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?