Race Issues/MHA 2013

By: Mormon Heretic
June 10, 2013

Saturday was the 35th anniversary of Official Declaration 2 – the ending of the priesthood/temple restriction on black church members.  Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune had several articles on the anniversary, and I was surprised that I was acquainted with a few of the people she interviewed in this article.  While much has been written on the ban this weekend, (Peggy’s article has been picked up by the Denver Post, Lowell (Mass.) Sun, Huffington Post, and many other outlets), the Mormon History Association meetings were held this past weekend in Layton, Utah as well.  I always love going.  I attended several sessions; I was only able to attend on Friday, because I had to work on Saturday, but wanted to share my notes from the conference. By Common Consent has some additional reports from Ben Park and Jacob.

In keeping with the race theme, I wanted to talk about some of the sessions dealing with ethnic diversity.  (You can read about the priesthood/temple ban elsewhere.  I also have more notes on my blog, and certainly there was a lot more to discuss than race/ethnicity.)

Michelle Ferris on the Chinese in Utah

Michelle Ferris, a non-Mormon gave an interesting account of how Mormons and Protestants in Utah dealt with Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.  Mormons and Protestants didn’t get along well; protestants set up schools to teach as well as proselytize among the Mormons.  They thought it was a good idea to teach English to the Chinese immigrants who were here to help build the railroads.

Mormons didn’t have success among the Chinese, and related it to the fact that the Chinese didn’t have “believing blood.”  Brigham Young said the Chinese were not worth proselyting to.  Following his death in 1877, Mormons began to develop a theological justification about the Chinese.  In 1888, Utah passed a law that whites couldn’t marry blacks or Mongolians (Chinese.)  The rationale was that we shouldn’t pollute Mormon blood line.  Utah law made it clear that Chinese were tainted as well as blacks.  The 1886 Juvenile Instructor showed that Mormons were related to Hebrew through Shem, son of Noah.  Asians were descended from Japheth.  There were also a large category all of gentiles including Germans, Greeks, and others.

It was held that Chinese lacked believing blood which was why they were unconverted.  Opium dens, gangs, and Chinatown were evil and full of temptation.  At the turn of century, it was stated that Plum Alley was a threat to the cleanliness of the city.  Other Asian groups were included and there was a brief article on surnames from Japheth.  Mormons continued teaching Japheth descendants were as rebellious as Ham.

Some early Mormon missions to China and India indicated Asians were un-convertible.  LDS leaders created a genealogical connection tying protestants and their conversion of Chinese immigrants.   Through skin color variations, Mormons associated gentiles as corrupted Christians and Chinese immigrants were polluted heathens.  In the microcosm of Salt Lake City, the Chinese became a pawn.   LDS leaders said the unconvertable must be removed.  Plum Alley was eventually torn down.

Spanish Temple Pilgrimage to Mesa Temple

The next speaker was Jared Tame.z  He spoke about Mexican pilgrimages to the Mesa Temple.  President Heber J Grant dedicated the Mesa Temple in 1927 and laid a vision of temple gathering of Lamanites.  It was the first temple to hold the endowment session in Spanish.  As background, Jared said that in 1944, the First Presidency approved translation of temple ceremonies into Spanish.  Workers in the Salt Lake temple completed translation and trained temple workers in Nov 1945.  In a 1945 issue of The Church News, Henry Smith wrote that history was made, and future historians would tell us of the proper importance.

Two hundred “Lamanites” assembles in Salt Lake City, gathering from coast to coast.  Many were entering the temple for first time and said the experience itself seems like dream. In the temple David O McKay, counselor to Pres Grant, welcomed patrons and gave them a word picture of endowment.  Church leaders noted new animation in branches where temple goers returned.  The Mesa Temple became a special excursion for Spanish-speaking church members.  Jared’s own parents  were married in 1980 there.  The establishment of new temples in Latin America in the 1980s brought the era of excursions to end, though Mesa is still a traditional pilgrimage.

I really enjoyed Jared’s final comments, that weren’t really part of the paper.  He said the Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio temples are the newest temples for Spanish-speaking members.  Mesa is still known as the Lamanite temple, but increased border security has curtailed temple excursions.  Undocumented workers can’t attend in Mexico and can’t attend in US.  Border violence has curtailed temple attendance; it has dropped 80% due to drug violence.

He finds that Spanish-speaking members are increasingly rejecting the Lamanite identity, and Jared grew up in home where he was taught he was a Lamanite.  As a historian he finds the identity is not usable, empowering, enlightening, and it is tremendously tied to narratives of American imperialism and racism.  For those who find being called a Lamanite empowering and useful, that’s wonderful–many do, but  we should not impose on that identity on anybody.  Don’t presume to call anybody a Lamanite, because it is laden with negativity.  This needs to be said more often.  This is part of broader struggle, and we need expanding awareness of problems of racial past in this country.

Darius Gray on the Railroad bringing Blacks to Utah

Darius spoke about the transcontinental railroad coming to Utah.  The railroad provided opportunities for conversation between whites and blacks.  Many porters and waiters were employed on the trains and friendships with white passengers developed.  Each individual materially influenced the consciousness of leaders.  Ruffin Bridgeforth was a black man who chose to embrace beliefs of LDS Church being baptized in 1953.  Membership afforded him to spend time with church leaders, and was well-respected by them.  Gray asked how many times the entire First Presidency, President of the Quorum of the Twelve and two Seventies have attended a lay member’s funeral?  They all attended Ruffin’s funeral and had love and respect for him.

Margaret Young on Abner Howell

Abner Howell was the grandson of Green Flake.  (Flake was the driver of Brigham Young’s wagon when he declared “This is the Place!”)  Howell was a great athlete who played football, and he became a train porter.  President Grant spoke very favorably about Abner.  Howell wanted to study law and attended the University of Michigan, where he played football.  However, there are no team photos of Abner on the team.  Michigan Coach Yost was an avowed racist and Abner was the only black player for Michigan.  He was on the team in 1903-4 that was part of a 4 year run in which Michigan won the NCAA football title four years in a row.  Yost let him on the team because of his athleticism (Abner played fullback.)  However, he was excluded from team photos.  No other black men played for Coach Yost.  Howell was baptized in 1921, and was known as an “honorary high priest” in the church.  He had tremendous respect among church leaders.

Ron Coleman’s response

U of U professor Ronald Coleman responded to all 4 papers.  He noted that even without religious overtones, the secular gold rush era continued for 50-60 years, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in California.  This reflected what exists in other parts of country.  In 1850-1, the California legislature made a law that anyone with 1/8 or more black blood could not testify against whites.  When blacks protested that the Chinese were not included, California thanked the African Americans and subsequently added Chinese as well.  This did not change until the Civil War in 1863.

Michelle made notes of Deseret News concerns about LDS and Chinese.  The footnotes did include the Salt Lake Tribune as well, which would provide a more clear a reflection of secular racial attitudes rather than religious bias.  The 1852 Utah legislature prohibited white and black sexual relations, and was among many anti-miscegenation laws in the US.  If married in state that permitted interracial marriage, then the couple can live in Utah as a mixed race couple.  These laws didn’t change until 1966-7.

Margaret and Darius are making Coleman re-think his own work in black studies.  In the 1930s, transportation became more affordable to the public via the railroad which accommodated passengers to include dining cars for all travelers.  Union Pacific and Southern Pacific hired many African Americans to work in the dining cars.  Coleman had not given much consideration for African American interactions with LDS leaders and these connections that were formed.  Blacks forged relationships with prominent leaders, and this laid the basis for community contact and to look at civil rights differently.

Jared’s paper on post World War 2-era Hispanic and Latino relationships looks at race relations in more expansive way.  In the post ww2 era, LDS leaders dealt with issues of race and diversity in the same way as much of the US.  In course of time there is a gradual increase of tension within the LDS Church.  There is a growing awareness of the status quo, which needs to change over time.

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye on Studying Mormonism

Melissa had a really interesting presentation on international Mormonism.  A native of Hong Kong, she wondered where the charismatic center of Mormonism is?  It doesn’t appear to be North America.  She noted that “hard core miracles” such as visions, speaking in tongues, etc seem to occur elsewhere in the world.  Supernatural miracles are a part of Mormon history.  We need to study international Mormonism in different ways.  In the past, Mormon history has been a study of filling in blanks.  In this year, Mormons first went to country x, had x number of converts, dealt with language problem y, and difficulty z.  Now in the 21st century we have this temple.

Oak Tree

She challenged us to confront Mormonism in terms other than the central administrative structure.  The Chinese have a saying that goes, “heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.”  While the headquarters is indisputably Salt Lake City, there are other centers.  We need to define these not by administrative structure, but by culture and practice.  Instead of religious history, look at their conversion to Mormonism for non North-American Mormonism.  To extend that, where are the 21st century mean hard core miracles:  healings, visions, exorcism?  How many of these are occurring in a non-North American setting?  Perhaps we consider reviving the genre of branch history, accounts of families, seasonal activity?

banyontree

The oak tree is a common metaphor in America and Europe.  Everything comes together in one place where the roots are.  This is like the geographical structure of Mormons.  We start here and stop in the limits of what roots support.  The Banyan tree is common in Asia.  This tree is planted in soil around a trunk, but soon branches and trunks grow new roots, and are indistinguishable from the original trunk.  All form a single living Mormonism.  The Banyan tree is not like the oak. You can dive in anywhere.  Hong Kong Mormons are no more or less exotic than Davis County Mormons.  Scholars must be willing to do hard work, and use multiple methods and approaches all over the world.

I was only able to attend Friday.  Does anyone have updates for Saturday or the Sunday devotional?  Do you have any thoughts regarding these presentations?

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4 Responses to Race Issues/MHA 2013

  1. James on June 10, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    Interesting articles found in the SL Tribune and the summaries of the MHA meetings here by Mormon Heretic. I’d be interested in reading about what other presentations were made. I didn’t know about the meetings or maybe I would have attended some of them. I’ll try to keep more current on what is happening.

    When I read these race and sexual orientation discussions I generally go back to what I consider to be the foundational reason for them which I see as being centered upon equality. People striving to be considered equal with everyone else. But then I ask, is everyone equal?
    Is ANYBODY equal with anybody else?

    I say no. And then I say it doesn’t matter, either. My job here during this lifetime is to advance myself and my family (given agency) as much as possible towards Godhood, and aid others in doing the same – i.e. help a bad man be good and good men better.

    I don’t see it as my job to punish anyone for what they did, or to hold them back from progressing as much as possible during this lifetime.

    So, am I screwed in the head for believing the above?

    Are the scriptures/prophets wrong when they teach of a “premortal” existence where some advanced more than others, and what we have here MAY be a reflection of choices made prior to this lifetime? Were some of the former Latter Day leaders wrong when they spoke of picking up in this lifetime where they left off before (“plowing from where they left off the evening before” to paraphrase Heber C. Kimball)?

    Why waste time on what others think instead of plowing forward on “the good work”?

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  2. Justin on June 10, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    Props to you, MH, for calling it the:

    priesthood/temple restriction on black church members

    instead of the:

    priesthood ban for black-African male members

    The commonly-used term “Priesthood Ban” [in my mind] underplays the effect the policy had on entire black-African families [not just the men].

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  3. Roger on June 10, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    Believing blood = crock

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  4. Mormon Heretic on June 10, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    James, if you enjoy attending these events, the FAIR conference is Aug 1-2 at Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, and Sunstone is July 31- August 3, 2013 at the University of Utah Student Union. (Go to parts of both!)

    As for pre-mortal explanations, yes you are wrong to perpetuate those teaching; they are not in vogue in the church any longer, so I wouldn’t recommend them. (The “Randy Bott” article in the Washington Post said “many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades.” See http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-genesis-of-a-churchs-stand-on-race/2012/02/22/gIQAQZXyfR_story_2.html

    Justin, thanks.

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