Twenty five years after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints lifted its prohibition against blacks serving in the priesthood, the issue of race still haunts Mormonism.
In his new book All Abraham’s Children (University of Illinois Press, $36.95), sociologist Armand L. Mauss chronicles how the LDS church has long struggled between its early teachings and traditions which linked various racial lineages to righteousness and its universalistic thrust, viewing all people as God’s children. The main plot of the book is that the universalistic tendency won out in the church, largely through missionary encounters with diverse races, but remnants of the older church still exert some pull.
Mauss writes that the LDS church finds itself in the unique position of being among the least racist and anti-Semitic churches in the U.S (particularly after the 1978 ruling), judging by surveys of members’attitudes, while also harboring century old beliefs that create problems for black Mormons. Mauss notes that church officials have cultivated a good working relationship with black leaders and groups; the commitment of the church to genealogical work among blacks has been a particularly success.
But when the LDS church rescinded the prohibition against blacks in the priesthood, it didn’t condemn the teachings justifying this exclusion: that blacks are the cursed descendants of the Old Testament figure Cain. The remnants of this belief among many white Mormons has alienated many African-Americans from the church, according to Mauss..Although there are few hard statistics to cite, he writes that Mormon missionary work among blacks has not thrived and there is a significant black drop-out rate.
The independent Mormon magazine Sunstone devoted much of its March and April issues to matters surrounding the lifting of the priesthood prohibition, particularly looking at the way the older racial beliefs still live on in some quarters. Mormon books and pamphlets carrying these racial teachings are not difficult to find at most LDS bookstores.
For instance, Elder Bruce R. McConkies’ book “Mormon Doctrine” is a common source of church teachings for Latter Day Saints, but the current edition still includes information on blacks and the priesthood and the “mark of Cain” that is based on old understandings. Mauss concludes in his book that older racial beliefs may persist in the same way that sympathy for polygamy held strong among many Mormons long after the practice was discarded by the church.
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215)