The Mormon Church and Blacks

A Documentary History

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Editor(s): 
Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst
  • Champaign, IL: 
    University of Illinois Press
    , December
     2015.
     232 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780252081217.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Within Mormonism, 1978 marked a year of dramatic transformation. That October Spencer W. Kimball, the then prophet-president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced a reversal of a 126-year-old policy banning African (and African-American) men from the Mormon priesthood. While the origins of this ban remain somewhat murky, Mormons, borrowing from their Protestant counterparts, fervently justified the ban at its beginnings by insisting Africans had inherited Cain’s curse. No doubt of great surprise to pre-1978 Mormons, and occasionally to the surprise of Mormons today, Joseph Smith—the tradition’s founder—ordained at least two African American men. Mormonism’s journey from those ordinations to a complete priesthood ban remains a tragic point of fascination among scholars of the Mormon tradition, and scholars of religion generally.

The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History, edited by Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst, represents a needed addition to this still understudied topic. The subject of the work is not the ban itself, but rather the relationship between the Mormon Church and Blacks from its founding to its present time. However, the priesthood ban presents itself as a climax of sorts to its general narrative arc. The book consists of primary source material often taking the form of publications from church leadership. While not explicitly divided in this fashion, the book concerns itself primarily with the construction of the priesthood ban, the debates surrounding the ban’s removal, and concludes with sources outlining varying reactions to the ban.

Each chapter contains a collection of related primary source materials and a short introduction. While these short introductions lend a degree of interpretation and context to the source material, each primary source is allowed the liberty to speak for itself. It is here that the true genius of the book arises. Arranged chronologically, the reader follows these statements as, perhaps, a lay Mormon would have. This format allows for a near breaking of history’s fourth wall, permitting the reader a glimpse into an older world. Of particular interest is the chapter on Mormon scripture. This chapter reveals Mormon scripture’s ambivalence towards Blacks and race generally. For instance, the Book of Mormon simultaneously asserts Christ’s acceptance both of the “bond and free… black [and] white” while referring also to a “curse of dark skin” (8-9). Additionally, it frames “slaveholding . . . as proof of [a] people’s unrighteousness” (10). The editor’s keen illustration of this scriptural ambivalence leaves the reader with the impression that the so-called priesthood ban is not an explicit product of Mormon scripture; rather, it is an innovation informed by doctrinal constructs that postdate the writing of Mormon scripture.

A possible weakness of the book is its near explicit top-down approach. The book, with the exception of the chapter on Mormon scripture, consists mainly of official documents from the Mormon hierarchy to the laity. The attitudes of the average Mormon towards Blacks are left a mystery to be determined in other works. Regardless, this work represents a much-needed contribution to Mormon scholarship and an invaluable tool for laity and scholars alike. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew L. Harris is a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is the coauthor of The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America. Newell G. Bringhurst is a professor emeritus of history and political science at College of the Sequoias. He is the author of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Blacks within Mormonism.

Keywords: 

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