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Racism in Mormon Scripture (Part 5 of 7)

LDS Scriptures are unique in the fact that these scriptures have been used to enforce the priesthood and temple ban on black members.  Dr. Newell Bringhurst and Dr. Matt Harris weigh in on these scriptures and how the Race and Priesthood essay fails to address these issues.

Newell  1:43:35  I was going to say just a couple of general observations about the Race and Priesthood Essay. As Matt has very effectively pointed out, the inherent aspects of Mormon racism as articulated in Mormon scripture, is nowhere even mentioned or discussed in the Race and Priesthood Essay. I mean, the whole underpinning is Brigham Young being influenced by the racism within the larger American society. To some extent, Lester Bush was making a similar case in his seminal essay, that was published in Dialogue in 1973. He made a deliberate effort, because he was a believing Latter-day Saint, believing in the veracity of Mormon scriptures and Mormon scriptural writings. They had both the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses and I thought that was one of the major failings both of Lester Bush’s initial study and carried over in the Race and Priesthood Essay itself.

Newell:  A failure to acknowledge, that at the root of Mormon theological writings, was this belief that dark-skinned people, be they blacks, be they [American] Indians, were divinely cursed with a dark skin. That has, likewise, been reflected in the volume of Saints [Volume 2] that I went through. I thought one of the weakest parts of that volume was the way it handled the issue of blacks and the priesthood. It was standing in sharp contrast to the way it handled polygamy, which was more frank and much more open.  I was really disappointed with the way that Saints handled the issue. It’s almost like an echo of the omission that’s in the Gospel Topics Essays.

Matt:  I want to make one last point about the scriptures and race, and that is that the Book of Mormon–the scriptures don’t talk about Black people really. It’s interpreting these scriptures. They read blackness into some of these curses. I think that’s an important point to make. The other point is, the Book of Mormon, of course, talks about Lamanites, or Native Americans. So, when people talk about curses in the Book of Mormon, they’re talking about Lamanites, and so forth. But the point I want to make is that Black Latter-day Saints, when they read the Book of Mormon, when they’re in the process of conversion, for example, or even after they’ve been baptized, they read these Lamanite curses, and they wonder, “As a black man, how does this apply to me?” It’s really, really a tough issue for the Church to deal with. Because these racial tropes are all over, especially the Book of Mormon, when you get this racial fluidity. So, it’s a really challenging thing for the Church. Because really, if you were to rewrite these verses, I mean, you’re going to end up taking a pretty significant chunk of scripture out of the Book of Mormon. So it’s really a tough situation.

Matt:  So I want to acknowledge that in the Race and Priesthood Essay, I don’t know what the answers would be, I’m not sure how you would even explain these away, because it’s a real thing when you look at what the verses say, and how the leaders interpret them. There are some apologists for the church that just contort themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of these curses. It just means your spiritual soul, or it means animal skins, or any number of bizarre things. Really, when you look at what some, not all, but what some of the brethren are saying in private about these verses, it’s very clear that they think there’s going to be a literal transformation of skin change. Also, it’s very clear that in the 1950s and 60s, Latter-day Saints interpreted it as such.

Matt:  Let me give you just one example. At BYU in 1969, there were a couple of students that were doing some research for an English research paper. They did a survey in which they asked both faculty, students and people in their local wards about dark skin turning white. Overwhelmingly, these two students who did the two surveys, said that the majority of the people they surveyed thought that there was going to be a literal skin change from negros, as they put it in those days, to white people. It was pretty darn clear. One of the people doing the interview, after they compiled the data, he said, “This is what they said, but I’m not really quite sure how that works.” I mean, he’s musing about skin color changing.

What are your thoughts about how Mormon scripture has been used with regards to race?  Check out our conversation….

The Gospel Topics essay on race and priesthood ignores problematic Mormon scriptures dealing with race.

Don’t miss our previous conversations with Matt & Newell!

456: Pros & Cons of Race Essay

455: Critiquing Polygamy Essays & Sources

454: Are Gospel Essays Hidden or Public?

453: Swedish Rescue & Gospel Topics Essays


2 thoughts on “Racism in Mormon Scripture (Part 5 of 7)

  1. Worth noting, Ethan Sproat’s important JBMS essay, “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis”

    Among much else, Sproat points out that in Alma 3:5-6, the reference to “the skin girded about their loins” verse 5, is the explanatory reference of the mention in verse 6 for “the skins of the Lamanites were dark.”

    Paying attention to the difference cultural backgrounds and social conventions that make a difference in reading is recommended in 2 Nephi 25-1-6 and amounts to removing the beams in our own eyes, that we might see clearly (Matthew 7:3-5).

    I also notice that that the cited “skin of blackness” in 2 Nephi 5 occurs only once in all the LDS scriptures and the phrase “skin of blackness” corresponds Ancient Near East colliquialisms that reference lifestyle and culture (see Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, lecture 18 for sources and examples), and that Nephi is the only author with the background to understand it that way is also the only one to use it at all. Beyond Sproat’s essay, I have noticed that passages in the Book of Mormon that refer to white or filthy or stained or clean garments outnumber six skin passages discussed by Sproat by a large margin, and are used in exactly the same way, in the same temple and covenantal context, always refering to righteous or unrightious behavior. I discussed that in an Interpreter essay, Table Rules.

    Then there was Nibley’s discussion of the Book of Abraham passages in Abraham in Egypt (CWHM v14, no longer online, alas), but clearly showing that the Book of Abraham says nothing about race, or connecting any particular race with any curse (Nibley, 528-30, 587), but rather showing that Pharoh in Abraham 1:25-27 claimed a patriarchal priesthood through a matrilinal line, which happens to be exactly the way Ancient Egyptian Royalty worked.

    And there is Stirling Adam’s important review of two books by Jewish scholars on the late historial origins of the misuse of Bible verses about Ham and Canann to justify slavery,

    Adam’s essay makes it obvious that the misreading and misuse of Abraham in LDS circles came from the broader culture’s longstanding misreading and misuse. That is, it is a cultural inheritance, not an LDS doctrinal innovation, and is not due to an inherent racism in LDS scripture. That does make a difference.


    Kevin Christensen
    Canonsburg, PA

  2. I appreciate your comments Kevin. Maybe we can change our interpretation of scripture, while noting the historical interpretations had an unfortunate impact on past leaders.

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