LDS Discussions Blog
What Do The Church's Scriptures Teach Us About Race Today? (June 14, 2020)
Over the last few weeks, the country has begun having a very difficult and uncomfortable discussion following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota. That has led to protests across the country, which has led to every organization and corporation around the country releasing a statement in support of equality and love for all races - including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There was one line in Prophet Russell Nelson's statement that stood out to me, and that was when he said that "prejudice, hate and discrimination are learned."
We have written about the topic of race in the church a few times before, but one thing that you'll find when you study both church history and doctrine is that Nelson is right in saying that discrimination is learned, but he neglects to mention that those prejudices are still taught by the church to this day through their own scriptures.
First things first, let's just say this upfront: This post is going to be uncomfortable. Talking about race is always uncomfortable because the history of how blacks have been treated is downright awful, but that gets compounded by the fact that this church in particular has led the way in that discrimination.
If you are a believing member of the church, you will likely feel discomfort reading this post, and I know that because I once felt it. All I can tell you is that the uncomfortable feeling isn't the adversary trying to lead you away - it's your mind trying to do everything it can to stop you from entertaining information that conflicts with your core beliefs. I really love this website's illustration of how our minds process information, and I hope you might read it if you feel discomfort with this post.
As mentioned above, we have covered the topic of race and the church a few times in the past and I will try not to have too much overlap, so I want to cover them here briefly:
Come Follow Me: What is the Curse of Dark Skin in 2 Nephi? (January 19, 2020): In the 2020 Come Follow Me printed manual, the church points out that the curse of dark skin in the Book of Mormon is a literal curse of a dark skin. They scrubbed this quote in the electronic version, and it caused a bit of controversy. We took a look at the changes the church made, and how they cut around a pivotal quote to make it sound much less offensive than it is when looked at as Prophet Joseph F. Smith originally spoke it.
Come Follow Me: What If 'Skin' Doesn't Mean Human Skin? (January 30, 2020): This was a blog post follow-up to our initial post about the 2020 Come Follow Me manual's reference to the curse of dark skin, and a look at an apologetic article that "skin" doesn't mean "skin," but clothing. We go through the article point by point to explain why this apologetic simply does not work both within the text of the Book or Mormon or the teaching of it by prophets and other leaders.
Timeline: Ban on Blacks for Priesthood and Temple Ordinances: A quick look at the timeline of the ban on black members from the priesthood in the church, and what led to the ban being lifted in 1978.
Church Scriptures and Quotes From Leaders on the Ban on Blacks for the Priesthood/Temple Ordinances: A rundown of some quotes from both LDS scriptures (Book of Mormon, Abraham, and Moses) and leaders on what the curse of dark skin was, and how they spoke of black people while speaking for God.
Official LDS Essay on Race and the Priesthood, Annotated: Our annotations to the official church Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood. This is the most important piece to read, as it details the church's positions on what led to the ban on blacks as well as what led to the ban being lifted. It includes a lot of the quotes and timeline from above in order to answer the church's claims in the essay.
Those articles/posts will give you much more background information for this post, because we won't highlight everything here. What I want to cover, however, is this idea from Nelson that "prejudice, hate and discrimination are learned."
I've seen many people say that the Mormon church is a white supremacy group over the last few weeks, and I cringed because at a quick glance it's a ridiculous argument to make that it would only cause the backfire effect among those you hope will actually listen to what you have to say. But as I thought about it, I read the scriptures that discuss skin color along with the teachings of the church and it becomes clear that it is actually a fair argument.
Just look at Oxford Dictionary's definition of white supremacy: "The belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society."
The Book of Mormon teaches that dark skin is a curse from God, and that as you become good again, your skin will turn back to white. We cover that in the posts above, and leaders from the church confirmed that until it became untenable following the 1978 lifting of the priesthood ban. While the Book of Mormon is focusing on the Native Americans having dark skin because they are taught to be the descendants of the Lamanites (an issue that DNA has proven to be a false teaching), it carries over to black people in both the Book of Moses and Abraham.
From the Book of Moses:
Moses 7:8 - There was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people
Moses 7:22 - They were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.
From the Book of Abraham:
Abraham 1:24 - When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.
Abraham 1:27 - Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry.
To further illustrate that Joseph Smith was incorporating the ideas around him with regards to what dark skin meant and why dark skin is inferior, look at how he (incorrectly) 'translates' the one black figure in facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham:
Joseph Smith's translation: Fig. 6. Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince.
Actual translation of the papyri: Anubis, guide of the dead, with literal Egyptian characters above the head that confirms this is Anubis.
In other words, Joseph Smith saw a black figure and assumed it must be a slave because that was what fit his worldview (and his Book of Abraham manuscript), even though that figure had nothing to do with being a slave in actual Egyptian. In fact, you can actually see in the woodcut for facsimile 3 that someone around Joseph Smith chiseled off the nose of the figure to make it look like a black human instead of having the pointed ears and snout that Anumbs would typically have.
Both of these books make clear that black people were "despised" by the others (who just happen to be white) around them, and that they were not worthy to hold the priesthood due to the color of their skin. In other words, just as with the Book of Mormon these books make clear that those with white skin are favored in the eyes of God to those with dark skin.
Now this fits in with the language in the Book of Mormon that describes the faithful Nephites as being "white and delightsome." In fact, the church has changed much of this language over the years due to the public pressure that arose from the clear teachings that white skin is superior to black or brown skin.
Some changes that the church made:
-The words "skin of blackness" were removed from the introductory summary in 2 Nephi Chapter 5. It now says that "the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed, and become a scourge unto the Nephites."
-In Mormon Chapter 5, they have changed the chapter heading from "The Lamanites shall be a dark, filthy, and loathsome people" to "because of their unbelief, the Lamanites will be scattered, and the Spirit will cease to strive with them."
-In 1981, three years after the ban on blacks was lifted, the church quietly changed the phrase "white and delightsome" to describe what would happen to dark skinned people who came unto Christ to "pure and delightsome."
With regards to the "white and delightsome" change, church apologists will argue that Joseph Smith (likely himself) did change one reference of "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome" in the 1840 edition, but left the other references to "white and delightsome" unchanged. But that of course leaves open the questions as to why it was written that way in the first place, why other references to "white and delightsome" were left unchanged, and why Joseph continued this theme in the books of Moses and Abraham, both of which were written years after the Book of Mormon.
When you read these verses from scriptures of the church, it absolutely implies that those with white skin are more pure, chaste, and worthy than those with black skin. While some want to claim that "skin" actually means "clothes," as we outline in our earlier Come Follow Me post, that simply does not work in the context of the verses or the teachings from the prophets, seers, and revelators through revelation with regards to knowing who the Lamanites are based on the color of their skin (i.e. Native Americans). That is the very definition of white supremacy, and it is embedded in the church's doctrines whether we want to take them at face value or not.
And that problem is compounded by the church's prophets, seers, and revelators teaching that the curse of dark skin is literal. While we have more quotes in the pages linked above, just a few to illustrate this point:
Prophet Joseph Smith: "And he said cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.— God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”—Gen, 8:25, 26, 27... 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 wonderful occurrence is not for me to say; but I can say, that the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come; and the people who interfere the least with the decrees and 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 designs 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." (Joseph Smith in letter to Oliver Cowdery, 1836)
Prophet Brigham Young: "I will remark with regard to slavery, inasmuch as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses, which they have in their families and their classes and in their various capacities brought upon themselves. And until the curse is removed by Him who placed it upon them, they must suffer under its consequences; I am not authorized to remove it. I am a firm believer in slavery." (Prophet Brigham Young in the Joint Session of the Legislature, January 1852)
Apostle George Q. Cannon: "The question also came up whether a white man who was married to a woman having negro blood in her veins could receive the Priesthood. I explained what President Taylor had taught me when I was a boy in Nauvoo concerning this matter; he had received it from the Prophet Joseph, who said that a man bearing the Priesthood who should marry or associate with a negress, or one of that seed, if the penalty of the law were executed upon him, he and her and the offspring would be killed; that it was contrary to the law of God for men bearing the Priesthood to have association with that seed." (Journal of George Q. Cannon, December 16 1897)
Apostle George F. Richards: "I cannot conceive our Father consigning his children to a condition such as that of the negro race, if they had been valiant in the spirit world in that war in heaven." (Apostle George F. Richards, October 1939, General Conference)
Prophet George A. Smith: "From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel. Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous. Modern Israel has been similarly directed. We are not unmindful of the fact that there is growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.” (LDS First Presidency (George Albert Smith), letter to Virgil H. Sponberg (critic of the anti-black ban), May 5, 1947)
Elder Ezra Taft Benson: "There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America just as agrarian reform was used by the Communists to take over China and Cuba. This shocking statement can be confirmed by an objective study of Communist literature and activities and by knowledgeable Negroes and others who have worked within the Communist movement." (Elder Ezra Taft Benson Of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, 1967)
Prophet Harold B. Lee: "The privilege of obtaining a mortal body on this earth is seemingly so priceless that those in the spirit world, even though unfaithful or not valiant, were undoubtedly permitted to take mortal bodies although under penalty of racial or physical or nationalistic limitations." (Prophet Harold. B. Lee in his book, Decisions for Successful Living)
These quotes make clear that not only do the church's scriptures teach that dark skin is a curse from God and therefore inferior to white skin, but these prophets even believed and taught that those with dark skin were "not valiant" in the pre-mortal life. Again, this line of thinking is the very definition of white supremacy, and this thinking was borne out of Joseph Smith's milieu along with the scriptures he produced.
While the term white supremacy is such a loaded term that it even made me cringe when I saw others use it against the church, it is simply a fact if we take the definition of white supremacy at face value. And the real problem is that while the church disavows (since 1978) all past prophets of God who claimed this was the doctrine of God, they do not (and can not) disavow their own scriptures which still teach it today.
This is a problem the church can not get away from no matter how many donations they make to the NAACP or how many times they say they can not find a reason for these teachings in the first place. While the current prophet Russell Nelson says that "prejudice, hate and discrimination are learned," he neglects to add that this church has been teaching these ideas in the name of God.
When I began studying church history, I noticed an unmistakable pattern that all prophets from Joseph Smith to Russell Nelson are simply inserting their own personal biases and environment into the word of God to teach what they already believed. I believe that Russell Nelson's wife Wendy put it better than I ever could:
"It is as though he's been unleashed. He's free to finally do what he came to earth to do. … And also, he's free to follow through with things he's been concerned about but could never do. Now that he's president of [the Church], he can do those things." (Mormon Newsroom)
As we covered previously in a post about how revelation has changed during the church's history, the first major 'revelation' of Russell Nelson as prophet was to implement a change he had fought for his entire life: not using the name Mormon. Yet we can see by looking at Nelson's previous talks along with the prophets during those times that Nelson was unsuccessful in that mission until he lived long enough to claim that authority.
When Joseph Smith was rejected by women he propositioned for polygamy, he would tell these young women that they were chosen by God for him through revelation, and if they rejected him further, Joseph Smith told them that an angel with a drawn sword told him if they did not marry him as polygamous wives, Joseph Smith would be destroyed. If you would like more information on this, please check out our annotated Gospel Topics essay on Polygamy in Kirtland and Nauvoo.
In other words, Joseph Smith used the idea of revelation constantly to insert his own worldviews and desires into the church, because as prophet he was trusted and followed completely. If Joseph Smith asked for something on his own, he would be much more likely to be rejected compared to when he told his followers that the request was from God. It's how Joseph got Martin Harris to pay for the Book of Mormon, got women to enter into marriage and sexual relations with him, and how he increased his authority by changing the priesthood restoration and First Vision accounts. More relevant to this topic, this is also how Brigham Young implemented the ban on blacks, and why every prophet until 1978 believed that black skin was a curse for those who were less valiant in the pre-mortal life.
We document this idea about revelation on many other pages on this website, but this is exactly what you'd expect from a church led by men who lead with their own worldview. It's why there are no revelations that detail events the prophets couldn't see coming (yet the Book of Mormon is amazingly clear about things it could know about like Columbus, the colonies, and the Revolutionary War), why they got a lot of early revelations wrong, and why they are constantly wrong about issues that become untenable due to science or public pressure (Where the Native Americans came from, Kinderhook Plates, LGBT issues, and racism/dark skin).
But because this church claims to be the 'only true and living church,' it becomes an even bigger problem that they championed white supremacy for about 150 years and still teach it in their scriptures. There is a reason that the church's prophets believed they could turn the Native Americans white by teaching them the gospel or even adopting Native American children into their families.
Prophet Spencer W. Kimball: "I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today as against that of only fifteen years ago. Truly the scales of darkness are falling from their eyes, and they are fast becoming a white and delightsome people." (Spencer W. Kimball, October 1960 General Conference)
This is a teaching that is racist, harmful, and just factually false. How could a church truly led by all fair and loving God teach that those who are not white are from a cursed lineage - why should every black person (or Native American) pay for the sin of their fathers? And even if you make room for the possibility that God would command this, you then have to ask what kind of God would design a world where he would punish the descendants of black and brown people in order to elevate white people?
One thing I've come to terms with as I've studied church history is that even if the "Mormon God" is true and real, he would not be a God worthy of my worship. My wife deserves better than an eternity of making spirit children while I have sex with my plethora of polygamous wives, and Native Americans and blacks deserve better than to have their identity stolen from them by the church so that they can sell it back to them at the cost of a lifetime of mixed messages on their identity, tithing, and obedience.
I don't think there's a better way to illustrate that this church is led by men and not God than this: We are to believe that God sent an angel with a drawn sword to force Joseph Smith to marry and have sex with many young women who follow him, but allowed his other prophets to make up and teach racist doctrine for 150 years without being corrected by a revelation or visit from an angel?
One apologetic answer to this is that the prophets weren't asking the right questions. In a lengthy interview with Jim Bennett, who wrote a response to the CES Letter, he repeatedly says that early prophets just weren't asking if this is wrong because they were in an environment of racism and weren't thinking about the policy and teachings being wrong.
But if that is the case, what is the point of having a prophet to receive revelation on the issues of the day? Why is this church always behind society as a whole on the issues that matter most to people? And what does that say about the implication that Joseph Smith that he was constantly asking God about what young women he could marry and have sex with if God only gives us the information we are seeking answers for?
In other words, this argument just does not fit with the concept of a true and living church, but it fits perfectly with a church led by men who are only capable of putting their own worldview into the voice of God to get their followers to adhere to policies and beliefs that they hold themselves.
I don't want to get into revelation too much here, but if you have never seen the video on spiritual witnesses, I highly recommend it to everyone as it details how every religion uses the idea of a spiritual witness to confirm truth, and obviously not everyone in this video can be correct. There is also a clip of a woman in an LDS offshoot church speaking about how she received a spiritual witness of polygamy from God just as the church did until it was revoked, which is odd if personal revelation comes from a consistent and unchanging God.
Clearly this is a very difficult topic, and I know if you're a believing member this information probably either has your stomach in knots because of how damning the history of the church is with regards to race, or very angry at me for writing about it. All I can say is that as difficult as it was reading about church history and having any shred of belief crumble from doing so, I am much happier knowing that I have been ahead of current prophets in treating everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve. While leaders have begun to embrace black members since 1978, they have shifted to demonizing the LGBT community, and as we know God gave a revelation in 2015 that was reversed just 3.5 years later. I knew in 2015 that it was wrong to condemn gay members as apostates, and I surely knew before Russell Nelson reversed that policy via revelation that it was going to get removed by the church eventually due to the fact that younger generations are not having any of the nonsensical disdain that the church continues to push towards the LGBT community.
But give credit where credit is due - Russell Nelson is absolutely right when he teaches that "prejudice, hate and discrimination are learned." He's just being very careful not to mention that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only used God to teach it to members for 150 years, but that they're still teaching it in their scriptures today even if they carefully keep these verses out of their talks and lessons. And that leaves the church with the most impossible choice: Keep these racist ideas in their scriptures and never fully escape the prejudice they teach their members every Sunday, or change the scriptures and finally admit that Joseph Smith was the creator of the Book of Mormon, Moses, and Abraham as a man - not as the inspired (or literal) word of God.
In Nelson's statement on race, he says that "any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent!" My response to Nelson is simple: You first. Until the church truly repents and apologizes for their history of racism that continues today in their scriptures, they are no better than those they scold in his statement, and no amount of slick public relations stunts will change that.
Again, I realize this is a very difficult and sensitive topic, but if we look at the definition of white supremacy and then look at both the church's scriptures and statements from those who claimed to speak for God, there is simply no escaping the reality that this church is based on the idea that white people are favored by God, and that dark skinned people will once again become white and delightsome as they come unto Christ and lift the curse. That is an abhorrent teaching, and it is one that the church will never be able to run away from no matter how much they rebrand their past.
As we usually close out these posts, I want to mention how difficult it is to take in this new information and changes in policies, and we understand how painful it is to process. Please email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more resources to learn about these issues or if you are looking for people that you can safely talk to as you continue your faith journey. And please email us if you disagree with our post - we welcome all comments!
Check us out on Twitter or Facebook as well for future posts and updates, and thank you again for reading!