A few weeks ago, I toured Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with my parents. On the tour, the pleasant guide informed our group that Thomas Jefferson most likely fathered several children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. The tour guide than asked the group rhetorically, “How could the author of the Declaration of Independence also own slaves, much less father children that became his human property?” I admired her response to her own question, “There is no reconciling. He was wrong. We cannot excuse his behavior.”
The tour came in the midst of my reading of Russell W. Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism. Like the tour guide, Stevenson offers valuable information in the midst of a larger narrative, the history of “blacks” in Mormonism.[i] His narrative offers readers a straightforward account of the priesthood and temple restriction for those of African descent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He does so with a wealth of documents, including many that I had never before seen. Like the tour guide at Monticello, he does not attempt to excuse those that upheld the ban through action or apathy. Stevenson should be commended writing the best resource for Latter-day Saints to learn more about the experience of Mormon blacks in settings both American and international. Stevenson also does an admirable job demonstrating that lay Latter-day Saints largely upheld the priesthood and temple restriction—it was not merely the decree of church leaders.
For the Cause of Righteousness is split neatly into two sections. First, Stevenson provides an easy-to-understand, 200-page narrative that chronicles the origins and extensions of the priesthood/temple restriction. In this first part of his diptych, readers will see that the author’s reputation as a document hound is well deserved. He provides valuable insight not only from familiar sources, but from small-town Utah newspapers, correspondence between Mormons that discuss the restriction in the twentieth century, oral histories, and previously unpublished manuscripts related to blacks, Mormons, and black Mormons. The author also narrates a 10,000-foot level view of Latter-day Saints and the Civil Rights Movement. Each chapter is filled to the brim with sources and quotations.
Perhaps most importantly, the sections on Cuba, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa are valuable contributions to the historiography of race and religion in Mormonism. Equally as important, though, these chapters are an excellent example of how the international study of Mormonism can be expanded beyond existing models.[ii] However, Stevenson presents the sources by logic of chronology and geography, but does not offer much in the way of historical argument. He mentions several times that every-day Mormons were just as culpable as their leaders for the priesthood and temple restriction, and even has a nice introduction with Foucault’s philosophy of the prison in Discipline and Punish. He uses Foucault’s explication class treatment of power dynamics in a way that non-specialists can understand (a feat in and of itself!) and correctly states that Mormonism is, in a sense, trapped by its racial past. The framework, rather than providing a consistent argument, frames For the Cause of Righteousness, as Terryl Givens put it, a “morality tale.” It is certainly valuable on those grounds, but less so as an academic monograph.
In the second section, Stevenson provides several dozen documents that are invaluable to the study of race in Mormonism from the 19th to the 21st centuries. For those interested in the history of blacks and Mormonism, the sources are worth the price of the book itself. The introductions and transcriptions will help readers and researchers who do not have access to the vast array of Mormon documents housed in the intermountain west.
So who should buy the book? For the Cause of Righteousness provides a complete chronological scope, an immensely important global perspective, and is replete with important facts and historical figures every Mormon should know. The breadth of the book, documentary sources, and non-American narratives make For the Cause of Righteousness invaluable to those interested in the priesthood/temple restriction or in Mormonism writ large.
For those interested in larger historiographical arguments in race or religious history, though, For the Cause of Righteousness may not be as useful. There is little in the way of explaining racial formation in nineteenth-century terms as Mormonism matured, which would help readers understand the importance of Africa in western and global racialism. There is no explanation of how the concept of race hardened in the first decades of the twentieth century. He does, though, incorporate a short, jargon-free framework of “whiteness” into his narrative—which cannot be underestimated in the history of race in Mormonism. The author could have better engaged the historical and theoretical frameworks necessary to launch his treatment above the academic threshold in order to to be useful outside of those interested specifically in Mormonism. There will be limited interest for those interested in the broader literature of race and religion, lived religion, or race-making as written and discussed in academic circles. Had the book incorporated some more historical context surrounding the malleable definitions of race or whiteness, it would appeal to a much broader audience of academics. Of course, presenting a “neutral” history has its own virtues for a non-academically specialized readership. This book will find its way into the hands of more readers than it would have otherwise. Still, For the Cause of Righteousness could have added just a little more theoretical and contextual information and become more valuable for study in university classrooms.
All in all, Stevenson is to be commended for both his research and for pushing the geographic boundaries of the priesthood/temple restriction beyond the borders of the United States. For the Cause of Righteousness is the best one-volume history of blacks and Mormonism available anywhere.
[i] “Blacks” is used in place of “people of African descent,” perhaps to make the work more accessible to readers. It should be noted that Stevenson explicitly states that his work is meant to be a history of blacks, not a larger history of race in Mormonism—which would take several volumes!
[ii] i.e. “Missionaries entered Elbonia, they faced hardships in Elbonia, pioneering Elbonian members demonstrated great faith, and there’s now a temple in Elbonia.” (Elbonia is not real, for those keeping score at home.)