The White Element: Heber Meeks and the First Mormon Mission to Cuba

Rural Cuba, 1941

Rural Cuba, 1941

In summer 1947, Southern States Mission President Heber Meeks traveled to Cuba in order to determine whether Mormon missionary work should commence in the nation of Cuba.  Meeks had an impressive track record both as a church official and a public servant. He had directed the 1940 census in Utah and had once run as a Democrat for the state senate.  When called to be mission president of the Southern States in 1942, Meeks knew something about Utah Mormon society.

Upon Meeks’ return, he sent a letter to Dr. Lowry Nelson, a professor of rural sociology at Utah State Agricultural College, to inquire about his perspective on the race issue in Cuba. Nelson was shocked–he had never heard of such a doctrine in his faith community. For the next several eyars, Nelson engaged in correspondence with the First Presidency about their rationale for excluding blacks from the priesthood–perhaps some of the most revealing documentation about Mormon racial attitudes in mid-twentieth-century. It reveals that even in 1947, the priesthood ban was not common knowledge. Nelson was one of the leading public intellectual in the state of Utah.  He had been a BYU administrator, a member of the Roosevelt administration’s rural resettlement division, and the head of the experiment station at Utah State Agricultural College (now known as USU).  Nelson knew something about Mormon society, and yet even he had missed the race-exclusion memo.   Shocked, Nelson urged Meeks not to recommend proselytizing efforts.

The Meeks Report
Drawing on Nelson’s letter, he submitted a report to the First Presidency assessing the problems and potentialities of proselytizing in Cuba. His report reveals volumes the struggles he faced in pushing for the expansion of the Church while at the same time upholding the racial paradigm he had inherited.

A few key points from his report stand out:

President Heber Meeks

1) He unabashedly accepted “racial purity” as doctrine.  Meeks celebrated the economic and political strength of “the white element” in Cuba.  “There is no doubt,” he declared, that “some of the blood of Israel [existed] among the Cubans.”  He felt that Afro-Cubans might benefit from the doctrine: “Would it be a disfavor to teach them racial purity? Would not the negro be a happier race if they knew their racial status and enjoyed the blessings of membership in the Church, its purifying influence in their lives–without holding the Priesthood–then in their present tragic plite in the world.” The intermingling of the races was not merely an impropriety for Meeks; it was a “sin” that made them ineligible for “the blessings of the gospel.”  Further, there were still “at least one million people on the island who are preserving their racial purity” who were “entitled to all the blessings of the gospel.”

2) Meeks feared political repercussions.   In the Southern states, Meeks felt comfortable with the racial situation; public sentiment made the problem simple. “The Elders could not socialize with them even to conducting meetings because of public sentiment.  The negro convert cannot attend white meetings for the same reason.”  But in Cuba,  Meeks recognized exactly how explosive this doctrine would be: “Would injecting this doctrine into this Cuban situation cause repercussions that may bring the Church in disrespect in that country?”   He ascribed potential violence to their “Latin blood”: “if opposition arose, local or general, it would be swift, intense and ruthless.”

3) Genealogy, we can’t do it.  Looking at the gradients of skin color in Cuba, Meeks saw a problem.  “No adequate records [are] kept by which color can be determined.” The Church faced this problem throughout their missions in locations such as Brazil and South Africa.

4) Meeks wanted the Church to grow.  For all of his racial angst, Meeks believed in the mission of the Church.   The Church was meant “to preach the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.”  Even the blacks, he insisted could be taught “with the right approach,” provided they were taught the truth about their racial status.

Dr. Lowry Nelson

Fully cognizant of the potential racial issues the doctrine of “racial purity” would raise, Meeks nevertheless insisted that the First Presidency expand missionary efforts to Cuba. The Church would “be doing a great service to that nation, politically, socially, and spiritually, to  put in their hands the Light of the Everlasting Gospel.” Following “days of prayerful consideration,” he felt he had no choice but to recommend  that missionaries be sent to Cuba. In an unexpected turn of events, the First Presidency agreed with Nelson: there should not be missionary work in Cuba.

Today, Cuba does not enjoy the presence of LDS missionaries, though the Jamaican mission president occasionally makes visits to a small branch based in Havanna. But Meeks’ struggles represented Mormonism’s efforts to expand into the developing world. Having experienced limited engagement with the developing world, the Saints had struggled for generations to convince the Eastern establishment that they were indeed white, a fact that could only be in dispute in the heyday of late-nineteenth-century scientific racism. Meeks’ mission revealed how the vision of a global Church had come headlong with the Saints’ deeply-engrained compensatory racism. Unwilling to grant racial equality, Meeks hoped that the Church could spread far and wide, embracing as many people as its racial paradigms would allow. The First Presidency ultimately decided against Meeks’ proposal, but the questions Meeks and Nelson sought to answer would haunt the Saints for generations to come.

For more on the Meeks mission, see For the Cause of Righteousness: A Documentary History of Blacks and Mormonism,  1830-2013, forthcoming spring 2014. 

8 comments on “The White Element: Heber Meeks and the First Mormon Mission to Cuba

  1. Christopher says:

    This is really interesting, Russ. Thanks for sharing it. Can you say a bit more about why the FP decided against a mission in Cuba, and what role LDS proselytizing in other Latin American/Caribbean nations might have played in this debate? I’m specifically thinking of missionary activity in Brazil during this era.

    • Excellent questions. We know that in the late 1930s, the First Presidency specifically directed missionaries to confine their preaching to the strictly European populations in Brazil (taking special note of the German-speaking residents). Meeks specifically cited “South American countries” (e.g. Brazil) as a precedent for missionary work where the missionaries could find converts “free from negro blood.” So the First Presidency’s decision not to establish a mission in Cuba was, in some ways, at odds with the prevailing trend.

      Stay tuned for the book; it will address the Cuban narrative more thoroughly.

  2. John Dehlin says:

    Russell Stevenson – In your research, what was the source of Heber Meeks’ belief in “racial purity doctrine”?

    • A couple of factors:
      1) Ideas concerning racial purity had a long and less-than-venerable heritage in the United States. Racial intermarriage was still illegal in a large number of the states in 1947; Loving v. Virginia (declaring anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional) wasn’t issued until 1967.
      2) More immediately, there was a significant tradition of discourse within the Mormon community that echoed the sentiments of American society writ large. Even Joseph Smith fined black men for marrying white women.

  3. […] in the American south. Speaking of Mormon racial beliefs and practices, Mormon History Guy has an interesting overview on the first LDS missionary to Cuba in 1947. Whodda thunk these issues were more complex than […]

  4. Bruce Crow says:

    Very interesting indeed.

    I recently found some evidence that Ben E. Rich visited Cuba in 1904 while he was President of the Southern States Mission, though I have as yet found no more detail about his visit than a single sentence. He took his wife Diana, and a member from Ohio named Emil E Gammeter. I suspect it was more as a tourist trip.

  5. Bruce Crow says:

    Sure.

    I found it in the Southern States Mission Manuscript. Dates are Jan 4, 1904; Jan 9, 1904; and Jan 29, 1904. With the following references: Hist Rec 3491 p 931; Elders Journal 1:60-61; Journal of Ben E. Rich.

    President Rich reported a very successful trip to Cuba. He and Sister Rich met Brother Emil Gammeter of Akron Ohio and his wife at Washington, and they sailed from New York. “With the exception of a couple of days of stormy weather, their voyage to Cuba was very pleasant and their visit in Havana, Matanzas and other parts of the island made a very enjoyable tour.”

Comments are closed.