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Revisiting: “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview”

By: David G. - January 25, 2010

With Stephen J. Fleming

Normally articles take a back seat to monographs in terms of impact, but Lester E. Bush’s 1973 Dialogue article “Mormonisms’ Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” stands as a master work of scholarship that not only revolutionized how historians, sociologists, and other academics view the church’s history of race relations, but was also a significant factor leading to OD 2. Prior to Bush’ article, the history of the Priesthood ban was understood in two primary narratives. First, the divine explanation, that God had revealed to Joseph Smith and later prophets that Blacks, as descendants of cursed biblical figures, could not hold the priesthood. And second, the environmental explanation, that Joseph Smith had shifted from a pro-abolitionist stance to a pro-slavery stance after having suffered persecution in Missouri (a slave state), and that having adopted American white supremacy, began excluding Blacks from the Mormon priesthood (Bush actually dismantled this view in an earlier review essay, also published in Dialogue). Bush’s work presented serious challenges to both of these narratives, primarily with his path-breaking argument that the ban had not originated with Smith, but with his successor, Brigham Young. The article took a long-term view of the ban’s history, tracing Mormon race relations from the 1830s through the late 1960s. Because Bush was able to provide compelling reasons for why the origins of the ban should be dated to the administration of Young, rather than to Smith’s, faithful Latter-day Saints were enabled to more easily reject the divine origins of the ban. According to a retrospective account published in the Journal of Mormon History, Bush was informed that apostles during the 1970s had been spotted reading the article, suggesting that scholarship had some influence on the 1978 revelation.

Although Bush was not trained as a historian (he was a medical doctor), his work is representative of the archive-based research so indicative of the New Mormon History. Later scholars augmented Bush’s research, but for the most part his conclusions have stood the test of time. For example, based on his research, Bush concluded that the earliest explicit statement referring to the ban could only be dated to 1849. Ron Esplin, in an important yet ultimately unconvincing attempt to reconnect the ban to Smith, found an 1847 source mentioning the ban. Despite succeeding in pushing the ban’s dating back two years, Esplin also discovered a crucial 1847 letter (see comment 16) that revealed that Young did not consider Blacks ineligible for the priesthood. Although implicit in Bush’s initial article, later scholars such as Newell G. Bringhurst and especially Connell O’Donovan have suggested that Young’s fear of interracial marriage ultimately contributed to the implementation of the policy.

The question remains if Bush’s article is still worth reading today. Only one book-length study of the ban’s history has appeared since 1973, Bringhurst’s Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, which, although valuable, reads like the revised and expanded dissertation that it is. As such, it fails to match Bush’s conciseness and historical impact. Armand Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage provides an invaluable framework for understanding Mormon views of lineage and race, but much of his book is based on secondary sources. Other valuable studies have shed light on separate aspects of the bans’ history, such as the biographies of twentieth-century leaders by Ed Kimball, Mike Quinn, and Greg Prince, but none attempt a full interpretation of the ban’s history.

When Bush concluded his 1973 essay, he claimed that “three fundamental questions have yet to be resolved”:

First, do we really have any evidence that Joseph Smith initiated a policy of priesthood denial to Negroes?

Second, to what extent did nineteenth-century perspectives on race influence Brigham Young’s teachings on the Negro and, through him, the teachings of the modern Church?

Third, is there any historical basis from ancient texts for interpreting the Pearl of Great Price as directly relevant to the black-priesthood question, or are these interpretations dependent upon more recent (e.g., nineteenth-century) assumptions?

In answer to the first, Bush’s conclusions have largely stood up in the face of scholarly scrutiny. For the second, later scholars have bolstered Bush’s argument that nineteenth-century views on race heavily influenced Young and other leaders, with some innovations. And third, recent research in the history of interpretation of the Curse of Ham has suggested that ancient Jews usually viewed Africans in positive or neutral light, and that explicitly racist connections between Genesis 9, black Africa, and slavery did not emerge until the eighth century C.E., and that nineteenth-century American proslavery discourse represents the most racist application of Genesis 9 in its history. Although later scholars have filled in some gaps, Bush’s conclusions and his framework are still very valid for historians of the twenty-first century.

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25 Comments

  1. I was trolling around for something interesting (and neglecting my own work) to read and lo, was pleasantly surprised with this. Great job, guys.

    Comment by Jared T — January 25, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

  2. Thanks for introducing me to Bush and his essay, and also for giving a sketch of the literature on this topic. Very helpful. An historical overview in itself.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 25, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

  3. “The question remains if Bush’s article is still worth reading today”

    Yes, absolutely. (Spoken from personal experience).

    “Bush’s conclusions and his framework are still very valid for historians of the twenty-first century.”

    Ditto.

    Comment by Clean Cut — January 25, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  4. You indicate “suggestions” that scholarship had “something to do with the 1978 revelation” on priesthood. In actuality, in an almost unknown wrinkle to the lead up to the revelation, my father-in-law, Henry E. Christiansen, who was a long-time employee of the Genealogical Department at the time (he passed away in 1996), was commissioned to research a series of questions concerning Blacks and the priesthood prior to the revelation. He produced a large binder of information that was delivered to President Kimball. We have as part of our family heritage a copy (or perhaps, based on what I can see, the original) of that binder and, through the instrumentality of Marcus H. Martins (who had heard by word of mouth of the existence of such a binder), additional copies were placed in the special collections section in both the BYU-Idaho and BYU-Utah libraries.

    Comment by Blaue Blume — January 26, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  5. The interesting thing to me is that Bush set out to prove the doctrine was a true doctrine, but after ten years of research came to the opposite conclusion.

    Comment by Don — January 26, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  6. Great write-up. Ed Kimball also believes that Bush’s article was circulated as described in his chapter/article on the topic.

    Despite succeeding in pushing the ban’s dating back two years, Esplin also discovered a crucial 1847 letter (see comment 16)

    I haven’t gone back to check, but I thought that statement was an excerpt from Quinn’s transcript of Q12 minutes from the period.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 26, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  7. Blume, thanks for the pointer. Do you happen to know what the call number, title or author of the item is?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 26, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  8. I think you may be right, J. I’m basing that off of something I read (or thought I read) in “Whence The Negro Doctrine?” but I’ll have to go back and check.

    Comment by David G. — January 26, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  9. David and Steve, what do you see as some of the lingering questions or potential avenues for continued research?

    Or are we left just to rearrange furniture now that most of the work has been done? (tongue in cheek)

    Comment by Jared T — January 26, 2010 @ 11:40 am

  10. David, I was apparently mistaken, though I could have sworn that I have seen references to a Q12 typescript in Quinn’s papers somewhere. Anyway, here is Bush’s citation in Neither White nor Black:

    This important March 1847 quotation, not previously published, was called to my attention by Ronald Esplin. It is found in minutes 26 Mar. 1847, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 26, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

  11. Thanks, J. You may be thinking of the minutes where BY calls mulattos “mules” and degrees miscegenafion to be punishable by death. Those minutes are only available via Quinn.

    Comment by David G. — January 26, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  12. Jared, good question. I see remaining questions as both historical and theological. Connell O’Donovan is leading the way on the historical stuff, and he has a number of articles that will be coming out pretty soon. His work does a number of things: compiling a list of how many black priesthood holders there were, looking and black-white marriage in Mormonism, looking at the factors surrounding Young’s motivations 1847-49. All good stuff.

    I still think a few theological questions remain; if JS didn’t institute the ban why did we need a revelation to end it (I know that’s been discussed around the bloggernacle, but I think it will merit considerably more discussion). A point I will explore is the Book of Abraham. When it says the seed of Ham were cursed regarding the priesthood, nineteenth-century Americans would have read that as straightforward since blacks were believed to be the seed of Ham in that society. Both of these points suggest to me that as far as Mormon theology is concerned, Blacks and the priesthood is still very much unresolved.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 26, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  13. Connell’s forthcoming article on Warner McCary gives a detailed analysis on the document where Young refers to Walker Lewis. A very interesting though difficult document.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 26, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  14. I agree with Steve re: Connell’s work. Not only in terms of the BoA, but in a wider sense, I think we need to get a better grasp on where the Mormons fit into the Curse of Ham’s history of interpretation. Same for Cain and Genesis 4. How do JFS 2 and Mark E. Peterson fit into 20th century anti-miscegenation discourses? And I think there’s room for a study on the politics of memory re: JS, BY, and the ban’s origins. Although Jessie Embry has done some good work on the social history of the ban, we need more interpretive studies here. Lastly, how has the ban and the overall anti-black sentiment affected other people of color in the Church? Joel has found some interesting things on how white Mormons fit Asians into the preexistence framework.

    Comment by David G. — January 26, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  15. Dear J. – unfortunately I do not know how the material was entered into the libraries. I would assume that Marcus made Henry Emanuel Christiansen the reference as author/compiler. The copy we have in our home library in Elk River includes a handwritten list of topics that I assume were the ones specifically given to him by President Packer when the commission was made. The organization of the binder follows almost completely that list of topics. But the binder as such has not title. I would be glad to share any other information you might be interested in were we to devise a way to communicate more directly.

    Comment by Blaue Blume — January 26, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  16. I have more I’d like to say and ask, but am short on time at the moment and just wanted to thank you, David and Steve, for the post. I’ll try and comment more in the next day or two.

    Comment by Christopher — January 26, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  17. If Evolution is believed, then the blackness is only a natural event. We can stop talking about men’s “doctrines”, as they are all a mistake.
    If blackness is a curse of God, then I don’t know how any answers will be found(?)

    Comment by Bob — January 27, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  18. Wonderful post. I recently reread Bush’s article and found it a helpful introduction to the topic.

    Somewhat tangentially, has anyone ever come across good information on a black Mormon named Green Flake?

    This is from Van Wagoner’s Mormon stories:

    http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/Mormons/green_flake.htm#flake

    I’m intrigued by this statement: “Negro slave Green Flake to the Church as tithing. He then worked two years for President Young and Heber C. Kimball, and then got his liberty.”

    Comment by John Turner — January 28, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

  19. Hi John: There are a few scattered articles that deal with Flake. I’d suggest doing a search for “Flake” in Nate Ricks’ MA thesis, “A Peculiar Place for the Peculiar Institution: Slavery and Sovereignty in Early Territorial Utah.”

    Comment by David G. — January 28, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

  20. Thanks David. I’ll check it.

    Does anyone know how I would go about checking whether the church actually received Green Flake as tithing? Where does one start with tithing records?

    Comment by John Turner — January 28, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  21. John, my understanding is that all financial records, including tithing, are restricted, and are therefore very difficult to access.

    Comment by David G. — January 28, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

  22. On Green Flake:

    http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/Mormons/green_flake.htm#flake

    http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/article_cbf84f58-36c5-5bd6-bd30-ad5cc7dc9942.html

    Comment by Christopher — January 28, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  23. Thanks, Chris, the Daily Herald article was especially helpful.

    Comment by John Turner — January 28, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  24. Great summary, David! I’m teaching on the topic of the priesthood ban tomorrow and talking to students about Bush’s article, by coincidence.

    Comment by David Howlett — January 28, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

  25. That’s cool, David. If you have the time, we’d love to get your thoughts on how the class goes.

    Comment by David G. — January 28, 2010 @ 10:58 pm