Why not denounce Brigham Young’s racist statements?
It should come as no surprise to MSP readers that Brigham Young made racist statements. As there are 26 volumes in the Journal of Discourses, Brigham Young said a great deal about many things.
I think most current LDS (including Brigham himself) acknowledge the doctrine that sometimes an LDS prophet is speaking as a prophet (i.e., from God) and sometimes they are speaking “as a man” (their own opinion) Please see Jeff Lindsay’s essay about fallibility here. This is acknowledging that LDS prophets are products of the culture and society they live in and fallible.
The US. in the nineteenth century was in general a very racist place. Slavery – the buying and selling of human beings was still legal. I don’t think we will argue this point, I would hope that it’s just generally accepted that racism in that time period was alive and thriving in all segments of American society. Brigham Young was not unique in some of this thoughts and statements about the races, their differences and the “perils” of interracial marriage.
Brigham said some pretty damning things – quotes from the Journal of Discourses:
Examples (obviously, I’ve left out much of the original sermons. You can query for the entire text of the sermons online – just search for journal of discourses and the volume):
“..Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” – JoD: vol.10 p. 110: (March 8, 1863)
“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, un- comely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race – that they should be the “servant of servants;” and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree. How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, [p.291] 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 Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed.When the residue of the family of Adam come up and receive their blessings, then the curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will receive blessings in like proportion. “- JoD 7:290-291 (October 9, 1859)
Many LDS would say that with the 1978 revelation giving blacks the priesthood, institutional racism within the Utah LDS church ended. There was no longer a prohibition on couples of different races getting married in the temple, for example.
But the 1978 revelation fell short (see here) of disavowing Brigham Young’s (and other leaders’) statements. It did not say “Brigham Young was wrong when he said x. He was speaking as a man, not from God.”
The reason I bring this point up, is to ask how can I explain this concept to friends of color or people of awareness? I can’t defend it. I can’t explain that my parents, for example, active LDS members are not racists and vigorously denouce those statements (but they may believe that other things that Brigham said were from God).
An example of the defense would go:
Well, Brigham Young is indeed considered to be an LDS prophet.
And yes, he did say those racist statements.
Yet, active LDS know that he was speaking as a man and not as a prophet in those instances. And they believe that he was speaking as a prophet (from God) in other instances. Members can know the difference through personal revelation.
Without an official statement/apology, it’s up to individual LDS members’ interpretation. One individual is free to believe Brigham Young was indeed speaking from God when he made the statements against interracial marriage – indeed, referring to the death of the individuals in an interracial marriage. This individual can believe this(still have an LDS temple recommend, still fulfill their callings). Whether or not the majority of LDS do not believe that. Whether or not there are many active, temple-going LDS who are interracial couples. Whether or not there are many LDS who are descended from Africans or who are Africans themselves.
Other world religions, Roman Catholics for example, have come out and clarified their positions about past statements and actions of their leaders/members. They have specifically apologized for many former actions (even unintentional ones), compliance with the holocaust; and actions of Catholics against non-Catholics.
Just last year, an LDS spokesperson for the quorum of the twelve offered an apology for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
So LDS apologies and clarifications are not out of the realm of possibility.
While there has been a clear direction to “follow living prophets”; – the term “living” is not clear. (I’ve linked to a talk given by Ezra Taft Benson in 1980 about the fourteen fundamentals in following the prophet). Living or modern could mean any LDS prophet since Joseph Smith, Jr. And I don’t think that something that Spencer W. Kimball (or Ezra Taft Benson) said would NOT be considered from a “living” prophet, as they were both alive thirty years ago. So within thirty years, it’s okay, but over one hundred years, what they said is suspect?
As I think it’s been discussed here before, when is a prophet still considered a living prophet? Does a new prophet (like Thomas S. Monson) need to go back through everything prior prophets have said and specify that LDS still believe that?
Stating that Brigham Young was NOT a modern or living prophet exposes a whole can of doctrinal worms. His life and works are still studied in LDS seminary, primary and Sunday School. So all of his sayings cannot be dismissed as not doctrinal by the Utah LDS church.
What makes more sense is to clarify specific statements, repudiate and apologize.