2013?! Wow. Ok.

In a recent conversation with Doug Fabrizio, I made the comment that the priesthood ban was a collaborative endeavor, with plenty of culpability to spread around throughout the various strata of the Mormon community.  I said that it has taken this long for the Mormon community to reckon with their racial past.  He responded with a shocked: “2013?! Wow. Ok.”

Over the course of the past year, I’ve said the same thing myself as I have spoken on this topic over the course of the past year. 

I am not exempt from the incriminating implications of this statement. It took me over two decades to come to grips with Mormonism’s racial heritage, and more Mormons than not simply assume that people like Walker Lewis, William McCary, and Elijah Ables did not exist. In 2010, John Dehlin noted in a Mormon Matters post that “We are a clean cut, lovable, somewhat defensive, and always ’30 years behind the times’ group of non-traditional Christians…with a somewhat wacky historical past.”  Dehlin said it well.  “Isn’t it time for us to stand up, with our chests out, and actually OWN who we are?”  Starting at 1978, 30 years would take us to 2008, so perhaps I was off by 5.

Some voices on the Facebook threads have asked me to retract my comments, declaring that I was offensive, hurtful, and downright wrong. In the spirit of generosity, some even think that Doug provoked me into a controversial statement that I didn’t really believe or spouted off in the heat of the moment. However, my comments were but a livelier reiteration of what I told Doug in August of this year (the relevant portion begins at 5:00).  True, I perhaps didn’t take the initiative to give the full explanation of my comments.  That conversation would have included a discussion of how the African Saints affected the Mormon community’s vision of itself as white Americans. I certainly would have given more detail on the “sea-change” that was taking place in the Mormon community   I would have mentioned the Mormon community’s struggle to identify its views on apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s; while our record wasn’t as bad as it could have been (the Johannesburg Temple was integrated far sooner than it legally needed to be), pro-apartheid sentiment nevertheless endured in South African communities. We fell far short of the standard that Archbishop Desmond Tutu set.   I also would have given more context to the media debacle that came as a result of the release of the Miller-Eccles discussions in the late 1990s.  Were church leaders exempt from these failings? Certainly not.

Given our history of insularity, struggles for autonomy, and troubled assimilation into American society, many Intermountain white Mormons have had to write their own guidebooks on how to engage with others about our past.  It’s a hard thing to acknowledge who we are.  As Dehlin told us in 2010, the time for deflection and projection is over.  Were all of us guilty? No. But as Abraham Heschel noted, though only a few are guilty, we are all responsible.

10 comments on “2013?! Wow. Ok.

  1. Seth R. says:

    I think a Brigham Young quote is relevant here:

    “Why do you not open the windows of heaven and get revelation for yourself? and not go whining around and saying, ‘do you not think that you may be mistaken? Can a Prophet or an Apostle be mistaken?’ Do not ask me any such question, for I will acknowledge that all the time, but I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breadth from the truth, and I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs, and so may you. But I overlook your weaknesses, and I know by experience that the Saints lift their hearts to God that I may be led right. If I am thus borne off by your prayers and faith, with my own, and suffered to lead you wrong, it proves that your faith is vain. Do not worry.”

    —A Series of Instructions and Remarks by President Brigham Young at a Special Council, Tabernacle, March 22, 1858 (Salt Lake City, 1858), pamphlet in Frederick Kesler Collection, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

  2. Randy B. says:

    “I said that it has taken this long for the Mormon community to reckon with their racial past.”

    Well, that’s not what you actually said.

    The remark at issue comes at around the 46 minute mark of the program, in response to Doug Fabrizio specifically pressing you on whether you actually believe that the church’s statement did not come out any earlier than 2013 because the members “weren’t ready.” Your response to this specific point: “It did take that long for the Mormon rank and file to be ready to receive this kind of language.” Asked, incredulously, by Doug, “2013?”, you responded, emphatically, “Yes, 2013.”

    No doubt we will be “reckoning” with our “racial past” — as a church, as a country, as individuals — for some time to come. Your post here addresses some of that. But that’s a very different question from whether church members could have received a statement from their beloved prophet on this topic any earlier than 2013.

    With all due respect, your statement has to be one of the most damning things I’ve heard anyone say about Mormons. And a point on which I could not disagree more.

    • Randy:

      I have no problem saying “damning things” about the state of the Mormon people. And I’m glad we’ve grown since 1978. As we both know, the Mormon people have often resisted change both from society and from their leadership-and that includes a change of discourse. Talking about something sincerely and seriously is but a form of reckoning. I’m grateful that globalization and the information age has invited (almost compelled) the Saints to be more ready to have a dialogue on this topic.

      • Randy B. says:

        It’s not just that it’s damning, it’s simply untrue. To be sure, racial issues have been, and continue to be, a source of serious concern in the church. And members certainly have resisted past changes in doctrine / policy / discourse. But the fundamental change here came over three decades ago. The idea that members could handle the reversal of this long-standing, on-the-ground policy in 1978 (changes that would lead, for example, to blacks serving in the temple, serving as bishops and stake presidents, etc.), but not the disavowal of mere statements previously advanced in favor of the policy for another 35 years, strikes me as more than a little far fetched.

        The better explanation, and the one that others such as Bushman have discussed, relates to what this statement means about the fallibility of prophets more generally. I can at least understand (though I strongly disagree) why the church might have hoped to avoid triggering this conversation anew. As Bushman says, for many Latter-day Saints, that is going to be a difficult conversation. But that is fundamentally different from arguing that the members themselves are at fault for this delayed teaching because they had not adequately “reckoned” were their own racism.

  3. Randy:

    Unfortunately, racism does not work like a light bulb. A statement doesn’t change racial attitudes overnight. I wish it had been a more fundamental change.

  4. Randy B. says:

    I’m not sure what your comment has to do with anything I’ve written, so I suppose it’s probably best just to leave things there if you don’t intend to respond to my actual arguments. Best to you.

  5. Katie says:

    Well John Dehlin surely got something right including the note on defensiveness…

    Anyways, maybe I am a septic, but I personally think it is too early to say if the majority of the Mormon people are ready to come to grips with this in 2013. The church just barely released this statement, which isn’t even 100% clear to me as to what they are really saying, and the majority of those I know haven’t read it.Only three people I personally know have I ever seen actually express the idea that the Priesthood ban was an error. So I think 2013 is actually an optimistic statement!! I really hope that people are open to this, but I think that people like the Mormon History Guy are ahead of the ‘Mormon times.’
    Thank you for saying what you believe to be the truth unapologetically. You’ve helped me to open my eyes to something I obviously did not want to see, but it is the right thing to do. I am not any better than those who went along with the ban for so long, because I was willing to justify it myself with the false doctrine I’d heard. I don’t know how I would have accepted a thought of it before now. May God’s grace and forgiveness rest upon us as a people.

  6. […] This past Wednesday the radio program Radio West invited Margaret Blair Young (writer and co-producer/director of the documentary, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons and co-author of the black Mormon pioneer trilogy, “Standing on the Promises”), Marvin Perkins (a black LDS member),  Russell Stevenson (an independent historian who recently published a biography of Elijah Ables), and John Dehlin (creator of the Mormons Stories podcast empire) to discuss the LDS Church’s recently released statement, found on the Church’s webpage, about blacks and the temple-priesthood ban.   In case you have been living under a rock and have no idea of what I am speaking, click here to read the statement.    The first half of the program Margaret Young and Marvin Perkins  were interviewed; the latter part John Dehlin and Russell Stevenson were interviewed.  It is in the latter part of the show where things got interesting.  Some of Russell’s statements led to a friendly exchange between he and John.   The first of the statements that John saw as being problematic occurred around 45:32 minutes into the program.  It set off a fire-storm amongst nearly all of the Mormon Facebook groups;  some called for Russell to retract that statement.  Russell in response, did not retract his statement, but instead wrote a blog post about it on his Mormon History Guy blog. […]

  7. I could nоt resist commenting. Well wrіtten!

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