Brigham Young may have been a prophet, but the 19th century Mormon leader who proclaimed blacks unworthy of the priesthood could have never foreseen this: hundreds of black and brown and white people worshipping together on a recent Sunday in Los Angeles, all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Among the crowd of more than 250 were Alma Bailey, a 52-year-old African American and the church’s Relief Society president in Canoga Park; Mark Paredes, a 33-year-old Los Angeles-based black actor and aspiring broadcaster fluent in seven languages; and Glenn Nelson, 52, a Bakersfield attorney and former Pentecostal elder who will be baptized a Mormon this month.
“[Mormonism] spoke to me spiritually,” said Nelson, adding that he wasn’t overly bothered by its racist past.
“The church has in its contemporary history mustered the power of the entire church from top to bottom in a genuine effort to reverse a very disappointing, Christian-wide legacy.”
The Los Angeles gathering like those in embryonic stages in Oakland, Chicago, Houston, Washington, Detroit and Minneapolis is part of an outreach by the Mormon church in big cities across the United States to make minorities, particularly African Americans, feel more at home.
It’s a tricky feat. In the not-too-distant past, the Mormon faithful were routinely taught that blacks were an inferior race, the color of their skin linked to curses from God recounted in Hebrew and Mormon scriptures. Besides being barred from the priesthood, black males couldn’t serve on missions or be married in the temple though they could become church members and be baptized.
The Mormons’ historic position on race wasn’t much different from that of many other U.S. denominations; it just lasted longer. It took until 1978 14 years after the Civil Rights Act before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lifted the ban following what leaders said was a revelation from God to make the priesthood available to “every faithful, worthy man.”
“We’re fighting some uphill battles here because of our history,” said Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, a Salt Lake City-based ministry founded in 1971 to support African American church members. The group is helping to establish similar organizations nationwide.
In Los Angeles, informal church services, or firesides, have been held every other month for the past two years. In Mormon parlance, firesides are gatherings of the faithful that first took place on the pioneer trails and later in homes.
At a recent fireside, Los Angeles City Councilman and former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks who is not a Mormon spoke about the value of families and religion. A Polynesian American Mormon choir sang. Minorities in the church gave their testimonies. And announcements were made, including the news that church-owned Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management is offering full-ride diversity scholarships for master’s programs.
The crowd included Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners and whites. It’s a level of integration that most churches haven’t reached, with Sunday morning still being the most segregated time in America.
“This is how I envision the celestial kingdom is, with diverse talents and strengths that bring out the best in everyone,” said Bailey, the local Relief Society president.
Compared to standard worship services, the fireside evenings include more clapping, more “amens” spoken during sermons, and more black-influenced music such as spirituals or gospel songs. Scholars and others believe this influence on non-doctrinal matters like music will eventually seep into regular services. For many blacks, it would be a welcomed addition.
“Having been raised in the African American charismatic movement, I find the emotion and power of the African American music missing,” Nelson said. “The scriptural meaning is there, but the raw power and emotion fall short.”
Still, black members emphasize that they’re not trying to create their own branch of Mormonism.
The Los Angeles group has also held genealogy seminars for African Americans, using records from the Freedman’s Bank, a post-Civil War institution that contained information on freed slaves.
Mormon officials worked for 11 years to compile the records into useable data, a project finished in 2002.
The church doesn’t keep statistics based on race, so it’s difficult to measure the pace of integration.
Within the church hierarchy though, five black men citizens of Nigeria and Ghana serve in the Quorums of the Seventy, five bodies of as many as 70 men who serve under the direction of the top church leaders.
Scholars and Mormon officials agree that it’s been a slow process because of a variety of factors, among them: cultural clashes, disapproval of family members and the perpetuation of church myths such as a notion that blacks were inferior even in pre-mortal life.
“I feel sure that most white Mormons genuinely want [African Americans] to feel at home, but they inadvertently make blacks among them uncomfortable at times,” said Mormon scholar Armand L. Mauss, author of “All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage.”
Largely free of this historical baggage in other countries, Mormon missionaries have helped create the world’s fastest-growing church now estimated at close to 12 million members by winning black converts in Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. In Africa, church records for 2002 show more than 188,300 Mormons (600 men in leadership positions), up from 6,400 members in 1970.
Black Americans said they were attracted to the church for the same reasons as others, including its unique doctrine, its emphasis on families, its all-volunteer clergy and its rigorous attention to living up to biblical standards.
“My Pentacostal church was not living in a righteous way,” said Nelson, who served as an elder in that congregation for seven years. “Not the pastors, let alone the members.”
Scholars say it’s the younger, affluent blacks who feel most at home as Mormons, in part because they are more willing to put the church’s racist past in historical perspective.
“Success is greatest among middle-class blacks, many of whom are prepared to see the Mormons as simply sharing in the racist American past, rather than having been especially racist,” Mauss said.
Or as Harwell pointed out: “If you’re going to get mad at the church, you’ve got to get mad at America.”
Mauss and others believe that a church repudiation of past policies would help, but that would be difficult because it was never clear whether the racism was a divine revelation which couldn’t be apologized for or man-made law.
The church’s official position today is that only God knows the reasons for the ban and that the new revelation “authoritatively refutes all past speculation and opinion.”
“I don’t think you’re going to expect the leadership to come out and say, ‘We treated you wrong all these years,’ ” said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of “Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons.”
“But they are saying, ‘We rejoice in the new situation.’ “
Mauss said that for many blacks, that isn’t enough.
“All that is necessary is a formal, official statement that such teachings were never correct and have no place in the church today,” Mauss said.