Book review: “Mormonism and White Supremacy” by Joanna Brooks

My wife and I read Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence by Joanna Brooks together as a part of our observance of Black History Month. Our Church has its own complicated history of racial issues, and Brooks has assembled a compelling narrative of what happened, how we got here, and the work we still need to do. This is particularly relevant given the recent remarks by Brad Wilcox that has sparked such a public outcry in the Latter-Day Saint Community. You can watch a clip of the talk below:

I have learned bits and pieces of the legacy of the priesthood ban over time. I remember hearing the justifications for it on my mission, and reading the entry in Mormon Doctrine where it could be found in print. I read some of its history in the broader picture of the Church in the 20th century in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince. I read the Church’s essay on “Race and the Priesthood” when it was released, and I appreciated the inclusion of stories of early black Latter-Day Saints in Saints. Each of these sources were catalysts for re-evaluating my experience of race in the Church where it is rarely discussed at all. I did have the occasional Sunday School lesson gone south where somebody said something kinda racist. But for the most part, there is a tendency to ignore the topic because it is uncomfortable. Brooks discusses this at length in her book:

If the church progresses in a continuous, linear path by divine guidance, then contemporary realities and understandings replace those from the past, which will eventually be forgotten. Obsolete ideas and practices simply don’t count anymore, even if they originated as divine revelations. Where discrepancies appear between the present and the past, there is no point in reminding ourselves about the past. Especially if an event in the past is embarrassing, then recalling it and dwelling on it, even if only to repudiate it, merely confuses the matter. Such negative thinking has no place in the Lord’s kingdom. If harm has resulted from earlier ways of thinking, then everyone involved should forgive everyone else and get on with constructing a better future. Apologies or ringing declarations of disavowal should not be necessary, since few peoples or individuals have histories free of offense against others, and thus few are in a position to demand apologies. With time, memories of these offenses will fade automatically, and we will all be better for it. Meanwhile, if we have not made the requisite changes, let’s not stir up useless and uncomfortable old stories.

From the perspective of Church members, if it isn’t strengthening testimonies or gives me a general spiritual feel-goody sense, why is it being discussed at Church? That essentially defines what people expect in sacrament meeting and Sunday School. We all know that the Church is true, so why do we need to air our own dirty laundry? I have had this experience talking with my family about these topics as I read them. We don’t know how to discuss the wrongs of prophets and apostles, because that implies they could be wrong. It isn’t our place and doesn’t seem to be something a faithful member would do. In fact, it seems like its only anti-Mormon sources that would discuss such things.

I have seen the importance of reconciling with the past and not trying to pave it over. It’s important to be honest about our past. I don’t think we can just not “worry about those little flicks of history”, as Gordon B. Hinckley referred to it in an interview on 60 Minutes. Joanna discusses the negative effects of not doing so:

We told ourselves that new, more cosmopolitan (albeit white) Church leaders would endorse tolerance, love, and compassion; newly sensitized Church media would begin to feature images of Mormonism’s growing diversity; and old doctrinal folklore would fade out with the passing generations. The past did not have to be reckoned with, undone, or confronted. It could simply be outlived if we turned our face toward Zion…

It freed white Mormons of responsibility for self-education, searching reflection, and personal and institutional change. Most distressingly, it allowed openly racist white Mormons to feel comfortable if not emboldened in Mormon religious contexts.

The history of race and the priesthood is also a meta-history, a history of histories, if you will. We have changed how we tell the story about race. Joseph Smith originally opened the doors to people of all races. Brigham Young and later prophets not only revoked the priesthood from blacks, they said that it had never been given if the first place. That is kind of hard to do when there are black members who still hold the priesthood or were promised temple blessings are still around. I really appreciate how Brooks recounts the role of Jane Manning James in this respect:

Not having Jane Manning James in the front row to look them in the eyes meant that the LDS Church leaders who took the stand at major events in the Mormon Tabernacle could tell the Mormon story as they wished, free from the constraints of historical accountability.

The book also gives several examples of brave Latter-Day Saints who stood up to Church leaders. Most Church members assume there is no tension between morality and following the prophet. Following the prophet is what defines morality, so why would there be a difference? The issue of race highlights this in a strong way. Should you just try to ignore your conscience and do what leaders say anyway? Should you follow you conscience in the public sphere, while not contradicting church leaders directly on the issue? Or should you stand up for what you believe to be right even if it conflicts with Church teachings? The last can get you into trouble, as Stewart Udall found out. When he publicly called for the Church to address its priesthood ban, he got a talking to from then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball:

“Stewart, I cannot believe it! You wouldn’t presume to command your God nor to make a demand of a Prophet of God!” and characterized the letter as a “sincere but ill-advised effort in behalf of the welfare of a minority.”

The book concludes with a summary of things that have yet to be done to address Church history. This includes:

  • More use of Africans and African Americans in LDS Church media including temple videos
  • Introducing Black LDS history into church curricula
  • Directing that “Race and the Priesthood” essay be studied in LDS congregations
  • A response similar to that of the Mountain Meadows Massacre: collaborative efforts with descendants of victims, a statement of responsibility and regret, a physical memorialization of past wrongs.
  • Rigorous scholarship-supported conversation about LDS Church-owned institutional commemorations of individuals like Abraham Smoot who owned slaves and intentionally obscured the truth to maintain white supremacy.

I wish this discussion had a bit more actually. There is definitely a lot the Church can do from the top, but it seems that local meetings like Sunday School are where a lot of the improvement can be done.

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