Q&A with For the Cause of Righteousness Author, Russell W. Stevenson December 08 2014
by Russell W. Stevenson
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Q: Your book tackles one of the most controversial aspects of LDS history, one that Latter-day Saints often struggle to discuss with those both outside and within their faith community. What will your book do to further the conversation?
Too often, discussions about Mormonism and race focus on the upper echelons of Church leadership, as though the history could be reduced to a series of proclamations, statements, and official correspondence. We think of it in some of the same ways the diplomatic historians of a former age considered global politics. But the study of race in any contexts begs for more than that. It demands that we understand the relationship as it was lived and breathed on the ground.
Latter-day Saints will find that the story of this relationship reveals not merely a compendium of circulars but an intimate portrait of a people’s journey through the American landscape. W.E.B. DuBois observed that the color line cuts through the heart of the American experience, and it was a line that all classes of Mormon society had to engage: from the Prophet Joseph Smith to the South African tailor, William P. Daniels, to the Payson day laborer, N.B. Johnson.
Q: Several scholarly works have tackled the very questions your book has poised itself to address: Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s Standing on the Promises series, Newell Bringhurst’s Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, Armand L Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children, and, of course, Lester Bush’s seminal article: “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.” What does your book offer that their works does not?
The novels of Margaret Young and Darius Gray were instrumental in normalizing the black Mormon experience for the Mormon community. While stories of Elijah Ables and Jane Manning James had been long known—Andrew Jenson included Elijah in his LDS Biographical Encyclopedia as the “only colored priesthood holder”—they remained alienated from mainstream Mormon thought. Newell G. Bringhurst became one of the first scholars to trace the particulars of the Mormon community’s engagement with the black population, and Armand L. Mauss performed the seminal service of presenting a sociological profile of the Mormon community’s racial views.
I seek to build on this discussion by situating Mormonism’s interaction with the black community against a global backdrop, including the accounts of the much storied Ghanaian and Nigerian Mormons. The story becomes more layered and complex, a Weberian web of meanings spun across time and space. The black Mormon experience is not merely the Genesis Group, not merely Helvecio Martins, nor is it the rise of Ghanaian Mormonism; it is an intersection of these communities to craft a global narrative that defined the Latter-day Saints’ relationship with the global community for generations.
Q: The book is named, For the Cause of Righteousness, a strangely optimistic title for a topic that forces people to ask such hard questions of themselves. What was the inspiration for this title?
The title comes from priesthood certificate of Elijah Ables, where he is commended with possessing a zeal “for the cause of righteousness.” Styled in the same language as every other Melchizedek Priesthood holder’s priesthood certificate, the document requires that we see the fundamental contradiction that defined early Mormon views on race. Elijah felt at home in Mormonism, even as he faced down what looked like every other white denomination in America. How could a man such as Elijah Ables, likely a runaway slave, continue to affiliate with such a faith? As the priesthood restriction settled into the LDS community, Elijah increasingly became a relic of a forgotten day.
And righteousness is an interesting word—does it mean right action? The state of being correct? Elijah’s story demands that we ask the question of what the Mormon project all about. Joseph Smith hoped that “every man might speak in the name of God, the Lord.” Mormonism’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon, declares that “all are alike unto God, both black and white, bond and free.” Whether one accepts the Book of Mormon as representative of historical events or as a fanciful frontier tale woven from within Joseph Smith’s mind, this text seems to transcend its own textual surroundings—a book beset by ethnic wars, talk of racial cursings, and a massive destruction of a cataclysmic order. The text of Elijah’s priesthood certificate reminds us that there was a time when blacks and whites could enjoy common fellowship in “the cause of righteousness.”
Q: What perhaps less well-known historical figures play prominent roles in your history of Blacks and Mormonism?
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie declared that there are real “dangers” in embracing a “single story” of Africa, let alone blacks worldwide. As a white author with a notably white background (my grandfather was a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department in the years leading up to the Watts riot), I do no pretend to “give voice” to black figures; they already have a voice that has been, both intentionally and ignorantly, silenced by various white structures of power. Anthropologist Ferdinand Coronil has said of the postcolonial Other that scholars should be careful of efforts to represent it; instead, they should “create conditions that would enable it to represent itself.” It is tempting to sustain particular narratives about black Mormons: humble, faithful, suffering, but devoted, or restless, defiant, and theologically innovative. But no matter the context, we find that Nigeria, Ghanaian, South African, or African-American Mormons exhibit a variety of characteristics.
In addition to the well-known black Mormons such as Elijah Ables and Jane Manning James, I have endeavored to highlight modern black Mormons both in the United States and abroad. William P. Daniels, the branch president over an official Church branch in Mowbray, Capetown, South Africa, enjoyed such a position of respect with white Mormon leaders that they recognized his family as an official unit of the Church and set him apart to be the branch president. I tell the story of the strivings of Igbo Mormons in Nigeria, such as Charles Udo-Ete, in his struggles to establish Mormonism years before the American Church hierarchy would acknowledge their existence. I highlight the pivotal role of Lilian Clark, the English Sufi mystic and visionary, who gave the Ghanaian schoolmaster, Raphael Abraham F. Mensah, some LDS literature, thus starting in motion the events that would lead to the development of Ghanaian Mormonism in the 1960s.
I also endeavor to tell the stories of well-known white Mormon figures, but through the lens of their efforts to grapple with Mormon views on race. I share the story of Sonia Johnson, who was an American housewife in Nigeria long before she became an Equal Rights Amendment activist; her time in Africa compelled her to see race as the defining question of her generation of Mormonism. And we learn to see James E. Faust, once a John F. Kennedy appointee for civil rights action, not merely as one of “the Brethren” but as a man committed to maintaining his faith in Mormonism even while his political views push up against the accepted wisdom of his ecclesiastical colleagues.
Q: Hasn’t the LDS community moved beyond race? Why focus on old wounds?
Racial thinking works in complicated ways; we fool ourselves if we think that racism fits neatly under a single description. While, as Armand L Mauss has demonstrated, the LDS community is no more likely to embrace racial thinking than other religious groups, the Mormon community’s troubled relationship with the black community has bequeathed modern Mormons a host of consequences. But likely out of a fear of feeling guilty or culpable for past racial sins, we tend to shy away from sustained analysis. For some, they simply don’t feel the need to do so; their neighborhoods, friends, and family members are white, after all. Why bring up controversy?
Because our ignoring it does not make it disappear; and believing that we can is only a comforting (and expensive) mythology, at best—and one that is only available to white people who can enjoy the luxury of racial self-isolation. For others, we might share a few stories about Jane Manning James, but even then, we do so without fully recognizing that her story presents a case of a woman of color being denied the full blessings of the gospel based not on her personal actions but the color of her skin. (And her correspondence reveals that she had not been taught the “less valiant in premortality” explanation that had just become de rigueur.) For people of African descent, pretending as though the priesthood restriction never happened is an act of monumental denial. Doing so would raise as many eyebrows as “forgetting” that there was a trans-Atlantic slave trade, that there was systemic segregation in most of America throughout the better part of its history, and that American Mormonism kept African Saints at arm’s length even while other missionary societies were eager (perhaps too eager) to bring Christianity to the continent.
Q: In a recent essay the LDS Church has “disavowed” past statements that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor; does your book address these statements and how does it address this recent disavowal?
In the Documents portion of the volume, I provide an excerpt from the famed “Race and the Priesthood” statement, as well from the March 2013 preface to Official Declaration #2. I cast the disavowal as a part of a longstanding struggle to come to grips with a practice that most leaders felt the need to justify, sometimes through rather innovative theological methods. As Sterling M. McMurrin said, from the beginning, the explanations for the priesthood restriction have been “shot through with ambiguity”; even Spencer W. Kimball expressed frustration at what he felt had been the Lord’s lack of instructions on the matter. The disavowal marked the happy end of generations of failed explanations, theological gymnastics, and deficient teachings.
Q: The second half of this book consists of an anthology of primary source documents—which will make it a first in this area of research. Tell us about the process you used to select and contextualize the documents.
At times, it is easy to fixate on speeches made at the Tabernacle, comments made in the halls of the Church Office Building, or an address given by a white Church leader to an overwhelmingly white congregation. Important as these comments may be, they make up a story of White Mormons Talking About Black Mormons. This tendency only perpetuates the problem of representation, that is, of failing to create conditions in which black Mormons are able to express themselves.
More precisely, I hope to show that there was more—much more—to the black-Mormon relationship than the priesthood restriction, as central as that is to the narrative. So I sought to select documents that spoke to the relationships found within these two communities. One document, a letter with Elijah Ables’s signature, reveals experiences traveling on the Overland trail westward. Racial difference is not discussed in the letter, which in itself reveals something about the black Mormon experience: sometimes they experienced extraordinary things with no immediate pertinence to their racial experience. Other documents give voice to the Church’s ambivalence to the “civil rights movement” (though Ezra Taft Benson would distinguish this from the idea of “civil rights”). And to the extent possible, I endeavored to give voice to African Mormonism (primarily in Nigeria and Ghana) by presenting the voice of the “African Saints Without Baptism,” as E. Dale LeBaron styled them. How did they make Mormonism without the influence of a Church that was becoming increasingly structured and “correlated” in its ideas of orthodoxy? With each document, I hoped to re-create the world that the author of the document experienced, to show the kinds of forces that forged the environment in which they considered their words to be necessary or welcome.
Q: Why include both a narrative and a documentary history? What advantage does that offer to the reader?
The narrative offers people the opportunity to read a story, cover to cover, filled with people who are both heroes and villains (sometimes, at the same time). Through the narrative, I can at least hope to portray the story as the story of rising, falling, and sometimes coasting along in the Doldrums. It enabled me to cast the picture from a wide-angle lens; I did not need to bind myself to the stories included in a specific document.
But I wanted to include a documents section so that people could stare this thing in the face. I have heard several parents complain that high school history teachers do not make an effort to use original sources in teaching their students, and I agree with the critique. We need to see these words for themselves; we will never be able to stare our racial past in the face without them. Particularly when something questions your prior assumptions, it becomes too easy to dismiss it out of hand as exaggerated, or out-of-context. While concerns fabrication, exaggeration, and contextualization all should remain at the front of our minds in consuming any historical account, such responses are often used to validate our desire not to engage the tough realities. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has cautioned Latter-day Saints about “drifting aimlessly on an ocean of conflicting information, stranded on a raft we have poorly pieced together from our own biases.” While there is much research to be done on this topic—research I intend to continue over the coming years—I hope that this book will bring us one step closer to recognizing that we don’t need to settle for flimsy wood when we navigate this, the most tumultuous topic in the study of LDS history.