Book Review: Saints, Slaves & Blacks – The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, 2nd Edition, by Newell G. Bringhurst
I joined the LDS Church at the age of 16 in 1975 in Western Montana. For me, the Civil Rights protests were important, but were as far away as the struggle in Vietnam. I didn’t know any black people, and knew few of other minority races. To me, they were just people like I was. The Civil War was not big history for us, because Montana wasn’t involved in slavery nor abolitionism. Our history was about cowboys and Indians, vigilantes, and mountain men.
June 8, 1978, I was waiting for a LDS friend of mine to pick me up to see a movie, when he told me about the announcement on the priesthood revelation. At first, I didn’t believe him; it had to be a joke. Later, when I heard it on the news, I was very pleased. It was the one main thing, besides polygamy, that didn’t sit well with me concerning the Church.
In 1986, the Air Force moved me to Alabama. I was called as ward mission leader and into the stake mission presidency. Even though eight years had passed since the revelation, Montgomery still had not actively taken the gospel to its large black community. With the blessing of the stake presidency, we began focusing much of the work among them. Missionary work in Tuskegee would open up (a branch formed after five months), as did the work in the city center of Montgomery. In the first couple years, the two main wards involved each baptized several dozens of African Americans.
Unfortunately, I found myself having to deal with racism within the Church. Members upset that a black sister was called to teach in Primary. Members refusing to home/visit teach in black communities. It would take over a decade for most members in the stake to accept the new culture of blacks in every congregation, attending the temple, and being in leadership positions.
With that background in mind, I eagerly opened the pages of Saints, Slaves and Blacks. This is the second edition. Originally published in 1981, Bringhurst wrote his thesis on this topic, and then prepared the manuscript for publishing. The 1978 revelation came during his preparation, allowing him to add a chapter on the change. This second edition is perfectly timed for the 40th anniversary of the revelation on the priesthood.
Bringhurst is not the strongest of story tellers, and it shows in his writing. Rather than giving us smooth transitions in thought, he gives us long lists of related events. Even with this weakness, though, the book is a very important one for us. It is detailed and well annotated. We glean from the details, quotes, and events the development of Mormon views on blacks, slavery and priesthood.
He shows that the issues with blacks arose during the Missouri period, with the saints having to deal with slavery, radical abolitionists, and Missourians who suspected the Mormons of being anti-slavery (among other issues). Later, Mormon dealings with blacks would arise again because of tensions with blacks on amalgamation (inter-racial marriage and relations), coming to a head in early Utah.
It would be the misinterpretation of scriptures in the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses that would lead Brigham Young and others to invent the priesthood ban. (The question for many of us is whether the scriptures were first misinterpreted and then used to create a ban, or was the desire for a ban the impetus for misinterpreting scripture?). What is known is the devastating result of such a misinterpretation, as Bringhurst shows us one statement after another that used the ban as justification for racism in Utah. Laws were passed to discourage blacks from entering the state, from voting, and from frequenting local establishments. Utah had its own set of Jim Crow laws.
The book notes that the revelation lifting the ban was influenced not so much by the protests and attacks on the Church (which actually hardened the stance), but on the calm discussions of historians and scholars on the subject, especially the writing of Lester Bush in Dialogue. Demonstrating that the priesthood ban was not based on revelation opened the door to view it in a new light. As noted in the book, President David O. McKay did not believe it was doctrine, but only policy awaiting God’s approval to change it.
Perhaps the main thing this second edition is missing is a new chapter or two discussing the past 40 years. There are postscripts from W. Paul Reeve and Darron T. Smith, but they barely skim over a few issues, mostly providing a recent bibliography on Mormons and blacks.
I hoped to see more information on President McKay’s struggle with the ban and Pres Kimball’s receiving of the revelation, deserving more than just the few paragraphs provided. Smith briefly mentions Randy Bott’s 2012 interview that continued the racist concepts behind the ban and the Church’s strong denouncement of that folklore. Nowhere do we see the current scholarly discussions on proper understanding of “skin of blackness” and the folklore on ancient priesthood curses. I hope the third edition does entail such a discussion.
This is a very important book in LDS history. It helps us see the flaws in our leaders and members, but allows us to still see that God gives us greater truths when the membership is finally ready to receive it. It is a strong foundation to see our past, but lacks in missing the past 40 years. There is little information on the growth of the Church in Africa or even in the Deep South. In the appendix is a brief discussion by the author from 2003, briefly mentioning Helvecio Martins as having been the only black General Authority, but without any current update, we do not read anything about the countless Area Authorities and GA70s that are from other cultures and races. He also noted that the Church still needs to denounce its racist folklore (which it did in 2012 in the Randy Bott debacle). It was like reading a quality history book of Russia that only takes you to the fall of the Soviet Union, but nothing on the ensuing years.
I recommend it as an excellent background book. This is a great book to begin the discussion of where LDS were over its first 150 years. To prepare for the June 8th anniversary of the priesthood revelation, please read it! I also encourage you to then read up on the recent history and discussion on the topic of Mormons and blacks.