Mauli Bonner and Paul Reeve: Understanding the History of Blacks in the Church
In 1830, the same year the Church was organized, a former slave named Peter became the first documented Black member of the Church. Nearly 200 years later, Mauli Bonner first heard Peter's story when he started exploring his own faith as a Black member of the Church. This journey led him to Paul Reeve, a professor at the University of Utah who has studied Blacks in Church history extensively. On today's episode, Mauli and Paul explain not only the importance of the stories of early Black Latter-day Saints, but also how their stories can strengthen our faith and our testimonies of the restored gospel.
The beauty of it all is that we are here now and have an opportunity to learn and do something good. That's what we have control over. We can't change what was, we were not there. But we are here now.
3:24- Blacks in the Early Days of the Church
8:50- Legislation with Theological Implications
12:00- Learning the History as a Black Latter-day Saint
15:22- Green Flake and Brigham Young
25:28- Strengthening Testimony Rather Than Weakening
31:44- Historical Accuracy
37:12- What Needed to Change?
44:22- Why Monuments Matter
51:22- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
This episode originally aired on May 19, 2021.
Morgan Jones 0:00
On the “About” page of the Century of Black Mormons database, Paul Reeve writes, "In the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a few media outlets reinforced the public perception that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were predominantly white. A reporter for The New York Times speculated in a times online video, that there were only 'a very small number' of Black Mormons a 'couple of thousand max' or somewhere between '500 to 2,000.' Likewise, Jimmy Kimmel asked on Jimmy Kimmel Live, 'Are there Black Mormons? I find that hard to believe.'"
"These questions asked in 2012," Reeve writes, "highlight the historical amnesia that dominates the public perception. The irony lies in the historical evolution of that public perception. Black Saints were among the first to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and have been a part of the Mormon experience from its beginnings," end quote.
One of those first to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley was a man named Green Flake, a man who has gone virtually unnoticed in the history of the Church until Mauli Bonner recently felt led to make a movie all about him. Perhaps best known to our audience as a member of the Bonner family, Mauli Bonner has been a vocal coach for prominent stars, including Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Fergie. He is a first-time writer, director and producer on the upcoming film, "His Name Is Green Flake."
W. Paul Reeve is the Symons Chair of Mormon studies in the history department at the University of Utah. He is also the project manager and general editor of a digital database, Century of Black Mormons, designed to name and identify all known Black Mormons baptized into the faith between 1830 and 1930. The database is now live at centuryofblackmormons.org.
Today's conversation might challenge some of what we think we know. We are grateful for the professional historical perspective of Dr. Reeve and the personal views of Mauli as a Black member of the Church. We invite you to learn more about much of what is discussed today by reading the gospel topics essay, "Race and the Priesthood," which states, "Today the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that Black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed race marriages are a sin; or that Blacks or people of any race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism past and present in any form."
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones, and I am so honored to have Paul Reeve and Mauli Bonner with me today. Gentlemen, welcome.
Paul Reeve 3:12
Morgan Jones 3:15
This is such a treat. It's so fun to have both of you. So, I want to start out and kind of lay the groundwork for the conversation that we're going to have today. And I wondered, Paul, your background is in history. You've studied Latter-day Saint history, in depth, and so I wondered if you could start by telling us about the presence of Black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, specifically in the early days of the church.
Paul Reeve 3:42
Yeah, Black Latter-day Saints have been present from 1830 to the present. The first documented Black Latter-day Saint is a former slave named Peter, baptized in Kirtland. That made news in Philadelphia within a couple of months that Latter-day Saints had a Black man worshiping with them. Joseph Smith claims four revelations stipulating that this gospel is to be preached unto every creature. Latter-day Saints love to quote, "Every nation, kindred, tongue and people," Joseph Smith says four times, "Every creature”–no ambiguity, and early Latter-day Saints took that seriously. The first documented Black women that we have found to join the Church, 1835 in Tennessee, three enslaved women. And you have free Black as well as enslaved Black Latter-day Saints from the beginning and they are a part of the Latter-day Saint story. We have white Latter-day Saints enslaving their fellow Black Latter-day Saints and, you know, Black Latter-day Saints had been there from the beginning.
Morgan Jones 4:49
So this was obviously not a popular thing outside of the Church, and like you said, made news that Latter-day Saints had Black members worshiping with them. Talk to me a little bit about the context of that and what the significance of that would have been, and your understanding of how Black Latter-day Saints were treated by their fellow members of the Church?
Paul Reeve 5:16
Well, you have to understand that Latter-day Saint tradition is born into a fraught American racial culture. The 1830s are really animated by questions about race and slavery, and where do people who are not white fit into a hierarchy of whiteness? And Latter-day Saints–at least in the first couple of decades–are embracing Native Americans, African Americans, and it leads to accusations that they are facilitating race mixing, that they are trying to disrupt the racial hierarchy. So for example, in Missouri, one accusation leveled against them is that they have opened an asylum for rogues and vagabonds and free Blacks. They are inviting the very people that the rest of white society knows should be excluded and even enslaved. And so those accusations create tension, you know, with Latter-day Saints in this training host society.
We have evidence that you know, Joseph Smith is sanctioning the ordination of Black men to the LDS priesthood. And these are questions that are animating Protestant Christianity in the United States at the same time. So the Methodist and the Baptist and the Presbyterians are dealing with this northern Methodists, northern Presbyterians, Northern Baptists, suggest to their southern counterparts that, if you are enslaving people, you should not hold priesthood authority in those traditions. You shouldn't be accepted as a missionary and Latter-day Saints are baptizing and ordaining enslavers as well as their enslaved, right? So, ultimately, the Presbyterians and the Methodists and the Baptists split over these questions, along a north-south divide before the Civil War.
And the Latter-day Saints, you know, cast a wide net, which works for them when they're living in southern and northern communities, right? So in northern branches of the Church, they are ordaining Black men to their priesthood in southern branches. White enslavers are presiding over these branches. They are the priesthood authorities, and sometimes their Black enslaved are also then baptized and included in the, in the same branches. That works, right? Until they gather all to the Great Basin after 1847. Then, the Latter-day Saint leadership has to figure out what to do with these people who have now all gathered to the same location without any predetermined laws to govern the relationship between white enslavers and Black enslaved.
Mauli Bonner 8:05
I can't imagine what that ward must have been like. The tension within those wards, as they came together. When one's like, "This is the way it's supposed to be." And one is like, "There's no way it's going to be that way." I can't imagine.
Paul Reeve 8:18
Yeah, you obviously have abolitionist sentiment that is animating, especially northern Latter-day Saints, right? They are rightfully just disgusted by slavery and consider it a great evil. And southern Latter-day Saints, obviously use the Bible to justify it like the rest of Protestant Christianity had been doing.
Morgan Jones 8:42
I think this is, it's such a fascinating–it's almost like where you feel like something's about to hit a boiling point. And so it does, when they reach the Great Basin, it reaches a point where something has to be . . . a decision has to be made. And Paul, you have talked a lot about how that is when Brigham Young implemented things. So talk to me a little bit about what happened as a result of that.
Paul Reeve 9:09
So I think it's important to note that slavery arrives in the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847. Actually, two days before Brigham Young arrives, July 22, 1847, three enslaved men arrived in the advance company. 42 men, 27 wagons, and three enslaved men are a part of that advance company. The first encampment is present day roughly 1700 South, 5th East, it's called the First Encampment Park. Their names are etched in the stones in that Park, which commemorates their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley and Green Flake, Hark Lay, whose emancipation name is Wells, and Oscar Crosby, who's emancipation name is Smith, are those three enslaved men who are in the Salt Lake Valley on July 22, 1847.
They're already plowing and planting by the time Brigham Young arrives on July 24. So enslavement arrives, it's a part of Latter-day Saint story, it’s here in July of 1847. But you have to remember, there are no preexisting laws to govern what that means. And when Utah becomes a territory as a part of the Compromise of 1850, the principle of popular sovereignty allows it, allows each territory to figure out whether they will legalize enslavement or not. And in 1852, the Territorial Legislature, which is presided over by Brigham Young, who–remember–is governor of the territory, as well as president of the LDS church, and the entire legislative body are Latter-day Saints, and it includes several apostles, including Orson Pratt, who is a legislator as well as an apostle, and those roles just dramatically overlap in this legislative session.
So they have to try to figure out what this all means, right? You have white enslavers, as well as Black enslaved. You have free Black people in the Salt Lake Valley, who have also arrived in 1847. They are among the earliest pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. So that legislative session, they craft a bill called an “Act in Relation to Service," where they define the legal relationship between white enslavers and the Black enslaved, and produces a debate in which Brigham Young first openly articulates a racial priesthood restriction within the Latter-day Saint tradition. So it's the context of a legislative session, but it also has theological implications as well.
Morgan Jones 11:52
Right. Fascinating. These are things that I am not very familiar with, admittedly. So I'm curious Mauli, for you, are these things that you grew up hearing? Or when did you become familiar with these aspects of Latter-day Saint history?
Mauli Bonner 12:11
Well, I knew some–little bits and pieces. And for my mom in particular, she–for her testimony to thrive, she had to learn more and understand the history of her people within the Church. And so we knew about Joseph Smith and his words and what he taught, and then the scriptures and what they taught. And so that was what, a lot of the . . . the cultural things that changed within the Church, that early beginning was what allowed our family to be able to move forward.
But even saying that, there's so much I didn't know. I didn't know, like, all of what Paul is just saying, these are things that I've been learning over the last three years, starting at the “Be One” celebration, where it was, it was an awesome event.
Morgan Jones 13:06
It was. I was there, it was amazing.
Mauli Bonner 13:08
It was. It was awesome, right? And so the family performed and, and there was just these great pieces on men and women Black enslaved . . . and I was like, oh, my goodness, I have to know more. Why? Here I am, Black in the Church, and don't . . . I can't answer the questions that are asked of me. I should know more. There's, you know, what I thought and I felt, and I–really, I was embarrassed. I really was. And I was like, I got to dive in. I got to know. I got to know these men and these women that were there and aren't talked about, you know.
And so yeah, I just began meeting with historians, and namely, Amy Thieriot. You know, she gave me so much time, she was so generous with their time. And then she directed me to Paul. And, you know, reading, writing a list of questions, and then sitting on a Zoom call and going through them to try to understand, like, so generous with their time. And, you know, unfortunately, not everybody has access to that, you know. That's the hard part, but for me, as a songwriter, as I was learning, reading kind of just turned into writing–it turned into music for me. And it strengthened me and, and my writing ability after I was learning these stories, which is interesting.
Morgan Jones 14:30
Yeah. Well, I think what you were just saying is the reason that conversations like this matter, because it's true. We have different networks of people that we're able to connect with and to learn from, but hopefully, by creating this conversation, we can give people access to somebody like Paul, to answer some questions or to explain some things that maybe they're not familiar with. And then I think the piece that you play, Mauli, that's so important is that you have this passion, and that you have literally put everything that you have over the last couple of years into not only creating a film, but a children's book and talking about the importance of understanding that we're all children of God. And so, I want to, I want to ask you though, with Green Flake, who Paul mentioned, that's the main character in this film. And I wonder, what is it that drew you to Green flake?
Mauli Bonner 15:32
Okay. I, I haven't told this real, the truth about this story of why. You know, it was just . . . it was supposed to be Elijah Abel. When I was reading and doing–it was Elijah Abel, he was the one that I was writing about. But then I just kept feeling a different spirit, a different energy. And you know, and Green Flake as, as important and key as he was in that early settling of the Utah Territory. there's hardly anything said about him, you know, written. So I could read so much more on Elijah Abel than Green Flake.
So I had this, all this knowledge of Elijah Abel, but then every time something about Green Flake came up, it was such a spiritual experience. And this is the part that I haven't said–so I felt this deep connection between Brigham Young and Green Flake, like spiritual. And I can't even explain it. And I don't tell it because I don't know that everybody is spiritual like that. And I don't want them to be like, "Oh, I don't know. But the Hocus Pocus," but man, the presence of those two men with me, and I felt at that moment, "Oh, my gosh, it's their story. It's their connection, it's Green Flake."
So their . . . the work that they're doing on the other side. They need this to happen. The work that Brigham Young is doing, because we all can look in Google and find all the stuff that he said, we're like, “Really? You got to be kidding me.” But then now there's these nuances of relationships, like with Green Flake, that we'll never know. We'll never know that about this prophet Brigham Young, if we don't tell the success of Green Flake in leading in that pioneer trek. And as I began learning more about Green Flake, it just unraveled. The story unraveled, and all the pieces kind of came together. I wish it was called "Green Flake," and then the 200 or so different people that you're uncovering, you know, was the name of the movie. I hate that I have to–
Morgan Jones 17:56
Mauli Bonner 17:57
Yeah, yeah. That's the hardest part, knowing that there's so many more, and me not knowing if–is this the one movie? Is this the one time we get to tell it? That's the scary part for me. Because we'll see. Time will tell whether or not people will receive it and want more or whether it's like, "Okay, that's enough." And so I hope that this is just the beginning of learning more about our culture. White, Black–our culture.
Morgan Jones 18:24
Absolutely. So I wonder, Paul, if you could tell us, I saw the screening of the film, I looked Green Flake up and read what is available online about his history. But I wonder if you could just tell us who this person is, the significance of his role in that pioneer trek. And, and then I want to talk about, you know, what is historically accurate in the film and what artistic liberties you took–because they're always taken. So, Paul.
Mauli Bonner 18:56
Paul Reeve 18:57
So, so Green Flake is enslaved to Madison and Agnes Flake and is baptized in 1844 in Mississippi, and the Flakes then move to Nauvoo, and Green Flake's story is the Latter-day Saint story. He then will move to Winter Quarters, we find him listed in a census at Winter Quarters, and I believe it's the seventh Ward, living next to another enslaved man named John Burton. And Flake will be included with Oscar and Hark as three enslaved men who are sent by their enslavers in advance of them to go to the Salt Lake Valley and to prepare homes and to plant crops so that when their enslavers arrive the following year, they will have a home to live in and food to eat.
So, you know, think about white privilege and how that's also bound up in the story of Green and Hark and Oscar. So their white enslavers arrived the next year, and those three enslaved men have done the work preparing a place for them to live and planting crops to help welcome them the following year. So they are a part of the original pioneer trek into the Salt Lake Valley, the bigger company that includes Brigham Young, they will separate from Brigham Young in July. They and about 40 other men and you know, 20 wagons separate, and they become then the vanguard group that arrives in the valley a couple of days ahead of Brigham Young. But nonetheless, right, that pioneer story includes those three enslaved men. And Brigham Young will basically rent Green's labor for a year, and then at the end of that year, will free Green Flake.
Morgan Jones 20:57
So talk to me, if Brigham Young is the one that freed him, what do we know about the relationship between those two? I love–Mauli–what you said about, you know, we don't know about the nuances. And obviously, there are things that we're not aware of, but what do we know about that relationship?
Paul Reeve 21:20
Yeah, unfortunately, we don't know a lot. I mean, speaking as a historian, right? We rely upon the written record.
Morgan Jones 21:25
Paul Reeve 21:25
And so there–not a lot of written records that indicate the relationship there. Other than it seems that Brigham Young is intent that Flake is not taken to San Bernardino and to California, and wants to ensure that, you know, there's a potential of freedom. And, you know, this is, this is typical, if you're in slavery in the south, and you have extra slave labor, you can basically sell the labor, right, you know, in essence rent out some of your slaves to someone that wants labor elsewhere. And that seems to be what happens with Brigham Young. Rents Green Flake's labor for a year from the Flakes, so he doesn't go to California, and then at the end of that year, frees Green Flake, likely around 1852.
So, you know, we have a sense that Brigham Young is extremely uncomfortable with chattel slavery as practiced in the south. He attempts to strike a middle ground between the immediate abolitionists who he also speaks out against, those who want immediate emancipation, right? It's a radical minority in the north, the fear of those who are–have concerns about race mixing is that you'll free 4 million enslaved people, what jobs will they have? They'll move north and intermix amongst white people, they'll darken the white race, make it unfit for democracy. Those are all fears that animate the questions about slavery and freedom.
So enslavement is a twofold problem. It violates the founding principles established in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution, but it's also a racial problem. What do you do with Black people once they're freed, because the majority still harbor racial animosity? They don't believe that Black people are equal. So the majority position is that they should then go to Africa. Colonize them in Africa. So all of those are questions that are animating sort of what is taking place in in the Salt Lake Valley and Brigham Young attempts to strike a middle ground between the immediate abolitionists and chattel slavery in the south. And a law that Utah passes in 1852 is a conservative form of gradual emancipation. It will free no one brought into the territory as a slave, but it will not pass on the condition of slavery to the next generation. And as such, then becomes a form of gradual emancipation. So the generation that arrives enslaved, the intent is they will die enslaved, but the condition of servitude will not pass on to the next generation.
And that comes out of debates in the territorial legislative session. It's important to note that Orson Pratt wants the bill rejected entirely and is just disgusted that the legislative body would even consider legalizing enslavement in Utah Territory. He moves that the bill be rejected, he calls slavery, “a great evil.” He says it's enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush if Utah, if the Utah Territorial Legislature enacts this. Now, his stance really then helps to–I think–modify the bill that ultimately passes, because it changes from a bill that would have passed on the condition to the next generation into a bill that kind of stops–
Morgan Jones 25:00
Kind of stops there.
Paul Reeve 25:01
It does, yeah. It does. So all of those things are, you know, a part of the context. And we see that Green Flake is then freed by Brigham Young by the end of 1852.
Morgan Jones 25:15
I have never, admittedly, have never totally thought through the political implications and the theological implications and how they're all combining together, so I think that this is super helpful. Mauli, talk to me as a Black Latter-day Saint, as you've learned more about these aspects of our history, how it makes you feel, and the things that you have, you know, had to work through in your heart and in your mind, and perhaps the compassion that it helped you discover? I don't know, I just feel like there's probably a lot of feelings, even just having this conversation, I'm sitting here and I'm thinking, "Well, yeah," like, I listen to these things as a white Latter-day Saint and it's hard for me to hear, so for you as a Black Latter-day Saint, what is the thought process there?
Mauli Bonner 26:09
You would imagine that me being a Black Latter-day Saint, would . . . my testimony would be shattered after learning this. "What?" "Our own Prophet did what? But it was, it started so good. We were, we were on the right side, doing the right thing–what happened?" But as I learned these things, it strengthened my testimony. It strengthened my testimony. And I don't, I don't even know exactly why or how–but I know that it did. And I know that young people, especially today, but all of us, young people, especially, it's not having the same effect. Not the way that they're learning about some of these new pieces of history that we haven't heard.
When they hear it, they're out. And that scared me because I want them to have the same opportunity to have spiritual growth and a stronger testimony in Christ, in His restored gospel, the same way I did. And so that's why I just kind of switched my whole life into this, and to do it quickly. I felt like I was always in a rush. And I get it now, because it feels like now is the right time, you know, as now that we're complete, but I didn't know why in the beginning. And my hope is that in doing this film, and as we learn more about this history, that we'll become comfortable with saying what is wrong, what was not okay, and what was right, you know?
And, you know, I have always believed when the, when the Prophets say and apostles say in, in conference, you know, "We're not perfect," I believe them. You know, and I think we, as members of the Church need to believe that as well, so that we can acknowledge when things were wrong, and that it's okay. It's okay to acknowledge that these men were flawed and made the wrong decision. We all know slavery was wrong. And I think Brigham was wrong. We all wish that didn't happen, and that's okay. It's okay to say that. It's okay.
And I think he's on the other side, hoping that we say that, not find ways around validating his imperfections. He's moved so far past that. And I feel like we do him a disservice–and those men and women who are enslaved a disservice–when we try to minimize what is wrong and what is right. The beauty of it all, is that we are here now and have an opportunity to learn and do something good. That's what we have control over. We can't change what was, we were not there. But we are here now.
So as we learn, what can we do to make sure that we're telling the full story, so that 50 years from now, there's not another Mauli Bonner making a movie because he found out that there were enslaved pioneers. We have to build a monument and educate people. Somewhere that we can take our families and our children and say they were here too, and a big part of it. And we're honoring their service, just like we honored their white counterparts. And so–as I say that, I'm sure that people who are listening agree. We all want that. It's just a matter of now getting it done.
Morgan Jones 29:52
For sure. So talk to me a little bit about the artistic liberties that we're taking with this film and what is historically accurate?
Mauli Bonner 30:04
Yeah. So I mean, everything's artistic. Every single thing, because I take a piece of a letter and make a scene out of it with multiple characters, you know. So every–if you go and just try to Google Green Flake, you'll see a little half page,
Morgan Jones 30:24
Right. That's what I found online.
Mauli Bonner 30:26
Right. And so when you find that there was a letter written by one of the, one of the LDS members wanting Brigham Young to give him to him to help discipline Green Flake, that's the end of it. But that's, what, a 10 second scene if I just have that? So I have to draw out that character, who has a problem with the way Green Flake is allowed to lead in the way that he leads or live the way that he lives. And so the artistic liberties are throughout to be able to draw a picture of the human beings behind the story. So they're not just slaves and white Mormons, they're LDS Saints that are Black and were enslaved and continue to serve. By the end of this film, I want us to see them as human beings who are just like you, who are at home, just a different color than you who also believe in the same God in Christ. And he too, wanted his family to be reunited after this life. And so my hope was to give history, but to really connect with the human beings behind the people that we hear about.
Morgan Jones 31:44
Paul, how do you think he did?
Paul Reeve 31:47
Mauli Bonner 31:47
Don't answer that question! Walk away.
Paul Reeve 31:51
I, I love the human connection, right? Like, I'm not going to a film like this to learn history, per se, other than what's really important is the overarching message, right? And the overarching message is that enslaved Black Latter-day Saints are a part of the Latter-day Saint story.
Morgan Jones 32:10
Paul Reeve 32:11
And if that message gets across, this is a success, right? And if we rally behind the notion that these people deserve to be remembered, and we are willing to own up to the fact that slavery was a part of the Latter-day Saint story, it is the Latter-day Saint story, right, that we need to grapple with the more complicated and messy aspects of our racial past. That includes their faith, their fortitude, but also the racism they endured. That's a part of the story as well. How do we lead out in abandoning racial prejudice if we don't own our own racial prejudice? And that includes the racial prejudice in the Latter-day Saint history. So I think the film helps us to reckon with our historical past. Obviously, Mauli is using a different medium than I do, but that's okay. It's all a part of, you know, the bigger cause–
Mauli Bonner 33:14
You heard that he said it was okay?
Paul Reeve 33:17
Morgan Jones 33:18
Can you repeat that? No, I'm just kidding.
Morgan Jones 33:22
I think, I think that that is such a good point. And it's funny when we were walking out of seeing the screening, my boss and I were walking out together. And I said, you know, it's so interesting to me that I knew that Black Latter-day Saints were there and present in Nauvoo, and in Missouri, but I had never really thought about the number of Black Latter-day Saints, and that there was a decent sized group of, of Black Latter-day Saints, and so I said to her, you know, I just never thought about it. I never visualized it that way. And she said, "You know, I think that it's kind of like polygamist wives," like, “We don't, we don't like to think about it. And so we just don't go there in our minds, because we don't want it to, we don't want to have to face that part of our history, the fact that there were members of our Church who were enslaved,” and so it's just like, "Oh, I'd rather not think about it." But why do you think that it's important for us to embrace and acknowledge the presence of these people in our history?
Mauli Bonner 34:34
Oh, man, I was just talking with Paul the other day. And gosh, I don't even know if I should say this. But I'm gonna say it. If we, if we don't teach the history, then we have people, missionaries, seminary teachers, filling in the blanks for themselves.
Morgan Jones 34:55
Mauli Bonner 34:56
And teaching that to next generations, to other people who we want to bring in, and we make up rationalizations of why it was okay, or what happened. They need to know the history so that there aren't children taught in seminary that they can't meet Christ because you're Black. And those are real things that have–that are happening, because the seminary teacher doesn't have all the tools, period.
Morgan Jones 35:24
Right. Doesn't mean their heart's not in the right place just means that they're filling in–
Mauli Bonner 35:24
Trying to figure out, right, so what is the reason? Well, well, this. And the missionary saying, “Well . . . “
Morgan Jones 35:26
Who are 18 and 19 years old.
Mauli Bonner 35:37
Yes, two missionaries told me you know like, "What do you think about the Blacks? And how was all that?" And I said, "Well, what do you think? What do you say?" and they said, “Well, that it was all for your benefit.” And I said, "Enslavement? For the benefit of them? They wanted freedom. They wanted what you had. They wanted to seal their families together, their families were torn apart." And, and those poor missionaries hadn't even thought that far into it. But they need those tools, so that they can do the work that we're asking them to do, that we all need to do. So without the truth, we make up our own.
Morgan Jones 36:17
We just had an episode of this podcast with Keith Erekson, who's the director of the Church History library, and he talks about how continuing to perpetuate stories and fill in blanks and assume things, the danger of it. And I do think it's something that is prevalent–in the world in general–but certainly in our Church. And so I wonder, Paul, one thing that struck me as I prepped for this interview and I listened to another conversation with you, you talked about how the reversal or the removal of the priesthood ban was not the Church forsaking anything, but rather returning to its roots. And you've talked about this, that Black members were embraced into the Church, but talk to me about the significance of understanding that this is actually the Church as it is, as the Restored Church of Jesus Christ, and how important it is for all to be welcomed in that Church.
Paul Reeve 37:28
Yeah, I–you know, going back to the notion that, that Joseph Smith is claiming four revelations that this gospel is to be preached unto every creature, early Latter-day Saints seem to take that seriously. I think it's really important to understand the racial history in three broad phases, right? So open priesthood and temples. Elijah Abel receives his washing and anointing in the Kirtland temple. He's ordained to the priesthood, sanctioned by Joseph Smith. Q. Walker Lewis in Lowell Massachusetts branch, also ordained by William Smith, an apostle at the time. So we have evidence that in the first couple of decades, there's open priesthood in temples.
And then we go to segregated priesthood in temples. And in my estimation, June 1978, restores us back to where we began. It's not taking us in a new direction, and I think just understanding those three phases is really important for Latter-day Saints, so that the priesthood and temple restrictions aren't somehow in the sort of, originating in the midst of time and eternity, right? We can actually trace through the historical record, sort of, they take on a life of their own, they accumulate growing precedent across the course of the 19th century. And there are very human decisions that are being made, and they're grounded in racism.
Brigham Young does not believe that Black people are equal to white people. And that's a part of our racial story. We need to understand it and grapple with it and make sense of it. So in my estimation, sort of thinking about it in those phases is really important to understand that the racial restrictions were not in place from the beginning.
If you want to make that case, you have to argue against the evidence. You can go all the way to March of 1847 with Brigham Young himself, who is on record as favorably aware of Q. Walker Lewis as a Black priesthood holder. He calls him, "One of the best elders and African," in Lowell, Massachusetts. That's Brigham Young in March of 1847. He also says, "We don't care about the color." He–his position transitions. He takes us in a different direction. If one Black man can be ordained to the priesthood, then all Black man can be ordained to the priesthood. And the database that I run at the University of Utah, where we've documented, you know, four Black men, five–some of them who have passed as white, but nonetheless have African ancestry. The earliest Black woman just received full temple rituals, her father was Black and her mother was white. So she's a mixed racial ancestry, by the time she arrives in Nauvoo, she's probably passing as white, but she receives full temple rituals in the Nauvoo temple.
We have a formerly enslaved woman who is sealed to her husband after she arrives in Salt Lake. So we know now with DNA evidence that policing racial boundaries is absolutely impossible. So what was the purpose? What were we trying to accomplish? Those are the questions I think we need to ask, right? And maybe if you'll indulge me, I'll just share just briefly, like, think about it this way. We have Freda Lucretia Magee Beaulieu, baptized in 1909, in a creek, outside of Tylertown, Mississippi. And Novella Sargent Gibson, baptized in a creek in Caroline County, Virginia in 1906. Both of them in the Washington DC temple, within one month of June 1978, one has waited over 70 years from her baptism, the other over 69 years from her baptism to be allowed into a Latter-day Saint temple and to be sealed to their loved ones.
Now, what needed to change? Both of them answered, could answer the temple recommend interview questions before June 1978, the same way that a white person could answer and they were told no, and a white person, yes. The thing they needed to change was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We think about repentance as change, they are allowed into the temple, you know, one month after June 1978.
Their lives were worthy, according to the temple recommend interviews. But they had been prevented for over seven years from temple admission. So, you know, think about that. A white person giving the same temple recommend questions and a Black person, and it's not based on worthiness. A Black person . . . Freda and Novella were living their lives, according to gospel standards in every way possible, but were denied because of their skin color, not because of worthiness, and that's racism.
So those are the things that I think including Black Latter-day Saints, in our, in our story, help us to understand, help us to grapple with, and help us to abandon our racial prejudice in the present. And that's what President Nelson has called us to do. That's the mandate from the Prophet. How do we do that if we can't even acknowledge around racism? We need to own it, and then be willing to stand in places of empathy in the present. What better people than Latter-day Saints, who experienced a form of soft racism at the hands of outsiders saying they weren't white enough, but also then, have come to understand the consequences of racism because we participated in it. What better people to stand in places of empathy in the 21st century and lead out in issues of racial justice instead of being hobbled by our own racial past?
Morgan Jones 43:48
When I listen to stories like the two women that you just talked about, and . . . I just feel so much appreciation for them, and appreciation that they stuck it out, appreciation that they hung in there, like bless those good women. And thank you, Mauli, for your example of confronting these things today. Paul, thank you. I am so appreciative for the work that both of you are doing. And I just wondered, before we get to our last question, Mauli, you mentioned earlier, this desire to create a monument. And I think sometimes we look at something like a monument, and we think, well, like why does it matter? Why does it matter to have names on a statue or names on a rock, but it does matter. And I think you did such a good job at the screening. You talked about, you know what you said earlier, being able to bring your kids somewhere and say to them, you know, “These people were like you and they contributed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” And so talk to me about–I'd love to get both of your perspectives on the significance of having representation in the form of a monument or recognition in that form.
Mauli Bonner 45:15
Yeah, you know, something that crosses generations and racial, cultural lines is scripture. Children, old white lady, young Black boy, you know, everything in between can read a scripture and draw strength from it, regardless of their background. When we think of Joseph of Egypt, and we think of the Jews of Israel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Daniel in the lion's den–I would venture to say that they weren't white. But they were all enslaved for a portion of their life, just like Green Flake. And we all draw strength from them. We're doing ourselves a disservice not to acknowledge some that have done the same thing, and so close to where we are today. Right here, in our country, in Salt Lake. We're going to grow so much stronger spiritually when we allow ourselves all of the stories from those who have come before us and the monument, what that does, is there's representation. It's difficult, when there is not, it's hard to explain to our children if there's nowhere to go and see. It's hard to know if it's true. It's hard to–when you do hear things that are hard or a mean person saying a terrible thing, you can at least go here and say, "No, we were there. And we do good things," or "They were there, and they do good things."
We need somewhere to acknowledge all of the contributions. Because you know, it's–to be honest, it's difficult for me to explain to my children, just in Church, you know, that–"No, there are brown angels." Let's go home and we're going to draw some brown angels for you and we're going to–" "Daddy can be an angel," "Absolutely." We need representation. Because sometimes the words aren't enough.
And, my goodness, the leaders in our Church have said so many brilliant, inspired things. And I just want to be able to support their words with somewhere to see that they acknowledge our history, all of it. All of it. This is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is true. And in its truthfulness, we cannot send people from our Church, outside of our Church to find more truth. They should be getting it here, right here. And I think healing is what we're craving. Oh, my goodness, I know I am. You know, 2020 gave us all a good licking, right? And we want some healing. We want somewhere to say, we're moving forward together, not past, but forward together, and acknowledging the past that came before us. And we're saying to our generations that follow–this is how we are moving forward. As we learned, this is what we're going to do. This is our time to do it. And if we don't do it, I pray that our children will.
Morgan Jones 48:44
Thank you Mauli. Paul?
Paul Reeve 48:47
Well, I think monuments are important. They represent a physical manifestation of public memory. And they acknowledge, in a physical way, in a very material way, right? The racial past that we're talking about. So, no longer do we have to feel like Black Latter-day Saints have been erased from collective Latter-day Saint memory, but actually having you know, a physical monument provides a place where we are collectively remembering them, and the public can share in that and make meaning of it for themselves. So that's why I think monuments are important.
My experience as a Latter-day Saint is that we tend to not talk about Black Latter-day Saints before June 1978. Because A, we might not even know that they existed, or B, we're uncomfortable acknowledging our own racism. And a monument like this is a way to acknowledge and remember them. The database that I ran at the University of Utah, we're committed to identifying every known Black Latter-day Saint baptized into the faith between 1830 and 1930. We have 103 biographies loaded to the database, currently another 200 under research. By the time we're done, we'll be somewhere between 300 and 400 Black Latter-day Saints in the first 100 years of the faith. Their story is the Latter-day Saint story. The Latter-day Saint story is not complete unless all people are included. The body of Christ is not complete unless all members are included. And a monument is a way of acknowledging that. A physical way of acknowledging their story and including them in the Latter-day Saint story.
Morgan Jones 50:53
Well, I just want to put in a plug, because I have looked at that database before, and you've done a fantastic job with that. And I think it's such a great resource. I also think what you both just described to me is a way of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children, right? And we without them are not complete. And so I think that this has been such a helpful discussion, I have learned a ton, I thank you for that. And my last question for you is, what does it mean to you, to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? You can decide who goes first.
Mauli Bonner 51:32
You go first, because when you talk after me, I just sound so stupid.
Morgan Jones 51:36
That is not true. That is 100 percent not true.
Paul Reeve 51:37
Yeah, no, I agree with Morgan on that, like, you can bring the fire at the end.
Mauli Bonner 51:44
Whatever, just go first.
Paul Reeve 51:45
In the context of our conversation today, all in for me means–all included. Everyone should be included. Our Heavenly Parents are the parents of a diverse family. They are the authors of diversity. They love all of their children the same. And that means we are all equal in our Heavenly Parents sight and until we start to treat each other equally. I think our Heavenly Parents are mourning for the way that their children have used race in the past, to attempt to discriminate against each other. And that includes within the Church. So, all in means all included.
Morgan Jones 52:36
Thank you. Mauli?
Mauli Bonner 52:38
Yes. All in. I–okay, so I think of two things. My first thing that I think of are the early Saints. Early, early–Jesus time. Jesus lays down his life, dies on the cross, and then Peter. Peter, everybody's around–people look to Peter for strength now. And for them to watch Peter deny Christ. Those Saints that stayed Christian, after watching that apostle, deny Christ. That's as all in as you get. All in, through someone's imperfection. How easy would it have been to say, "Okay, I'm not Christian anymore. If he's going to do that, and he walked with Christ, how can I stay?" But they did. And thank God they did. Because Christ lived and was real.
And I think of the, I think of Green Flake and other enslaved pioneers and free, early Black pioneers, and for them to be giving their tithing and, and giving their labor to build the temple, knowing that they would not be able to seal their family together. That's all that mattered to them. More than anything, more than anyone could conceive, an enslaved person who's only known their family to be torn apart, this was the place to heal that. And for that to not be complete, but to stay faithful to the end, how then can I say, I'm out, when I don't agree with something? I'm not out. I'm all in. I'm all in. Because we are a growing, evolving, restoring Church. And all I can do is pray for our leadership. Pray for them. They're men doing the best that they can, day in and day out. And if there's something I disagree with, Lord, help me, help me stay through it. Because look at us now. There were enslaved pioneers and look at us now. We are leading out as a Church. And I hope we continue to do that. So all in means if things aren't going well, don't chuck deuces. Stick your ground and stay for Christ. That's what you're in for.
Morgan Jones 55:05
Thank you so much. Thank you both very, very much.
A huge thank you to Mauli Bonner and Paul Reeve for joining us on today's episode. Learn more about how you can see "His name Is Green Flake," by visiting greenflakemovie.com. Again, that's greenflakemovie.com. Virtual screenings will begin June 8.
A huge thank you to Katie Lambert for filling in for Derek Campbell on this episode. And thanks as always to Derek for the final edit. We appreciate you listening, and we'll be back again next week.