- 1 Once Upon a Time
- 2 Meek Inquiry
- 3 Dr. Nelson Responds
- 4 The First Presidency Replies
- 5 Dr. Nelson’s Bold Reply to the Prophet
- 6 The First Presidency Bites Back
- 7 Nelson Makes it Public
- 8 Parting Shot by the First Presidency
- 9 Change at last
- 10 Conclusion
- 11 Addendums
- 12 References
As a practicing Mormon – what happens if, through careful study and introspection, you come to the determination that your conscience and convictions are diametrically opposed to a key portion of Church Doctrine? You might chuckle to yourself imagining this possibility; after all, if born into the Church, your identity has been formed while saturated in Church society and doctrine. How could you have any significant differences? The modern examples of women wearing pants to church or praying in General Conference are hardly “key doctrine”, but the movement to ordain women to the priesthood is pretty much spot on. Most mormons have probably only considered this movement enough to dismiss it as completely outlandish.
Suppose that you were to be so bold as to write the First Presidency and make your case – appealing to them to change the Church’s attitude on this issue. How would that be received? Would it be the modern day equivalent to “steadying the ark”? It would be fascinating to see what would happen if someone made such an argument about a key point of doctrine to the highest levels of Church authority.
Once Upon a Time
It turns out that someone has. Deep within the archives of the University of Utah in a few boxes of dusty folders and papers lies the collection of personal writings and communications of Dr. Lowry Nelson. Dr. Nelson was an internationally respected LDS sociologist working at the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in 1947 when he had the opportunity to exchange letters with the First Presidency under the Prophet George A Smith on the topic of Mormon doctrine and policy towards Black people. Careful examination of this exchange presents a unique snapshot of the thoughts and attitudes of Mormon members and leaders struggling with how to deal with the issues of race as seen from a societal and religious perspective.
Years previously Dr. Nelson had been schoolmates with a man named Heber Meeks. Each had parted to their own career, and Meeks was subsequently given the position of Mission President of the Southern States Mission. In this capacity in 1947 Meeks was given the special task of exploring the possibilities for establishing a missionary presence in Cuba. He visited Cuba becoming familiar with the culture and society and while there learned that his old schoolmate Lowry Nelson had recently spent a year in Cuba as part of a study for the State Department. Upon his return the the states he wrote a letter (see the full letter scanned here) to Dr. Nelson asking for his insights into the potential for the church moving into Cuba. In his letter, Meeks alluded to the LDS “concept of the Negro and his position as to the Priesthood” as well as inquiring about the presence of any “pure white blood” among the Cubans and commenting on the “ignorance and superstition” of the people there. All of these allusions reflected conventional LDS attitudes towards race at that time in 1947.
Dr. Nelson Responds
Dr. Nelson, having devoted his life to the study of how societies of different races and backgrounds evolve and interact with each other, responded (see the full response scanned here) with very pointed statements about his convictions on the matter. “The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad.” He admitted that he did not realize that the position of blacks in the church represented an official fixed doctrine. “I do not believe God is a racist” Nelson wrote bluntly. He further clarified that according to anthropologists “there are no pure races.” He went on to state that the church’s doctrine amounted to “white supremacy” and observed that there was currently less racial inequality and prejudice in Cuba than existed in parts of the United States. He ultimately concludes that if the Church does not change it’s stance on the issue of race he believed that it would do more harm than good to bring such a theology into the country and introduce racism where there was not any previously or sanction it where it did.
Dr. Nelson felt that the issue was significant enough that he copied and sent both Meeks’ original letter and his own reply to the First Presidency of the Church hoping for clarification on the matter.
The First Presidency Replies
The First Presidency, under George A Smith took the opportunity to respond by letter (full letter here) and clarify church doctrine and reinforce a proper view of race in the mind of Dr. Nelson. It is particularly interesting to note whether they saw this issue as a matter of doctrine or a matter of policy.
At the outset the First Presidency clarified exactly what they were addressing. “The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things.” In response to this assertion they set out to correct this notion in the mind of Dr. Nelson stating “this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a-vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed.”They further go on to explain the role that the first estate or pre-mortal life plays in relation to race stating “Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the preexistence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we my be born, have a relationship in the life heretofore.”
To explain the implications of this regarding the priesthood and remove any doubt as to whether these ideas are folklore or church doctrine, they continue “From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.”
After squarely trouncing Dr. Nelson’s position, they focus on what they perceived to be a significant danger alluded to by his ideas: Inter-racial marriage. “Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous” They continue to warn of worldly influences which are tying to break down this prohibition stating, “We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.” They clearly identify this restriction on inter-racial marriage as a matter of “doctrine”.
Dr. Nelson’s Bold Reply to the Prophet
What is a faithful Latter-day Saint to do when completely and utterly reproved by God’s mouthpiece? Any normal well-behaved Mormon would and should “bow their head and say yes”, but Nelson would have none of that. He wrote back (see full response here)and made a forceful and powerful argument based on sociology, scripture, ethics and morality.
Societies change, institutions resist
He begins by pointing out the dynamic character of society, “As one studies the history and characteristics of human societies, one soon comes to recognize certain basic principles. One of these is social change. Any given society over the years undergoes changes . It is forever in a state of flux.” Contrasting to this observation he adds “Another principle which stands out as one studies the development of cultures is the tendency of institutions to resist change. Although they are established, or grow up, originally as a means to the end of satisfying the needs of man, they (the institutions) tend to become ends in themselves.” Turning to a scriptural example, Dr. Nelson points out that the Pharisees represented this type of institutional entrenchment in Christ’s time and Christ himself spoke of this danger. “It seems to me that Jesus was trying to get this point over to the society of his day, when he spoke of putting new wine in old bottles, and that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. This was an affront to the legalism of the Pharisees, and others of similar outlook”
Ethnocentrism ain’t just a river in Egypt
Dr. Nelson then explains the concept of ethnocentrism or the worldview that “one’s own group is the center of everything and all others are sealed and rated with reference to it.” He states that this “in or out” thinking leads to the in group assigning everything else an inferior status and that this tendency exists in all groups. He goes on to make several observations of biblical history in the context of these ideas of social change and ethnocentrism explaining that the Old Testament records an evolving understanding of God and his relationship to man. He points out that the Hebrews attitudes towards other races represents an early point in their social evolution, however since it was recorded in it’s scriptural history, the attitudes on race were given an “aura of the sacred” which serves to lock these ideas against the flow of a progressive society.
Nelson contrasts the notion of racial inequality with modern standards stating “it does not square with what seems an acceptable standard of justice today; nor with the letter or spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I cannot find any support for such a doctrine of inequality in his recorded sayings.”
The seed of war
Having made a case based on sociology and scripture, Nelson goes on to point out that “one of the chief causes of war is the existence of ethnocentrism” and that “war is our major social evil which threatens to send all of us to destruction”. The nation had just experienced the horror of World War 2 and seen the result of the extreme racial superiority doctrine of Nazi Germany. To Nelson, the seed of that evil was germinating in the racial inequality espoused by the Church and it needed to be corrected. “we can ameliorate these feelings of ethnocentrism by promoting understanding of one people by others;” Nelson continued.
He described the discomfort he felt at the “doctrine of my own church which says in effect that white supremacy is part of God’s plan for His children;” and the fact that, on the issue of race, this places the Church among the ranks of the most reprobate bigots in America. “This makes us nominal allies of the Rankins and the Bilbos of Mississippi, a quite unhappy alliance for me, I assure you.”
Real world implications
If the Doctrine on race that the First Presidency espoused was true, then the most degenerate white person alive has a hope for salvation that exceeds the most accomplished and pious black soul. Nelson conjures up several examples to point out this injustice. “Dr. George Washington Carver, the late eminent and saintly Negro scientist is by virtue of the color of his skin, inferior even to the least admirable white person, not because of the virtues he may or may not possess, but because through no fault of his — there is a dark pigment in his skin.” He goes on to point out how this doctrine may apply to the entire Indian nation and others who may live more pious lives than many of the saints themselves.
Social Side of the Gospel?
Finally, Dr. Nelson calls out the First Presidency for attempting to separate the social side of the gospel from the rest. ”Now, you say that the “social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.” I may not have the same concept of “social” as you had in mind, but it seems to me the only virtue we can recognize in men is that expressed in their relations with others; that is their “social” relations. Are the virtues of honesty, chastity, humility, forgiveness, tolerance, love, kindness, justice, secondary? If so, what is primary? Love of God? Very well. But the second (law) is like unto it.” His final plea is for the First Presidency to avoid the trap of legalism that Christ condemned the Pharisees for. “Are we becoming so legalistic (after the fashion of the Pharisees) that we cannot adjust our institutions to the charging needs of mankind. Are we, as some have charged, more Hebraic than Christian?”
Modern Mormons reading Dr. Nelsons letter can see the clear and abundant truth that he is pleading to the powers that guide the church to see for themselves. Society had moved beyond the racial inequality that was still enshrined in the institution that bore the name of Jesus Christ and it was the men at the top who had the power to rectify it. How would a Prophet respond to such truth boldly proclaimed from the pews of the congregation to the pulpit on high?
The First Presidency Bites Back
A few months later the First Presidency issues a terse reply to Dr. Nelson. It was short and direct.
“We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.“
That’s how a Prophet responds. Your leaders know what’s true. All of your worldly learning has led you astray. Get back in line.
Nelson Makes it Public
Such a complete and utter reproof from the highest religious authority – even after an impassioned rejoinder would quell even the most stalwart of saints. Dr. Nelson, apparently, was not one to learn such a lesson when taught from on high. Several years later in 1952, after admittedly joining other saints in ruminating and contemplating this issue of racial inequality in a church that they otherwise held dear, Nelson authored an essay titled ”Mormonism and the Negro” (scanned article here) for publication in the popular magazine “The Nation.” This was a periodical whose audience extended far beyond the small community of Mormons. Such “airing of dirty laundry” in front of the entire nation was a clear end-run around the Prophet and an appeal to mass sentiment.
I recommend that you read the essay, linked above, yourself. In his essay, Dr. Nelson laid out the mormon doctrine and unchallenged folklore that justifies giving black members a second tiered status in the church. He also points out how utterly archaic and debunked the notion of racial superiority is and how it contrasts with the members of the church who are intelligent and compassionate – not the back country yokels that are usually associated with notions of white supremacy. He further describes how the strong hierarchy of authority in the church mutes any rational discourse on these sensitive issues among the membership revealing that members have had to hold these discussions in secret, forming a sort of “mormon underground”
Among these expositions Nelson does something subtle and masterful – he changes the terms of the discussion. The First Presidency had forcefully declared that the position of the Church in this issue was a matter of “Doctrine”. This should be the final word to any believing Mormon, because doctrine is equivalent to God’s Law which is unchanging and everlasting. It is truth. In his essay, Nelson describes the matter in terms of “policy”. This allows much greater flexibility in interpretation on an issue to a Mormon because policy represents man made programs in support of doctrine and is not given the aura of finality and truth that doctrine is afforded. By calling the issue a matter of policy, Nelson is opening a wide gate to allow the church to change while maintaining it’s authoritative integrity.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying that it is better to hold ones tongue and be thought an idiot than to open ones mouth and remove all doubt. In writing this essay Dr. Nelson was removing all doubt from the minds of the non-mormon world that in it’s current state, the LDS Church is clearly in the camp of white supremacy and the powers at it’s head are entrenched in that position. His shift of the issue to one of policy lays the ground work for the change that would ultimately come.
Parting Shot by the First Presidency
Between their exchange of letter and the essay published in The Nation, President George A Smith had died and been succeeded by the new Prophet David O McKay. As a courtesy to the First Presidency Nelson sent them a copy of his article and his intention to have it published. He received a reply (see scanned reply here) from the secretary to the First Presidency.
“President McKay wishes me to say that obviously you are entirely within your rights to publish any article you wish.
I should like to add on my own account, however, that when a member of the Church sets himself up against doctrines preached by the Prophet Joseph Smith and by those who have succeeded him in the high office which he held, he is moving into a very dangerous position for himself personally.”
That’s what you face when you know in your heart what is right and you appeal to Church Authority to rectify it.
Change at last
It would be over a quarter of a century later (26 years) that President Spencer W Kimball and the Quorum of the 12 Apostles would receive a revelation to allow blacks to receive all the blessings of the Gospel. When they did so and the Apostles went on speaking rounds to do damage control, they took the cues that Nelson provided and called it a change of policy – not doctrine. They attributed all the old ways of thinking to folklore rather than scripture.
Subsequent prophets have so far distanced themselves from the heady pronouncements of their predecessors that they stumble over each other. Just compare the following statements:
““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… That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priest- hood and the keys thereof.”
(Brigham Young, October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:290-291)
Contrasted to this:
“I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ. How can a man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible”
(Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2005, p. 58).
Other general authorities appear to have a void in their memory or are complicit in a remarkable whitewashing campaign:
“How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations.” (Seventy Alexander Morrison “No more strangers” Ensign Sept 2000)
Change came, but what did it reveal about those men who sit at the seat of power in the church that bears Christ’s Name?
Lessons for today
How does the experience of Dr. Nelson reflect on the plight of the modern Mormon? Was the doctrine.. err… policy of racial inequality the only injustice ingrained into LDS theology?
The people who are today crying out for women to be ordained to the Priesthood may see Nelsons experience as a proof that just the right amount of social pressure can help the Prophets ask the right questions of God to effect change. There is no argument that was made in favor of Blacks receiving the priesthood that could not also be made in favor of women receiving it.
People concerned about how homosexuals are received in the church have already harvested the first bounty of their efforts. The church has gone from declaring that being Gay is a choice made by people ensnared by iniquity to acknowledging that people are born with same-sex attraction. The attitudes of church members are slowly coming around and gay men and women who do not act on their attractions can be temple-recommend holding, temple going, tithing paying members in good standing.
These different observations may lead some people to conclude that the First Presidency is able to ask God about the important issues of the day and receive God’s truth in return. A justification and triumph for the Mormon tenet of “continued revelation”. Thus people like Dr. Nelson may be seen as pioneers who blaze a trail and return to ask the Prophet if this or that direction is not the one that God would have us go.
My own feelings on the matter are different. Several people have lamented that this account should be seen by more orthodox members, but my conclusions would tend to negate the value of the rest of the article. If you are in an organization which discourages you (or makes your discourage yourself ) from being exposed to opinions or ideas, then you may want to reconsider things. Nevertheless, I have condensed my more controversial editorial statements in expandable boxes below. If your sensibilities are too tender to hear opinions that are not your own or given to you from properly constituted authorities, then feel free to bypass them. Otherwise, you may expand the box below if you care to see them and judge for yourself.
Editorial Perspective - controversial
To me, these observations demonstrate that it is men, not God, who are at the head of the organization that bears Christ’s name.
Would a priesthood bearing the name and power of God block an entire race from it’s blessings in the first place? If you could make an argument to change the nature of Priesthood rights, whether to blacks or to women or to gays, wouldn’t that expose the fact that such a priesthood could not originate from God in the first place? As such, why would you want to pursue it at all?
I have spent a few posts writing about why, despite the good things the Mormon Church does, there is danger in simply turning a blind eye to problems that are revealed through a careful study of LDS Church History. Nelson’s story is one of the clearest examples of this danger. If you allow men to stand between you and God, telling you what is proper and true against your own God-given conscience – you set yourself up to be abused and to abuse others.
There is more to be said, through my own perspective. expand below if you are interested.
Editorial Conclusion - Controversial
The idea that an individual may determine spiritual truth based on their own conscience, their relationship with God and personal study of history, both secular and religious, is anathema to the Mormon idea of a restored Gospel and restored priesthood authority. Adherents to the faith will warn you away from such ‘self-serving’ and prideful notions. They will warn you that evil influences will tempt and tease you away from those rules and standards that the properly constituted authorities have drawn from on high. Dr. Nelson’s experience demonstrates that the well that those authorities draw from is just as corrupt as any other.
Dr. Nelson exposed that the hubris and prejudice of these powerful men leads them to close their minds to all counsel but their own. Nelson pointed out that he could see the naked body of the emperor, without explicitly stating that it was the lack of clothing which exposed it. People born and raised in in the Church after 1978 may have no idea that this legacy exists. They may be forgiven for not seeing. I cannot imagine how those how were alive at the time could be blind to this. Now that these events are brought out into public view through the Internet – each of us must decide what to make of the implications.
Any addendums are added below, collapsed if controversial.
Addendum 1 - Choice vs Nature
The principle that makes Dr. Nelsons arguments so powerful is the modern idea that a person’s race is beyond their control. Mormon theology is firmly entrenched in a legalistic works-based perspective (with grace there to pick up the slack). To a Mormon, the heavens rewards the righteous and punish the wicked – in this life or the next. This narrative makes a sort of bizarre logical sense, explaining the First Presidencies arguments about the pre-existence. In the pre-existence, this life was the next life. The narrative articulated by church leaders post-1978 revelation is that people’s race and other disadvantages have absolutely nothing to do with pre-mortal righteousness – people are not punished for things that are beyond their control.
So if we look at the spectrum of the features of human existence that are beyond ones control, several important issues stand out. The example of their changing stance on Blacks and the priesthood demonstrates that when the Church acknowledges that something is genetic and not determined by ones own choices – church policy may be amended to take this into account.
As I alluded to previously, the Church has modified it’s stance on Homosexuality. In 1978 Apostle Boyd K Packer declared Homosexuality to be a state of unnatural temporary temptation (see “To the one“) whereas the recently released website MormonsAndGays.org, approved by Apostles Oaks and Christofferson, declares that “individuals do not choose to have such attractions…” The church has gone from a position of declaring ones “Gayness” to be an unnatural choice to a position where “Gayness” is a phenomena of nature beyond one’s volition.
If someone cannot be held accountable, punished or deprived of the full blessings of the gospel as a result of their race, which is beyond their control, how then will the church deal with someone who is gay, beyond their control. For now the answer is that they can still receive those blessings so long as they do not act on the natural attraction which nature has given them. The unspoken paradox is that nature is simply God.
If this is true of gays, what of women? Their identity as women is not an act of choice but of chromosomes and genetics – nature. Something beyond their control. Are the full blessings of the Gospel to be kept from them as well? Certainly they have the benefit of the priesthood now – so long as they have access to a righteous male priesthood holder. What of the blessing of shepherding a ward? Of counseling a troubled sister? Of ministering to the sick? These acts of service are a blessing to those who assist the Lord in His work – why should they be denied to 50% of God’s children due to something beyond their control?
These arguments are rhetorical. To me they do not create an impetus to “agitate” for women or gays to receive the priesthood. They simply point out the nature of the counterfeit. When close inspection reveals the dull, dark worthless metal beneath the glittering superficial gold plating, attempting to gild the defect is an act of denial. A fraudulent coin is worthless even when the telling defects are concealed once more.
I have included appropriate links within the narrative above. The complete exchange between Nelson and the First Presidency is thoroughly dissected and referenced at MormonBookshelf.com