Blacks in Mormonism: Are Mormons Racist: Joseph Smith and Black Africans (Part 1)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

To listen to the complete episode by Church History Matters, click here.

Blacks in Mormonism: The Historical Context of Joseph Smith’s Beliefs

In the broader American culture in which Joseph Smith lived and led the growing church of Jesus Christ, white attitudes and beliefs about the inferiority of Black Africans dominated the scene of Blacks in Mormonism. In this pre-Civil-War context, exactly half of the states in the union had legalized slavery and built their economies on it, while the other half opposed slavery. Yet fears were shared on both sides about what might happen to the country and to the “purity of the white race” if all slaves were set free and allowed to be social equals with whites, chief of which being the fear of interracial marriage. In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we take a close look at how Joseph Smith led the church while navigating within this racially fraught culture and what specific factors were at play as he did so. For instance, how did the expulsion of the saints from Jackson County, Missouri in 1833 influence the church’s approach to missionary work going forward? How did Joseph respond to church members in the northern United States who were calling for the excommunication of all slave-holding church members in this southern states? And how did Joseph’s public teachings on slavery change once church headquarters moved to Nauvoo, Illinois and church members were no longer in Missouri. And, importantly, did Joseph Smith ever implement or endorse any practices or policies which specifically prevented church members with black African ancestry from fully participating in priesthood offices or temple worship?

We’re continuing our discussion today on race and the priesthood. This is something that—there’s an inexhaustible amount of material, but we’re trying to hit the main points. Last time we tried to just set the table for what the racial situation was like in early 19th century America, in the environment where the church was founded. So before we move into our next phase of discussing this, let’s do a quick recap. 

In our last episode we started by saying this topic is difficult to discuss because of its racially charged nature, right? Just by the nature of this. But also how it’s increasingly important to discuss both number one, to accurately understand the history of the church on this topic, as well as number two, to just confront our own assumptions about the nature of prophets, the nature of God, which we might find need some recalibrating as we go through this history. We talked a little bit about the early American Republic and how racism against Black Americans wasn’t just there. It was baked into the pie, basically. The environment they lived in, there were just assumptions supported by the most powerful cultural institutions that people of African ancestry were inferior. And that’s not something that some wild racist over here was saying. It was something that mainstream people believed and taught, and that in some ways the whole economy of the United States was based around. We used the line from the gospel topics essay on this that racial prejudice against black Africans was not just present, but it was—I think the phrase was “customary,” right? It was the normal way of life for most whites in America, right? I think that’s very safe to assume. And we talked about the recipe, right? There was a—we call it the recipe for widespread racial prejudice in America, which consisted of three ingredients that really combined to get us to that state where racism or black inferiority was just customary in America. 

The first one was the African slavery issue. We discussed at length the spectrum of feelings on that issue in America during that era. The second one was the prevailing scientific thought of the day, which disturbingly concluded that black Africans were biologically inferior to whites, and importantly that intermarriage between the races would likely lead to the destruction of both races. We can’t emphasize this point enough, that intermarriage was a major concern and fear of the whites, perhaps the major cultural concern and key issue behind the resistance regarding emancipating slaves and ultimately integrating the races, right? If the slaves are all made free and made socially equal with the whites, what’s going to keep them from intermarrying? That was such a roadblock. And then the third ingredient in this recipe of customary racial prejudice against black Africans was biblical interpretation. That is, there’s certain stories in the Bible that were interpreted in such a way as to bolster the narrative of black inferiority. Right? Specifically the story of Cain, the first murderer, and the mark that God put on him, and second, the story of Ham, whose son was cursed because Ham uncovered his father Noah’s nakedness when he was drunk in his tent. It’s the weirdest story ever.

Both of these stories had been used for over a century on the American continent before the church was organized in 1830 to give biblical basis to the cursed and therefore inferior status of blacks in Mormonism. And even though, as we talked about last time, applying these stories to black Africans represents a horribly irresponsible reading of the text, they nevertheless actually worked with great effectiveness, both to explain and to maintain black inferiority in the minds of white Christians. And this isn’t an attack on the Bible in any sense. The Bible—this was read into the Bible. It’s not actually in the text itself. It’s surprising, when you go back and read these texts, how many assumptions they were making about what the mark placed on Cain was, what the punishment was, or even who were descendants of Cain or Ham, however you want to define it. But all these things come together and create this environment that exists when the church is organized. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that, even if most members of the church don’t own slaves, most of them come from the north, where slavery doesn’t play as large an economic role as it does in the south, but they still carry these racial attitudes with them. It’s where they live at, and it’s the environment that they grow up in.

We always use that quote by L. P. Hartley, that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” We’re not saying these ideas were correct. We are not endorsing them. But it’s necessary, in order to understand what happened in the church, to understand the environment that the church lived in. So we’re not endorsing these ideas. We’re saying they were wrong, but at the same time, too, they were so embedded in the society that the church members lived in it was impossible for them to be untouched by them. We should not be surprised at all to find that those who join the church at this time bring with them into the church some degree or another of many of these racial assumptions.

We used that quote from Paul Reeve last time, where he said, “It’s impossible to divorce the racial history of the church from its American context,” and that’s a foundational premise for where we want to go in this series. We have to keep that in mind always, that even the most respectable whites of the time, if we can say it like that, are going to struggle in some degree with black equality. Those who join the church, almost without exception, you’re going to have some taint, if you will. Some a small taint and some maybe wholly swimming in these waters. But now, as we study this history, we’re not here to condemn any in the past. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But what we are trying to do is understand, right?

I can’t remember who it was. Someone at Joseph Smith Papers was being interviewed, and they said, after quoting that quote, they said we need to be good tourists when we go into the past. Understanding that they see the world differently than we do. We want to know why that is. Why do they see it differently? We want to try to understand them within their own time and culture, but all while trying to view them with the most charitable lens we can muster, right? It is totally inappropriate to judge 19th century Americans by 21st century racial standards. That would be an unfair thing. We hope that people 200 years from now don’t judge us by whatever standards they’re going to have, right? We want people to look back at us charitably, try to understand our culture or context. That’s all we’re trying to do here, right? Is just get them in their context. So as we talk about what we’re talking about today and in this series, Just keep that in mind. Try to suspend your present understanding about race and culture here, and let’s just humbly get into that world and try to understand what was going on. That doesn’t mean people get a free pass. It’s not like, “Yeah, they didn’t even—they didn’t even know what prejudice was back then.” Of course they had prejudice, right? And none of us are going to try to, like, let that slide, but again, we want to see it in its context, in its time.

Let’s sum these points up, and then we’ll get to our burning question. The environment the church was created in, the cultural, scientific, almost all of the prominent authorities were saying blacks were inferior. A major fear was intermarriage. And number three was that the scriptures, in their mind, supported this. That it wasn’t just a scientific truth, that was a theological truth that blacks were inferior, and that’s the environment the saints exist in. Now, with that in mind, our burning question of the day, and our big theme for this episode, is what was Joseph Smith’s teachings and positions regarding black Africans, and what policies existed during Joseph Smith’s tenure as president of the church? Let’s take a look at some key documents that just explain what Joseph Smith felt about each one of these issues and what the church’s policy was about each one of these issues.

Let’s begin with the earliest document produced under Joseph Smith’s direction that contains a clear statement regarding blacks. That document would be The Book of Mormon. The statement is found in 2 Nephi, and so it was written at the very latest by June of 1829. That’s really early. Joseph Smith is 23 years old at that time, and this comes in the words of Nephi, who wrote, let me quote it here: “Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; … he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” That’s the very first statement that we have any mention of blacks in any church documentation. That’s early. And it’s very inclusive.

And the Book of Mormon itself presents a kind of anti-racial narrative, right? The ideal society comes into existence when they eliminate racial and class distinctions. You go back and forth as to who the righteous people are in the book, with no discerning nature as to color, and that informs the early members of the church as to the nature of blacks in Mormonism. It’s an anti-racial narrative. And we can see little snippets there. The church obviously starts in upstate New York, where racial tensions aren’t as on the surface as they are in places like the deep South, but as the church starts to expand and move into different areas, specifically into Missouri, where the Lord designates the city of Zion to be built in Section 57 of the Doctrine and Covenants, they can’t avoid being brought into these questions about the nature of race, and how it works and everything like that. There’s this reference in Joseph Smith’s history. Joseph Smith is commanded to travel to Missouri and identify the site for the city of Zion. And in his history, he writes something that I think suggests that—at least gently—the vision of the city of Zion was that it would be multiracial. This is from Joseph Smith History, volume A1, page 129. He says, “The first sabbath after our arrival in Jackson County, Brother W. W. Phelps preached to a western audience over the boundary of the United States, where present were men of all families of the earth. For there were several of the Indians, quite a respectable number of Negroes, and the balance was made up of citizens of the surrounding county and fully represented themselves as pioneers of the West.” So he was actually thrilled that in the first meeting he attended in Jackson County, the site of the future city of Zion, there was this interracial mixture that he saw as representing all the families of the Earth, and that’s a great thing.

Our next statement chronologically comes in 1833 from the editor of the church newspaper in Jackson County, Missouri named William W. Phelps, and it is the first published statement about church members‘ views and stance toward black African members of the church. The question Phelps was responding to in his paper was whether or not church members who were—he calls them “free people of color,” should gather with the saints in Missouri, which was a slave state at the time.  So Phelps advised in the church’s newspaper, “So long as we have no special rule in the church as to people of color, let prudence guide.” So Phelps is saying in 1833 there is no church policy about people of color. And so if you’re a free black who wants to come to Missouri, just remember this is a slave state, so let prudence guide. That’s all he’s saying there. As mentioned, it is not well-received by the local settlers.

Now, let’s contextualize a little bit here. This is shortly after Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in South Carolina. A bunch of people get killed when this slave revolts, and I think it was around 36 white people were killed during this slave revolt. So any slave owner is on edge, and in the summer of 1833, right after W. W. Phelps publishes that editorial in the church newspaper, all heck breaks loose. Then the mob is transparent about what is bugging them about the members of the church. They issue a manifesto that in and of itself explains the source of these tensions. Here’s some of the highlights. The Mob Manifesto says, “It’s been more than a year since it was ascertained they were tampering with our slaves and were endeavoring to sow dissensions and raise seditions among them.” So they’re accusing church members of tampering with the system of slavery. So they’re probably concerned about another Nat Turner revolt.

They go on to cite specifically the editorial, they say in the “late number of the Star,” that’s the church newspaper, “Published in Independence by the leaders of the sect, there is an article inviting free negroes and mulattoes from other States to become mormons and remove and settle among us.” Again, this idea that, hey, they’re trying to bring free black people, and people whose race is intermixed, among us, and then they go on to say, basically, we see that the introduction of such a cast among us would corrupt our blacks and instigate them to bloodshed.” Again, they’re being totally transparent. They think this’ll lead to a slave rebellion.

So they’re taking Phelps’s words way too far, right? They’re saying that he’s inviting free negroes to come and settle among us, which is going to cause our blacks to rise up and revolt, but actually, his actual words were, “So long as we have no special rule in the church as to people of color, let prudence guide.” Like, that doesn’t sound like he’s recruiting, right? That sounds like he’s saying, “Be cautious. We don’t have a church policy about blacks gathering here, but just realize what you’re coming into.” I mean, they’re totally twisting his words.

Phelps’s statement is very mild, but the overwhelming response from the local settlers shows the deep insecurity that slave holders felt after the Nat Turner rebellion. And anybody even suggesting that they mess with the system mildly, like Phelps does, throws them totally into a fervor to where they wreck the press that the Star is printed on. And again, third thing they say, this is directly from the Mob Manifesto. “We believe it a duty we owe ourselves, to our wives and children, to the cause of public morals, to remove them,” that’s the saints, “from among us, as we are not prepared to give up our pleasant places, and goodly possessions to them, or to receive into the bosoms of our families, as fit companions for our wives and daughters, the degraded … free negroes and mulattoes, that are now invited to settle among us.”

That makes it clear that, you know, they don’t like the church, they think that the church members are strange, but it’s really the threat to the racial hierarchy that is throwing them off. And you’ve got to imagine if you’re a slave owner in Jackson County, Missouri’s a slave state, you have these religious zealots, that’s how you see them, coming from the north, who teach that the Native Americans are a branch of the House of Israel. Remember, we’re only about six miles away from Indian territory. And have a book that says, “All are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free.” It’s going to set off some alarm bells in their head.

And that, frankly, is one of the just flat-out stated reasons why they decide to persecute the church and evict them from Jackson County.  Most of our listeners will be familiar with the fact that in 1833, the saints were evicted from Jackson County or violently evicted from Jackson County, Missouri. But years and years went by in my life where I just thought it was based on religious prejudice. But not until reading the Mob Manifesto did I come to realize at the heart of their major concern, as you’ve done so well pointing out, was racial integration.

Like, that was the number one fear of the Mormons settling among them because “free blacks are going to come here, going to stir up our blacks, probably have a slave rebellion. And then next thing we know, the blacks are going to be marrying our wives and daughters.” That’s actually at the beating heart of why Phelps’s printing press is destroyed of why Edward Partridge and others are tarred and feathered, of why the Saints homes are burned and they’re violently cast out of Jackson County. That might be a revelation to our listeners. If you’ve never read the Mob Manifesto, there you go. This is at the heart of what’s irking them about these religious fanatics. It’s this slavery issue and the blacks in Mormonism issue.

This is a statement made by the mob themselves as to why they’re doing it. And you can see right in it the bald racism that’s just right there. They just don’t like anybody suggesting that any kind of integration between whites and blacks take place, and so this is unacceptable. “You guys got to get out of here. We’ll use any means we have to remove you from our fair city.” And I find it so fascinating that the problem with the Saints here in terms of our black policy, is that we were too racially inclusive as a church. Isn’t that ironic?

Compared to what’s going to happen into the future, right? Where we are going to be accused of being so behind the times racially, compared to the rest of society. So what’s ironic here is how ahead of the times, right? Just including blacks, inviting blacks, if they dare, right, come to Missouri, then let prudence guide. Come on over. But what this experience teaches us is we’ve got to be careful with our rhetoric of inclusion. And this lesson was painfully seared onto the collective memory of church members and leaders. We’re not going to forget Missouri, 1833 anytime soon.

And it’s difficult for a 21st-century person sometimes to just comprehend how much of a big deal this was in this particular time period. That every decision church leaders make after this is colored by the experience in Missouri where they were persecuted because of their racial views, largely. Yeah. At the same time, too, this crisis in Missouri leads to a series of revelations advising Joseph Smith as to what to do and how to assist them, and one of them, section 101, is really a key text when it comes to understanding the church’s position on racism and slavery. In fact, it was cited by Dallin H. Oaks in a devotional he gave at BYU in the fall of 2020. It’s Section 101 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and it’s a really simple line. Verse 79, there’s a verse that—I got to admit, I’ve read through Section 101 I don’t know how many times, and I had always skimmed over this until President Oaks pointed it out in his devotional. It just reads, really simply, “It is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” That’s Section 101, verse 79. And that, in and of itself, outlines the church’s position at least on slavery right there. And President Oaks took this particular passage to disavow anybody that used the scriptures to justify slavery. 

Here’s the Lord himself saying, “No. It’s not right for any man to be in bondage to another.” And that’s December 1833. In the aftermath of the expulsion of the saints from Jackson County. Which was highly charged with the slavery issue. Wow. So that context matters. And that statement can stand on its own, actually, very well, but in context it’s even more poignant. Then, a little over a year later, so this would be February of 1833, W. W. Phelps, he’s back at it.

Now there’s a printing press in Kirtland, Ohio, and he writes another line in the church newspaper there. The church newspaper there was called Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. And in that newspaper, he expresses the church belief that “All the families of the Earth” “should get redemption … in Christ Jesus,” regardless of “whether they are descendants of Shem, Ham, or Japheth.” Now, these are the three sons of Noah, and there was a common belief at the time that the nations of the Earth come from these sons, not just the nations of the earth, but the races of the earth. From Shem comes the Semites, Middle Eastern folk, from Ham comes Africans, and from Japheth comes, like, Europeans. In other words, what’s the church policy in 1835 about blacks? It’s totally inclusive, right? Everybody can come and get redemption in Christ. So far we detect no policy in any way singling out blacks or any sort of restrictions by ‘35. 

Now, a few months later—let’s just add one more on this—Phelps writes another article where he says that the church views all people as “one in Christ Jesus … whether it was in Africa, Asia, or Europe.” So, again, this is Phelps at the press, just talking about where the church is at on racial issues, and it’s very inclusive. One document we need to put into the conversation, too, is section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

This is published in August of 1835. It’s after the church has been evicted from Jackson County, and it’s not a revelation, it’s a declaration by the church on governments. And in this, they’re trying to walk this difficult line between “We believe all people are sons and daughters of God and have access to the atonement,” but they’re also keenly aware that their difficulties in Missouri are linked to views that they’re abolitionists, that they’re advocating an end to slavery. So Section 134 has this verse right on the end: “We believe,” this is verse 12, “We believe it just to preach the gospel to nations of the earth and warn the righteous to save themselves from the corruption of the world, but we do not believe it right to interfere with bond servants.” “Neither to preach the gospel to nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or to influence them to the least cause to be dissatisfied with their situation and its life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men.” Such interference we believe to be unlawful and unjust and dangerous to the peace of every government that allows human beings to be held in servitude.” Now, that needs to be looked at carefully because it’s not an endorsement of racism but it’s them basically trying to assuage people’s fears that they’re trying to create a slave uprising.

In this context of a people, of a nation, of a government that acknowledges slavery—that makes slavery legal—in such a context, we don’t believe that we should meddle and try to get slaves to rise up against their masters and jeopardize the lives of men. We are not trying to do that kind of a thing with our proselytizing. And it lines up with—I mean, Joseph Smith has this practical but idealistic approach towards blacks, which is—on the practical level he gives a sermon to elders of the church where he says, “Don’t teach them unless you have permission from their masters,” because it seems like that may have caused some of the problems in Jackson County.

At the same time, too, the position of the church is that they are our brothers and sisters. They have access to the atonement of Jesus Christ. They deserve to hear the gospel, but they’re trying to negotiate with the political reality of this extreme fear of slave uprisings. If people take too free an attitude towards people that are in servitude or try to subvert the will of their masters. So they’re in a really difficult spot right here, and I think the leaders of the church are trying to be practical about how they approach this topic of blacks in Mormonism.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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