This week’s events have produced some of the most succinct, thoughtful and probing essays on the history and implications of race and Mormonism perhaps yet written: here, here, here, and here. Indeed, I love that we indignant white folks have raised our voices against the doggedly persistent and painfully antiquated racial ideologies within our religion. Truly, I do. I love that we’ve circled the wagons, that we’ve stormed the castle walls (pardon all of my martial metaphors, but they seem appropriate considering the climate.) Our esprit de corps is admirable and convincing. The problem is that some of our intellectualizing has perhaps had the counter-effect of privileging the white voices in our community over others who need to be heard from just as much, or moreso. To that end, I present for your consideration the story and words of a a former student of mine, an African-American convert to the Church and a returned missionary– I’ll call her “Kris” . . . . well, because that’s actually her name. Four years ago, as a recent graduate in history, she took an internship in a neighboring state and attended the local singles’ ward. One Sunday . . . . indeed, let’s give privilege to Kris’s voice, in a letter that she penned to her stake president following a disturbing incident in her ward.
Dear President _______:
This summer I had the pleasure of being a member of your stake as part of the ________Ward. While I enjoyed participating in the ward, I am writing to you concerning an incident that occurred about two weeks before I left to return home. In Sunday School we were discussing continuing revelation. The teacher began the lesson by explaining that the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood was an example of continuing revelation in our day. As she proceeded with the lesson, Bishop _________stopped her in order to explain why blacks were denied the priesthood prior to 1978.
According to Bishop _________, blacks were denied the priesthood due to their unworthiness or unrighteousness in the premortal existence. The unrighteousness of these people in the premortal realm led to the denial of priesthood blessings here on earth until 1978, when the last of those unworthy blacks probably died, thereby allowing the priesthood to go to all men. After hearing this explanation I removed myself from class, first, to avoid making the situation worse by responding in anger, and second, to not publicly chastise the bishop for teaching false doctrine in class.
Afterwards I resolved to speak to the bishop about what happened. I made an appointment to speak with him the following Sunday. As we sat down to talk about what was said the previous week, I asked where he got his information from. His response was that it was stated clearly in Official Declaration 2. I am sad to say that instead of listening to each other and allowing the Spirit to instruct us, Bishop ________ sought to convince me that he was right. In regard to why blacks were prevented from obtaining the priesthood blessings prior to 1978, the Spirit has not testified to me that his hypothesis was true.
I have read through that declaration several times since then, and have not found anything that hints at his reasoning about why the priesthood was denied to blacks until 1978. I have my own theories as to why the priesthood was withheld, but as members we are to nourish and teach each other gospel truths, not speculative theories on what the Father has not revealed to his prophet and apostles, or to us regarding those we have stewardship over. But if the words of prophets and apostles are needed for validity on this point, I offer the words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, dated August 1978, when he said: [She cites McConkie's "Forget Everything I have said" talk] here]
In addition to the words of Elder McConkie are the words of Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, written ten years after the Revelation on the Priesthood. Elder Hinckley said: [She cites President Hinckley's 1988 talk on Priesthood Restoration here]
My reason for writing this letter is not to get Bishop ______ in trouble. The fact that I have to write a letter concerning this grieves me beyond words, especially because I consider Bishop ______ my brother in Christ. His words cut deeper than words can express, and hurt more because of the respect I have for him.
My personal feelings aside, those in my Sunday School class will be future leaders and teachers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beliefs and feelings such as this have no place in the Kingdom of God on earth, among people who believe that God is no respecter of persons and that each is a beloved son or daughter of Heavenly parents. In Moses chapter seven, verse eighteen, we are reminded that “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” One heart and one mind. We have enough things in this world that seek to divide us. This issue like others must be purged from the Church, just as the Lord will separate the wheat from the tares. President Hinckley stated in his April 2006 Conference Address “The Need for Greater Kindness,” that: [She cites President Hinckley's 2006 "Racial strife still lifts its ugly head." address here]
Until we unify ourselves in the gospel of Jesus Christ we will not find Zion among us in this life, so important in a world where people seek to divide and destroy us.
I know this Church is the restored Church of Jesus Christ, and the doctrine it teaches will lead us to salvation if we follow the commandments of the Father. Because it is, it is up to all of us to uplift and nourish one another with the truth, and to correct whatever falsehoods arise quickly and with love. I leave this matter to you as the Lord’s chosen steward. Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
Today, I am glad for my minor tendency toward hoarding, especially old correspondence. Considering the events of this week, I could not have asked for a more serendipitous rediscovery in my saved email messages than this four-year-old letter. At the time, I saved it with the intent of resurrecting it for some future rainy day. And that rainy day is upon us; nay, a Category Four hurricane is upon us. I don’t think I could have invented a more eerily similar situation for consideration with such astounding and unscripted parallels: a notable youth leader (educational, in the case of Professor Bott; ecclesiastical in the case of this bishop) sells a bale of racist goods to a group or groups of impressionable LDS youth, he stands by his case using controverted doctrinal interpretations, and then gets caught. In Bott’s case, he was “caught” in the national public eye, in this bishop’s case, he was “caught” by one young woman, who then dared to challenge his unrighteous and unworthy guidance by confronting him– without result– and then appealing to the next logical court of appeal that she could think of– her stake president.
I approached Kris in the last few days for permission to publish her letter. She granted it without hesitation and agreed for me to use her first name– a somewhat surprising move for someone I know to be firmly resolute in her convictions but also to be self-effacing and non-confrontational. Indeed, even in approaching the bishop, she revealed a patience and generosity of spirit far beyond my own, if I had been in her shoes. “I felt sad. I wasn’t angry because I’d had a whole week to think about it.” She knew that her “correction” needed be “out of love. He was misled, but still a good person.” And, consistent with her personality, she had no desire to “condemn him.” Still, as she described in her letter, his refusal to see her point of view was most demoralizing. “I knew that what he believed was not true, but he wouldn’t see the flaws in his argument.” We just “couldn’t find common ground.”
But her biggest disappointment came in what did not happen in the long run. The stake president did talk to the bishop, but to the end of just “discussing” matters with him and allowing the bishop to clarify his statement, without repudiating it altogether. Kris remembered, “I just didn’t think he took it seriously enough.” I do not presume to know what went on between the two men, and nor does Kris, although she did receive a letter from the stake president (which she has misplaced, and is currently trying to dig up for my benefit). But the important thing is how Kris felt as a result of non-action by both leaders– invalidated and re-marginalized. I asked her what she had hoped for. She said, “Well, even if they had gone back and had a class to address the issue,” by correcting what had been taught, especially because he taught false doctrine “to a group of people who could take what they learned and continued to teach it as truth.”
I’ve heard and read periodically this week that the BYU professor in question represents an “anomaly,” a “dying breed,” a “rare leftover,” even a “dinosaur.” And yet, Kris’s story reminds us how pervasive these ideas continue to be among lay members– and even more damagingly– among lay leaders in the church. I think of Kris’s singles’ ward experience as a microcosm of this larger and more public-faced controversy. But both should demand the same reaction. For that reason, it’s important to remember, as Jana Riess has pointed out, “Members of the Church take their cues from leaders, and if those leaders do not name the mistakes of the past (and, it seems, the present), members will not be challenged to realize that denying the priesthood to blacks was wrong.“ I don’t presume to instruct the Church on how it should address its racist past, (although the Church’s recent public statement was a hopeful start, here) but I do think that if even one incident like Kris’s goes unaddressed, then we run the risk of allowing our fellow Saints to continue to feel as though their role and presence in our great religion is secondary and not worthy of more official and public renouncement.
Fortunately, Kris’s faith and humility were bigger than the offending situation. In spite of feeling cast aside by her leaders, Kris stood by her certainty in how she responded: “I did the best I could do. My conscience was clean. ” And the letter? “When I was was writing, I prayed to know what to say. I felt the spirit the whole time. I knew that the letter was not written by me. It was so clearly and eloquently written, that it couldn’t have been written by me.” How providential, then, that a letter that was first ignored by the non-action of two supposedly trusted leaders, and then lay under piles of Giga-dust in my inbox for four years, can now resurface as part of this larger conversation to silence racist dogma in LDS circles once and for all. Thanks, Kris.