That Brigham Young struggled with and eventually succumbed to racial insensitivities is an undisputed matter of the historical record. From the perspective of not a few nineteenth-century Americans, not to mention most anyone born in the last 50 years, Brigham Young peddled in racial rhetoric and promoted policies that bode poorly not only with our sensibilities but also with the spirit of the Book of Mormon: “All are alike unto God, both black and white, bond and free,” a vision established for the Saints in 1830, not 1978.
I view the races of mankind as fundamentally equal in privilege and love before God. Embracing the gospel as I do, I cannot believe otherwise. Few things bring me as much pain as reading that a man whom I want to revere could say things so far below his calling. So how can such a man be worthy of my respect, let alone my sustaining vote?
Were the Saints merely a product of their time? Perhaps. But so was Rees E. Price, a Mormon convert in Cincinnati in 1842 who had committed much of his time and resources to the absolute destruction of the slave system in America. Though he left the faith shortly after his baptism, he never left behind his principles that slavery was a blight so evil that he could not find words strong enough to condemn it. However much a radical he was, the Latter-day Saint message resonated with him and his anti-slavery principles. For Price, Mormonism need not be moderate on matters of race, however much Missouri had frightened Church leaders.
As I place the finishing touches on my forthcoming book, For the Cause of Righteousness, I have had occasion to reflect on how I view the man most closely associated with the priesthood restriction: Brigham Young. A man who succumbed to a weakness that the Saints are only beginning to overcome. Unlike Price, Young endorsed slavery, albeit with reservations. While politics likely played a role in Young’s support for it, he would have found himself in good company had he chosen to oppose it outright. How could Mormonism not only produce men with such differing ideologies but with one as its prophet and another as its apostate? Even by standards known and accessible in mid-nineteenth-century America, it is hard to explain away racial rhetoric when anti-slavery activists such as Price, William Lloyd Garrison, and Angelina Grimke were successfully meeting a much higher standard–––and paying a heavy price for it.
The meaning of the word sustain can provide some answers. Drawing from an old French root, sostenir, the word originally meant “to hold up, bear, suffer” or “endure.” It is noteworthy that sustenance also derives from a French term referring to “support [and] aid.” Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines it as “to bear; to uphold; to support; as a foundation sustains the superstructure; pillars.”
How have I worked through my support for Brigham Young? The dismissal of Brigham Young based on racism follows this line of logic:
1) Brigham Young said racially offensive things–––things worthy of our condemnation.
2) Brigham Young is no longer trustworthy as a prophet.
3) Prophetic authority is no longer trustworthy
Let’s look at these individually.
1) Brigham Young said racially offensive things–––things worthy of our condemnation.
Yes, and we have a moral obligation to come to grips with it. For a fuller discussion of the details of this claim, please listen to FairMormon conference talk accompanying this blog post.
2) Brigham Young is no longer trustworthy as a prophet.
I endeavor to see everybody—living and dead alike—in the complicated way that God sees them. And people are complicated. Their motives elude us. We think we know who a person is, and then we learn that they are better—or worse—people than we ever considered them to be.
That tremendously talented people have deep-seated weakness is a familiar theme in literature. We even have a body part named after one: the Achilles’ heel, named after the part of Achilles’ body left untouched by the waters of the river Styx–––waters capable of rendering anything it touched invulnerable. Why do we have such a difficult time accepting the notion today?
At this juncture, it is tempting to rattle off all the biblical figures who cast national aspersions on peoples (and they number not a few: Jonah, Peter, and even Paul, to name a meager few). But one should hope that mankind is a little bit more tolerant in 2014 than it was in first-century C.E. And given the hope and vision of my faith at the outset, I have no choice but to look at racial discrimination in its midst with a critical eye.
But was Brigham Young the one who started it all? As discussed in the presentation, Brigham Young tried to include a black priesthood holder, William McCary at Winter Quarters, in spite of the fact that he had married a white girl, Lucy Stanton, whose family was well-regarded (a taboo that could win a lynching in some places). After Brigham Young left Winter Quarters in early April, McCary experimented with (presumably unauthorized) polygamy, a social transgression that the already on-edge Winter Quarters Mormons could not abide. Word spread, and the Saints formed a mob to chase the McCarys out. It was in this context that local presiding officer Parley P. Pratt first declared that having Hamitic ancestry could disqualify a man (particularly McCary) from holding priesthood office. When Brigham Young returned that December, he learned of McCary’s offenses. Young’s jocularity warmth toward the young black man quickly soured. When he further heard of an interracial Mormon couple bearing a child in Massachusetts, his feelings descended into a kind of racial seizure. The meeting minutes reveal a man struggling with deeply-seated contradictions: a gospel vision he knew to be true versus entrenched views about the propriety of interracial couples bearing offspring.
But did not Brigham Young cite a revelation years later? In February 1852, he pointed to his position as prophet in declaring that African-Americans were not eligible to hold the priesthood. That he believed his statement to be inspired is certain; he knew well Joseph Smith’s comment that “a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such” (Link).
We also have the fortune of knowing how revelation happens in this Church, and it’s a process Brigham Young had participated in as well (e.g. D&C 136). So whatever his beliefs or justification, he did not follow the standard protocol for ratifying his comments as a binding revelation upon the Saints. As Apostle Neil L. Andersen has said, true doctrine is found in statements approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many” (Link). For the next six generations, the Saints could never quite decide what the priesthood restriction was about. Was it the curse of Cain? The curse of Ham? Premortal failures? Or maybe the Saints just didn’t know? Calling the priesthood ban revelatory is a claim that fails the Andersen test with flying colors. And, as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has said so clearly, “[T]here have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine” (Link).
Complicating matters further is the role that Brigham Young’s fellow travelers played in developing the priesthood restriction. In many ways, modern Mormons have accepted the easy trope that Brigham Young ruled the Mormon people with total control, molding their thoughts, feelings, visions, and actions in every particular.
But there is a problem with this paradigm: its usable simplicity is more than overwhelmed by its inaccuracy. In other words, it isn’t true.
At the time Young was looking McCary in the eye as he promised him that he had a safe place in Mormonism in spite of the Saints’ flurry of racial epithets, Young was only beginning to win the full confidence of a community still mourning Joseph’s death. Even Young himself confided in other members that he might not ever live up to Joseph’s legacy. “I feel my weakness, my bitterness. I hurt in the Almighty,” he told his Brethren in May 1847. “I shall yet be a Mormon.” Young struggled to keep the Saints on-board with his initiatives. When he tried to consolidate his control over the Saints in spring 1846, he felt it necessary to threaten those who resisted with a “slap of revelation” if they would not obey. But his efforts failed him when the Saints waffled on his initiative to head for the mountains in summer 1846 (Link).
That Brigham Young supported blacks holding the priesthood as late as March 1847 is a clearly documented point. So who made the shift first? Brigham Young was well on his way to the Great Basin while McCary was scandalizing the Saints. Apostles Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde both spoke of his sexual escapades as a point of high-profile spectacle. Those few who did support McCary–––and they were few indeed–––were considered low-browed. Hyde compared the sectarian James J. Strang favorably to them. At least Strang was an “honorable imposter.” Pratt (for the first time, incidentally) connected race to a priesthood restriction: “[T]his Black Man . . . has got the blood of Ham in him which linage was cursed as regards the Priesthood.” Perhaps, it was for the best, Hyde concluded, as it was “taking away the tares who were his kindred spirits.” McCary had so enraged the Saints from lay to leader that apostasy and dissent had been cast as cheap, low-browed “black religion” along the order of what McCary peddled. While Brigham Young was declaring the Great Basin to be “the place,” the Saints had worked themselves into a frenzy about eradicating the black influence from their midst. Whatever the depth of Brigham Young’s commitment to black inclusion in March 1847, it was more than overwhelmed by the collective action of the Pratt, Hyde, and others to ensure that blackness was rooted out of Zion. Though they no longer faced the racial politics of Missouri during which locals so readily associated them with the black population, they continued to deal with Missouri’s ghosts. McCary represented exactly the reason they had lost their homeland some fourteen years earlier, and they were not ready to forgive and forget.
It is a messy narrative, and a painfully human one. A prophet can only be a prophet when the people want prophecy and expansiveness. Prophethood is not the unlimited capacity to compel a people to the Lord’s will, no matter the circumstances. The Lord allows his children to wander in the wilderness when they refuse to accept the greater truths he has prepared for them. It’s the story of how generally good Saints allowed themselves to countenance the great sin of the age–––slavery–––in spite of their having started out with such a noble vision of racial equality in the kingdom of God. In the Saints’ push to survive in the racially-tumultuous waters of nineteenth-century America, they adopted the very prejudices their gospel vision was designed to protect against.
3) Prophetic authority is no longer trustworthy.
As a child, I sat in a seminary class where the teacher handed out brownies and watched us greedily devour them, only to have him tell us that he had put a cockroach in the mix. I had heard the schtick before, but those around me gagged in disgust. “But it was a small cockroach,” he assured us. “Why are you making such a big deal out of it?” It was a lesson on the media, of course, and intended to teach us that even a “little bit” of inappropriate material makes the whole film, book, or song undesirable.
But imagine if we actually made that a motto for life? Imagine if we discarded a man or woman because they had a little–––or, in some cases, more than a little–––dirt in them. It might be a colorful way of teaching about good media, but it’s also a good way to reinforce self-righteousness and intolerance of others’ weaknesses. It certainly wasn’t the approach Jesus Christ took when he rubbed shoulders with lepers and the poor. He certainly was willing to overlook the hatred that Simon the Zealot harbored (not to be confused with the Zealot party that arose in later years) for all things Roman. Jesus happily entrusted Matthew with responsibilities of the kingdom, even if Matthew, who collected taxes for the Romans, collaborated in the oppression Simon had committed his life to opposing. When Jesus commissioned these men to take the lead in establishing his kingdom on earth, both had considerable prejudices to grapple with. And when Jesus told the story of the Samaritan kind enough to care for the dying man by the road, he chose his characters strategically, knowing full well that his listeners would recoil at the thought of a Samaritan being anything other than a disgusting example of the ills of racial intermarriage. After all, when locals wanted to hurl an easy insult at Jesus, they simply asked, “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” (John 8:48) Though he lived by the standard of perfection, he worked with radicals and bureaucrats alike, despite their deep-seated flaws.
If we dismissed people based on such character flaws, imagine which luminaries we would need to ignore. If Reverend Ralph Abernathy and most reports are to be believed, Martin Luther King, Jr. had serious problem with marital fidelity. What’s more, he certainly plagiarized a large portion of his dissertation. Malcolm X had a penchant for violent rhetoric, but he helped the black community to articulate a more assertive voice after generations of oppression. Yet I would count them among the inspired leaders of their times in their part of the Lord’s vineyard.
Faithful members need not defend, excuse, ignore, or even deflect the racial thinking of our fathers, and it should pain us when we hear of it. But owning a deep-seated flaw in our past is a very different thing from trying to burn the Church to the ground. Our history can be not only a powerful story of faith, love, and triumph, but also, as Terryl Givens has said, a “troubling morality tale” that reveals “the need for eternal vigilance in negotiating a faith that must never be unmoored from humaneness.”
Neil L. Andersen, “Trial of Your Faith,” October 2012 General Conference.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” October 2013 General Conference.
General Meeting Minutes, in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, DVD 18.
Joseph Smith, Journal, www.josephsmithpapers.org.
Russell Stevenson, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables (Afton, WY: PrintVision, 2013).
Russell Stevenson is the author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and For The Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2014 as well as several articles on race, sexuality, and politics in publications such as the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, and Oxford University Press’s American National Biography series.