Dr. Matt Harris is working on a book that discusses new material concerning the ban on black members from World War 2 to the 1978 revelation. With the 40th anniversary of the removal of the ban coming up here in just a few weeks, this will be a very timely interview. It has been a fascinating discussion to hear some of his insights on new material. In part 1 of our conversation, he talked about how the church dealt with bi-racial families in Brazil and South Africa.
Matt: In Brazil, they were kind of trendsetters, if you will. They did what are called lineage lessons. The mission president instructed the missionaries, and the mission president I should say got approval from Salt Lake to do this lineage lesson. But it really was just mostly practiced in Brazil, rather than other places with African populations. But anyway, these lineage lessons stipulated that if missionaries were out proselytizing and they came across somebody who had African ancestry, who had a parent that they felt would be a prime candidate for the restriction. They were supposed to come to the door, knock on the door, recognize that they were under the ban and they would just say, “Can you tell us we’re in the neighborhood; we are trying to find this general store or other church. Can you tell us where it is?”
If they weren’t sure if this couple had African ancestry, then they would come in and ask questions about their genealogy, trying to determine through discussion if they had African roots. Sometimes they would even ask to look at their photo album. They were discrete about it. They weren’t going to tell people this is what we are looking for, but this shows you how difficult the burden was in determining the bloodline. J. Reuben Clark recognized this as early as 1938 and expressed skepticism that the church could confer the priesthood on Brazilians without violating this policy.
There were similar issues in South Africa, and he talks about what President McKay did to resolve those issues. In part 2, we talked about the “one-drop rule.” How is it that Mormons determined blackness, especially if they were biracial families? We also talked about a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s that legalized interracial marriage.
Matt: What is interesting about this is that depending on the state, these laws are very fluid in the early 20th century. I tell my students, we teach civil rights and we talk about this. In fact, we discuss the book Loving vs. Virginia, which is the Supreme Court case that strikes down these miscegenation laws, declares them unconstitutional. This is 1967.
But anyway, what’s interesting is that in the early 20th century these miscegenation laws are very fluid. One state might say it’s one-quarter. Another state might say it’s one-eighth, or one-sixteenth. I joke with my students sometimes that on Monday, a black man can marry a white woman because they fit within the parameters of the law, but then they change the law on Wednesday and now it’s no longer constitutional.
I think part 3 was my favorite part! I learned some amazing things!
Matt: It’s not surprising that when McKay came back from South Africa and convenes this committee with Elders [Adam] Bennion and Kimball, I’m not sure who else is on the committee, but I know it’s those two. They ask Lowell Bennion to do some research for them, and he produces a position paper, and he says there is no scriptural justification for any of this stuff. So, Elder Bennion writes his report to President McKay and tells him that there is no scriptural justification for the priesthood ban. This is 1954 I should say.
So, President McKay contemplates lifting the ban, but he recognizes that it will cause hardship among the saints in the South. Keep in mind this is still segregated America. So, if he lifts this ban, it is going to create hardships among Latter-day Saints in the South. Also, there are some folks in the Quorum of Twelve who wouldn’t support the lifting of the ban: Joseph Fielding Smith would be one of them.
We will talk about a pretty significant change from a doctrine in 1949 to a policy in 1955.
This is interesting because President McKay, as a counselor to George Albert Smith had signed that 1949 First Presidency statement that you referenced a minute ago….
Matt: …as a counselor.
GT: Now let’s talk about that ’49 statement.
Matt: Yes, we can. So, as the church president, he signed that statement, and we can go into detail in a minute, but that statement makes it pretty clear that this is the doctrine of the church.
GT: And it uses the word “doctrine.”
Matt: It uses the word doctrine.
GT: That is an important word.
Matt: Right. J. Reuben Clark writes the statement, and President McKay signs off on it. George Albert Smith is feeble by this point, and he is going to die a couple of years later, but anyway, President McKay, even though he signs that ’49 statement, now he is the church president and he feels the weight of this policy on his own.
I didn’t realize that Clark had written the ’49 First Presidency statement, but just a few years later, McKay tells Sterling McMurrin that this is a policy, not a doctrine! Harris had some really interesting things to say. It was really interesting to hear that McKay was contemplating removing the ban as early as the 1950s, and Harris gives many more details than Greg Prince did in his McKay biography. It was a really amazing interview. Are you surprised to hear that McKay was seriously considering removing the ban in the 1950s? Given the 1949 statement, was it surprising that Spencer W. Kimball and Adam Bennion said there was no scriptural justification for the ban that early?
History is fascinating, isn’t it? I’m glad this is all behind us.
Interesting stuff. The Brazillian missionaries approach is news to me although I knew there were problems with how to tell ancestry. Am I understanding it incorrectly or were they not to even teach/baptize members with African ancestry?
ji: I wish it were all behind us, but really, it’s not. My son’s only 23, and when he was in YM, the lesson manual still taught anti-miscegenation. That was in 2012. In a RS lesson just this last year a sister talked about how great it would be in the afterlife when there are no races to divide us: no black people, no hispanics, no Asians. The one race she didn’t mention? White people. Because she just assumed everyone would become white like her. That’s white supremacy whether she realizes it or not. That was in 2017. These things aren’t all behind us.
The matter of race and priesthood is all behind us.
JI, Last week it was a wound torn open for all to see there is still work to do, and we can all do better in combating racism in and outside the church. We only need to look at the hoax apology to see that there are still open wounds and the matter of race and priesthood is not behind us as many white people would like to proclaim.
“Am I understanding it incorrectly or were they not to even teach/baptize members with African ancestry?”
It is my understanding that if the family were clearly black, LDS missionaries avoided teaching them unless the black families were persistent in wanting to be baptized. Missionaries didn’t seek out black converts. People like Helvicio Martens were baptized if they sought baptism, but missionaries in Brazil (and South Africa) avoided teaching them generally speaking. This is generally true in America and other parts of the world as well. Black people generally needed much persistence to be baptized, and white missionaries were much less persistent in teaching blacks than whites due to the race ban.
I have posted all of this before. My mother worked as a secretary in the early 1950’s directly with the general authorities on a daily basis. McKay would often hug her and tell her she was the best secretary in the whole world. He also told all of them the same thing and they knew and they didn’t care. They all believed him. She describes it to be sort of the opposite of a hostile work environment, most of the time. When necessary those secretaries would work night and day for President McKay.
She fold us basically this information outlined above about the struggle with racism when I was growing up. She tended to say it was Hugh Brown who was the strongest advocate for eliminating racism and that it was Smith and Lee who were most against it. McKay was generally a peace maker and seeker of consensus, except he did have a Scottish temper. Since they were to be his successors, McKay was reluctant to push through things they would easily undo. After his first stroke in about 1960, he had no idea how much more time he would live and his influence diminished as his health failed. Smith’s mind deteriorated even more rapidly but Lee was much younger and would never budge on the subject..If President Lee had lived to be as old as President McKay, he would have not died until 1996. Can you even fathom the mess?
Angelica: Tell your rosy RS sister who looks forward to a heaven without race, the following inconvenient details:
-Man/woman was created in the image of God.
-Scientists can tell the race of skeletal remains.
-Human ancestors have been on the earth for about 2 million years.
-If alive today theoretically we could mate and have children with them. (Homo erectus- Homo sapiens implies this)
-These early ancestors all have African or black skeletal features.
-The white race appears in the fossil record late, earliest around 100,000 years ago but more likely only 20-50,000 years ago.
-In other words, black people have been walking the earth for something like 20 to 100 times as long as white people.
-Therefore it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that God is black.
Then slip her a copy of the delightful book – “The Shack” by William P. Young. Tell her the author is at least plausibly related to Brigham Young. Testify that it is historically true, at least as much as Rod Meldrum’s heartland geography. Elousia (reformed Egyptian for Elohim) aka Papa is as good of an estimate of the nature of God as anything Joseph Smith taught, and certainly more detailed, thought-provoking and entertaining. (And don’t mention possibly wrong). Describe this book as the story of a journey sort of like in the Work and the Glory series except not as tedious.
(PS if you have not read this book, Elousia is God the father but portrayed as an opinionated black woman who is also called Papa. Jesus is a gentle Jewish carpenter much like the Jesus in the New Testament. Sarayu is a mysterious Asian woman who is the Holy Spirit. They help Mack, the protagonist come to terms with the murder of his young daughter in the shack.)
Imagine if the Church had done away with the temple ban—that’s what it was: black women were banned from entering the temple; don’t let the Church say it was just a priesthood ban; it was a temple ban—imagine if the church had done away with the temple ban BEFORE desegregation. This would have put street cred behind the church’s claim, “No really, we are Christians.”
Alas, between the temple ban and the church’s bigoted campaign against homosexuality, the current LDS church, speaking of the church collectively and not individually, is less like Christ and more like that racist uncle you fight with over Thanksgiving Turkey, then thank the Lord you don’t have to see him again for another year.
For ji: The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. This is especially true when our way of “moving forward” is to pretend it didn’t happen.
MTodd – I wish. I’ve heard the flip side of that argument as “Imagine if the church had done away with the temple ban BEFORE desegregation: why, the church would have suffered incredible violence at the hands of actual racists!” At which I roll my eyes and reply, “Indeed, it’s almost like we suggested the practice of polygamy and had to leave the territory of the United States to practice it. Can you imagine if we’d pulled a stunt like that and how it would’ve gone over? Thank goodness we always set policy in line with what the world expects of us.”
“how great it would be in the afterlife when there are no races to divide us”
First time I heard this was from a African American BYU professor.
It’s NOT “behind us”. It is still a stumbling block for those seeking for answers. There are additional resources in the scriptures to help others come into the church and become reactivated.
No, it is not all behind us.
As far as causing tribulations for Members in the Southern US, there was already strife for them. Guess where Joseph Standing was killed on a Mission? In the South. I also remember hearing of a Missionary Couple in Georgia having the KKK burn a cross on the lawn of their apartment, around the mid 1970’s.
From a FB contact:
“What’s that ni**er doing in the temple”. Panelist just shared this experience of an ordinance worker continuously asking the other temple workers that while she was there.
So, we have a ways to go.