly Mormonism has a troubled racial past, marred by a priesthood and temple bans which evolved across the course of the nineteenth century, but if that is the only story historians tell, then we contribute to the false impression exhibited in the “TimesCast” interchange. For all of Mormonism’s troubled racial history, a ban on black membership and segregated Sunday services are not among them.
The chronological transition from universal priesthood and temples to segregated priesthood and temples and then back again needs to be integrated into the official Mormon narrative. Once that takes place, the lives of black Mormons can then be situated within a broader framework and we can begin to better understand the contributions of black pioneers, in all of their complexities—both before and after 1978, both in the U.S. and internationally—to the story of the Latter-day Saints. For the time being, I am pleased to join the Juvenile Instructor in celebrating Black History Month and in refuting the charge that nobody ever saw a black Mormon.
1 “A Portrait of Mormons in the U. S.,” http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Mormon/A-Portrait-of-Mormons-in-the-US.aspx (accessed 16 August 2012) .