Mormonism, like any faith or cultural group, has had its own struggles with racial favoritism. We’ve spent decades trying to understand priesthood and temple blessings restricted by race until 1978, or why certain passages of scripture seem to argue that being physically white was somehow more favorable than another skin color in the eyes of God.
In 2014 the Church started publishing its wonderful Gospel Topics essays that delve deeper into thornier issues within Mormonism. One of them, “Race and the Priesthood” (a must-read and must-share piece if your ward or ward leadership has never as much as mentioned it), explores the issue in detail. Does it cover every angle or allay every concern? No. But it represents an important movement by the Church to acknowledge and work through its past in a public way.
Of course, aside from priesthood bans, many might recall the original language of 2 Nephi 30:6:
And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people.
Critics have long pointed to this as an example of Mormonism’s supposed original intent to “purify” non-white lineage. A new piece from The Atlantic by Emma Green, “When Mormons Aspired to Be a ‘White and Delightsome’ People” reopens the issue via an interview with historian Max Perry Mueller, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Mueller recently published Race and the Making of the Mormon People.
Green and Mueller discuss Jane Manning James, an important figure in the first black community of Salt Lake City; the much maligned “Wife with a Purpose,” an active Mormon who believes in the purity of “white culture” (which the Church recently said is not a thing); the inherent Americanness of the Book of Mormon; the “I’m a Mormon” campaign; the unifying work of missionary work; and Mormonism’s responsibility as a moral beacon.
Indeed, Mueller argues that Mormons will swoop in to fill the vacuum left by evangelicals, whom he seems to regard as having abandoned their high ground in favor of throwing their lot in with Donald Trump:
I’ve been predicting that Mormons will occupy spaces abandoned by white evangelicals: spaces of patriotism, family values, and morality that, unfortunately, some white evangelicals [have abandoned] because they have thrown in their lot and reputation with Trump and his white-Christian-nationalist project in such large numbers.
Getting back to race itself, the passage in 2 Nephi is often misrepresented. According to apologist site FairMormon, “white and delightsome” was changed to “pure and delightsome” with the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon, not as a recent change in response to Official Declaration 2. There are also numerous statements from Church leaders even up to President Kimball describing “white” as a very real, physical change. As recently as 2010, the Book of Mormon’s text was again altered to remove references to “dark, filthy, and loathsome” Lamanites in Mormon, Chapter 5, or chapter headings describing a “skin of blackness” in the chapter summary of 2 Nephi, Chapter 5. Even the heading for Official Declaration 2 was altered in 2013.
There are many who argue that the original intent of “white” was to symbolize purity. Just look at the garb in LDS temples today, where we dress in all white to represent our cleanliness before God. Furthermore, white representing purity is hardly unique to Mormonism.
So did early Mormons actually believe that one’s non-white lineage could be “fixed”? Mueller argues that such was essentially the case with Jane Manning James:
She was from Connecticut. Her mother was a slave, and she kind of had a liminal existence—the line between slave and free was not so clearly demarcated in the North. She was a servant girl in a rich household. Apparently, she had some kind of relationship, and a mixed-race child came about. And so maybe she saw a way out of this situation or was looking for a community that would not care about this relationship. She converts, she moves to Nauvoo, Illinois, where she lives with Joseph Smith. She was promised, not just by the church, but by Joseph Smith’s brother, that she could be a full member of the community. He told her, “You can actually overcome your lineage and join a pure lineage.”
Obviously, today, hearing that kind of message makes us squirm because we don’t understand race that way. But more importantly, Manning James really took to this promise. She isn’t looking to save her people. She’s looking to save her family. And to her that means finding community with people that I think she believed would last into the hereafter into the kingdoms to come. I think she heard this message of redemption, of racial redemption, and she held onto that story for the rest of her life—even as the church, once she gets to Utah, begins to reject people of African descent.
It’s worth noting that Joseph Smith himself changed “white” to “pure” in the 1840 edition, but left other “white” references that remain in the book to this day. Critics will argue that continued changes represent the Church caving to the zeitgeist. While surveying the scene certainly plays a role in some Church policies, it is also important to remember that words are just that—words. They can be adapted. Joseph Smith himself explained that the revelations in Doctrine and Covenants were not God’s decree verbatim, but transmuted into Joseph Smith’s own language. It stands to reason that language can be adapted by a current prophet to be clearer for current generations.
Did racism exist among Church leaders well into the twentieth century? Undoubtedly. Racism still exists among Church members to this day even as Salt Lake doubles its efforts to present the Church as a global one with all of God’s children on equal footing.
Check out the piece at The Atlantic and leave your comments below.