#23—Race and Mormonism in the 19th century, with Paul Reeve and Ardis Parshall (part 2) [MIPodcast]
This is part two of an interview with historian Paul Reeve, author of the new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, and Ardis Parshall, independent historian and author of the Keep-a-Pitchin-In Mormon history blog.
This episode focuses on the origins of the LDS Church’s restriction on priesthood ordination and temple attendance against black church members. Ardis Parshall joins us to talk about the value of lesser-known Latter-day Saints and their stories. Both historians reflect on how they negotiate difficult issues posed by church history in the context of their own religious faith.
See part one of this episode here.
W. Paul Reeve is an associate professor of history at the University of Utah. Oxford University Press published his latest book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, earlier this year.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Blair Hodges.
This is part two of my interview with historian Paul Reeve, author of the new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. In this episode, Paul discusses the origins of the LDS church’s restriction on priesthood ordination and temple attendance against black church members. Independent historian Ardis Parshall, who co-edited a one volume encyclopedia on Mormonism, joins us to talk about the value of lesser-known Latter-day Saint stories. Together they reflect on how they negotiate difficult issues posed by church history in their own religious faith.
It’s Paul Reeve and Ardis Parshall on the book Religion of a Different Color on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: How did the ban come about? Let’s talk about the priesthood restrictions against blacks. Black men cannot hold the priesthood and could not attend the temple, and so likewise black Mormon women would then be excluded from the temple as well. So Joseph Smith, what was his part in that?
PAUL REEVE: So there were at least two black men who were ordained to the priesthood in the first twenty years of Mormonism and there is no evidence to date of Joseph Smith ever making a race-based priesthood restriction statement, or race-based temple restriction statement. It basically doesn’t exist in any known articulation by Joseph Smith.
The evidence is that, in fact, there is this open male priesthood and open notions of temple admission in the first twenty years of Mormonism. That starts to deteriorate, I think, once again around ideas associated with race mixing, and Americans’ fear mixing of the races, and democracy’s at stake if race is mixed, so we see a deterioration away from whiteness.
You have a couple of cases that come to the leadership’s attention in 1847 in particular, sort of this crucial year. In 1847 you have, I think, sort of the high point of Mormon universal notions and some of those notions expressed by Brigham Young himself in the spring of 1847. By the end of 1847 you have then a more fearful notion based on notions of race mixing being expressed by Brigham Young.
HODGES: So Brigham Young initially, for example, he was praising a black member of the church who he knew had the priesthood. Right?
REEVE: That’s exactly right. It’s important, I think, for Mormons to know this. Sometimes the racial restriction is simply dismissed as Brigham’s own internal racism. I think we need to understand that Brigham Young is also complicated. It’s too easy just to chalk it up to “somehow Brigham Young is inherently racist,” because he’s on record in 1847 with an open racial attitude towards priesthood, and he is on record of being favorably aware of Walker Lewis as a black priesthood holder.
The hierarchy is aware of Walker Lewis—he is a member of the Lowell, Massachusetts branch, he’s a black man, he’s a radical abolitionist, and he is a Mormon elder. Brigham Young is on record, these are official church minutes, where he is articulating a favorable awareness of Walker Lewis as a black man and as a priesthood holder.
Also, in a meeting with another black Mormon, William or sometimes Warren McCary, Young says color doesn’t matter, and that all races come from one blood, and he’s tapping into New Testament notions. He’s arguing against the “polygenesis” theory that is permeating nineteenth century American racial thought that, in fact, maybe the races came from two different creations. So this is polygenesis—or more than one genesis, more than one creation, and Brigham Young argues against that. “The human family is all connected and color doesn’t matter to us, and we have a black elder, an African in Lowell, Massachusetts.”
So that’s 1847. Brigham Young is on record as favorably aware of that. So any notions that it’s just simply inherent racism in Brigham Young, I think, need to be challenged. Certainly he will say all kinds of terribly racist things in 1852 when he openly announces the priesthood restriction, but I’m only making the point that it’s too simplistic to simply dismiss this as somehow Brigham Young as being inherently racist.
HODGES: So what happens, then, between the late 1840s when he’s making positive comments and 1852 when he’s speaking to the Utah Territorial Legislature and making incredibly offensive remarks?
REEVE: So he’s dealing with reports that Walker Lewis’s son, Enoch, is married to a white woman and they have a child together and they’re Mormons in the Massachusetts branch. So race mixing is something that Mormon leaders were consistently against. Joseph Smith as well as Brigham Young and as well as other Mormon leaders across the course of the nineteenth century, and twentieth centuries as well.
That attitude makes them more American than it does anything uniquely Mormon. The vast majority of states have laws on the books against race mixing, so they kind of blend on those counts and Brigham Young becomes aware of those cases. He speaks out pretty dramatically when he meets in December of 1847 and learns firsthand of Walker Lewis’s son Enoch being married to Mary Webster in the Lowell, Massachusetts branch, so a black white interracial marriage, he speaks out forcefully against it.
He says, “Capital punishment should be the penalty,” but there is no mention of priesthood in any of those minutes. So I’m really hesitant—I think you see a sort of transition that’s taking place, but priesthood is not mentioned by Brigham Young in the surviving minutes. There are only thirteen lines of those minutes, so I think it’s important that historians don’t overreach from what we can conclude from those minutes.
You do have earlier in the year Parley Pratt, who does make a statement about a racial priesthood restriction. It’s the first known statement from a Mormon leader, that’s 1847. He’s responding to William McCary, who is leading a schismatic group by this point. He’s another black man, and Parley Pratt makes the first known statement from a Mormon leader about a race-based priesthood restriction. He seems to be drawing upon the Book of Abraham. Brigham Young makes his statements based on the biblical curse of Cain. I find no evidence whatsoever that anyone remembers back to Parley Pratt’s statement. Most of the Quorum of the Twelve are in the Great Basin. This is 1847 when they’re leaving the United States and coming to the Great Basin. So there’s no precedent that I can see established by Pratt’s statement.
Really, then, we’re at 1852, and Brigham Young is responding to the group of people that have gathered to the Great Basin. It’s once again the universalism of early Mormonism that has brought a wide group of people to the Basin. It includes free blacks, it includes black slaves, it includes slave holders, it includes abolitionists, it includes anti-abolitionists; these are people who have political positions on par with political positions that are available amongst the general population who have now gathered to the Great Basin. How do we create order out of this racial group?
You can think of it in Book of Mormon terms. “All are alike unto God; black and white, bond and free,” the Book of Mormon says. But in 1852 they’re going to have to sort that out, and white will take precedence over black, and free will take precedence over bond. It’s sort of those conditions on the ground in 1852 that will produce the first open articulation of a race based priesthood restriction from a Mormon prophet.
HODGES: Was that advanced as explicitly revelation? Is there any suggestion that Brigham said, “I received this straight from God, this is the way it is”?
REEVE: Brigham Young does not make that claim. I deconstruct his fifth of February 1852 speech more extensively than has appeared in print, at least to this day. I really try to figure out what this means.
Most scholars to this point have quoted Wilford Woodruff’s very truncated summary, and that summary includes “in the name of Jesus Christ.” We went back to the original shorthand version, which is a much longer version. Woodruff is trying to copy this down in his record just longhand, and he gets about eight hundred words, and the speech is three times as long. So I think he makes some important errors in his summary. And scholars have largely relied on Woodruff up to this point, and I think it’s better to go back to the Pitman shorthand version of the transcript that Watt actually makes from that, has been available to scholars.
Brigham Young does make some forceful statements. He says “if no other prophet or apostle said it before now, I say it, that black people are the children of Cain,” he says, “I know it, and I know that they can’t hold the priesthood.” So he’s very forceful. He evokes his prophetic mantle, but he doesn’t say that he received a revelation. He doesn’t claim that. It’s something that’s not ever canonized in Mormon scripture. In fact, by the end of his speech he actually backs away from even his more forceful notions by saying, “Well, I realize other people may disagree with me,” and I think he’s actually referring to Orson Pratt.
HODGES: I was going to ask about that. Brigham wasn’t just saying what everyone already thought. There were some, including in the Quorum of the Twelve, who you say didn’t appreciate it.
REEVE: That’s right. That’s an important piece of context that I bring out in this book. We uncovered some speeches that have never been transcribed from the 1852 Territorial Legislature. One by Orson Pratt, and one by Orson Spencer. Orson Pratt speaks out against the servant code that the legislature is contemplating in this debate, and he does—
HODGES: There were some slaves in Utah.
REEVE: That’s right. They’re really trying to create a law that will govern what the relationship will be between white masters and their black slaves who have been brought. These are Mormons who have converted from the south, and they have brought their slaves with them to Utah territory. What does this mean? What laws will govern this relationship? That’s the debate that produces these speeches.
Historians really hadn’t laid out a timeline before, and I really wanted to understand when the speeches were given, in response to what bills they were given, and we now have a really firm timeline of events that are associated with the territorial legislature. And it is in response to these debates that you have Brigham Young forcefully and openly announcing a priesthood restriction.
But it also seems to be in context of a debate with Orson Pratt. Pratt is speaking out against, he doesn’t want this servant code passed. Brigham Young makes a distinction between a “servant” and “slave,” and really there is a legal distinction. Brigham Young is on firm ground legally if you understand nineteenth century labor relations, but Pratt just says, “It doesn’t matter. We’re not treating them equal [if we do that].” He argues strongly against the servant code that the legislature is debating, and he argues against the notion that curses are multi-generational. God can perhaps curse people, but that applies to the generation he curses. It doesn’t pass down to succeeding generations.
It’s really a singular argument that Pratt makes on that count. He doesn’t mention priesthood in his argument. He’s really debating this servant code, but nonetheless the curse—Noah’s curse upon Ham’s son Canaan—isn’t a multigenerational kind of thing. God may give curses but they don’t necessarily pass down. And Brigham Young rejects that idea and argues for a race-based priesthood restriction, as well as for a servant code to govern blacks who have been brought to Utah territory as slaves.
HODGES: So this is when we get a policy in the LDS church about blacks and the priesthood, and about black people in the temple. The problem is you still have some Mormons who are black and who have the priesthood. What is their fate?
REEVE: So ironically, Walker Lewis is in Utah territory when this debate is taking place. It’s incredibly frustrating as a historian. I contacted my friends, I said, “what can we figure out?” I contacted Ardis Parshall, we’re going to hear from her here, she’s a remarkable historian who seems to be able to find people who are unfindable. We know that Walker Lewis was in Utah territory. What scrap of evidence is there? How could he show up and there not be any scrap of evidence?
But really, the only scrap of evidence is that he received his patriarchal blessing. We know he’s in Utah territory, but then he’s back in Massachusetts by the end of 1852. Really what’s missing is his response to all of this. We know he’s a radical black abolitionist. He’s an immediate abolitionist. In other words, he’s arguing for black equality and that black slavery should be eradicated and it should be immediate, and blacks should be equal in society. Certainly, if he’s aware that these debates are taking place and the position that the Utah Territorial Legislature takes, and the law that they pass, it certainly must have been chilling for him and really incredibly disappointing. But we just don’t know his response. We do know that he returns to Massachusetts. Does he stay in the faith? No idea. His wife has him buried in the Episcopal church, the religion to which she belongs. Does he remain faithful to Mormonism? I wish I knew. He dies in 1856.
So then the lone priesthood holder is Elijah Abel, and if Joseph F. Smith’s later remembrance is valid, Elijah Abel applies to Brigham Young for his temple ordinances, endowment and sealing—he had been washed and anointed in the Kirtland temple, but was not in Nauvoo when the later ordinances were introduced, and so he may have applied to Brigham Young.
What we do know is that in 1879, because it survives in the historical record, he makes application to John Taylor, and that produces an investigation by the highest levels of the LDS leadership. So for me, that investigation is important simply because if the restriction is unambiguously in place, why does the leader of Mormonism need to conduct an investigation? So it indicates to me that, still, even though you have these very forceful statements, it’s not solidified even in the minds of the leadership. What does this mean that we have a black priesthood holder, and he wants his endowment and he wants to be sealed to his wife, like everyone else? Because these are the highest ordinances of his faith.
HODGES: That’s when you show the discussions happening among LDS leaders after Brigham Young, where there is a lot of confusion. A lot of mistaken memories, conflicting statements about whether he was ever ordained, conflicting statements about whether that ordination was rescinded, conflicting statements about what the original statement mean, whether it was valid. And there are all these different opinions circulating, so they don’t have necessarily a set policy. It’s still in the process of getting formulated, but Elijah Abel passes away without having received his endowment.
There’s a quote I wanted to read here from the book where it talks about what happened after that:
“With Elijah Abel dead, the priesthood ban, as an a priori assumption hardened even more, into something real and tangible in the minds of its creators. Shaped and molded by men, baked in the desert sun of accumulated precedent and the heat of distant memories, and then laid at God’s feet as if no human hands had touched it.”
This gets at your view that the restriction comes to be understood as somehow divine.
REEVE: That’s right. For me that’s kind of the tragic part of this story is that it just sort of grows over time. It accumulates this growing precedence in the minds of the leadership. They’re not willing to violate the precedent established by previous leaders, even though the restriction itself is a violation of the precedent established by Joseph Smith. So it sort of just grows in their minds.
And then you read the minutes of these meetings between 1879 and 1908, where I think this dynamic is playing out, and they’re sometimes remembering back to Brigham Young, and sometimes remembering back to Joseph Smith. An important part of this process is also including Joseph Smith. If it was there from the beginning, God must have put it in place and man can’t do anything about it and it’s going to take a revelation to get rid of it. In fact that’s what happens, but it’s sort of a self-reinforcing argument that they get themselves into, and it’s also colored by these distant memories and mis-remembrances, and it starts to crystallize and becomes increasingly solid.
I basically argue that the last brick in this wall of racial restriction is in place in 1908 when Joseph F. Smith mis-remembers that Elijah Abel’s priesthood was declared null by Joseph Smith himself. So what you have to do is you have to erase the black priesthood holders from collective Mormon memory so that the new memory going forward is a memory of uncomplicated whiteness. That takes place in 1908 when Elijah Abel as a black priesthood holder is effectively erased from collective Mormon history.
HODGES: You write that, “the price of Mormon whiteness was partially paid by Mormons distancing themselves from blackness.”
That opens up a theological vacuum, because now you have this policy in place that’s become thought of as an eternal truth, a sort of godly mandate. What sort of things then fill in that gap of why that ban existed?
REEVE: So you start to have appearing in the historical record other explanations. This is another important thing I hope readers recognize, is that Brigham Young only draws upon the curse of Cain for his justification.
HODGES: That’s the idea that Cain killed Abel and God put a mark on him, and that mark is, according to Brigham Young, black skin? And by the way, not just Brigham, but that was a fairly common Protestant thing—
REEVE: Yeah, it’s a part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition that predates Mormonism, and sort of a common understanding.
HODGES: So he locates it there.
REEVE: So Brigham Young locates the restriction there—Cain killed Abel and he tried to usurp Abel’s place in this broader chain of being, this sort of interconnected human network. Because of that, because of his attempt to usurp another patriarch’s place in this broader chain of belonging, then the sentence of Cain, who Brigham Young understands as black people, will have to wait until all of Abel’s posterity received the priesthood.
It’s this very ambiguous kind of notion that—who are Abel’s descendants? How will we know when they all receive the priesthood? Did that finally happen in 1978? I mean, it raises all kinds of really complicated questions. Nonetheless, Brigham Young only resorts to that. He never deviates from that. He never draws upon the Book of Abraham. He never draws upon a “less valiant in the pre-existence” narrative. Those are other explanatory tools that crop up, but it’s never given by Brigham Young, the person who establishes the priesthood restriction as the reason for doing so. Brigham Young is consistent. It’s the curse of Cain.
So you have, then, leaders who will start to draw upon the Book of Abraham, Pharaoh’s cursed descendant, as one idea. By the time President David O. McKay is church president he says, “We believe we have scriptural justification.” Some people think he might be referring to, or I guess I’ve had students in my class who think maybe he’s referring to the Book of Mormon in this skin of blackness. That’s not what he’s referring to. He’s referring to the Book of Abraham, and that became one explanatory tool.
The other explanatory tool was the claim that “black people were neutral in the war in heaven,” this pre-earth like war they refer to drawing upon the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, and that because they were neutral that ensured that they were born into a cursed lineage, and that cursed lineage included a priesthood restriction.
Brigham Young tries to dismiss notions of neutrality for anyone in an 1869 meeting. He says, “No one was neutral.” He never buys into this argument. He says, “No one was neutral. Everyone took sides.” And then he just reasserts that it’s the curse of Cain. That doesn’t mean that future leaders don’t resort to that as an explanation, so you have especially at the turn of the century, early twentieth century, throughout the first half of the twentieth century this as an explanatory tool. It shifts from neutrality to “less valiant.” So you have other Mormon leaders who will use that as a justification to explain the priesthood restriction.
HODGES: Your book ended really interestingly with Joseph Fielding Smith. There’s a statement in one of his publications from 1907 where he says, “There is nothing in our standard works, nor any authoritative statement to the effect that one third of the hosts of heaven were made neutral in the great conflict, and that the colored races are of that neutral class.” So he says that’s not the case, this is not the official position of the church. Then you have him in 1931, I believe, so this is not too long after, saying “Some premortal spirits were not valiant. As a result of their lack of obedience, blacks came to earth under restrictions.” And then Bruce R. McConkie places that justification in his book Mormon Doctrine in 1958, and then that barely went out of print five years ago. So you see Joseph Fielding Smith sort of morphing a little bit on that question.
REEVE: That’s right. He moves away from neutrality to less valiant. It’s sort of a subtle shift, but it’s a way to sort of account for Brigham Young’s position but also to then say that somehow human agency was involved, because Brigham Young’s curse of Cain, the problem there is that it violates this fundamental Mormon principle of agency. How can you simply deny people access to saving rituals simply because of their skin color and for the murder that they had no part in? It’s this multi-generational curse. In Mormonism, it’s fundamentally based upon this principle of human agency, and you’re removing the ability of agency from these people.
When the First Presidency makes a race based statement in 1907, they say it doesn’t matter how worthy a person is. No one with a drop of blood of Cain in them can hold the priesthood or attend the temple. So it’s removing this fundamental principle of agency, and so I see then the “less valiant” or “neutral in the war in heaven” as a way of getting around the agency problem.
HODGES: I like to call those “theological pressure points” that need to be alleviated, and that took care of that pressure point.
REEVE: That’s right. It’s a way to get around the problem of agency bound up in the curse of Cain, because they must have exercised poor agency in the preexistence, therefore the curse is applied to them.
HODGES: That’s Paul Reeve. He’s associate professor at the University of Utah. We’re actually sitting in his office right now with Ardis Parshall. Paul, we’ll come back to you in conclusion to talk a little bit about when the ban was lifted and the church’s more recent statements on race.
I invited Ardis to this interview because she has done so much work on individual Mormons and on Mormon history in her work at the Church History Library, on her blog keepapitchinin, which is probably the best Mormon history blog, with apologies to Juvenile Instructor, that we have online. It just is a fascinating blog. Many great inspiring, sometimes difficult, sometimes sad, sometimes amazing stories of Mormons on the ground.
Ardis, you spend a lot more time with regular members of the church and with records that haven’t been emphasized in our histories. Why is that? Why focus on that?
ARDIS PARSHALL: Probably because so many other people have focused on the leaders, and I can make a contribution by looking at things that other people haven’t looked at. I also just find it interesting that people like me have a role in church history and I like to uncover what that is.
HODGES: How did you first get involved in doing work in history?
PARSHALL: It came from family history. I know there’s a long-term battle between genealogists and formal historians, but the two can supplement each other quite well. I learned to uncover the kinds of stories about my own ancestors by looking at a newspaper article here, a document there, and putting their stories together. I apply those same techniques to Mormon history.
HODGES: It’s interesting that from what I understand you don’t have an academic degree in history—
PARSHALL: That’s right.
HODGES: So what’s interesting is most of the books on Mormon history that I’ve read in the past several years cite you in the footnotes and acknowledgements as a testament to all of the work you do. So without the formal training it seems to me you have found a way to put yourself into the historical conversation in ways that make that not matter. You’re able to make contributions as what people would call an “amateur historian,” in ways that are indispensible to the work of professional historians.
PARSHALL: Thanks. Can I get that in writing? [laughter]
HODGES: There’s your letter of recommendation!
So let’s talk about a particular example from Paul’s book. There’s an individual that’s discussed there, his name is Scipio A. Kenner. Talk about Scipio A. Kenner for a moment.
PARSHALL: He comes into Paul’s story as part of a romance. He was courting Isabel Park, the daughter of one of Brigham Young’s business agents. In 1869 they had been keeping company and he proposed to Isabel and was accepted. He’s written and gotten permission from her father, who is away on a mission, he’s met the mother, Agnes, Agnes is just fine, likes Scipio, just very very well.
Sometime in the middle of 1870 something happened though. Agnes’s attitude changed. She became convinced that Scipio had black blood, negro blood, and she no longer welcomed him in the house. The couple still kept seeing each other, though, and Agnes got more and more upset, to the point where she even struck her daughter Isabel, trying to tell her she needed to break this off with Scipio. Somehow she had gotten the notion that he had black blood. It’s not entirely clear where the idea came from, but I suggest it’s because of that middle initial “A” in Scipio’s name. Scipio is named after a Roman general, Scipio Africanus, and I believe that Agnes got the idea that he was an African.
HODGES: Why did it matter to her?
PARSHALL: By this point the hierarchy has been established, as Paul has been explaining, and if her daughter married a man with negro blood, then her grandchildren would not be part of the white hierarchy.
HODGES: They wouldn’t hold the priesthood.
PARSHALL: Yes. All these things you’ve been talking about as far as what race meant in the nineteenth century would then apply to her family, the degenerate assumption, and she just wouldn’t have anything of that.
HODGES: There’s a photograph of him in the book. Where did the photograph come from?
REEVE: I found that at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah in their special collections. I wanted a picture of Scipio Kenner for the reader to get an indication of what he looked like.
HODGES: Yeah, and he looks white. He has a little bit of curly hair, too.
PARSHALL: Sure. He’s a newspaperman and a mining man, so he became fairly prominent in Utah, but when he was a young man courting Isabel there was a problem.
HODGES: So that could have been a turning point in his life. He’s facing the possibility of being restricted from the LDS priesthood.
PARSHALL: If he had been branded as a negro, then his possibilities of advancement would have been limited to what was available to a negro.
HODGES: Which was not very much at the time. Now as Paul was looking into that story, you were able to track down some of his descendants.
PARSHALL: Yes. I have a habit—people tell me who their ancestors are and I tend to remember it, then when I come across materials that I’m searching that I think they’ll be interested in I connect them. At the time I had just heard from some people who were descendants of Scipio—at the moment I can’t even remember who they are, but when it counted I knew who they were.
HODGES: What was their reaction? Obviously this story was brought to them. Was it known, or what was—
PARSHALL: We asked in two different branches of the descendant families if they were familiar with this history, and if so were there any stories that had passed down in their family. Nobody was aware of it. As a historian it’s a little bit disappointing because you miss the story that you might have had, but as a human story that’s a good thing because the stigma did not pass down. They accepted Scipio as a white man and the problem between him and his mother-in-law didn’t stay in the family history.
HODGES: So in the work that you’ve done in assisting other historians, as a historian you’ve come across a lot of these individual stories you blog about, is it difficult to track down these voices? Was it difficult to find descendants of Scipio?
PARSHALL: I don’t have as much trouble finding the stories of individual saints, as a lot of historians do, I think because I come from a family history perspective. So many historians start when they’ve got an important person, when there’s a collection of papers, when there’s a body of work to start with. I tend to read everything that there is, anything I can put my hands on, and ordinary Latter-day Saints, ordinary Utahns, I do Utah history as well, they’re just part of the record. When I find someone who has done something interesting, or who has been present in one of those “pressure points,” then I can research that person the same way I would as if he were my grandfather. You go to the same kinds of records that a genealogist uses and you turn up all kinds of things that are useful to historians.
HODGES: And sometimes in tracking those people down they can add even more elements to the story you’re telling. Like you said, in the case with Scipio, that was one of the memories that the family chose not to pass down. That’s fascinating. So not only do some stories sort of disappear from individual families that don’t get passed down, but that also happens institutionally as well. Paul was talking about church leaders sort of forgetting certain things about institutional history, and creating different narratives in order to shore up what’s going on in the present.
I wonder about your response to that happening on that level, as it also happens with family.
PARSHALL: I think that’s a very good point, that we sort of drew a curtain over what had happened earlier. Once statehood was granted to Utah and the political pressures were off, the church started sending a lot more people out into the world. We’d always been sending missionaries and a few representatives to Washington and so on, but after the turn of the century we developed missions elsewhere in the United States and we began to turn those outposts into real wards and stakes rather than just way stations on the way to Utah.
I find once that happens, Latter-day Saints come into contact a lot more with blacks, and they’re not quite sure what to do with them. We had quite a few converts, black members, in the first twenty or thirty years of the twentieth century, a lot more than there ever were in the Utah period, and I find that people are writing to church leaders, to their own bishops, to stake presidents, asking “what’s the policy? What do we do with these black members?” They’re welcome for a time in the meetings, but they don’t quite know what to do with them.
I’m remembering one letter that was written by David McKay, who was the father of David O. McKay, he wants to know where they fit into the church hierarchy. “I understand that there once was a black priesthood holder, but does that mean they can hold the priesthood?” This was a letter that was written in, I think it was 1910, give or take a year, by that point he had already forgotten the history. There was a rumor in the back of his mind, but he had forgotten.
I find letters to mission presidents from members of the church in their missions saying, “What about these Negroes who are attending these meetings?” In the Northern States Mission a man from Florida wrote about a woman in the Northern States who was married to a black man, and he was complaining about that. Asahel Hart Woodruff, who was the mission president, wrote back—the first time I have ever seen this used—“all are alike unto God, and God cares about the souls of our black brethren as well as he does of the white brethren.”
But as time went on, as we get into the nineteen-teens and 1920s everyone seems to have forgotten that Elijah Abel ever held the priesthood, that Walker Lewis was ever a member of the church. When the subject of black blood comes up it’s only out of curiosity. “What is our policy? Why are they not allowed to hold the priesthood?”
HODGES: So you see a change there from the kinds of questions that are being asked in the correspondence. Those questions change as memory changes.
PARSHALL: Yes. Because there are converts to the church in the United States missions, converts who are black, there are people who ask about their particular cases, but otherwise it’s merely a curiosity.
HODGES: That’s Ardis Parshall. She’s an independent historian in Salt Lake City. She also blogs at Keep-a-pitchin-in.
Ardis, I also wanted you to expand a little bit more on the sort of work that you do on your blog and that you’ve done at the Church History Library, that’s history from the ground up. History from everyday members of the church and how you think that fits into the institutional history, and the value you see in stories of individual Mormons that otherwise might be overlooked in a historical record.
PARSHALL: Oh, I think history is little more than the accumulation of experiences of individual people, and in order to recover history you have to recover those experiences.
So again, I read everything I can lay my hands on. Some of the most productive sources that I find are letters, because people never expect their letters to be read by anyone other than the one they’re writing to, and so they’re candid. There are minutes of meetings. There are newspaper articles. Things that people did not really expect to be preserved to become the subject of study. They record the experiences of individual people, and once I can connect—”Ah! There’s a person who did something interesting, or had a difficult experience”—then I research that person’s life and put that important experience into context. It’s been useful to people like Paul sometimes to test their theories, to illustrate their theories, to have the experiences of individual people.
HODGES: It’s almost a little bit of detective work, it seems.
PARSHALL: Oh yeah. That’s the fun part. I’m not sure I would know what to do if I needed to write a biography, say, of a person who had a large body of papers. To me the challenge is putting together somebody’s story with a letter here, a paragraph in the minutes there, a comment in somebody’s diary somewhere else. When you read everything—and I tend to take note by transcribing everything that I read—then when I become aware of a person I can search my magic computer and these isolated parts come together.
HODGES: Indexing and technology.
PARSHALL: Couldn’t do it without modern technology.
HODGES: A little bit more I want to hear from you on the idea of letters. You mention letters as a really important source. That’s obviously something that’s changed today. We have email, and that’s a little bit more ephemeral, or it seems like—I don’t know where my emails are stored out there in the cloud—
PARSHALL: We assume they’re stored somewhere, and maybe in thirty years they will be a source that can be searched to our pleasure or shame, but right now they do seem to be ephemeral, don’t they?
HODGES: So what are your thoughts on letter writing in general and how that’s sort of changed? Because the way letters were written, you’re alive now, you use email, you know that there’s a certain conversational style that happens that differs from that type of correspondence.
PARSHALL: The same kinds of things that we email today, people used to actually put on paper. Are you available at two o’clock this afternoon? Okay, I’ll be there. So you can reconstruct daily life through correspondence the way your email reflects. People also tend to write out fully their thoughts on a particular topic. It’s like they’re carrying on one side of the debate and then they wait to hear from the other person.
HODGES: It feels like when I write an email I don’t really pay much attention to punctuation. It’s a task, it’s not like a—
PARSHALL: Neither did people in the early twentieth century pay any attention to punctuation.
HODGES: So there’s a lot of sloppiness? It seems like collections of letters I’ve read, like you said, they’ll write out a whole dialogue. I don’t really do that now. Very rarely.
PARSHALL: I think when you intend to discuss things in that level of detail you probably pick up the telephone, don’t you?
HODGES: Yeah, exactly.
PARSHALL: So there is no record. I’ll have to leave that to historians fifty years from now to fill in whatever sources they need. I’m certainly exploiting what’s available to me now.
HODGES: I’m going to extend that to Paul, and then we’ll swing back to you, Ardis.
Just about sources, Paul, because in your book you make use of newspapers, letters, political cartoons, all sorts of things. I am interested in the process of sorting through sources like that and what it’s like to construct a history from so many different types of sources.
REEVE: I try to cast my net as widely as possible in terms of sources, simply because I wanted to understand, “how was this functioning?” This notion of racializing Mormons, believing and somehow suggesting that they were less white or more like other marginalized groups. Was it functioning at all levels of society? Who was doing it? So I didn’t want to limit my source base to politicians and speeches in congress, and I didn’t want to limit it to newspapers. I wanted to get at as many segments of society as possible to see how widespread it was.
First of all because I was curious. But second of all, I was also anticipating responses from readers. “Well, you know, that’s interesting, that’s an editorial but it doesn’t tell us what the average American thought or how they responded when they read that editorial. Did they really think that Mormons were less white as results of that editorial?” That’s a question that is ultimately unanswerable for the average American, but I was able to satisfy myself enough by the variety of sources that I looked at, that this in fact permeated all levels of American society.
So overland travel diaries and journals, congressional speeches, Supreme Court decisions, presidential speeches, newspaper editorials, Protestant tracts. I got a fellowship at the Huntington Library—they have a collection of anti-Mormon Protestant tracts, and I read those, and actually a lot of the categories I used emerged from that initial research trip to the Huntington library. So I really became satisfied that it did permeate all segments of American society.
One thing that sort of made this study possible in terms of the wide swath of sources I was able to look at is just the remarkable digitization that’s taking place in the last even ten years, so that national newspapers are keyword searchable now, and I couldn’t imagine trying to get at this same level of sources through microfilm. So I am fortunate enough that my source base was sustained by digital archives that are now more readily available. It didn’t alleviate me from actually going into actual archives and reading the primary sources itself, but would I be able to have pulled off this kind of source gathering even ten years ago? I would not have. I’m really fortunate on that count.
I was sort of driven by this desire to get as wide an indication on how much this permeated American society, and I surprised myself because it just sort of—Once you knew what to look for it just seemed to permeate a variety of different mediums and a variety of different levels of American society.
PARSHALL: While Paul is casting his net as broadly as he did, I want to say that he didn’t neglect the ordinary research that should always be done. One of the things that impressed me about his research is that he didn’t rely on earlier accounts of Mormon history. He went back to the original sources, he tracked down everybody’s footnotes, and by doing that he was able not only to verify, but to make some slight corrections, and also discover material on the same page as quotations that have been cited over and over but somehow were missed.
HODGES: Right. Paul, before the interview you were talking about an interesting correction to the historical record that you were able to make in this book. For people who have read about issues of race and the priesthood in Mormonism, your book brings some very important new things to the table. For example, previous scholarship had made the claim that the first known statement specifically about blacks and the priesthood was in 1849. You found reason to question that, with a little help from Ardis as well. I was hoping that you two could talk about that for a moment.
REEVE: So previous scholarship had suggested that for Brigham Young, the first statement of priesthood restriction 1849. They were relying upon the “Journal History,” which is basically a daily account of events in Mormonism. I certainly knew that there was reason to question the Journal History because sometimes the scholars—or I should say the historians in the church historian’s office in the nineteenth century—would sometimes many years later create these entries.
First they were making Brigham Young’s manuscript minutes, and then using those to create the Journal History minutes. I wanted to get at the original minutes for that 1849 meeting. So this is nothing in terms of denigrating previous scholars, because they didn’t have access to those original minutes. This is an indication of the more openness that is available that I was able to partake of that previous scholars weren’t. I went back to the original minutes that were taken by Bullock for that 1849 meeting, and the meeting is basically centered on Lorenzo Snow making a case, it says, for blacks within Mormonism. Unfortunately, the minutes are very sparse and this is typical of Thomas Bullock in his minute keeping. They don’t give us an indication of a kind of case that Lorenzo Snow laid out, unfortunately, but as I read the minutes for that 1849 meeting I was struck that they don’t in fact, in the original, include any indication of priesthood. It’s simply an enunciation of Brigham Young’s standard explanation that blackness is tied to a curse of Cain and Cain killing Abel. The original minutes didn’t say anything about a priesthood restriction, and therefore—
HODGES: It was about slavery?
REEVE: Well it’s about the place of blacks. Who are they? And their sort of racial identity. It is sort of Brigham Young’s—What he will articulate more elaborately in 1852, but his notion that because Cain killed Abel, Cain’s descendants will be prevented, or I should say cursed. What is missing is any sort of notion of a racial priesthood restriction in those original minutes. I was really struck by that, and it seemed really important.
So then I wanted to figure out, “well, how did that notion of a priesthood restriction make it into the Manuscript History, and then the Journal History, which scholars have relied upon to suggest that that was in fact the first articulation by Brigham Young of a racial priesthood restriction?” And so I obviously sent off an email to Ardis and I asked if she had any insights into how a priesthood restriction would have made it into the manuscript minutes when it’s not in fact in the original minutes record by Thomas Bullock.
PARSHALL: I knew from previous work that the Manuscript History was not written contemporaneous to events, it’s something that was written later, so we wanted to track down exactly when those minutes were recorded. One of the sources that I like to use is the Historian’s Office Journal, kept in the nineteenth century. The journal is really just a record of what each historian in the office worked on that day, and occasionally some notes about the whether and who else dropped into town.
So I started going through looking for the period when they were working on 1849 history and discovered that in 1861, John Jacks was assigned to do “scrapping,” in other words scrapbooking. He’s searching newspapers and diaries and so on, and pasting together the raw materials for what they would write as the Manuscript History. He’s doing that in 1861, covering the month in 1849 that is of concern. So by that we can tell that what is recorded, including that phrase about the priesthood, is not necessarily the state of Mormon thought in 1849, it’s what John Jacks and his associates considered the state of Mormon philosophy in 1861.
HODGES: That’s Ardis Parshall. She co-edited a book with Paul Reeve called Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. We’re speaking today with Ardis and Paul. He’s the author of Religion of a Different Color and he’s professor of history at the University of Utah.
I wanted to get a little bit more personal for the final segment here, because Paul you’re a practicing member of the LDS church, and you wrote this book, Religion of a Different Color, that touches on things that are difficult. I’m a member of the church and some of the things were difficult to read, when you see church leaders of the past making statements that seem to my twenty-first century sensibilities to be racist and unsettling. So with the benefit of hindsight I think church members today can encounter some of the things in your book, say Brigham Young’s thoughts on interracial marriage for example, and feel uncomfortable.
The problem is this is a person, Brigham Young, who is president of the church and in many ways he was a person of his time as you mentioned. He was also a complex person. As far as thinking prophetically, Mormons might wonder why LDS prophets weren’t more ahead of schedule when it comes to race relations. You noted that Mormonism had the seeds of a universalistic perspective, and they didn’t really bear fruit in early Mormonism, and some people might wonder why that was the case. “If you have prophets, why they weren’t taking advantage of that?”
You sum up the problem like this, you write, “The Mormon story lays bare, in all of its ugly and naked defenselessness, the self-interested and manipulated nature of racial identity construction. At least a portion of the Mormon effort to gain acceptance and legitimacy thus came at the expense of other marginalized groups.”
So as an active member of the church, I’d like to hear how you reckon with these difficult questions.
REEVE: They are difficult questions. They are uncomfortable. I hope it does cause some discomfort. In fact, I think as Latter-day Saints we need to confront the good and the bad in our historical past. It’s only staring it straight in the face that we can come to terms with it and create a better future, I think.
I think history has a service to play in the regard. In my estimation it’s really healthy to get it all out, get it out in the open, and to grapple with it. For me, the best part of it is just allowing Mormons to be human, allowing Mormons in the pew to be human, and allowing Mormons at the pulpit and in the leadership roles to be human.
Despite their humanness they are able to accomplish pretty remarkable things, and it’s really a compelling story, but I personally don’t see the priesthood and temple restrictions as coming from God. I see God allowing them to happen. In other words, he didn’t come down in person and stop Brigham Young from saying his terribly racist things. He allowed it to happen, just like he allowed the children of Israel to have a king when they asked for a king and he recommended otherwise, and then let them suffer the consequences. Just like he allowed Joseph Smith to hand Martin Harris the one hundred and sixteen pages, and then let him suffer the consequences. Just like he didn’t stop Joseph Smith from founding an “anti-banking society” in Kirtland, and then let him suffer the consequences.
I know—because we have as practicing Latter-day Saints a First Vision, we have this notion of an interventionist God, and certainly I don’t disagree that God appeared to Joseph Smith, I’m a believing Latter-day Saint, but it sometimes gives rise to the notion that God is a micro-manager, and every finger lifted by his leadership team is somehow controlled as by a puppet master. I don’t think God allows for the violation of that fundamental principle of agency, and he gives prophets agency as well.
I see Brigham Young and the Mormon leadership responding to circumstances on the ground and it taking on a life of its own so it becomes deeply entrenched in Mormonism. It is tragic. When they become so convinced that it’s based upon God and not upon man it becomes even more tragic, because they feel righteously justified in discriminating against their own black members. Any time you put a policy in place and it’s supported by doctrine—like this priesthood and temple restriction was, that is simply based upon skin color and righteousness can’t have anything to do with it—it’s inherently racist. We need to come to terms with that. There are no excuses.
I think the twenty-first century church has done better at coming to grips with that. There have been statements that the church today “condemns all racism past and present, inside and outside the church.” I think we should come to terms with what that actually means so that any time a black person was denied temple admission or denied the priesthood, it’s now been condemned by the twenty-first century church. It’s a condemnation. We’ve condemned all racism, in and out of the church, past and present, and that includes LDS leaders. It’s now been condemned. We shouldn’t try to justify it. It was wrong, and there’s a new path forward.
HODGES: There’s a really interesting statement from Spencer W. Kimball that I don’t recall seeing before. It’s a quote that says, “The doctrine or policy on blacks and the priesthood in the temple has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban, and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”
REEVE: Yeah, that’s 1963 when Spencer W. Kimball was an apostle. I think it signals a remarkable open attitude. He is open to the possibility. He’s open to the possibility that it was, in fact, an error. I think it sort of took that kind of open attitude for when he was president of the church to question.
When the revelation to rescind the policies comes to him he says that he is basing this upon the promises made by previous prophets. Up to that point the promises made by previous prophets that the current generation of leaders were focusing on were the promises of a cursed priesthood and temple restriction. Kimball chooses to focus on the promises that there will be a day of future redemption, and that’s what he focuses on. He’s open to the possibility that it was an error. As early as 1963 he’s open to that possibility.
I think that’s a fundamental component to the rescinding revelation that is received in 1978, is that you have a person at the helm that is open to those attitudes and those possibilities. Obviously, there are a variety of other components that come into play, but it seems that Kimball’s attitude that he signals in 1963 is important to think about as well.
HODGES: Ardis, I wanted to ask you the same question that Paul just talked about, and that’s how you have dealt with these sort of questions about imperfect leaders and your faith.
PARSHALL: It may be a little simplistic, but I firmly believe in that whole idea of “line upon line, precept on precept.” I don’t think that a perfect gospel with a perfect understanding was suddenly bestowed on Joseph Smith on April 6, 1830. I think that we continue to learn new things, but we also continue to correct past mistakes. I think that the safest course is to follow what the prophets say, otherwise I’m pitting my judgment against them, and it’s their calling in these matters. But we do continue to learn and grow and that’s how I face problems of the past.
HODGES: That’s Ardis Parshall. She is an independent historian in Salt Lake City, and she co-edited a book called Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. We also spoke today with Paul Reeve, associate professor of history at the University of Utah. He’s the author of the new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness from Oxford University Press. Thanks for joining us today, Paul.
REEVE: Thank you, Blair. It was my pleasure.
HODGES: And thanks to you, Ardis.
PARSHALL: Thanks, Blair.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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