Each year on the third Monday of January schools, federal offices, post office and banks across America close to mark the birth, the life and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. It is a time for the nation to remember the injustices that Dr. King fought. A time to remember his fight for the freedom, equality, and dignity of all races and peoples. A time to remember the message of change through non-violence.
In his book Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey tells of growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. His great-grandfather owned slaves and Yancey, born in 1949, tells of the turmoil as the civil rights movement painfully gained ground for the descendants of those slaves. He unquestioningly assimilated all the prejudices of his society in which black people were forbidden to eat in the same restaurants as white people, black children went to different schools from white children and even toilets were marked ‘White Men’ ‘White Women’ and ‘Coloured’. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of integrated schools, and 1964 saw restaurants and motels forced to serve all races. And only in 1965 were minorities guaranteed the right to vote. As Yancey writes, “We lived in apartheid conditions”, and he didn’t question the system he lived under.
In 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention was formed when Northern abolitionists said that slave owners were unfit to be missionaries. Yancey tells us that
“in 1995, 140 years after forming over the issue of slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention formally repented of their long-term support of racism.”
In a moving paragraph he describes the change in his own heart as he had learned to see things in a new light:>
“I have visited King’s old church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist, and sat in tears as I saw through new eyes the moral centre of the black community that gave them strength to fight against bigots like me. I was on the outside in those days, cracking jokes, spreading rumours, helping sustain a system of evil. Inside the church, and for a time only inside the church, the black community stood tall. My eyes, blinded by bigotry, could not see the kingdom of God at work” (Soul Survivor, p.38)
Since 1990 the Mormon Brigham Young University has staged a “Walk of Life” on Martin Luther Day to commemorate the man and to emphasise some aspect of his work that should be implemented in our own lives. The focus of this year’s walk (2003) is to help people understand that Martin Luther King Day is everyone’s holiday, not a black holiday. One student is reported as saying “He taught us to all get along, that no man is better than another and that no race is superior to another.”
A black student from Arkansas has said, however, that, while many people feel equality exists at BYU, she feels there is a long way to go. “I think there’s a problem at BYU that ‘all is well in Zion'”,she said.
We know, of course, that Mormons have, in the past, held beliefs every bit as racist as any other church’s beliefs. It does seem an irony that Martin Luther King Day should be marked in a University named after Brigham Young, who was probably one of the most racist religious leaders in American history. It was Brigham Young who declared:
“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind…and the Lord has put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and the black skin.” (Journal of Discourses, vol.7pp.290-91)
Many such pronouncements have been made down the years, and by many Mormon leaders. However, they are no more inflammatory than statements made by some Christian leaders of the past, especially in the Southern States. They and their churches have gone on to repent of holding such views, as is so eloquently demonstrated by Philip Yancey in his book. Mormons, surely, must be allowed to change their minds about these things too. For, without such forbearance, Christian churches will simply be hypocritical. But is all well in ‘Zion’? Have they, like the Southern Baptists, moved on? Certainly, an event like BYU’s Walk of Life seems to indicate as much.
Mormonism’s Real Secret Doctrine
It is popularly believed that the most “secret” aspects of Mormon doctrine are those surrounding the Mormon temple. Try and get a Mormon to talk about what goes on in those places and you will quickly learn – nothing. They will not talk about their temple ceremonies, claiming that they are too sacred to discuss with anyone else. However, Mormons will talk about the temple any time, showing great pride in this aspect of Mormonism’s restorationist doctrine. When temples are built folk who would normally not be allowed access are invited to a special open house, to take a tour of the facility, to have this peculiarly Mormon doctrine explained – in general terms. Books are published on the subject, classes held in local chapels, and literature of all kinds issued to explain the restoration of temples “in these latter days”.
While reticent on the specifics Mormons are very proud of their temples. Something Mormons are much more diffident about is the detail in Mormonism’s historical theology. Anyone who has studied Mormonism will know of the Plan of Salvation. In this plan Mormons see a panoramic view of man’s “progress” from a pre-mortal existence with God, through a mortal probation, to an eternity determined by the individual’s obedience to the Mormon gospel. According to this account men and women fought in a great battle in this pre-mortal world. Lucifer rebelled against God and persuaded many of these pre-mortals to follow him. When the revolt was defeated, Lucifer became Satan, and he and his followers were cast out of heaven into the earth as demons.
Those who remained were promised physical bodies and the opportunity to prove themselves worthy in their earth life of future blessings in eternity. Some, however, had not been so valiant in the battle, waiting to see who would win, and they would not be allowed such great blessings on earth. They were marked by being born with a dark skin – which is the Mormon explanation for the Negroes. Until 1978 anyone with Negro blood was not allowed to hold the Mormon priesthood. Indeed, Mormon missionaries were instructed to avoid proselytising black people.
The Mormon prophet Joseph Fielding Smith explains this teaching:
“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol.1, p.61)
The problem here is that, while other religious leaders may repent of holding such views, confessing to have misinterpreted scripture according to their own prejudices, Mormons have no such route available to them. While Christians may confess to having misunderstood the early chapters of Genesis and the meaning of the story of Cain, this is not possible for the Mormons, for the simple reason that there is no room for equivocation or interpretation in their scriptures.
In Mormon scripture the position is very clearly explained:
Behold, Potiphar’s Hill was in the land of Ur, of Chaldea. And the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land, and utterly destroyed them, and smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh; which Pharaoh signifies king by royal blood.
Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.
From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.
The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;
When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.
Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.
Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.
Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry; (Book of Abraham, vv.21-27)
The ‘Mark of Cain’ is thus clearly identified as an obvious barrier for the Canaanites to full participation in the blessings God has for His children. In other Mormon scripture we read the following:
And the Lord said unto me: Prophesy; and I prophesied, saying: Behold the people of Canaan, which are numerous, shall go forth in battle array against the people of Shum, and shall slay them that they shall utterly be destroyed; and the people of Canaan shall divide themselves in the land, and the land shall be barren and unfruitful, and none other people shall dwell there but the people of Canaan;
For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.
And it came to pass that Enoch continued to call upon all the people, save it were the people of Canaan, to repent; (Moses, 7:7-8,12)
The curse is a denial of blessings, especially priesthood but also denial even of hearing the gospel. The mark is a dark skin. A third source shows a similar picture. In the Book of Mormon the Nephites are faithful in following God’s plan while their brothers, the Lamanites, rebel. The two groups separate and, in order to distinguish the faithful from the rebellious, the latter are marked with a dark skin.
Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence.
And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey. (2 Nephi 5:20-24)
Further on in the same story the descendants of those first Nephites are warned:
O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their [the Lamanites] skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God. (Jacob 3:8)
Indeed, much later in the book many Lamanites repent and join with the Nephites with astonishing results:
And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;
And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;
And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. (3 Nephi 2:14-16)
Walking the Walk
There can be no doubt that the sentiments expressed by students and faculty alike on the BYU Walk of Life are heart-felt and genuine. Although many Mormons left the church in protest at the 1978 decision to allow Negroes the priesthood, many more embraced the decision with considerable relief. However, there is unfinished business here. While other churches and individuals have repented of their racist opinions, the Mormon Church has simply had a convenient revelation that gives the impression of leaving racism behind while leaving it enshrined in their scriptures and in their most fundamental doctrines of God and man. Black skin is still explained in Mormon scripture as a mark of rebellion and unfaithfulness. Those who have black skin are still, in Mormon scripture, those that were less valiant, therefore proving themselves less worthy, in a pre-mortal life.
According to the Book of Abraham the mark and the curse singles out the idolatrous. According to the Book of Moses the mark and the curse single out those who are violent and despised, to be denied the gospel. According to the Book of Mormon they single out the rebellious, the unlovely, the iniquitous, the loathsome and the mischievous.
To repent of such views the Mormon Church would have to reject something that is fundamental to their faith, enshrined in their scripture, part of the very pattern laid out by their god from the beginning. Lifting the ban in 1978 does nothing for the status of black people in Mormon historical theology. The ban has been lifted as a matter of political expediency, the curse remains as a matter of fundamental doctrine.
In the official Institute (religious studies) manual on the Books of Abraham and Moses these issues are skirted around. For the Book of Moses in particular, where it speaks of Canaanites turning black, the relevant verses are ignored altogether as the manual covers Moses 7:3-4; Moses 7:13; Moses 7:19 and then on to the later verses. Thus by subtle means this becomes one of the greatest secret of Mormonism today. May God bless all those who, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, strive to achieve racial equality and mutual understanding. May He bless Mormons who strive for such things, but may He also open their eyes to the fundamental contradiction between the laudable sentiments in many Mormon hearts and the abominable doctrines enshrined in Mormon Scripture and theology.