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 feel ready to engage in this discourse.  He responded with a shocked: “Wow. Ok.”  I have responded similarly on several occasions this year as I have engaged this topic with my fellow Saints.

My comments spoke to a rather tragic interpretation of Mormon history: that the “chosen” Mormon community could fall so far from grace. In this post, I seek to explore the power and the discomfort embedded in such a tragic story. Given the kind of pain they tend to bring on us, the obvious question is, why tell it at all? These are the kinds of stories  that cause us heartburn, that prompt us to question whether the Mormon community in fact is the “true and living church on the face of the earth.”  Church historian Andrew Jenson lost much sleep after hearing the details of the Mormon participation in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  Gathering the information, he wrote, was “unpleasant business,” and he “suffer[ed] mentally and…felt tired and fatigued” upon his return home from the interviews (Walker et al., Massacre at Mountain Meadows, xi).   But study he did, even as he was forced to hear Mormons on-the-ground provide gruesome detail about their murder of innocent men, women, and children.

As most of us recognize, a goodly number of stories we have heard growing up fall into the “faith-promoting-but-probably-untrue” category.  These stories range from simple fables (“the best way to boil a frog is to turn the heat up slowly”) to full-fledged stories about miraculous healings, apostasy, visionary experiences, and testimony-making miracles.  We can all admit that such stories cause more harm than good.  Indeed, these stories can have  dangerous tone when they are used to distance ourselves from responsibility. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed on the issue of social justice, though “few are guilty…all are responsible,”  a comment specifically describing the prophet’s role to provide a moral code for the entirety of his community.

But what happens when racism infects the whole body, the prophet included? The implications are staggering, and the prospects, bleak. In the nineteenth-century Mormon community, the illness of racism was not an armed enemy that can be put down with a bullet but a disease laying ready to spread like an epidemic. In 1847, black itinerant musician William McCary and his white wife, Lucy Stanton McCary approached Brigham Young to ask for assurance about his standing in the church, in spite of his black skin. Brigham Young welcomed them warmly, assuring McCary that fellowship in the priesthood “has nothing to do with color.” But the moment Brigham Young left, McCary’s intentions became known.  When a mob chased the McCarys from the settlement for daring to implement interracial polygamy (something the whites were doing anyway), a shock wave rippled through the community. The experience even prompted apostle Parley P. Pratt to make the  first statement connecting black skin with priesthood worthiness (General Meeting Minutes, April 25, 1847).  Mormons showed that they were entirely capable of initiating mob violence against a racial Other.  When Brigham Young returned that fall, the reports of the angry Saints prompted a kind of violent and conflicted introspection.  He could declare interracial marriage to be a capital offense in one breath and suggest that interracial couples are worthy of baptism and eternal sealings in the next.  Ordinary Saints and top leaders played off of each other to use the incident in the creation of a newly-whitened racial consensus as the Saints separated themselves from American society.  Who were the “guilty” parties?

For the next five generations, the Latter-day Saints crafted for themselves a white consensus–one that celebrated Utah as a haven for people seeking to rid themselves of the racial intermingling prevalent in the South (“Society in the South,” Deseret News, November 18, 1885). But I count among my favorite historical heroes people who lived up to these expectations even prior to the lifting of the priesthood ban.  British Mormon immigrant James Moyle recorded in his autobiography his horrors at seeing a slave market; they were human beings, he declared, and deserved to be treated as such (James Moyle reminiscences). One0 Mormon missionary, Marvin Jones, realized upon serving a short-term mission to Nigeria in 1961 that the priesthood ban simply could not survive if the LDS Church wanted to live out its hopes of being a global faith community. James E. Faust, the stake president and civil rights attorney, pushed tirelessly for church officials to acknowledge the faith and contributions of Brazilian Mormons.  Dr. Lowry Nelson candidly communicated his concerns about the priesthood ban to the First Presidency in private correspondence.  These figures are men worthy of emulation, whether for their perceptiveness, their commitment to racial equality, or their desire to “root out the causes of war from the hearts of men.” Yet, for all the virtues of these men, Mormon scripture makes it clear that individual accomplishments and virtues are insufficient to remove divine condemnation.  “Here is wisdom concerning the children of Zion,” the Lord told Joseph Smith. “Even many, but not all…were found transgressors…[and] must needs be chastened” (D&C 101:41).  Though some Mormons such as Parley P. Pratt consumed the Book of Mormon, one of Joseph Smith’s revelations informed the Church that they remained “under condemnation”  for failing to take the Book of Mormon seriously (D&C 84:57).

Not every Saint who walked the earth walked around talking about racial attitudes.  But as members of a collective community, racism had seeped into how Mormon women wore their hair in the 1850s (not too curly, one Deseret News article warned in the late 1850s–people might start wondering about whether you have African ancestry!) or how they danced in the 1950s (no jitterbug–a dance clearly seen as too black for white Mormon youth).   BYU Professor Alma Heaton felt it imperative to teach Mormon youth to dance properly, lest their dance forms devolve to the “African stomp dance.” Whether nascent or active, every white Saint from Brigham Young in Salt Lake City to the Pulsiphers in Hebron, Utah had the teaching and opportunity to abide by the vision established by early Mormon canon.  And it ignored that vision for nearly five generations, continuing to disregard the promises and prospects that Joseph Smith had envisioned for the Saints.

Dr. John Sorenson

In 1960, Dr. John Sorenson bemoaned that Church leaders had become “followers of the masses”

This is an unpleasant story, certainly. I find little joy or inspiration in it.  How could God’s people become so infected with such notions? Sadly, it is a tragedy all too familiar to the Mormon and Judeo-Christian canonical traditions. Ancient Israel succumbed to idolatry, and they wandered for forty years because of it, even imploring: “Let not God speak with us, lest we die.” The Nephites loved their wealth and constantly found themselves facing certain destruction.  In 1960, BYU Professor John Sorenson bemoaned to Sterling M. McMurrin that Church efforts to provide social directives to the Saints had gone so badly that Church leaders felt impelled to become “followers of the masses.”

As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “I believe in getting into hot water; I think it keeps you clean.  I have a solemn responsibility to redress the issues of Mormonism’s past.  I have no qualms about exploring these stories. In fact, these are the stories worth knowing at least as much as those that show the commitment, faith, and goodness of ordinary Latter-day Saints.  They provide sign posts to pitfalls and reveal our nascent weaknesses and blind spots.  But even more, they invite me to reflect personally on the role I play in defining Mormon society in the place where I live.


Russell Stevenson is an independent researcher who also moonlights as an instructor at Salt Lake Community College. He has been studying Mormon history online and in the archives for nearly twenty years. He learned his first lesson of historical analysis from his father: if you're going to drink water from a river, drink it from the source, not after all the cows have waded in it.

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