Mormon Sunday school teacher fired for citing official Mormon website on race

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a dodgy past when it comes to race. According to the Book of Mormon, people with dark skin are the descendants of the Lamanites, a lost tribe of Israel cursed by God after they sinned against him (2 Nephi 5:21). God would later lift the curse as the Lamanites converted to Christianity (3 Nephi 2:15). As late as the 1960s, these verses were used to explain the darker skin of Native Americans, along with their gradual “whitening” after years of intermarriage fellowship with Mormons.

But if you thought the early Mormons had odd thoughts about Native American genetics, you wouldn’t want to get them started on black people. Joseph Smith taught that African-Americans bore “the mark of Cain,” a sign of Gods punishment for the world’s first murder, and therefore, “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.”

The Mormons’ biblical race theory was the primary reason why the Church did not allow black people to be ordained as priests until 1978, when Church leaders had the “revelation” that racism was bad politics.

The Mormon Church’s website makes an attempt to wrestle with this past, albeit in slightly more generous terms than I’ve outlined above, by including its 2013 essay entitled “Race and the Priesthood.” The essay notes that when the Church was founded in 1830, Americans still owned slaves, and racism was part and parcel with American culture. This unbridled racism “influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.”

This strikingly secular explanation for racial discrimination in the early iterations of the Mormon faith is juxtaposed with prior explanations that the Church now (for the most part) rejects. The essay continues:

The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.

Interestingly enough, the final push for racial equality in the Church came from outside of the United States. A large part of why Mormonism is rapidly expanding its membership is its vociferous pursuit of converts abroad, and the LDS website cites expansions into predominantly non-white countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil — whose converts quickly realized that they were building temples they wouldn’t be allowed to enter — as the final nails in the coffin of Church-sanctioned discrimination.

book of mormon mormons

Book of Mormon via Shutterstock

Given that this is the official party line, and especially considering the fact that it’s actually a pretty interesting story, one would think that the Church would want to teach to its younger members.

But you’d be wrong. As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, Brian Dawson was removed from his position teaching Sunday school at his local church because he had turned to “Race in the Priesthood” to answer a question concerning his wife’s decision to join the Church. Dawson’s wife is Nigerian.

Dawson’s use of the essay in Sunday school sparked a complaint from a parent, which led a Church leader to tell Dawson that “anything regarding black history before 1978 is irrelevant,” and that he should avoid discussing “black Mormon history” in future classes.

Dawson refused, relaying the following exchange to the Tribune:

“If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents,” he asked the bishop, “who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?”

The bishop replied, according to Dawson, “The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.”

It would be one thing if this were an isolated case, like one local Wal-Mart missing the equality memo and refusing to write “gay” on a cake, but the Mormon Church appears to have discouraged the dissemination of the history outlined in “Race and the Priesthood” more generally. Dawson’s wife, Ezinne, told the Tribune that she herself had used the now-disavowed explanations for the Church’s past racial inequities. Even though she joined the Church in the 1980s, after the Church’s pivot away from inequality, no one told her differently.

In 2012, Randy Bott, a professor of religion at BYU, forced the LDS Church to publicly reiterate its 1978 position when he cited the curse of Cain when explaining to the Washington Post that black people still weren’t ready for priesthood in the Mormon Church. As he explained, African-Americans asking to be priests would be “like a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car.”

To this day, the Church’s official position on its racial history is not widely publicized. As the Tribune points out, “Race in the Priesthood”:

…was neither signed nor penned by the governing First Presidency, nor has it been mentioned, alluded to, or footnoted in speeches by LDS authorities at the faith’s semiannual General Conferences.

Until the Church does more than give bloggers like me something to hyperlink to, and actively acknowledges its racial history as not only theologically unsound, but as something worth repudiating, it will be hard for the rest of us to believe that they are serious when they say that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Church. Coming to grips with past injustice doesn’t mean re-explaining it and then looking the other way; it means admitting wrongdoing and using it as a basis for progress.

They’ve got a ways to go.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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