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To George with Love

In 1964, Elder Delbert Stapley of the Quorum of the Twelve wrote a letter to Governor George Romney, father of Mitt Romney, to express concerns about the Governor’s position on the Civil Rights movement of that era. I just read the letter written on official Council of the Twelve letterhead and… Wow!

Just wow!

Elder Stapley felt Governor Romney was too “liberal” on the issue of civil rights for black Americans and not in harmony with the teachings of Joseph Smith. His letter contains brazen threats of divine retribution:

When I reflect upon the Prophet’s statements and remember what happened to three of our nation’s presidents who were very active in the Negro cause, I am sobered by their demise. They went contrary to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith—unwittingly, no doubt, but nevertheless, the prophecy of Joseph Smith, “… those who are determined to pursue a course, which shows opposition, and a feverish restlessness against the decrees of the Lord, will learn, when perhaps it is too late for their own good, that God can do His own work, without the aid of those who are not dictated by His counsel,” has and will continue to be fulfilled.

In this respect, let me give you a personal experience. A friend of mine in Arizona—not a Church member—a great champion of the colored race—came to me after my call into the Twelve, and acknowledged President McKay to be a Prophet of God. He wanted me to ask President McKay to inquire of the Lord to see if the Lord would not lift the curse from the colored race and give them the privileges of the Priesthood; therefore, it was the Lord’s responsibility—not man’s—to change His decision. This friend of mine met a very tragic end by drowning. He was a most enthusiastic advocate of the colored cause and went about promoting for them all the privileges, social opportunities, and participation enjoyed by the Whites.

He then tells Governor Romney that the “Negro” must be kept in their place:

It is not right to force any class or race of people upon those of a different social order or race classification. People are happier when placed in the environment and association of like interests, racial instincts, habits, and natural groupings.…

I fully agree the Negro is entitled to considerations, also stated above, but not full social benefits nor inter-marriage privileges with the Whites, nor should the Whites be forced to accept them into restricted White areas.

The following statement needs no further comment:

Now, don’t think I am against the Negro people, because I have several in my employ.

All of this would be less disturbing—and less damning for Mormonism—if Elder Stapley was just one religious bigot, one bad apple in a barrel, except he wasn’t alone. Elder Stapley was well justified by statements of the LDS church and Joseph Smith. He referenced the following passage drawing special attention to the last sentence:

Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine off many of those they brush and wait on.

Elder Hyde remarked, “Put them on the level, and they will rise above me.” I replied, if I raised you to be my equal, and then attempted to oppress you, would you not be indignant and try to rise above me, as did Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and many others, who said I was a fallen Prophet, and they were capable of leading the people, although I never attempted to oppress them, but had always been lifting them up? Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Status of the Negro”, pp. 269–70, emphasis added)

He also notes Joseph Smith’s views on slavery (worth reading in full) with emphasis on this paragraph:

Trace the history of the world from this notable event down to this day, and you will find the fulfillment of this singular prophecy. What could have been the design of the Almighty in this singular occurrence is not for me to say; but I can say, the curse is not yet taken off from the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great a power as caused it to come; and the people who interfere the least with the purposes of God in this matter, will come under the least condemnation before Him; and those who are determined to pursue a course, which shows an opposition, and a feverish restlessness against the decrees of the Lord, will learn, when perhaps it is too late for their own good, that God can do His own work, without the aid of those who are not dictated by His counsel. (History of the Church, Volume II, “The Prophet’s Views on Abolition”)

I hadn’t taken the time to look up some of Joseph Smith’s views on the subject until today. I have lost some respect for him. I thought Brigham Young was the true racist culprit, but God’s alleged first prophet of the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times was just as blind to his own racism as was the second prophet.

Elder Stapley encloses a copy of Mormonism and the Negro which says:

Briefly, the LDS policy on Negroes is this: Negroes and others with Negroid blood can become members of the Church, and through righteous works receive patriarchal blessings, enter the temple to perform baptisms for the dead, become heirs to the Celestial kingdom and otherwise partake of many blessings afforded worthy members of the Church, but they cannot be ordained to the Priesthood, nor are they eligible for marriage in an LDS temple; Negroes and Non-Negroes should not intermarry.

Thankfully I can say that I don’t recognize this racist church. This isn’t the Mormon church that I grew up in. It was quite rare when I was a child to meet a black Mormon (and continues to be, Gladys Knight notwithstanding), but I never heard anything so blatantly bigoted in church. I’m happy that the Mormon people have changed their stripes. They deserve kudos for that.

There is just one thing that still bothers me: there has never been an official repudiation and condemnation of the bigoted doctrines of the past. The LDS church, in effect, proclaims that those bigoted teachings regarding people of African descent were according to God’s will. They may protest that they don’t understand, but the doctrines were taught by God’s Prophet and are therefore beyond mortal reproach. They are forced to conclude that these teachings came from a God of love and justice.

Until there is an official condemnation of its racist past, bigotry will taint the heart of Mormonism.

(via Trapped by the Mormons)

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  1. Lincoln Cannon said,

    January 31, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    Agreed — there is more repenting to do here.

  2. mel said,

    January 31, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    I can’t really say how many times I’ve been told that JS was enlightened on this subject far beyond even the leaders of the 1970s. Always the point that JS gave priesthood to black men and not until BY did this racism get institutionalized.

    But here you have it. Astounding. Thank you.

    Let’s not forget that JS WROTE the Book of Mormon and he’s the one that put all that talk of god punishing with skin pigment in there.

    Truly awesome the extent we’ll go to maintain our belief that JS was demi-god.

    He was just a very gifted man. Based on that, I can forgive him for being such.

  3. Seth R. said,

    January 31, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

    Mel, what teachings of Joseph Smith does Elder Stapley have in mind here? Because I honestly don’t know where he pulled that little piece of B.S. from. One of the presidential campaign platforms of Joseph Smith was to buy the freedom of all the slaves using money from selling federal lands. He once personally sold his own horse for $500 to purchase the freedom of a black child and conferred the Priesthood on Elijah Abel (a black man) personally.

    In short, I think Elder Stapley, in this letter is, to put it bluntly, full of it with respect to Joseph.

    J. Stapley over at By Common Consent did a post on this little episode with his ancestor here:

    My understanding is that Bruce R. McConkie personally delivered a sermon containing the closest thing to a repudiation that you’re going to get. He basically said, “forget what I, or anyone else has said on this matter. The Lord has spoken” the end. Not exactly the apology some are looking for, but it did seem like a pretty clear repudiation of the “Mark of Cain/Curse of Ham” business.

  4. mel said,

    January 31, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

    Hmmm … not sure about the full extent of Stapley’s understanding, but Jonathan definitely has the quotes from “Teaching of the Prophet” and “History of the Church” going. That’s what I’m talking about.

    I for one was born into the church in 1966 and raised though 1978 with the understanding that the church’s position on the races was god’s position. BRM did say what you present, but not to the church as a whole and certainly not to the world … I believe it was before a group of LDS educators — and the church has not repented of this racism before the world where the wrong was done.

    And my honest belief is that it never will, ’cause really — this would mean the repudiation of more than a few rogue statements of men, it would mean admitting that parts of the Book of Mormon are doctrinally unsound.

    Perhaps they will do it, but that day will be one where the virtue of Mormonism’s claim to divine authorship will be greatly diminished.

  5. Seth R. said,

    February 1, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    My own pet theory is that the “curse of blackness” spoken of in the BoM is simply due to the fact that the Lamanites intermarried with other indigenous peoples already in the neighborhood. That explains the skin color change.

    View this in light of the Law of Moses’ prohibition on Israelites marrying non-Israelites, and it’s fairly easy to see why Nephi, Jacob, Mormon and others would have viewed the skin color change as a curse. I also wouldn’t put it past God to take advantage of the natural prejudices of the Nephites to encourage them to avoid intermarrying with the Lamanites and adopting idolatrous practices.

    Pure speculation, but still fun.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 1, 2008 @ 10:10 am

    Repentance is an apt description of what needs to happen in this case. It seems that the church (speaking collectively and not individually) still struggles with the first step of repentance: feeling godly sorrow for its racist past.

    I am sympathetic to the dilemma this puts LDS members in that mel mentioned. If the church repents, it first has to confess that its leadership was wrong on the issue and admit in humility that Wilford Woodruff was erred when he said:

    “…the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 212–13 as quoted in Gospel Principles, Chapter 9)

    In other words, they would have to admit that an LDS Prophet can indeed lead his people astray. If the LDS church admitted this, it would have gone a long way to divesting itself of pride.

    Seth, I would suggest reading the full text of Joseph Smith’s letter to Oliver Cowdery. It seems that Elder Stapley is more familiar with Joseph’s statements on this issue than I am. Having said that, Joseph did change his views later in life, and I don’t know what source Stapley has for Joseph wanting to ship freed slaves back to Africa.

    In the BCC post you linked to, I thought the phrase “false beliefs regarding civil rights” was interesting. Actually, Elder Stapley’s views were correct doctrine by all accounts.

  7. Lincoln Cannon said,

    February 1, 2008 @ 10:24 am

    Jonathan, perhaps Woodruff (and other LDS Church leaders that stated similar ideas) was correct, and perhaps we, as members, are also removed out of our place to the extent that we follow leaders that are removed out of their place. In any case, I don’t think any of this is merely black and white — neither individual leaders nor the general membership are entirely saintly or entirely apostate. We are, each and all of us, removed from the glory of God to the extent that we behave in a manner incongruent with such glory. That’s just a simple matter of practical faith.

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 1, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    I don’t see this issue in black and white, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m demonizing anyone. I’m sure Elder Stapley was generally a nice guy when he wasn’t stating his opinions about race relations. Admitting that the Mormon people have been led astray by their leaders isn’t about asserting that the leadership is evil, just human, always human—even when the leaders are acting in their roles in the church. That’s a far cry from making them look like devils, but it is a step down from the pedestal of godlike status that they currently enjoy.

  9. Kullervo said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 5:39 am

    I’m actully writing a paper on Mormonism and the Civil Rights movement this semester.

  10. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 6:40 am

    I hope you post your paper somewhere. I’d be interested to read it.

  11. Seth R. said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 6:56 am

    Sounds interesting Kullervo. Next time you’re in the law library and are flush with free time, I wrote a casenote in Volume 4, Number 2 (2004) of Wyoming Law Review on First Amendment law and the LDS Church’s fight with protesters over the Main Street Plaza.

  12. Kullervo said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

    Who needs the library with Westlaw and HeinOnline..?

  13. Seth R. said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    What’s HeinOnline?

  14. Anonymous said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

    Does this mean that the white ass Americans (collectively and not individually) still have repenting to do for the way they treated black man throughout it’s history?

  15. Kullervo said,

    February 3, 2008 @ 8:14 am

    HeinOnline is a pretty sweet database of a bajillion law journals in .pdf format.

    And yes, “white ass Americans” most definitely still have some repenting to do.

  16. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 3, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    To some degree I agree that white America has some repenting to do. I don’t believe in guilt for the fathers’ sins falling on their children, but we do inherent an unjust system. We need to repent in the sense that we need to make our community just, beginning with our own attitudes. In the Mormon case, promoting justice requires that we acknowledge Mormon doctrines of the past as the product of purely human racism, not divine dictates.

  17. Stephen Merino said,

    February 4, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    I agree that Mormons should be more reflective and apologetic about their racist past. But don’t judge early Mormons too harshly. They are largely a product of their times and inherited views that were widely shared.

  18. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 4, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    I’m OK with accepting the early Mormons as human with all their faults. I think some LDS have a problem accepting them as such. :)

  19. dpc said,

    February 4, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    I always like the posts that are imbued with a lot of white guilt. Only in America, I suppose. It’s always easy to point the finger at the people that need to start repenting.

  20. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 4, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    “White guilt” tastes like “homophobia” to me: gratuitous and pejorative. I search myself for feelings of guilt that would bias my perception of Mormon doctrine, and I can’t find any. My views on this issue instead seem to me to be based on a growing empathy for and identification with those who get the raw end of racism.

    Besides, if we can’t point out behavior and beliefs that we think hurt our community, then why bother living on the same planet together? :)

  21. mel said,

    February 5, 2008 @ 8:57 am

    J wrote: “I think some LDS have a problem accepting them as such.”

    Precisely the point as I see it. How can you repent if you won’t even admit that your past consists entirely of human failing?

    And Jonathan makes this point in a much friendlier way but a shorter dpc is “STFU unless you’re perfect”. Sounds like a great approach to progress …

  22. dpc said,

    February 5, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    “My views on this issue instead seem to me to be based on a growing empathy for and identification with those who get the raw end of racism.”

    Where do you live exactly? Down here in the South, you still see a lot of racism and segregation, on both sides. And compared to some parts of the world it is very tame. Most people who write about racism haven’t seem it first hand or haven’t experienced it first hand. The African-American population down here has more important things to worry about what some member of a podunk church said forty years ago in a private letter. I’ve been to some other congregations down here and I’ve found that some churches remain quite segregated, whereas the Mormon church was more racially-mixed, especially in the little branch I used to attend.

    I think the best solution to problems of race come from ignoring it. It should be made illegal to ask questions regarding race on documents and forms. That is what foments racism and race-identity. It doesn’t make sense to me to classify a person from South Asia (who is from a physical anthropology standpoint, Caucasoid and more closely related to Europeans) in the same category as a person from East Asia or Southeast Asia. Race is arbitrary. It’s not a real category.

    The complaint to my ears is that the Mormon church was racist and that they haven’t gone far enough to right that wrong. Maybe an apology doesn’t cut it. Maybe the church should pay money to every person who was denied the priesthood. Maybe Delbert Stapley’s descendants should have to make reparations to those harmed by his insensitive remarks. Apologies are meaningless. Did it make one iota of difference to anyone that Pope John Paul II apologized for the Catholic church’s actions in the Middle Ages? The time and effort is better directed elsewhere. As Thoreau aptly said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

    The best way to end racism is to simply stop discriminating based on race. It consists of more than pointing the finger at times past and saying, “I wouldn’t do that if I was there. I’m enlightened.” It comes from deep reflection and introspection on your own attitudes and prejudices. It does not come from words, it comes from actions.

  23. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 5, 2008 @ 1:57 pm


    I think we largely agree. If you heard in my words a request for reparations, then I haven’t communicated well enough. I’m not asking anyone to make reparations.

    Apologies aren’t meaningless or useless. Not only do they smooth relations between people, they also transform the apologizer. In this context, an official repudiation of and apology for misguided racist doctrines of the past may make a few people of African descent feel better about the LDS church; more importantly, it would grant members of the LDS church full permission to root out racism in themselves.

    I don’t think that most LDS are outright bigots. Instead they may say to themselves “I think racism is generally bad, but prophets of God taught racist doctrines. Racism most be OK on some level, otherwise God wouldn’t have prescribed it.” This is something that an apology could heal. Then mainstream LDS could denounce racism unequivocally (at the cost of their belief that all presidents of the church never led anyone astray).

    I freely admit that, if I had been born into the same world as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Delbert Stapely, I probably would have been just as racist. There is a precedent. I don’t want to blame early Mormon leaders as much as I hope that current Mormons will repudiate the racist ideas of the past.

    I share your hope for a race-less world where race doesn’t exist as a category. I don’t believe we can get there from here by ignoring it completely. We have to address these racist doctrines in order to root them out, to get beyond them. I guess another option is to try to forget it ever happened, but that seems less honest.

  24. Anonymous said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 8:22 am

    I am grieved to discover the true opinions of JS and others on this matter,and feel they are indefensible,but have long suspected them to be such.
    I cannot imagine a church where temple sealings are denied to my brothers and sisters on the basis of race.Having been given access to this document,I would very much appreciate someone pointing out other documentation supporting the idea of JS evolving the views which led to the more liberal actions taken later in his life.

    Perhaps his views were more likely to lead to evolution rather than revolution?Was this perhaps the point?Really struggling to get my head round this.How did we get from there to the twelve praying on the matter in the temple?I can only assume that the spirit works on our souls over time.
    One thing I reflect on-in my 30 years in the church I’ve seen many changes,and they have all been for the better.Funny how you can still know the church is true in the face of such distressing information.

  25. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 8:57 am


    You bring out a good point. Stapley was an apostle at the time of Official Declaration 2. He apparently sustained that action from a hospital bed:

    Like those of the LDS Church, Stapley’s views changed with time and, from his hospital bed, Stapley sustained the First Presidency’s action on June 8, 1978 that all worthy men receive the priesthood, regardless of race.

    Joseph Smith’s ideas seemed to evolve though I wouldn’t ever call him sympathetic to enslaved Africans.

    I think the takeaway message here is that Mormon church leaders are not immune to the prejudices and follies of their time. Their understanding evolves over time just like the understanding of all mankind. They and the doctrines that they teach are not infallible and shouldn’t be treated as the unimpeachable end of all discussion on a topic. We are each still responsible for our own actions because the Mormon prophets aren’t a sure guide. (I wish they were; it would make life so much simpler.)

    Follow the prophet,
    Follow the prophet,
    Follow the prophet,
    He knows the way.
    (Except when he doesn’t so don’t follow him too closely. Results may vary.)

  26. Anonymous said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 7:37 am

    Thankyou Jonathan for your time and trouble,this has been useful to me.
    Can anyone comment on the fact tht one of the Saviour’s NT apostles was known as Simon the Canaanite?It seems an interesting possibility to me that he may have been a black man.

  27. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    I looked up the word translated as “Canaanite” in Strong’s Concordance, and it seems to be either a surname meaning a resident of Cana—a town in Galilee, or meaning “zealous” (as in “Simon Zelotes“). The NIV translates his name as “Simon the Zealot”.

    I think the impression that the Canaanites were descended from Africans (aren’t we all?) comes from Abraham 1:21–22. This seems to confuse who the Canaanites were.

    In any case, Simon’s name seems to have almost zero chance of meaning that he was African in descent.

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