Black History Month at the JI: An Abortive Campaign Against the Folklore (Mauss)

By February 21, 2013

By Armand Mauss

Note: The following is an excerpt from Prof. Mauss’ recent memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (UofU Press, 2012), which Prof. Mauss kindly shared with the Juvenile Instructor for inclusion in our Black History Month series. The memoir (which everyone should buy and read!) has received some attention in the ‘nacle here and here.

All during this post-1978 period, I remained in periodic personal contact with many black LDS friends, especially those in the Genesis Group.27 As conversations with my black LDS friends made clear, the circulation of this repackaged folklore greatly hindered the conversion and retention of new black members. I became well acquainted personally with one case, in particular, which produced a major national news story in 1998. This was the case of a middle-aged black couple named Jackson, who lived in Orange County, California. Betty Jackson happened to be a coworker with one of my sons at the Mazda Corporation, and through friendly conversation, each discovered that the other was a member of the LDS Church. The Jacksons had only very recently been converted along with one or two of their children. Having learned of the traditional LDS racial teachings and policies only after joining the Church, the Jacksons were having considerable trouble in accommodating the new information. My son gave Betty a copy of the Bush & Mauss Neither White nor Black in hopes that it might help them understand and deal with the matter, which it did to some extent.

Meanwhile, however, the home teacher working with the Jacksons in their ward (who had also been instrumental in their conversion) continued to cultivate their friendship through a series of couple-to-couple visits in each others’ homes. When the erstwhile race restrictions came up during their visits, the home teacher, one Dennis Gladwell, proceeded to “explain” the issue to them with the warmed-over folklore described just above. The Jacksons were not only unpersuaded, but David was angry enough to do some research of his own in attempting to convince Gladwell that his understanding of history and the scriptures was erroneous. After several encounters, Gladwell was convinced, and in an emotional breakthrough one evening, he broke down in tears, conceded that he had been wrong, and asked forgiveness.28 From that point on, he and the Jacksons became allies in a campaign to disabuse the LDS Church and its members of their continuing reliance on such racist folklore.29

To initiate their campaign, Gladwell shared his story with an old friend in the church leadership, namely Elder Marlin K. Jensen, of the First Quorum of Seventy, and sought his assistance in approaching President Hinckley, and other general authorities, in seeking a formal and public repudiation of all the folklore that had once been used to “explain” the Church’s racial policies. Elder Jensen realized that any such repudiation would have to be approved and issued jointly by his colleagues in the leadership, particularly the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and ultimately the First Presidency. In an effort to craft a proposal to that effect for their consideration, Elder Jensen put together an ad hoc advisory committee consisting of Gladwell, the two Jacksons, William Evans from Public Affairs, and myself.30 In mid-1997, we all met as a committee with Elder Jensen and formulated a collection of ideas and arguments that might serve as the equivalent of a lawyer’s “brief” to be forwarded with Elder Jensen’s proposal through the various channels of the general church leadership. I was delegated to write the first draft of such a document in the form of a report from the committee. Elder Jensen (himself an attorney before entering church service) then rendered my report into final form (more like a real legal brief) and sent it through the appropriate channels with his proposal for a formal and public repudiation by the Church president of the accumulated racist doctrines and folklore once used to justify denial of full privileges to  members of African ancestry.31

All of us on the ad hoc committee, including Elder Jensen, were cautiously hopeful that the church president could be persuaded to issue the proposed repudiation by June of 1998, which would mark the 20th anniversary of the revelation ending the priesthood restriction. David Jackson, perhaps not fully appreciating the glacial speed at which bureaucracies like the LDS Church deal with sensitive issues, began asking me at regular intervals for reports on the progress of Elder Jensen’s proposal. I tried to explain that none of us, except perhaps Elder Jensen himself, would be likely to learn what was developing within the councils of church leadership as the proposal worked its way up the channels. All we could do would be to hope and pray that divine guidance, good public relations sensitivity, or both, would lead to an issuance of the desired repudiation in time for the 1998 anniversary.

This was not enough to satisfy Jackson, who apparently got the idea that he could accelerate the process by a leak to the press about our quiet campaign behind the scenes, presumably in hopes that such a leak would exert pressure on the Church leaders for an early public response. I warned him that the result would be the opposite of what he was hoping – that such a leak would simply derail the whole campaign. Nevertheless, he contacted Larry Stammer, then of the Los Angeles Times, with his leak. An article about the expected statement from the LDS Church appeared in late May of 1998, while I happened, in fact, to be participating as president of the Mormon History Association at its annual meeting in Washington, D. C. During that conference, I was tracked down several times by reporters, including Richard Ostling, for my comments on Stammer’s story. My comment was always to the effect that Jackson and Stammer had killed any chance for such a formal statement of repudiation to occur. I turned out to be quite right about that, of course, as President Hinckley, himself badgered by the Utah press, finally declared that he had heard nothing about plans for such a repudiation, and none such would be forthcoming, nor did he regard it as necessary. 32

I never thought that our efforts had more than a 50-50 chance of getting the desired public repudiation, so I have no idea whether President Hinckley, after having eventually received our proposal, would have acted on it in 1998. He seemed entirely sincere in believing that the 1978 change in actual policy had automatically rendered moot all the traditional supportive folklore. The public relations line of the Church tacitly took essentially the same position by claiming that the folklore was never official doctrine, and that we simply didn’t know why the Church had once had racially restrictive policies. Many of the Church’s leaders, and even some of its erstwhile critics, have sometimes cited, as an implicit repudiation, Elder McConkie’s call to “[f]orget everything that I . . . . and whomsoever has said in the past,” apparently not recognizing from the context of his speech that McConkie was referring not to the doctrinal folklore, but only to the traditional prophecy that blacks would never “receive the priesthood in mortality.”33 Another decade was to elapse before President Hinckley seemed fully aware of the extent to which the Church and its members had been damaged by the continuing circulation of the racist folklore, and he finally issued a strong but rather oblique criticism of it in the Priesthood session of April, 2006, General Conference.34 Meanwhile, the urgent plea of David Jackson, years earlier, that the Church should cease distributing McConkie’s popular Mormon Doctrine (with its many racist teachings), was finally realized only in 2010.35 Thus have the pain and anguish of the original race policy been allowed to live on through the doctrinal echoes that have survived the policy itself, quite unnecessarily, for decades.


Fortunately, I no longer have any career contingencies at stake in my work. I still continue to write the occasional article on racial or other issues in the Mormon world, usually by special request;42 but my principal remaining interest in the race issue since publishing the book is my desire that I shall live to see the formal, official, complete, and unequivocal repudiation by the LDS Church of all the doctrinal folklore about people of African lineage which has poisoned the Mormon tradition for a century and a half. Given my age, my hopes for this development are not high. Yet my studies and experiences with the LDS Church and its leaders make me somewhat optimistic about the future in general, for during my lifetime the Church has often shown a capacity for rather fundamental changes in response to internal or external challenges. It will also eventually purge itself of the last vestiges of racism and racialism, not only where black Africans are concerned, but also more generally – a process already underway, as my 2003 book indicates.


The irony arises when the doctrine of continuous revelation is complemented (as it often is) by another prevailing organizational myth that is the Mormon counterpart of papal infallibility – namely, that the prophets (collectively, at least) don’t make serious mistakes – i. e. don’t “lead the Church astray.” 46 It would be especially difficult to acknowledge that such a “mistake” as the LDS racial restriction could have continued for more than a century. Such an acknowledgement would inevitably lead to questions about other possible “mistakes” of similar gravity. It is thus not difficult to understand why the official position of the Church today is simply that “we don’t know” what the origin of the earlier racial restriction was, for such a demurral is not likely to evoke any difficult follow-up questions. That is also the most likely reason that even after all this time, there has been no formal, public repudiation of the long-standing racial folklore that was used (in the absence of revelation) to “explain” and justify the restriction on priesthood ordination. After all, the most ardent apostolic promulgators of such folklore have not been so long gone, and many of them were also beloved by grassroots Latter-day Saints and their current leaders, resulting in a kind of “vested collective interest” (psychologically) in resisting such a repudiation. Be all that as it may, when the doctrine of continuous revelation is paired with the tradition of prophetic near-infallibility, timely change in long-standing Church policies will always be difficult. Thus the irony created by the combined effects of two important Mormon traditions (continuous revelation vs. inerrant prophetic leadership).47

Thus also the residual tarnish on the Mormon image, which has been unnecessary to the extent that it could have been avoided by a simple change in administrative policy, if only successive generations of Church leaders had not assumed that it had had a revelatory origin in the first place.48 The tarnish has also been somewhat unfair, of course, since the LDS Church was never any more “racist” than the rest of America, but only relatively late in dropping its restrictions. Furthermore, it has made truly strenuous efforts since then to redress the resulting grievances and to reach out  sincerely to the African American community, both in the Church itself and in the nation as a whole. Yet there still seems to be no disposition in high places to confront the actual origins of the erstwhile racial restriction through research in the primary archival sources, as the Church recently has done, for example, with the Mountain Meadows massacre. Only thereby can any real explanation be found, if there is one, for the historic racial restrictions, so that no longer will we have to be satisfied with the official but vacuous “we don’t know.” Otherwise, in the future as in the past, we shall continue to see the issue raised against the Church from time to time, and the racist folklore that once justified it will continue to pop up among the well-meaning but uninformed faithful. So far, as a public relations posture, the Church leadership seems to be counting on its racist past to disappear as time gradually filters out the popular recollection of such harmful episodes.49 Time might thus bring the required forgetting, but forthrightness would likely bring also a measure of forgiveness.


[27] I have referred to this group many times in my writing on the race issue in the Church, and some of its early members, especially Ruffin Bridgeforth, were important informants as I did my research on black LDS members. See the current Genesis Group website.

[28] This account was shared with me by both Jackson and Gladwell independently on different occasions.

[29] Gladwell’s public comments on the damage being done by racial folklore among the Mormons were quoted in press accounts even much later: John H. Bunzel, “Is America ready for a Mormon president,” The Boston Globe, Feb. 19, 2006 (Op-Ed page).

[30] My inclusion on this committee was a product of the awareness of the Bush and Mauss book not only by Gladwell and the Jacksons, but also by Elder Jensen himself, who had earlier had it called to his attention by my brother Gordon, whom Jensen had succeeded as President of the New York Rochester Mission.

[31] As far as I know, our ad hoc committee never saw the final “brief” or document that Elder Jensen sent up through the leadership channels, but the 1997 document which I wrote reflecting our committee’s consensus is in my personal papers with the title, “Racial Ideas as a Continuing Problem in the Church.”

[32] A fuller description of this campaign, along with its abortive outcome, is given by the journalists Richard and Joan Ostling in their Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (HarperCollins, 1999), pages 103-105. Undoubtedly President Hinckley had not, in fact, heard about the proposal from Elder Jensen, for it had not yet worked its way that far up the hierarchy.

[33] See “All Are Alike Unto God,” address by Bruce R. McConkie to the annual CES Religious Educators Symposium, August 18, 1978. It is clear from any but the most superficial reading of this speech that it is primarily an argument that God bestows rights and blessings differentially on different peoples, and that those of African lineage simply got their “turn” at the priesthood sooner than expected. McConkie’s later writings, including even later editions of his Mormon Doctrine, continued to perpetuate all the other racial doctrines common in the Mormon heritage. See also my All Abraham’s Children, pages 248-249.

[34] I am assuming that President Hinckley would have meant to include such racist folklore in the “disparaging remarks” he referred to in the following passage on that occasion : “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 Church of Christ. How can any 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 a different color, is ineligible?” (One wonders if Pres. Hinckley would have agreed also with a retroactive implication of his remarks to mean, How could any man holding the . . . Priesthood ever have arrogantly assumed that . . . one whose skin is a different color was ineligible?).

[35] See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Landmark Mormon Doctrine Goes Out of Print,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 21, 2010.

[42] Following are articles on the race issue that I have published since the book came out. Most of them were solicited for encyclopedias or edited collections : “Dispelling the Curse of Cain: Or, How to Explain the Old Priesthood Ban without Looking Ridiculous,” Sunstone magazine, October 2004, 54-59 (originally presented as a paper at the 2003 annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetics Information and Research, Salt Lake City); “Casting Off the ‘Curse of Cain’: The Extent and Limits of Progress since 1978.” Pp. 82-115 in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, eds., Black and Mormon (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004); “Children of Ham and Children of Abraham: The Construction and Deconstruction of Ethnic Identities in the Mormon Heartland.” Pp. 115-24 in Fay Botham and Sara M. Patterson, eds., Race, Religion, Region: Landscapes of Encounter in the American West. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006); “Mormons and Race,” in Richard T. Schaefer, ed., Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing Co., 2008, Vol. 2); “The Perils and Promise of Social Prognosis: O’Dea and the Race Issue,” in Cardell Jacobson, Tim Heaton, and John Hoffman, eds., Revisiting O’Dea’s The Mormons: Persistent Themes and Contemporary Perspectives. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008); and “Mormonism and Race,” in W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, eds., Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2010). In press is still another piece commissioned for a reference work, forthcoming in 2012 : “Mormons and Race,” in Part V of Richard Sherlock and Carl Mosser, eds., The Mormon World (New York and London, 2012), a volume in Routledge’s Modern World series.

[46] A somewhat humorous saying among many Mormon scholars since about the 1970s is to the effect that, “The Catholic Church still holds the claim of papal infallibility, but nobody really believes it. By contrast, the Mormon Church officially disclaims infalliblity for its prophets, but nobody really believes it!”

[47] As recently as February, 2012, this predicament produced another black eye for the LDS public image when Randall Bott, a popular religion professor at BYU, was quoted in a Washington Post article as “explaining” the traditional LDS policies toward black people by reference to all the old folklore. See the original Post article and derivative accounts and discussion in the Utah press and Mormon blogsites – e. g., here, here, here, here, here, and for 28 Feb. 2012 and several days thereafter. If anything constructive came of this incident, it was probably that the Church was forced to repudiate Bott’s ideas through its own immediate news releases via LDS Newsroom: here and here. All these sites were accessed on 2 March 2012.

[48] In this respect, the Church’s “scandal” over race was far more avoidable than its even more pervasive and enduring scandal over polygamy, which, indeed, continues to have its origin in the LDS scriptural canon. But that is a subject for another time.

[49] Elsewhere I have written of this posture as based on a couple of common organizational myths about history. See pages 262-64 in my All Abraham’s Children.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Race Reflective Posts


  1. Prof. Mauss–

    Thanks very much for sharing your unique insights here.

    “[N]o longer will we have to be satisfied with the official but vacuous ‘we don’t know.’ Otherwise, in the future as in the past, we shall continue to see the issue raised against the Church from time to time, and the racist folklore that once justified it will continue to pop up among the well-meaning but uninformed faithful.”

    I think part of the major problem with the “we don’t know” approach is that it creates a vacuum (–“vacuous”–) where a contextualized, historical understanding of the origins of the ban on full black membership might exist to answer this question. Absent such an approach (with the imprimatur of the official Church), well meaning Saints turn to now deceased prophets for answers.

    But if anything can be learned from other recent efforts on other divisive issues, the “church” (small “c”) at the grassroots does seem to have an impact Church in Temple Square.

    Here is hoping for continued dialogue.

    Comment by Max — February 21, 2013 @ 9:09 am

  2. Thanks to Dave for posting this excerpt and to Max for his confirmatory comment. I should explain that the excerpt comes from a prepublication pdf version of Chapter 6 of my new memoir, which I provided to Dave. The pdf version and the published version are virtually identical, but there are some minor differences, including the numbering of the footnotes. I apologize to any readers who might notice that the numbering in this pdf version does not align perfectly with the numbering in the published version.

    Comment by Armand L,. Mauss — February 21, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  3. Professor Mauss, I share your dream that an official repudiation will be made. When I was interviewed about comments made by a BYU professor for BYU’s newspaper, I was disappointed that my comments were still moderated and largely ignored (that the best thing to come of the fiasco would have been an official statement condemning the folklore). I think your memoir will continue the conversation about race in the Church. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 21, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  4. I appreciate all your work on this topic, Armand. And I this is a wonderful glimpse into the dynamics of Latter-day Saint ecclesiology as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 21, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Thanks for all your work, Armand. Getting your book has moved from the back of my mind to the front; I shall pick it up posthaste.

    Comment by John Hatch — February 21, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

  6. Thanks for sharing this here, and providing some fascinating background on developments in the post-1978 years. I look forward to reading your book of memoirs.

    Comment by Christopher — February 21, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  7. Armand, interesting story about the continuing effects of the Priesthood Ban. I agree that the continuing folklore about the reasons for the ban is just as harmful to the testimonies of many members – both black and white – as the ban itself. I wonder, though, if the idea that members should not speak to the press or be too vocal about their opposition also has a negative effect on testimonies. There is something about the idea that protesting, being vocal, etc. is counterproductive and is actually going to hinder progress that rubs me the wrong way. Although I am sure that church leaders don’t mean this advice to come across “Sit down, be quiet, and wait for the leaders of the church to solve the problem through the correct channels,” it sometimes seems this way. This is only compounded by the fact that often the gender and race of the men in power is different from those who are petitioning. I fully expect to be told in response to my comment that “I just don’t get Mormonism” but I’ve heard similar sentiments coming from some participants in the “Let Women Pray” movement and from many friends who have left the church.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 21, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  8. Thanks for the excerpt–I was looking forward to it!

    Comment by Saskia — February 21, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

  9. Thanks for your observations, Amanda. For me the question of whether to criticize the Church (or its leadership), or to make demands on them, in the press or in any other public forum, has always raised the question of likely efficacy. I’m not necessarily saying here that you “just don’t get Mormonism,” but I would say that it is important for anyone to understand the ecclesiology of the LDS Church if one is attempting to influence its policies. On the particular issue at hand, there can be no doubt, especially after the Bott episode, that all the Church leaders, and the entire Public Affairs apparatus, are well aware of the potential damage done by the continued circulation of the old folklore. Would a series of critical articles in the press, especially from discontented members, be likely to bring the desired official repudiation? Maybe, but I doubt it. If the LDS Church had a more democratic ecclesiology, like so many of the Protestant denominations, we could start a grassroots campaign and demand change (or else vote to change the leaders). LDS members who feel that the legitimacy of Church governance depends on its responsiveness to such grassroots ferment will always be disappointed, so I am not surprised that they sometimes leave the Church in frustration. Yet, are their voices more likely to be heard from the outside than from the inside? Believe me, I share your frustration, not only about the race issue and its history, but about many other traditions, policies, and developments in the Church during my lifetime (which is now nearly half as long as the entire history of the Church!). My personal system for coping is set forth here, — in case you might find this article helpful.

    Comment by Armand L,. Mauss — February 22, 2013 @ 1:28 am

  10. WOW! Congratulations to JI for a spectacular month. I love Armand Mauss. He always answers questions in such a thoughtful way. When anyone asks for information on the race issue on Momonism, I send them Armand’s article at I cannot wait to read the memoir!

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 22, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

  11. Also,I asked Armand years ago about the “prophet won’t lead you astray” quote. He said that it was not taught when he was growing up–at least it was not emphasized. Am I remembering correctly, Armand? When did this change? WHY did it change?

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 22, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

  12. Margaret: Thanks for your comment. As for your question about the “prophet won’t lead the Church astray,” this claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment” era after the 1960s to reinforce the “follow the prophet” mantra that is now so familiar to us. My general sense is that it has become less frequent in more recent years as the retrenchment motif in our ecclesiastical culture has begun to retreat.

    Comment by Armand L,. Mauss — February 23, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  13. […] Black History Month at the JI: An Abortive Campaign against the Folklore (Armand Mauss, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.8 (February 18-24) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — March 3, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

  14. […] likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: “[T]his claim seems to […]

    Pingback by Official Declaration 2 PLUS — March 4, 2013 @ 12:04 am


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