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