Blacks in Mormonism: Are Mormons Racist: The Racist American Context the Church Was Born Into (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.

Exploring the Significance of American History and Slavery in Regard to Blacks in Mormonism

During today’s episode, we want to talk specifically about the 18th- and 19th-century racial culture of America, especially regarding the Black African population. Now, the reason this is an important place to begin is because, as Paul Reeve says, “It is impossible to divorce the racial history of the church from its American context.” That’s what we want to get at. So our burning question of the day is, “What was the racial culture and context in America during the 18th and 19th centuries, and how did it get that way? And how did that culture and context impact the thinking and views of blacks in Mormonism? “We cannot divorce,” as Paul says, “We cannot divorce the racial history of the church from the racial history of America.

”So let’s start with a quote from the Gospel Topics essay. This is the first resource you said. I, too, would say, the first thing that you should read is probably the Gospel Topics essay, and then expand your study out from there. A quote in the Gospel Topics essay says, “The church was established in 1830 during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans.” 

Wow. And that’s one thing that we neglect is—there’s been so much talk in the last couple years about critical race theory and what that means, and it’s a huge thing—that’s difficult to distill down to one thing, but I don’t think it’s controversial at all to just say that there was racism baked into the cake: that the world that the church was restored into had these racial class divisions, and that was something that was part and parcel of the world that the early saints lived in regards to blacks in Mormonism. I like that line—I don’t like the line, but I think it’s an important line—that racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans, right? It was the air that they breathed. It was the water that they drank. This was—it was just normal. It was the way things were, right? When it comes down to it, we sometimes neglect how customary this was.

US Historical Significance

Our faculty, for instance, went to Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. And as part of the trip we went to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, and Mount Vernon is beautiful and impressive, and you walk through George Washington’s house, and you’re just thinking, “I love this guy. Like, what an amazing person. I’m so proud that he is the father of our country.” And then you walk out of the house, and you walk down to the slave quarters. And you’re immediately confronted by the fact that this great man, who was incredibly moral, also had this huge moral blind spot that to a 21st-century person is mind-boggling. And I sort of walked away from that experience a little shaken. I had to spend a little time diving into sources and writings about George Washington to appreciate the world he lived in. And how this was the way it was where he grew up. If you’re a Virginia planter, if you’re part of the sort of upper strata of society, slaves are a part of your life. Yeah. You’re not a bad person. Morally, right? I like your phrase, “moral blind spot.” That was a moral blind spot that they didn’t even consider, a lot of them. Now, plenty of them. 

So let’s get into this. Why was it like that? Like, how did it get that way? So there are really three things that are going on in the early American republic—this is the world the church is going to be restored into—that has to do with widespread racial prejudice in the United States, and we’ll go through each one, but let me just list them here, and then we’ll expand outward. 

One is African enslavement. It’s just part of society, especially in the Southern United States. We mentioned George Washington, and by the way, I’m going to stick up for George later on because his views on slavery are more complex than they sometimes get credit for. However, almost all the founders from the South were involved in slavery. John Adams, who’s from the north, notably isn’t, but it doesn’t seem like it was particularly morally pressing for him, either. 

The second thing is the prevailing scientific thought. The popular science of the age had this racial component to it that fundamentally saw the races as different and the white race as superior. And then the final thing is the Bible and the way that people interpreted the Bible. The Bible is an incredibly complex work. It has portions that can be strongly against the idea of slavery, and that support agency, but other passages that were misinterpreted to support slavery and even justify it. And the arguments people used to justify slavery before the Civil War are often drenched in biblical verse and biblical imagery. And all this stuff that makes it seem like, “Hey, this is the way God made it.” And so what are you going to do? 

American Slavery History

Let’s start with African enslavement, then. So most of us have heard at school at some point the idea of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, right? Black slavery, as a legal institution, was an established norm in several states and unions because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began back in the 1600s, and it led to over 10 million—just let that number sink in—10 million Africans, and that’s a low ball estimate, being sold and shipped to the new world. So that’s not just North America, that’s also South America, Central America, but 10 million Africans brought over. And these are the ancestors of many in the African-American community today. And so you just think about over the centuries, from the 1600s to the 1800s, we have millions and millions of people being brought over from Africa as slaves into the Americas. 

That’s going to set up a really interesting context, right? But was everybody pro-slavery? There’s a whole spectrum like there is with most things, where at one end, you’ve got people that are pro-slavery, absolutely 100 percent believe God placed Africans in servitude, and that’s the end of it. And then at the other end of the spectrum, you have abolitionists, sometimes extreme abolitionists that, you know, were willing to use violent means to bring about the end of slavery, who saw it as morally evil. In between is a wide view of views about slavery, its morality, and what should be done about it. It’s interesting: the pro-slavery group, right, who accept it, support it, build their economy on it, are opposed on the other end of the spectrum, as you said, by these abolitionists, who—they believed that the United States was laboring under, like, national sin, right? And that anybody who didn’t fight slavery was complicit with it to one degree or another. 

And sometimes they would resort to violent means, but they felt that violent resistance to slavery paled in comparison to the daily violence of slavery. And a lot of us today might say, “Woo! The abolitionists, they’re the good guys,” right? They’re the emancipators. But, in their day, it’s super interesting that they’re not seen as the good guys by most. They’re seen as, like, extremist, fringy, almost anarchist-type people, right? Since what they were advocating for would be considered a radical overthrow of, by that time, a deeply embedded social-economic system that was then protected by the US Constitution, right? So to abolish slavery would be highly disruptive to the social order. 

So you have these middle people that are not pro-slavery, but they’re also, they don’t want to be seen as, like, extreme abolitionists. And they call themselves the anti-slavery people, right? This is like Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party—mostly fit in this anti-slavery group, which was opposed to slavery, and they were uneasy with its spread, but they disagreed with the methods and extremism of abolitionists, right? They wanted to take a more gradual approach, a gradual phasing it out, whereas abolitionists would say, “Dude, we’ve got to get rid of this yesterday.” “Like, this is evil. Evil is in our midst.” And many church members at that time fell into that more moderate anti-slavery camp, while at the same time opposing abolitionism, so very interesting. And geography’s at play here too, right? I mean, at least initially early on, most members of the church are from the northern United States. 

So it’s probably fair to say that most of the early church members didn’t own slaves, and weren’t enmeshed in slave culture, which adds to the history of blacks in Mormonism. But at the same time, too, they weren’t the kind of radical bomb throwers, John Brown types—That wanted to, you know, flip the whole system or anything. And so they find themselves caught in the middle between these two extremes, and sometimes trying to negotiate between both sides and find a space to just flat-out survive in because they’re already considered radical. After all, they’re introducing a new scripture, the Book of Mormon. And they’re also advocating some radical ideas on race. Not necessarily towards Africans, but towards American Indians. Saying that they’re part of the House of Israel, which is also a radical racial idea, to begin with. 

1800s and Slavery

And just to put the timeline in perspective here, if it’s been a while since you’ve brushed up on your Civil War history, remember that the Civil War won’t happen until 1861 through 1865. And so when we’re talking about the church being restored in 1830, we can see how this issue is, like—it is far from resolved. There’s an interesting editorial that was written by church leaders, either Oliver Cowdery or Frederick G. Williams of the first presidency, we’re not sure, but they wrote an editorial in the Northern Times, This is 1835, and they’re informing non-LDS readers about the church position on this issue, and watch how they’re trying to separate themselves from abolitionism. They say, “We are opposed to abolition and whatever is calculated to disturb the peace and harmony of our constitution and country. Abolition,” he continues, “does hardly belong to law or religion, politics or gospel.” So you could see, “We don’t want to be associated with abolitionists,” right? 

Even though most church members are from the north, kind of in this anti-slavery category, they do not want to be associated with this socially disruptive, radical group called abolitionists. I didn’t understand that for a long time. I thought abolitionists were, like, the good guys, and maybe from a modern perspective we would say that’s the case, you know? Some might say that, “Yeah, that was the only way.” But I didn’t know there was this group called the anti-slavery group which did not want to be associated with abolitionism, but also were anti-slavery. 

And we might need to contextualize that 1835 statement just a little bit. This is after the church has been booted out of Jackson County in Missouri, which adds to the complexity of the situation, too. The location of Zion, as revealed to Joseph Smith, is Jackson County, Missouri, which is a slave state. And it’s also right on the borders of the United States. Just a couple miles away from where the American Indians live. And all of a sudden you’ve got these northerners that generally don’t own slaves coming in and filling up this small community, Independence. One of the tensions between them was that it’s not like the saints moving in were radical abolitionists—but they also weren’t exactly pro-slavery. Right. 

One of the reasons why persecutions flared up in 1833 against the church was that there were mild views about the equality of blacks in Mormonism expressed in a church newspaper. The statement that the mob in Jackson County issues against the church, the reason why they need to be kicked out, is that they’re promoting the equalization of the races. And so the church gets kicked out of Jackson County. Part of it is because they’re viewed as abolitionists, and Oliver Cowdery writes that in part to try to tell the people in Jackson County, “Hey, we’re not abolitionists. We’re not advocating violence against whites or anything like that. They’re trying to get their homes back. They’re trying to convince them that they can be good neighbors. But that’s a powder keg right there in that little county on the edge of the frontier, where slavery is prevalent. I mean, they were entering into a complex situation where race was going to become a question sooner or later, whether or not they wanted it to be. Really important context. Thank you. 

Differing Attitudes

And we’ll talk about that in more depth in a future episode as we talk about this issue with the church blacks in Mormonism. So to summarize this kind of sub-points here, there’s a spectrum of strongly held views on the subject of slavery in the U.S. at the time the church was organized, from pro-slavery on the one end to abolitionism on the other and with anti-slavery somewhere in between. Everyone’s views on slavery are going to fall somewhere on this spectrum. But the main point not to be missed here is that the enslavement of black Africans in some parts of America played a major role in making racial prejudice customary among white Americans. I mean, that’s the first ingredient of this three-part recipe for widespread racial prejudice in the U. S.and it’s fair to say this recipe we’re talking about is still cooking in America. Some of the problems that existed back then are all dealt with today. To solve the problem, we have to understand it. 

The second factor that we’re dealing with is prevailing scientific thought. There was the prevailing belief, and it was just seen as science, popular science, that black people were inferior to white people. Tell us a little bit about that, Scott. I think this is even more pernicious than slavery because while it’s true that slavery views varied widely among whites, there’s a more broadly shared belief amongst whites of that time that blacks were inherently inferior and that you could prove it by simple observation, or scientifically, right? 

Like, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner and a scientist, cautiously concluded after his observations in 1781, that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind,” and this is him observing and trying to come to some “cautious conclusion.” Scientists, zoologists, physicians, and philosophers from the 17th to the 19th centuries, all concluded, and they were all white, that blacks were biologically less advanced than whites. They had smaller brains, they said. They were a separate species more closely related to monkeys or apes. There’s this interesting book published by a scientist named Josiah Nott, where—he’s a doctor, an anthropologist, and he depicts—you have this row of, like, white people, white skulls, and then you have black people, black skulls, like, trying to anthropologically try to depict this, and then underneath that you have apes and ape skulls. And what he’s trying to show is, “Hey, look how blacks fall somewhere between whites and apes.” 

I mean, it today is just, like, the most repulsive, like, disgusting thing you’ve ever seen. But he was taken seriously, and he was respected. This idea that they were either a separate species or that they had greatly degenerated from the “original, pure race” of Adam and Eve, which of course was why, they would say, this is very common— customary, right? And so all of this sort of explains in kind of a twisted logic why blacks were considered by whites less intelligent because they had “smaller brains.” They felt less pain and emotion, some of them said, because they had more primitive nervous systems. They generally lack sexual restraint, some of them said, because they were more closely related to animals. So these pseudoscientific explanations allowed many whites who were not biologists, who were not scientists, just to, “Oh, OK,” just accept their superiority to blacks, not as a matter of bigotry, but simply as a matter of biology. This is a key reason why these racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans and as a result the historical significance of blacks in Mormonism.  

Historical Claims and Arguments

Another piece of the puzzle that we sometimes neglect in the 21st century is that the idea of promoting racial purity to us today is really scary, right? Repulsive, yeah. It’s repulsive, right? White supremacy is condemned, and it should be. But in the 19th century, even into the 20th century, a little bit, it was common for people to talk about the purity of their race. There’s an address Teddy Roosevelt gave where he talked about the purity of the Teutonic race, and the Germanic race, and how it needed to be preserved because they were destined to rule the world. Now, anybody starts talking about the purity of the Germanic race today, you know, the alarm bells go off in our mind because we saw those ideas play themselves out and saw how dangerous they were. We also have the benefit today of—we’ve got the human genome. We know that the difference between a person with light-colored skin and dark-colored skin is less than, you know, 1% of 1% of the entire genetic makeup of the person. But in the 19th century, they didn’t see this as bigotry. They saw it as biology. “That’s just the way it is, and what are you going to do about it? We’re superior, and we’ve been asked to civilize these other races.”That was a pretty common thought, 

Which leads to another piece of the puzzle, which is a term we don’t hear a lot today, but in the 19th century you would often hear the term “amalgamation” or “racial amalgamation.” Explain to us a little bit about what that means. Amalgamation is—and sometimes they also call it miscegenation. Which just meant intermarriage between blacks and whites. And you can see, right? This helps us understand, too, This prevailing scientific thought helps us understand that intermarriage or sexual relations between whites and blacks was not just frowned upon during this time but legislated against in many states, right? There are many states that it wasn’t up until, what, the 1960s that we finally got laws against racial intermarriages—they’re called anti-miscegenation laws—off the books in every state. So racial intermarriage was taboo. It was the ultimate bugaboo. One of the major concerns of that middle group, the anti-slavery people, one of their concerns about abolitionists calling for immediate emancipation was what they saw as the inevitability of intermarriage. If blacks were all suddenly emancipated and made socially and politically equal with whites, then what would keep them from ultimately marrying whites? This was a major concern and a deeply held fear of many people. And those concerns were used to perpetuate the system as it existed. Some people saw slavery as benevolent, “Hey, we’re educating them and Christianizing them,” and it feels like it was almost universal that people were worried about what would happen if the races intermixed with each other. 

Challenging Perspectives

I have a dear friend who, you know, is in a mixed-race marriage and he has, you know, biracial children. And you still see this stuff flare up now and then—where sometimes he or his wife or his kids are singled out to like, “Hey, you know, are you sure you should be doing that?” Oh my goodness. That’s still present in the 21st century. In the early 19th century, I mean, the prejudices on this level and the fears associated with it were just off the charts. And what added fuel and, like, legitimacy to that fear were, again, some respected physicians in the mid-1800s who are saying stuff like this, that they’re warning that the offspring of a mixed-race couple would be weak. They would be infertile. They would probably, therefore, if this was allowed to continue, lead to the destruction of both races. Talk about fear-mongering, right? But this is coming from respected physicians. They would refer to biracial children as “mulattos.” That’s a term that still sometimes people throw around. It’s a pejorative term. It’s not an appropriate term. “Mulatto” is derived from the word “mule.” Which is the infertile love child of a horse and a donkey. So horses and donkeys could have offspring, but then that offspring was infertile, and that’s what some respected physicians and doctors were saying, that this is what’s going to happen. 

Like, biracial children—, one of them, again, Josiah Nott, I mentioned his name earlier, said that biracial children are, “A degenerate, unnatural offspring doomed by nature to work out their destruction.” This guy’s a respected scientist. And people were, like, just nodding their heads, like, “OK. I see the danger of interracial marriage,” right? Totally bunk, right? Totally—today we’re like, “Oh my gosh. That’s, like, the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” Like, he would not be a respected scientist in any circle today, but then, like, how would you know better? Right? How would you know better if you were living in that world, right? What would it have been like to grow up in such a world? You know, I think about that, right? If you were a white person in that context, do you think you could have resisted all of this and seen through it all? Or would you, like George Washington, have had some moral blind spots? When leading doctors and scientists themselves are confirming and giving apparent scientific backing to this racial prejudice, I mean, man. It makes sense to me as I try to look through a lens of empathy into the past—why so many otherwise wonderful people did not see the moral problem here. 

United States Historical Significance 

And, I mean, I’m using George Washington as my point of entrance into this period, but—I mean, George Washington owned his first slave at age 11. That’s the world that he grew up in. Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, but he can write the words, “All men are created equal.” And like we said, today we sit and say, “How could they have had such a huge moral blind spot?” But we have to consider the world that they live in and not necessarily what’s normal to us, but what is normal to them. We’re not saying what was right. We’re just trying to gaze into the past with empathy and understand where they were living and where they’re at. The Congress, right? U.S Congress in 1790, limited citizenship in the United States to free white persons. That’s what they said, “Free white persons.” And they saw that as an upstanding, wonderful thing to do. The founding fathers themselves—there’s a great book called Founding Brothers written by Joseph Ellis, and he makes a stunning observation: He said, “No responsible statesman in the revolutionary era had ever contemplated, much less endorsed, a biracial American society.” Think about that. “No model,” he says, “of a genuinely biracial society existed anywhere in the world at that time, nor had any existed in recorded history.” Wow. So let that just sink in, right? There was no such thing as a racially integrated society anywhere in the world at that time, nor had there been, that they could draw upon for a model. And so they’re not thinking about, “How can we make a racially balanced, integrated society?” right? 

And so for Congress in 1790 to say the citizen in this country is a free white person was a reasonable stance to take, right? Fast forward to 1857, there’s the Dred Scott case, an infamous case, where the US Supreme Court could declare that blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” My goodness, right? The US Supreme Court—these are respectable people in society, right, who are saying such things. The leaders of society. And even people that were moderate held views that today would be deemed racially insensitive. 

For instance, you know, another person that’s a good point of entry into this period is Abraham Lincoln. We all know who Abraham Lincoln is and what he did and how important a figure he was. But during a political debate in 1858, this is two years before he was elected president of the United States, he said, “I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. That I am not nor have ever been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. I am as much as any man in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.” Whoa. That’s Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln very much occupies this moderate territory in the middle. He’s not an abolitionist, but he doesn’t own slaves, too, he’s trying to make the country work, and he has to say things like this to even be considered a serious contender for president. Can you imagine a U.S. presidential candidate today saying, “I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race?” Like, oh my gosh. It is so revolting. But that’s, like you’re saying, that was moderate. That was like, “OK, this is a respectable guy,” you know? OK, so we’ve got the second sort of factor, which is prevailing scientific thought. That’s the world they live in. The last one, and this might be the toughest one for me, is how they interpreted the scriptures, specifically the Bible. 

Conclusion

One of the things the Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood brings up is, “Racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common, but customary among white Americans,” and then the next line says, “Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.” So maybe the toughest thing for me is that religion was also used to justify these racial views and practices. So tell us a little bit about that. How could white Christians who were slave owners feel good about what they were doing? Well, they would go to the Bible, and they would find that which seemed to justify their behavior, right? I want to be a good Christian as a good, honorable slaveholder. The Gospel Topics essays with many answers to past history with blacks in Mormonism, continues by saying that, “According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s,” right? That was a hundred years before the church was organized.

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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