On Restrictions and Races: A Response

Since this material draws from documents in a forthcoming volume, most citations will not be included

It’s a topic that’s gaining steam in the press these days: is it appropriate for women to mobilize a public demonstration to show their discontent with current gender discourse?  Margaret Young has weighed in, suggesting that the proper way to address this is through personal conversations with leaders in power.  Tristan Call has kindly responded, arguing that she has failed to take into account the role of social movements and protest.

The problem with this discussion is that it casts the church bureaucracy as a homogenous unit, as though it was the Church versus society at large.  It’s an attractive storyline, if only because it has good guys (the activists) vs. well, mediocre guys who are “caught up in the traditions of men.” It’s great drama.  But great drama can be both a great thing and a dangerous thing, largely because it’s generally geared towards promoting a certain paradigm rather than getting at the truth.  If that paradigm conforms to the documentary record (which, frankly, is rare), then fantastic.  You’ll probably win an award.  If not, congratulations.  You’ve just screwed up the historical

Hugh B. Brown

Hugh B. Brown

narrative in profound and lasting ways.

So before we talk further about the role of social movements outside the church, let’s talk about the forces within the Mormon community that were pushing (often successfully) for change:

1) Hugh B. Brown.  As First Counselor in the First Presidency, Brown helped to shepherd the first pro-civil rights statement in Mormon history.  University of Utah Professor Sterling McMurring helped him to write it up, but it was Brown’s idea. He won President David O. McKay’s (tepid) support for the statement and delivered it in conference.  McKay did ask him to include the statement as a part of his talk, not as a First Presidency statement.  But Brown gave the statement in such a way as to suggest that it was separate from the body of his talk, suggesting that it was indeed an independent statement.

2) Lamar Williams and Marvin Jones.  This odd pair–one, a milquetoasty 19-year-old and the other, a middle-aged missionary department bureaucrat–singlehandedly changed the discourse on blacks and Mormonism. They served one of the first missions to an African country–a two-week-long stint in Nigeria and Ghana.  They were shocked at how faithful the Saints were.  Both left their missions realizing that the priesthood ban would not be sustainable if the Church planned on coming to that region.  Lamar Williams helped to push the missionary department to start taking black Africa more seriously. 

3) Lynn Hilton.  As Superintendent of the Sunday School program, he had received considerable correspondence from Ghanaians begging for baptism.  He visited Ghana himself in 1968 and even helped to arrange for the education of some young Ghanaian women.    He personally paid for church materials to be sent to them and was called upon by the First Presidency to submit a memo arguing for the expansion of the Church into Africa. In later

Joseph Johnson, an early West African proselyte

Joseph Johnson, an early West African proselyte

years, the Ghanaian Saints said that he was the single most important man in helping the gospel to enter West Africa.  Williams credited Hilton as being a voice in the wilderness of the Church bureaucracy.

4) The West African Saints.  Thousands of Saints in Nigeria committed themselves to the gospel over 30 years before Official Declaration #2.   They paid visits to Salt Lake City.  They peppered church leaders with correspondence.   Most importantly, they did not see themselves as an anti-colonial movement.  They were begging for the Americans to come.  They wanted to be affiliated with an American church.

5) James E. Faust.  A civil rights attorney and a former missionary to the heavily-black Brazil, Faust was already cut from a different cloth than most general authorities.  As President of the International Mission, he pushed the documents in front of Church leaders to show them that the black issue was not merely an American issue.  Having personally overseen the construction of the Sao Paulo Temple, he knew of the faith of the black Saints in Brazil and their commitment to the Church; they were “laying

James E. Faust

James E. Faust

bricks just like everyone else.”

The most relevant reality here is that most Saints knew little of these events.  They accepted the priesthood ban at face value, not realizing that the Church internally was undergoing significant shifts.  As we assess the applicability of the priesthood ban to women’s issues, we should keep in mind that each account has its own (arguably sacred) narrative.  Just because the priesthood ban doesn’t apply to women’s issues as well as some might wish, it doesn’t mean that women’s issues (or really, anyone’s issues) are any less legitimate.

2 comments on “On Restrictions and Races: A Response

  1. Bill Jones says:

    Great blog. What is this leading up to?

  2. Naomi says:

    I am so impressed with your deeply thought, intellectual commentary in the Mormon world. I will eagerly await each new blog post. I am about to start reading your book. I consider Elijah Abels one of my Mormon heros. My children will be learning all about him. Thank you for bringing him out of obscurity.

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