SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) June 8, 1978, was a sacred, momentous event — a revelation — that catapulted Mormonism into a new era of global growth.

On that day, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended its ban on blacks in its priesthood, opening ordination to “all worthy male members,” including those of African descent.

“For me,” former church President Gordon B. Hinckley said on the day’s 10th anniversary, “it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his brethren.”

Amram Musungu, a Mormon from Kenya, is a leader in Swahili Mormon ward in Salt Lake City but says the church still has lingering prejudice, even 35 years after it lifted the ban on blacks entering the priesthood. RNS photo courtesy Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune.

Amram Musungu, a Mormon from Kenya, is a leader in Swahili Mormon ward in Salt Lake City but says the church still has lingering prejudice, even 35 years after it lifted the ban on blacks entering the priesthood. RNS photo courtesy Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In the 35 years since the announcement, Mormonism has spread exponentially in areas formerly off-limits, especially Africa.

There now are nearly 400,000 Mormons in Africa, two missionary training centers, three working temples (South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria), with two more planned (Democratic Republic of the Congo and another in South Africa).

Brazil, with its heritage of mixed races, has been especially fertile territory, with 1.2 million Mormons. In Europe, many of those willing to listen to Mormon missionaries are African immigrants. And the church is growing steadily in urban America, home to millions of African-Americans.

For most white Mormons, the historical controversy is over. “It’s behind us,” Hinckley told “60 Minutes” in 1995. But the ban still haunts many African-American members. They frequently have to explain themselves and their beliefs to non-Mormons, other black converts, even themselves.

They occasionally hear racist comments from fellow believers, such as “black skin is cursed” or “when you become more righteous, your skin will grow lighter.” Some report being called the “N-word.”

Such racist remarks exist in every faith and group, of course, but some Latter-day Saints see the persistence as troubling.

“Thirty-five years after the end of a racial restriction that had so burdened the church,” said Armand Mauss, a pre-eminent Mormon sociologist, “the old racist folklore that came with it has still not been formally repudiated” by top church leaders.

Most Mormons did not challenge the ban on black males in the priesthood, but they did want to know why God would institute such a policy. Various explanations, many culled from American culture at the time, emerged.

Some LDS leaders, including then-apostle Bruce R. McConkie, taught that black skin was “the curse of Cain,” an allusion to the biblical figure who killed his brother Abel. Others added the notion that blacks were “less valiant” in Mormon theology’s “premortal existence.”

The official position is that only God knows the reason for the 125-year ban, and only a revelation from God could end it.

The blacks-as-cursed belief continues to be circulated at the grass-roots level and supported in publications such as McConkie’s “The Mortal Messiah” and former LDS prophet Joseph Fielding Smith’s “Doctrines of Salvation.”

Last year, after Brigham Young University religion professor Randy Bott was quoted in the press describing those racist theories, the church issued a strong condemnation of the so-called “folklore.”

“The church’s position is clear — we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in his eyes and in the church,” the statement said. “We do not tolerate racism in any form.”

Dalyn Montgomery, a white Latter-day Saint married to a black convert in Philadelphia, believes he knows what to credit for the progress: Mormonism’s structure.

Throughout U.S. history, the most segregated day of the week has been Sunday. Worshippers often divide along racial lines, attending churches with people who look like themselves. But Mormonism doesn’t allow that, Montgomery said.

“Because of its lay ministry, everybody has to work together to make Sundays run. In any geography that captures both (black and white) races, people are forced to spend time together on leadership councils and in each other’s homes.”

In places such as Philadelphia and Atlanta, he said, a young, white, highly educated family and an older African-American woman of little means “are in each other’s homes, meeting in meaningful ways on something — faith — that matters to both of them.”

Even so, challenges remain. Church-owned BYU has 30,000 students and 1,226 professors, but only 254 black students and one full-time black faculty member.

For Josy Petit, a black BYU graduate from Queens, N.Y., who has been a Mormon since she was 8, being on the largely white campus helped her develop “a sense of humor — and ready answers” when confronted with insensitive comments and false assumptions.

“Even though they knew I was a top performing student, some of my professors just saw a black person,” she recalled. “Some of the nicer teachers asked me, ‘What sports do you play?’”

She got engaged to a white Mormon but had to call it off, she said, “because his family couldn’t get over the fact that I was black.”

Petit believes such prejudice is based on the former ban and continues to fester within Mormonism because members are uncomfortable talking about it.

“I wish (LDS leaders) had more confidence in their doctrine and that the Holy Ghost testifies of truth. Black members could be presented the historic information and still choose to stay, like I did, because of all the good there is in the church. Truth will carry them through.”

Amram Musungu joined the LDS church in 1992 as a 14-year-old living in Nairobi, Kenya, and within three years served a full-time mission in his homeland.

Now living in Utah, Musungu is married with two children, works as an accountant, sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and helps lead a burgeoning, 300-member Swahili ward in Salt Lake City.

He doesn’t care about the former priesthood ban.

“Everyone asks why, why, why it didn’t happen sooner,” Musungu said. “We don’t know. We are just rejoicing at our opportunity to hold the priesthood and bless the lives of our families.”

Even Musungu, though, has experienced the sting of racist comments. Once, when he was introduced as being a Mormon from Africa who sings in the choir, another church member asked: “What are you doing in our world?”

Stunned, the gentle African replied, “We are brothers and sisters, and this world belongs to all of us.”

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

KRE/AMB END STACK

25 Comments

  1. What did any dark skinned people expect. The Mormons have always been loaded with prejudice. I’ve never met a Mormon who wasn’t severely prejudiced against people of dark skin, people of different religious beliefs, and people like Mitt Romney who use their religious connections and then claim to believe that God has rewarded their hard work to become wealthy. They always leave out the advantages of their church connections.

    Mormon beliefs mire them in illiteracy that begets their prejudices. I have a cousin who, with his former pole dancing wife, is a convert to Mormonism–because their daughter before them saw the light of Mormonism and converted. The parents never previously attended any church. The daughter even moved to Salt Lake City to snag a Mormon husband. And the parents later followed her–and left all their other kids behind.

    While visiting them one weekend, I asked if I might join them when they attended their church or stake, whatever it’s called. I found the service vapid, the strangest substitute for theology I have ever heard. The communion was water and regular white bread. Another friend of mine, a former Mormon, referred to it as the Wonder Bread Communion.

    After the regular service, I joined my cousin who was supposedly mentoring a group of young kids in their Sunday School class. He didn’t seem to know much more than the little ones. He certainly didn’t know anything about the learning techniques of young kids. (I taught school junior high and elementary school for almost 40 years.) The woman who was supposed to be the lead teacher only went from table to table asking for rote responses to silly questions–as if the kids understood anything of the content.

    I liked my cousin, but he was a terrible racial bigot, as was his former pole-dancing wife. I could never see how any person of dark skin might consider Mormonism as a friendly religious home.

    • “…as was his former pole-dancing wife”

      Gilhcan, as Christians we are taught to forgive others, as we have been forgiven. Perhaps her past is something you should leave in the past?

    • Jeanne Rodgers

      The article seems accurate on the past & present doctrines. Perhaps you should visit an LDS ward such as mine. Our Bishop has dark skin, although he is darker than most self-identified “black” people in our government, he appears to be of Pacific Island descent. I have never felt it necessary to ask him. He was adopted as an infant by a wealthy white couple in our ward. His wife is white and his children (five I think) are various shades between his and his wife’s color. We have several mixed race couples in our upper middle-class ward made up as far as I know by very literate well-educated white people. Too bad we can’t all wake up some morning and have our skins be purple with green spots!

    • Come on listen to your self, you are grouping all Mormons it this neat little box to fit your own views. What I fine there are all walks of life and what is the big difference is ignorance. Have found that bigotism runs in all faiths and in all races. We all have to try to understand, first ourselfs and rid the bigot ghosts in our own life’s. Then truly reach out to the human family and truly learn and love and forgive. We need to reach down and pick and pick up others.
      Lastly education, family support and exposure will break down the barriers .

  2. A black Mormon trying to excuse racism in her faith is ridiculous and pathetic… Most Mormons know the book of Mormon more than they know the bible. If they read both they’d know the two books are not in harmony.

    • Jay – - – I was born and raised Lutheran (Missouri Synod) and was raised reading AND STUDYING the Bible . . . then, as an adult I read the Book of Mormon. . . they fit together. . . they both teach of Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior and Redeemer for all. . .

      • They both teach Jesus is indeed lord, but thats it. Doctrinally and the BoM and the Bible are incompatible. For instance, the bible says “DO NOT GO BEYOND THE THINGS WRITTEN” and not to “ADD TO or TAKE AWAY FROM SCRIPTURE”. The Apostles CAUTIONED against those who would bring teachings NOT from the Gospel. Thats just the basics. The has VIOLATED all these prohibitions when it comes to The Bible. I could go further but i believe ive made my point. The BoM is an apostasy from the Bible Canon.

        • Hello, Jay how about religious bigotry! They life of Christ in your eyes and heart in your soul is what matters, it’s all good if it changes ones heart to be Christ like. Time to get us and there’s and we are first Out of it. Most of all this rest in old time religion bargaining for its patrons. W e are all better than this.

    • Whether the two books are in harmony, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon have been (and undoubtedly are so today, by some) interpreted in a way that justifies anti-Black racism. The Noah story in Genesis played a big role in the Mormon Black-priesthood ban.

  3. In 1978 I had been a member for 11 years. Many of us in the UK believed that before the millenium blacks would hold the priesthood. We understood that in the early church of Jesus Christ gentiles (non jews) did not hold the priesthood; in the days of Moses it was only the Levites.
    1978 was earlier than we had dared hope, but it was received with great joy. I had know locally one family and another mixed race family – they were our friends and their time had come.
    Personally, I find it puzzelling that any prejudice should exist. Good and bad seems spread uniformly between all races. The Man I worship is the Middle Eastern Jew that gave His life that I may be forgiven of my sins.

    • “We understood that in the early church of Jesus Christ gentiles (non jews) did not hold the priesthood.”

      What biblical or historical evidence supports the idea that there was an early rule against gentile Christian priests?

  4. Phillip Smith

    Oh I wish the time would come right away or at least soon that we would relate to each other as true brothers and sisters, that love and kindness would be shown by all, that we would be judged not by our skin color but by the content of our character (paraphrasing Martin Luther King). The answer is found in large part in Moroni 7:48 where we are told to pray to God to be filled with love for others. I look forward to this day and doing all In can to have this love.

  5. God is good. So kind of him to decide black people were finally worthy of the priesthood. Were they worthy prior to Joseph Smith discovering the golden plates? Only God knows that, but at least they were worthy for a short time while Mr. Smith was leading the church. Then He said ‘No’ after Mr. Smith died, then He said ‘Yes’ again in 1978.

    God is good.

  6. We all like to revise history to suit our agendas—including the critics.

    Bruce R. McConkie was honest and open with his opinions. What this story doesn’t tell is that when the leadership was discussing the change in priesthood policy, they asked Elder McConkie, who was an outstanding scriptorian, if there was any scriptural contradiction to the new policy. He answered there was none. When the policy was formulated, he advised to announce it immediately. When the policy was announced, he publically stated, “Forget everything I have ever written on the subject; new light and knowledge has been received.”

    The critics make it sound like the Mormon Church is the only prejudiced group in the world. There was another prominent group with millions of members who still maintained that the Bible supported slavery until well after the change in Mormon priesthood policy. The “curse of Ham” was not original with the Mormon Church.

    The Mormon Church publically apologized to the leader of a large African American church group, I believe the AME.

    In my corner of the South, in LDS Church congregations, there were never any separate congregations, never any separate pews or drinking fountains or sacrament trays or bathrooms. Mixed couples were never forbidden or banished as church policy.

    The LDS policy of racial difference was changed without a single march, without attack dogs or water cannons or arrests. A single line of words was sufficient. And the change was greeted with jubilation. I admire the courage and tireless persistence of President Kimball who prepared the human side for the change in policy.

  7. Just wanted to comment on this statement in the article: “Such racist remarks exist in every faith and group, of course, but some Latter-day Saints see the persistence as troubling.” This is not correct. The Baha’i Faith, which by the way was founded in the same time frame as the LDS Church, but in the middle east, has had as a pillar of its principles from the very beginning, the elimination of prejudices of all kinds. As it spread west into Europe and America, it had to deal with the racism it found here. In its own quiet, peaceful, and law-abiding way, it challenged racism head on. When Abdul-Baha, son of the founder, came to the USA a hundred years ago to educate and help guide the new Baha’i community here, he shocked society by holding integrated meetings, encouraging integrated marriage (the first integrated Baha’i marriage took place in 1914), and urging Baha’is to travel, write, lecture and become champions for racial amity. He cautioned that if America did not deal with the problem then, her streets would later run with blood. Four Race Amity conferences were held between 1921 and 1924, an historic achievement by American Bahá’ís. In 1912, a black Baha’i, Louis Gregory, was elected to the first national administrative body for the Baha’i Faith in America (we have no clergy) and was further elected in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as a member of the national assembly of the Baha’is of the United States and Canada. We have been a racially diverse and multi-ethnic religion since our founding.

      • Allan, that may be so. I have had (AFAIK) no discussions with members of the Bahai faith, so I can’t place your observation into any personal context. However, I would note that the principles of a religion are not always supported by the faithful. Polls of US Catholics regularly show that they are in disagreement with Church teachings.

      • I have been an active Baha’i for 40 years in America, Africa and Asia. I have never run across a single overt act or word of prejudice. That would not be acceptable in Baha’i culture. Institutionally, there is systemic anti discrimination whereby if there is a tie in votes, designated minority person would be selected. That us not to say that every Baha’i is freed fom prejudice. All of us are tainted by the environment in which we live. My point is that the effort to overcome prejudice and be one with all people is CENTRAL to the religion. This can be seen by the large number of interracial marriages and the strong attraction to diversity in the Baha’i Faith. Do we need to do much, much more to weave bonds of friendship and understanding? Definitely. Sins of omission and lost opportunities in interpersonal relations – yes. Privately held racist views – possibly but it would be ibviously highly unBaha’i like. Sins of commission? i have never seen any.

  8. I have found that many Black converts to our LDS Church are horrified to learn that they are expected to pay a tithe to the Church just like the White Mormons are. Sure, this had been covered in the discussions, but they never dreamed that this would be applied to them.

  9. ["...They occasionally hear racist comments from fellow believers, such as “black skin is cursed” or “when you become more righteous, your skin will grow lighter.” Some report being called the “N-word.”]

    The problem with this article is that it tries to pin the prejudice on antiquated church doctrine. The truth is that the prejudice comes from the “sacred” scripture of Mormons — the Book of Mormon — and NOT church doctrine. It’s not a particular “reading/interpretation” of the scripture. It’s plainly stated. Were I so inclined, I’d quote them.

    The Book of Mormon is mainly about two groups of people — the Nephites and the Lamanites, descendents of Lehi’s sons Nephi and Laman. Lehi is said to have left Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah and brought his family to North America. Nephi had a “good heart” and Laman had a “dark heart”. Eventually all Lamanites received dark skin as a “curse from God”, presumably to match their hearts. At one point the narrative speaks of an outside group about to fight the Nephites. The Lamanites decided to join forces with the Nephites to repel the threat. “God” is said to be so pleased at this that (at least for the ones who fought along side the Nephites) he turned their skins BACK WHITE!

    So is there any wonder that many Mormons still consider all dark skinned peoples evil? Their own freaking “sacred text” says it’s so!! I don’t understand why any intelligent Black person would BE a Mormon. I tried to contact former NBA player Thurl Bailey on his Facebook page for some clarification of that but he declined, saying only that his personal beliefs are just that — personal. I truly wanted the dialog because I’d heard him speak and he is CLEARLY an intelligent being. But sadly religion with deities are all about manipulation and indoctrination; and even the intellectuals can be brainwashed.

  10. Church policies change due to economic motives not due to revelation. BJU changed its policy on interracial marriage for two reasons: (1) More and more students come from abroad and this ban may not be helpful in attracting foreign students; (2) they had already indoctrinated the members and these members will pass on the bigotry to future generations by forbidding them from dating interracially. Similarly the LDS church found it convenient to accept blacks as members and to priesthood for two reasons: (1) There was a need to get new members and black people were ripe for conversion and in the pre-internet era did not know anything about white people’s bigotry; (2) Same as BYU…members who are indoctrinated pass their bigotry to future generations.

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