The past few weeks we’ve discussed the life of Elijah Ables. This week we’ve move to more modern history. Russell Stevenson told me that Nigerians, with no missionary presence at all, discovered the Book of Mormon and asked for missionaries as early as the 1950s. (Or course they were unaware of the priesthood restriction.)
Russell: Throughout the 1950s, a number of church leaders are getting letters from various Nigerians across the river in Igboland, elsewhere begging for missionaries, asking for some kind of missionary presence. The initial response by David O. McKay and others was some level of skepticism. Maybe they are just looking for an opportunity to make money. They are just looking for white people to give them business, maybe looking for a new source of patronage now that the British influence was beginning to recede. By 1960 it was officially turned over to Nigerians.
In 1960 David O. McKay and the First Presidency, they send Glen Fisher, who has once been a mission president in South Africa to see what’s happening on the ground. Are these potential converts legitimate? Do they in fact want to join the LDS Church, or are they just looking for some kind of business opportunity? Glen Fisher returned with a report that was gushing by saying these people are the real deal. They crave Mormonism. They crave the LDS Church.
So they go there and they come away with the same conclusion that Glen Fisher had come away with, that these people are the real deal. They are legitimate. They in fact crave Mormonism. In fact Lamar Williams went further. He said, “Ultimately we cannot keep the priesthood from these people.” Essentially it’s only a matter of time.
GT: What year is this?
Russell: This is in 1961.
GT chuckles: ’61. That’s pretty prophetic!
Russell: Yes. I should note too, this isn’t the very first time you have Nigerians communicating this kind of thing to missionaries. We have evidence all the way back to 1950 of a Nigerian reverend approaching missionaries in New York City asking for a missionary presence. This is all throughout the post-war period. I’m only talking about the period in which the activity is most sustained.
Find out more about what happened with the LDS Church in Africa!
I’m also excited to talk to Dr. Newell Bringhurst.
He has been publishing on a variety of Mormon history topics since the 1970s. We’ll get to know him a little better, and talk about his first book, Saints, Slaves & Blacks.
Newell: Well I started my academic career at the University of Utah. I did both a bachelors and masters in History at the University of Utah in the mid-‘60s. Then I went to California and did graduate work for a Ph.D. at the University of California-Davis. I completed my doctoral dissertation which became the basis for my first book, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks. I completed the dissertation in 1975, and then I revised it and updated because it was published three years before the black revelation of 1978. That, of course, required some major revision, particularly in the later chapters, and so I spent the next five years revising and updating the dissertation, and it was published in 1981 under the title of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism.
GT: Yeah, it’s a great book. I think I even paid $20 for it. We were talking yesterday and I think you said it was $30 brand new, and I bought it 20 or 30 years later and it was still $20 so it has held its value well!
Newell chuckles: Well I’ve seen editions of it for as much as $75-$100 for ones that are in mint condition. I think Curt Bench had one he had gotten from a private collection. It had been autographed by me, it was an autographed copy and it looked like it was in mint condition and he was asking $75 for it!
GT: Yeah, yeah, it’s a great book. I understand you’re working on a 2ndedition with Greg Kofford Books.
Newell: Yes it is going to be published as an updated, expanded version. I’m going to virtually leave the text as I wrote it originally because #1, I feel like it has stood up pretty well with the test of time as far as my basic thesis and the way that my over-arching interpretation, but I’m going to add an introduction for the 2nd edition which will kind of be a historiographical discussion of where I fit into the scholarship as it evolved from those who preceded me in writing on the black issue and those who have written on the same issue since 1981. Because there has been a whole body of literature and historical inquiry has moved in that direction beyond what I did in Saints, Slaves, and Blacks.
I understand this second edition will be published in the next month or two! We will talk about some of his other books that have been influential in Mormon studies. We also discussed Lester Bush’s groundbreaking 1973 article that pinned the ban on Brigham Young rather than Joseph Smith. I asked him to explain the Missouri Thesis.
Newell: The Missouri Thesis is the argument that the origins of black priesthood denial go back to the Mormon problems in Missouri. Missouri is a slave state and the Latter-day Saints go into Jackson County in the early 1830s, 1831-1832. Most of them are from the north, they are northerners. They are basically Yankees, people from the northern states so immediately there is a system of tension of tension between the Mormons/Latter-day Saints with the people that are there, have come there from the south and settled Missouri. A lot of people have brought their slaves and so on. There aren’t a huge number of slaves in Missouri. During the Civil War it was a border state, but there was enough slavery that it was a legal institution in Missouri.
The argument of the Missouri Thesis is the Mormons coming in tended to be anti-slavery because they were coming from the northern part of the country. Those that were there that had migrated from the south were pro-slavery. So the Mormons could see that this was a difficult situation. To try to strengthen their position in Missouri, they saw Independence, [Missouri] as a center place for Zion. That was where they were going to gather in the last days in the early revelations [in the Doctrine & Covenants.] They saw Zion and Independence where that was going to be the final gathering place before the coming of the Millennium and the end times. It was very important for the Mormons from that point of view.
So the argument is that Joseph Smith felt it necessary to accommodate the pro-slavery position and the anti-black position. In order to accommodate that they were willing to—especially as it became more difficult during the course of the 1830s, they decided that they would deny blacks the priesthood.
Lester Bush’s groundbreaking article discounted the Missouri Thesis and connected the priesthood and temple ban to Brigham Young rather than Joseph Smith.
Then Lester Bush comes along. He’s doing a lot more intense research than Taggart did. Taggart’s research is not thorough. In the meantime Lester Bush has been working assiduously on his study of blacks in the church, and he has been asked to write a review of Taggart’s. It turns out that it is a review essay published in Dialogue in 1970. His review essay is longer and more thorough than Taggart’s original book. That’s the upstart. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. You’ve probably read both side by side. There’s no comparison with regards to the thoroughness and the rigor of the sources utilized and the way that it was written.
Then of course Bush comes along three years, four years later with his definitive Dialogue article, Mormonism’s Negro Policy that is the classic—the first real legitimately scholarly examination of the issue, the path-breaking article that we all, those of us that came after him, owe him a lot for: myself, Armand Mauss, and all those who came after me.
Bush’s article was cited by President Kimball as being highly influential as Kimball studied the roots of the ban. We also discuss some prominent slaveholding LDS Church leaders. Check out our conversation…..
What are your thoughts on Nigerians asking for missionaries during the ban? We take Lester Bush’s essay for granted now, but what are your thoughts on his contributions? I understand President Kimball really valued Bush’s essay and felt it was useful in his thought process leading to the 1978 revelation. Was Bush overstepping his bounds, or an important figure in overturning the ban?