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LDS Leaders on Interracial Marriage (Part 1 of 4)

I’m excited to introduce Dr. Taylor Petry, an associate professor at Kalamazoo College, and editor for the Dialogue Journal.  In this first segment, we’ll talk about how LDS leaders have changed how they talk about race issues, especially with regards to interracial marriage over the 20th century.  Is this similar to possible changes regarding LGBT issues?

Taylor: The typical way that we have told the history of the priesthood ban has been primarily around focusing on race as the exclusive category.  But when I started looking at the conversations that were happening and what church leaders were saying about race in the 1950s and 60s, I saw immediately that marriage was one of the big concerns. Why were they in favor of segregation? Why did they oppose civil rights? Why did they even have church policies that would prevent marriage in the temple?

Because they were really concerned about interracial sex. They thought that this was a big, big problem. We have this whole ideology about race and racialized groups, that this group was destined to do this, and this group was destined to do that. They worried that interracial mixing would dilute the sort of divine designs for those particular races. So I immediately saw that the question of race was really entwined with the with questions of sexuality. Again, as a sort of modern parallel to issues around same sex relationships today, I also wanted to show that the question of ‘who could marry who’ wasn’t just an issue that we dealt with in polygamy. It was an issue that we dealt with in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and even up until the last decade, we still were publishing manuals that had quotes from Spencer W. Kimball discouraging interracial marriage.

So the question of who can marry who, what kinds of couples are allowed in the church, in some cases, socially, and then in some cases ecclesiastically, was not just an old question, it was a pretty new question that we’ve dealt with. So I wanted to tell the history of how we worked through that particular issue as a way, not explicitly, but a parallel to the kinds of questions that we’re dealing with [regarding] same sex relationships, too.

Of course, things have changed pretty radically with regards to interracial marriage since the 1960s.

GT:  I think what was interesting to me is, especially in the ‘50s, and 60s, that interracial marriage would bring about the downfall of civilization. Now we have a black general authority, which was unheard of in the 50s and 60s. Peter Johnson is who I’m talking about, but he’s married to a white woman. And we have an apostle, [Gerrit] Gong.  He’s Asian, and he has a white wife as well. So, apparently, we’ve completely changed on this issue about whether interracial marriage is a good thing. I think you also mentioned Mia Love.  She’s a black Congresswoman, and she has a white husband.  So, talk about how we flip from, “This is the downfall of civilization,” to totally embracing it now.

Taylor:  Spencer W. Kimball, who had been a big advocate of the Indian Placement Program, was out there as the biggest opponent of interracial marriage. The same thing happens when we’re setting up BYU-Hawaii or whatever it was called back then, the Polynesian College.[1]  I forget exactly what its name was back then. But, [you get the] same thing. You get social integration.  That leads to marriages and relationships and the church is like, “Oh, this isn’t what we meant. We wanted integration, but not intermarriage.” So, there’s a lot of anxiety about that. It’s surprising that then, what are we 40-50 years later, now, General authorities who were those who were of that age when they were hearing all of these messages of:  Don’t get married, don’t be involved in interracial marriages. They ignored that advice, got married anyway and now have become general authorities. So, I think that those are some really interesting ones.

The Mia Love one I found particularly interesting because it’s not just the racial boundaries that were being blurred in her case, but also she was, of course, working. She was a working mother and not only working in a high demand job, but a high demand job that often took her out of state, as well. Yet, the church didn’t seem to have any problem with it. They promoted her on the I’m a Mormon campaign. There were newspaper articles in the Deseret News, talking about her and her relationship with her husband. So I wanted to sort of trace that shift. How do we get to today where these things aren’t problematic, when they were [problematic] to the members of the 50s and 60s?  If Joseph Fielding Smith were around today and saw what the makeup of the general authorities and the kinds of marriages that they were in, how many children they had, did they use birth control?  All of those things he would be very confused by, because he was such a vehement opponent of those practices. So I wanted to understand, again, that these aren’t–it’s not just the change from monogamy to polygamy, that’s not the only big change that we’ve made with respect to marriage and certainly not with respect to sexuality. It’s much more recent than that, that we’ve been having this conversation inside of the church about who gets to marry who and what are the rules around that and so on.

[1] It was called Church College of Hawaii in 1955.

What are your thoughts on the changing rhetoric around interracial marriage?  Check out our conversation….

By the way, I’m giving away a copy of Taylor’s book, “Tabernacles of Clay.”  If you would like to win, sign up at (open to U.S. residents only)

Dr. Taylor Petrey of Kalamazoo College tells how general authorities have changed views on interracial marriage over the past 70 years. Will similar changes happen for LGBT?

Don’t miss our previous conversations with Dr. Matt Harris who covers a similar time period on race issues.

353: Impact of Protests on Apostles (Harris)

352: BYU Law School Almost Lost Accreditation (Harris)

351: Civil Rights Investigation at BYU (Harris)

350: Sports Protests Against BYU (Harris)

349: Race & Religious Minorities at BYU (Harris)

348: How Brazil Influenced Official Declaration 2 (Harris)

347: Did Nixon & Carter Pressure BYU Over Race? (Harris)

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