Guest Post: From the Archives: Missionary Work, Race, and the Priesthood and Temple Ban in Brazil, circa 1977-78 (Part I)

By April 2, 2015

Today’s guest post comes from Shannon Flynn, a longtime student of church history who currently lives in Gilbert, Arizona. Shannon holds a B.A. in history from the University of Utah and had published four book reviews in the Journal of Mormon History. Today’s post is the first in a two-part series that draws on his experience and presents documents (with accompanying translations) from his time serving as a missionary in Brazil Sau Paulo South Mission from 1977-79.

While the significance of Brazil and its unique cultural heritage and hierarchy of race often receives at least a passing mention in discussions of the ending of the ban in June 1978, often lacking from historical accounts of this era are the first-person perspectives and (especially) documents of the sort provided by Shannon below. Part II of the series will be posted tomorrow.

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I was called to serve a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Brazil Sao Paulo South Mission from the first week of March 1977 to the first week of March 1979. Because of visa problems, I did not arrive in Brazil until October 13, 1977. I was assigned to the Maua area of Sao Paulo during the month of June 1978. It was there that I heard of the announcement of extending the priesthood to all worthy males. The impact this had on missionary work and the progress of the church cannot be underestimated — it was a sea change. Previous to that time the way the church dealt with blacks and the priesthood had been a vexing problem since the first missionaries landed in Joinville in 1926. In the first few years blacks were almost never proselyted but that eventually changed and methods were developed to handle the ensuing problems. Previous to the time I arrived there was a lesson that was added to the regular discussions that dealt with the problem of determining whether the investigator had black lineage (scans of the documents, together with accompanying translation, can be found here). This lesson was given at the conclusion of the regular discussions. I don’t ever remember using this exact catechism style of discussion but we would try to accomplish the goal of determining the lineage of the persons being taught. Missionaries elsewhere in Brazil used similar lessons during this time — in a 2013 guest post at Keepapitchinin.org, Grant Vaughn provided scans of the lesson he taught in the Brazil Porto Alegre Mission from 1976-78.  Moreover, I would assume that most missions before my time had something of a similar nature.[1] 

As one may imagine, having two young, ignorant young missionaries making these sorts of decisions is silly in the extreme, but those were the circumstances that we lived in. Having grown up in the church and being from Salt Lake City, I did not find the church’s policy and/or doctrine particularly disturbing. I believed that the blacks would receive the priesthood someday but did not believe that it would be in my lifetime. It was a “Millennium” sort of thing. As a result, I did not feel bad teaching such doctrine since I was just following the instructions and culture that was all around me. With a new set of eyes today it all looks much different but we were part of the time in which we lived.

In addition to the lesson, district leaders were tasked with inquiring into a prospective convert’s racial lineage during the baptismal interview. Below is a scan of a page from a sample baptismal interview included as part of the district leaders manual in the mission.  I am just including the last page of the sample interview. I believe that this lesson and interview was a reflection of what was going on in the church at this time and all throughout the church for decades — that is, a conclusion looking for evidence. Everyone knew the policy/doctrine was that backs could not hold the priesthood and in order to transmit and/or teach this idea some reasons for that policy had to be dug up. The policy had been in place long enough that it seems like no one really knew why it was there and the circumstances of its instigation had been long forgotten. In Brazil during the 1970s, the material below pretty well sums up the line of reasoning. Mission presidents and missionaries in Brazil tried to implement it in some confusing circumstances and with some personal discomfort. It is my belief that Brazil presented the most difficult situation that the Church had encountered regarding this issue in the world. The mixing of races in Brazil had been significant in Brazil for most of its history and so American church officials had to make determinations about lineage on a much bigger scale in Brazil than anywhere else and in very murky situations. One could ask a whole host of Brazilians if they had any blacks in their ancestry, and they honestly wouldn’t know and this was especially true the farther north you went in the country. I have no doubt it was unevenly applied over the years, some erring to the side of denial and some erring to the side of ordaining. Many American leaders came to feel some significant uneasiness over the policy as they observed its impact on the lives of numerous members. The biggest difficulty came not in those that chose not to be baptized but in those who did and just lived for years with the consequences. I am aware of numerous members scattered throughout Brazil that had faithfully participated in the church and then beginning in 1975 donated to the construction of the Sao Paulo Temple with no practical hope of ever going in that building. My translation of the document follows.

Untitled3

MISSIONARY: Are you prepared to assume the obligations of a member of the Church of Jesus Christ?

MR. BARROS: Response

MISSIONARY: Are you ready to follow the law of Tithing?

MR. BARROS: Response

MISSIONARY: Do you know that certain people, because of their lineage cannot hold the priesthood? Do you have any question about this limitation?

MR. BARROS: response

MISSIONARY: Do you know if you or one of your parents are part of the lineage that cannot hold the priesthood?

MR. BARROS: Response (If it is yes or no, ask the appropriate question.)

MISSIONARY: (if it is yes) Knowing this limitation, do you still want to be baptized and live faithfully in the Church?

(If it is no) If you were to find out after your baptism that you or someone from your family descended from this linage that cannot hold the priesthood, would you still be faithful in the church?

MR. BARROS: Response

MISSIONARY: Mr. Barros, by your answers I can see that you are well prepared to be baptized. I want to congratulate you for your diligence and desire to do the right. I know your decision to be baptized is a good one and one that makes our Father in Heaven very happy. (Here, bear your testimony of the truth of these things) Do you have any questions?

MR. BARROS: Response

MISSIONARY: Now, Mr. Barros, I want to verify the preparations for the baptismal service and fill out the baptismal recommend.

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[1]  Grant noted that in his mission, “it was referred to as the ‘Eighth Discussion’ or ‘Discussion K,'” and that “it was not an official church missionary discussion.” Rather, “it was shared around the mission in an informal way — never having any direct instruction from our Mission President to teach it.”

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism From the Archives International Mormonism Race


Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is instructive to see how the rationale for the ban became so entrenched in the Book of Abraham, especially given that Brigham Young only drew upon the Bible and curse of Cain as his rationale.
    The questions and the “logic” behind them feel incredibly manipulative. And how is a person supposed to predict if they will “remain faithful” based upon some future scenario?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 2, 2015 @ 7:54 am

  2. Thanks, Shannon. Very interesting.

    In southern France (1974-76), we were to delay broaching the topic of the priesthood/temple restriction, and the question of acceptance or not, until the baptismal interview.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 2, 2015 @ 8:16 am

  3. This is really fascinating, Shannon. Thanks for contributing it here.

    Comment by Christopher — April 2, 2015 @ 9:47 am

  4. I seem to remember rumors in my mission (France/Belgium mid-1990s) that there were some official rules about teaching arab muslims (purportedly because there was the potential of violence if they converted), but I never dug into it while there. I wonder if there are still unofficial-official race-based policies in some places.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 2, 2015 @ 10:01 am

  5. Interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 2, 2015 @ 10:10 am

  6. Stapley, we had the same kind of quasi-official restriction on teaching Muslims while I was in Seattle in the mid-1990s. Again the rationale was possible repercussions against them if they converted — a different logic than the priesthood ban on blacks, to be sure, but still a whole lot of racial-cultural-religious essentializing & Orientalism going on. Maybe there was a solid basis to it, since conversion is a real issue in many Muslim-majority cultures, and has in some cases provoked violence against the convert. (Of course, Christians have always dealt with the conversion of their own to another faith with utter equanimity…) Like you, I never dug into it then, nor have I since, to see how “official” it was — but it did prevent us from teaching a guy of Muslim heritage who was interested.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — April 2, 2015 @ 11:09 am

  7. I’ve heard anecdotally of similar proscriptions against teaching Muslims in southern Spain.

    Comment by Christopher — April 2, 2015 @ 11:16 am

  8. Not to derail the post, but I was told on my mission (Dallas) that if a Muslim entered our teaching pool our president wanted to know so that he could monitor the situation. We had a long discussion with one on her doorstep (that’s when the elder told me that) but her husband ran us off when we did our follow up.

    Also a girl I was dating before my mission started dating a Iranian Muslim at Utah State (this was after we broke up but we stayed friends, I even met the guy briefly) and she got him to take the discussions. She said it was a major concern for him and all involved.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 2, 2015 @ 11:23 am

  9. The policy is now official, and as far as I know, has been since 2007. The missionaries in Richmond confirmed that converts must be interviewed by the mission president for me today. Mission presidents must determine whether a convert may be baptized (and in my experience, whether the investigator is planning on moving to/returning to a primary Muslim country.

    Thank you, Shannon.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 2, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

  10. […] This is second and final entry in a series of posts from guest Shannon Flynn on missionary work, race, and the Priesthood Ban that draws on his experience as a missionary in Brazil from 1977-1979. See Part I here. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Guest Post: From the Archives: Missionary Work, Race, and the Priesthood and Temple Ban in Brazil, circa 1977-78 (Part II) — April 3, 2015 @ 7:00 am


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