*Editor's Note: This is a republication of an article written in 2011, prior to the release of the Church's essay "Race and the Priesthood" in 2013.
The Church’s history regarding blacks is long and complicated. And while some people—members and nonmembers alike—may struggle to come to terms with past events, I am not one of them. These are some of my personal experiences as an African American Latter-day Saint, and why I believe the color of my skin is a gift from God.
I cannot remember a time when I did not believe in God. Some of my earliest memories involve going to Shiloh Baptist Church in Norfolk to see and hear Granddaddy, my paternal grandfather, the son of an emancipated slave, preach his sermons. He died in February 1962, and his passing was the first time I experienced the death of a close loved one. His body lay in state at his home for several days for friends and members of his congregation to view. Not quite four years old, I found the custom quite eerie.
To my dismay, I soon became much more familiar with death, viewings, and funerals than I would have liked, as over the next 10 years I attended the funerals, in chronological order, of my mother (January 1965), my maternal grandfather (January 1967), my paternal grandmother (December 1968), and my father (July 1972). My maternal grandmother and all my great-grandparents had died before my birth; thus, shortly after my 14th birthday, I had no living forebears.
I introduce myself to you, the reader, on what may seem a sad note because those deaths and that 10-year period of my youth formed the essence of who I have become. They were also the catalyst to my acceptance, years later, of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as taught to me by LDS missionaries. As I came to appreciate both my earthly and divine legacies, I also realized that who I came to earth to be, through the family bloodlines I acquired, was not by coincidence, nor of small consequence, for me, or to my Heavenly Father.
Black Is Beautiful
Growing up when I did, and where I did, was not coincidental either. Except for three aggregate years in Trenton, New Jersey, I lived all of my days prior to leaving on my LDS mission in either Virginia or North Carolina. As a product of the Civil Rights era, I remember experiencing segregation, prejudice, and overt acts of racism as a child and teenager. Throughout my entire life I have witnessed the struggles of my people.
The “Black Is Beautiful” cultural movement was in full swing by the time I became a culturally conscious teenager. Integration had become public policy within most of the South by 1976, America’s 200th birthday and the year I graduated from high school in North Carolina’s tobacco country. I did not pursue opportunities to attend a Historical Black College or University (HBCU), as had every prior college-attending relative, but chose instead to enroll at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. That choice turned out to be the seminal decision of my life.
Going to State allowed me the opportunity to learn how to successfully navigate life as a black male in a white man’s world—a skill set I have found very useful since joining the LDS Church and now residing in Utah. African Americans, and perhaps all other ethnic minorities in the U.S., must skillfully perform a critical navigation if they are to successfully assimilate into mainstream American life. That truth is even more real with regard to genuine and meaningful integration within the LDS Church. It is not “failing to be real” for the ethnic minority to fittingly act according to the cultural standards of the majority when she or he finds herself or himself in such a situation, just as it is not “selling out” to God for a Latter-day Saint to act differently, i.e., more reverently, in the temple as opposed to in one of the Church’s meetinghouses.
The LDS Faith and Mormon Folklore
I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in August 1980, a week or so before the start of my last year of college at NC State. Two missionaries “tracted” me at my off-campus residence and two weeks later I got baptized. I chose to become a member of the LDS faith following a divine response to my sincere prayer, and because of the truthfulness of the Church’s doctrine, but certainly not because of any social or cultural benefit or advantage I expected to gain. Three hundred sixty-eight days after my baptism, I entered the MTC to begin my mission. Two years after that, in August 1983, I began law school as J. Reuben Clark Law School’s first black attendee. I became its first black graduate in 1986, and three years later (July 1989), I was ordained as bishop of the Bay Ward of the San Francisco California Stake, by then–Stake President Quentin L. Cook.
It was as a newly called bishop that I first learned of many of the rationales and myths put forth by LDS commentators and others regarding the Church’s historical relationship with blacks—namely its pre-1978 ban against black males receiving the priesthood and all blacks receiving the exalting ordinances available in the temple.
One time, two white, middle-aged sisters in the ward came to me with serious concern about the ways they perceived blacks had been treated by the Church. In an attempt to address their concerns, I researched the issues as best I could, which led me to an abundance of information. Some of it defended the Church, while other things I read severely criticized the Church and its leaders.
Over the years I gathered more and more information, and as I digested and pondered what I read, I often felt a spiritual emptiness or outright offensiveness to my spirit. Scripture study, more ponderings, and intense personal prayer led me to conclude that most of the commentary on both sides of the issue centered around a historical perspective or view toward the issues, which focused on how God’s children treated each other, or on what one of His children had said regarding the issue. It occurred to me that this approach might not be the more excellent way, particularly regarding the priesthood ban, since the priesthood is God’s, not man’s. I felt prompted to consider looking at the ban, and the lifting of the ban in 1978, from the perspective of how God has dealt and continues to deal with His children generally, and in particular, how He had apportioned the “right” of the priesthood in dispensations prior to our current one.
This provided me the foundation of true principles, which have developed into a sure testimony that allows me to distinguish, through the workings of the Holy Ghost, truth from error and fact from folklore. It has also permitted me the ability to recognize the sublime yet tremendous impact the 1978 revelation on priesthood had on the Church and on all God’s children, black or non-black, LDS or otherwise.
Trials and Proofs
In order to qualify to return to our Heavenly Father’s presence after our mortal probation, every person must pass through the trials and tribulations of this life. So, too, it is and was for many nations or groups of peoples. The scriptures are replete with evidences that, at times, the Lord’s people must pass through severe hardship, due to no fault of their own, in order to serve as instruments in demonstration to others of His love, mercy, compassion, power, and divinity. Should it have been, or be, any different for blacks of this dispensation?
In a speech before the Utah Territorial Legislature, Brigham Young is quoted as saying: “Not one [particle] of power can that posterity of Cain have, until the time comes. . . . That time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more.” While most commentators and readers of President Young’s statement get ensnared in his personal beliefs regarding blacks and Cain, the more important message contained in Young’s words is that he believed at some future time blacks would receive the same privilege that all the white brethren at this time had (including the right of the priesthood), and more. Black males ordained to the priesthood today receive no more authority and rights with that priesthood than Brigham Young’s counterparts of the 1800s. Worthy, temple-attending blacks receive no more of an endowment and opportunity for exaltation than temple-goers who attended before 1978. Yet today’s blacks, particularly black members of the LDS Church, may have more capacity to recognize, receive, and contain the joy of the gospel than some others because of the deep sorrow carved into their souls by past experiences and restrictions.
I do not know when or why the restrictive practices against my people were adopted and carried out by the LDS Church, but I do know that the policy and practices were the Lord’s doing and not the autonomous or unilateral act of any man or men. I know this by faith in God and through personal revelation from the Holy Ghost. According to God’s wise and just purposes, He allowed the restrictions to be placed upon my people for the trial, growth, and benefit of all His children, especially my people and those of His church and kingdom on earth.
Adversity, through its many forms and faces, has dug a deep well of sorrow—and thereby created the potential for greater joy—in the lives of many peoples, not just blacks of this dispensation. Early LDS Church members suffered great hardship in establishing the Church in the Eastern states, as did the pioneers who crossed the plains into the Rocky Mountains. Twentieth-century Jews experienced horrendous atrocities during the Holocaust. Trials and adversity have been the lot for all of God’s peoples in all dispensations, including this dispensation, and my ancestors and I have not been excluded.
Impressions from Granddaddy
When I had the opportunity to serve as proxy for Granddaddy's endowment, I received more guidance and inspiration. I was contemplating the irony of my being the one with the holy priesthood, and using it to do his exalting work, when he was the one who had dedicated his life to lifting a heavily burdened people much closer to God. As the thought lingered in my mind, I distinctly felt the impression, which I instinctively knew had come from Granddaddy, that our lives—his and mine—for the most part were intended to be the way they had proceeded, as we each had been given unique missions on earth to fulfill in accordance with God’s plan ourselves and our family.
I was brought to realize that in living when and as he did, Granddaddy had fulfilled the primary missions which he had come to earth to accomplish and that it was now time for me to complete my tasks upon the earth on behalf of both the living and the dead. I felt impressed that many of the spirits who came
to earth as blacks and served as slaves in the Americas, including my forebears, chose to accept the circumstances of their birth in accordance with God’s plan for them individually and for all His children generally.
Considering more specifically my ancestors and posterity, I felt that a multitude of spirits had rejoiced when I was baptized into the LDS Church and when I later received my own temple endowment preparatory to doing work for the dead.
The final impression was solemn and direct: As Granddaddy’s sole descendant with the rights of the priesthood and temple privileges, I was the key link between my ancestors and their opportunity for eternal blessings. My faithfulness would not only significantly impact their eternal futures but would also determine, in part, whether the spirits chosen to come to earth through my seed would be blessed with an understanding of the gospel in mortality.
This remarkable occurrence infinitely strengthened my testimony concerning who I am and regarding Heavenly Father’s love for all His children. Most importantly, it confirmed for me in a very personal and unmistakable way that my spirit did not come to earth to dwell in black flesh, and into a family of black African lineage, because my ancestors and I were somehow cursed.
Simply put, like unto the blind beggar healed by Jesus central to the story in John 9, I was not born black because I sinned as a premortal spirit or because my parents, real or imagined (i.e., Cain, Ham, or anyone else), sinned in mortality. Rather, I am black, and of the lineage once subjected to priesthood and temple restrictions by the LDS Church, because I chose to accept the mortal mission given me by my Heavenly Father. It is a mission that required me to come into mortality as a black American at a time when the gospel was restored upon the earth, and when the priesthood would be made available to all worthy males, so that in some small way the works of God might be made manifest in and through me.
The Gift of Being Black
For many years I had the good fortune to be associated with a play about the life and times of black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, entitled I Am Jane, which contains a poignant scene where Jane is speaking with Elijah Abel, a black convert ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Jane asks Elijah to give her a straight answer about what she has heard preached by some Latter-day Saints concerning the curse of Cain and black skin. Elijah replies that he once took the question to God, and then shares with Jane his perception of God’s response. I close this article with my sincere prayer that Elijah’s words will bring each reader the same comfort and counsel they do me:
I feel, Sister Jane, that ours is:
Not a curse but a gift t’us,
The best path we could seek
A place where God can lift us
We kneel; our knees is weak
And when one of us is kneelin’,
We understand his fears.
We know what all us is feelin’
We cry each other’s tears.
That’s just what Jesus done
For all us human folk.
He agreed to come get born
To feel ev’ry pain and poke.
So’s he could understand us,
What it is to be a slave.
So’s he could get beneath us
And push us outa the grave
Would you rather be the massa
Or the Roman with his whip?
Would you rather nail the Savior—
Put vinegar to his lip?
Or learn the lessons of sufferin’—
How we nothin’ without grace.
Jesus, He give us a callin’
He gifted us our race.
A Reason for Faith was written to do just as the title implies, provide reasons for faith by offering faithful answers to sincere questions. Before the internet, historical and doctrinal questions not addressed in LDS Church curriculum were mostly found in the scholarly articles of academic journals. This is no longer the case. These topics are now widely debated and discussed online and in other forums. And when members of the Church come across information that is unfamiliar, they may feel surprise, fear, betrayal, or even anger. Laura Harris Hales has assembled a group of respected LDS scholars to offer help in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History. Together these authors have spent an average of 25 years researching these topics. Their depth of knowledge and faith enables them to share reliable details, perspective, and context to both LDS doctrine and Church history. The information in these essays can begin an exciting process of discovery for readers as they learn from a source they can trust. Each chapter is engaging and thought-provoking, providing an invaluable resource for both the merely curious and the seriously concerned.