The Long Night of Whiteness

For my book, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, click here

Official Declaration #2 is often cast–in its most generous light–as the Church’s efforts to usher in a new era of racial pluralism and globalization.  President Kimball had long dreamed of “when all the world will be converted,” and this was merely the next step.  It speaks to what I call the dispensational interpretation of Official Declaration #2.  Because Peter received a vision to “take the gospel to the Gentiles,” we assume that Official Declaration #2 was merely another incarnation of that. The interpretation has become almost axiomatic. 

The Dispensational Interpretation

But does that actually work as a functioning thesis?  In order for that to be so, the following two propositions would

need to be true.

1) Joseph Smith’s Mormonism would have been racially exclusive, especially towards those of African descent

2) Successive administrations would have continued this hypothetical policy until 1978

On one occasion, Orson Hyde told an anecdote about his concocting an innovative doctrinal idea.  Joseph Smith complimented for his cleverness, adding wryly: “There is only one problem with it: it is not true.”

The Dispensational interpretation for Official Declaration #2 doesn’t work.  It’s simply not true.

The chronology is not neat, pretty, let alone dispensational.

1) In 1836, Joseph Smith personally ordained Elijah Able[s], a man dark enough to be described as a “negro” to the Melchizedek Priesthood (Priesthood certificate is in the LDS Church History Library, available for all to see).

2) In 1843/44, William Smith ordained Walker Lewis to the priesthood.  Lewis was a black member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (William Appleby Journal, May 31, 1847). .

3) In March 1847, Brigham Young described Lewis as “one of the best Elders we have” (Meeting Minutes, March 26, 1847).

By the end of 1847, the Saints had soured on blacks generally, an attitude which manifested itself in Brigham Young.  Having just witnessed the philandering of a black man in Winter Quarters, the Saints distanced themselves from Joseph Smith’s Elijah Ables experience.  By early 1849, he was personally committed to excluding blacks from all positions of leadership in the Church.

It’s commonplace for Saints to ask the question: “What does this mean about priesthood leadership? Can prophets be wrong?” It’s a fun topic because it allows us to catalog a series of really awful quotes from a wide array of priesthood leaders.  And by the end of the discussion, everyone has absolutely no faith whatsoever in their leaders.  They’re merely administrators who can’t really be trusted with revelation.

Brigham Young makes for an easy target.  Brash, abrasive, jocular, and salty, it’s almost like he’s saying: “Yeah, blame me all day.  But never forget who got you across the plains.”  We like to think that dealing with Brigham Young’s racism is a “hard issue.”  Not at all.  That’s the easy issue.  Haunting our rantings and ravings is a more incriminating reality

It’s everybody’s fault.

The Dark Side of Israel

We speak of the Saints being Latter-day  Israel with ebullience and joy.  But if we’re serious about that, we really shouldn’t.  Ancient Israel is the religious archetype of a tragic nation: a people with an expansive future, a future they lost when they succumbed to the idol-worship of the surrounding tribes.

The Saints exhibited some of the same weakness. When white newspaper editors referred to the Saints as “Black Mormons” and smeared them as abolitionists, these were insult akin to accusing a man of “palling around with terrorists.”  Joseph Smith tried to neutralize the opposition, occasionally throwing a bone to the press while quietly continuing to support the ordination of black men to the priesthood.   After Joseph’s death, Joseph Smith’s policy endured, but it was on its deathbed.  Brigham Young initially tried to continue it out of loyalty to Joseph Smith, but when the Saints gave up, he gave up too.  Their commitment to Zion proved too weak. And why should this surprise us?  Collective sin is downright native to the Mormon tradition.  Only last week in West Jordan, Utah we had a fairly conventional lesson about the Saints being chastised for their pride and haughtiness (D&C 101).

By talking exclusively about Brigham Young, we give the Mormon community an undeserved free pass.  Instead of building a golden calf, the Saints had built an idol of whiteness–the idol to which most of American society paid homage. My own family is not innocent, whatever their own (frankly awesome) qualities they had.  William Holmes Walker, my great-great grandfather, served in South Africa beginning in 1852.  He received his call only months after the Territorial Legislature legalized slavery.  Though he admired Joseph Smith’s sympathies for the black population, he himself showed no such affection.   The Walker-Smith relationship reveals the stark contrast between the Saints’ respect for Joseph Smith’s racial inclusiveness and the Saints’ own apathy for the needs of the black population.

Chastisement of their Peace

Why weren’t the Saints chastised for it? They were: every time a Mormon opened up 2 Nephi 26:33 (“He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female”) and every time time a Saint read Doctrine and Covenants 101:79 (“it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another“).  It took nearly five generations for the Saints to repent and only after suffering from protests, boycotts, and a decade long stream of negative press.

When Official Declaration #2 was released in 1978, it was not breaking new ground.  In fact, the declaration was  revitalizing very old ground, ground the Saints had long neglected.  As demonstrated by the work of Lester Bush, Elijah Ables would play a formative role in reminding the Saints of who they had once been.  Official Declaration #2 called for a wayward people to “forget everything” they had heard about race.  The long night of whiteness had begun to break.

3 comments on “The Long Night of Whiteness

  1. John Brown says:

    Russell, want to get your kindle version, but the sample is showing some wacky interior formatting–uneven spacing of lines. I can’t read that; won’t buy it. Any idea on when/if you’re going to get that fixed?

  2. Terry Ayles says:

    I enjoyed this article. Thank you.
    I read in a BYU article (I believe written some years ago by Edward Kimball) that for a number of years prior to the 1978 revelation, the attacks against the Church due to the priesthood ban had eased off. I would need to dig out the Edward Kimball article to retrieve the exact wording on this point. Any comments on this?

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