With Stephen J. Fleming
Normally articles take a back seat to monographs in terms of impact, but Lester E. Bush’s 1973 Dialogue article “Mormonisms’ Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” stands as a master work of scholarship that not only revolutionized how historians, sociologists, and other academics view the church’s history of race relations, but was also a significant factor leading to OD 2. Prior to Bush’ article, the history of the Priesthood ban was understood in two primary narratives. First, the divine explanation, that God had revealed to Joseph Smith and later prophets that Blacks, as descendants of cursed biblical figures, could not hold the priesthood. And second, the environmental explanation, that Joseph Smith had shifted from a pro-abolitionist stance to a pro-slavery stance after having suffered persecution in Missouri (a slave state), and that having adopted American white supremacy, began excluding Blacks from the Mormon priesthood (Bush actually dismantled this view in an earlier review essay, also published in Dialogue). Bush’s work presented serious challenges to both of these narratives, primarily with his path-breaking argument that the ban had not originated with Smith, but with his successor, Brigham Young. The article took a long-term view of the ban’s history, tracing Mormon race relations from the 1830s through the late 1960s. Because Bush was able to provide compelling reasons for why the origins of the ban should be dated to the administration of Young, rather than to Smith’s, faithful Latter-day Saints were enabled to more easily reject the divine origins of the ban. According to a retrospective account published in the Journal of Mormon History, Bush was informed that apostles during the 1970s had been spotted reading the article, suggesting that scholarship had some influence on the 1978 revelation.
Although Bush was not trained as a historian (he was a medical doctor), his work is representative of the archive-based research so indicative of the New Mormon History. Later scholars augmented Bush’s research, but for the most part his conclusions have stood the test of time. For example, based on his research, Bush concluded that the earliest explicit statement referring to the ban could only be dated to 1849. Ron Esplin, in an important yet ultimately unconvincing attempt to reconnect the ban to Smith, found an 1847 source mentioning the ban. Despite succeeding in pushing the ban’s dating back two years, Esplin also discovered a crucial 1847 letter (see comment 16) that revealed that Young did not consider Blacks ineligible for the priesthood. Although implicit in Bush’s initial article, later scholars such as Newell G. Bringhurst and especially Connell O’Donovan have suggested that Young’s fear of interracial marriage ultimately contributed to the implementation of the policy.
The question remains if Bush’s article is still worth reading today. Only one book-length study of the ban’s history has appeared since 1973, Bringhurst’s Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, which, although valuable, reads like the revised and expanded dissertation that it is. As such, it fails to match Bush’s conciseness and historical impact. Armand Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage provides an invaluable framework for understanding Mormon views of lineage and race, but much of his book is based on secondary sources. Other valuable studies have shed light on separate aspects of the bans’ history, such as the biographies of twentieth-century leaders by Ed Kimball, Mike Quinn, and Greg Prince, but none attempt a full interpretation of the ban’s history.
When Bush concluded his 1973 essay, he claimed that “three fundamental questions have yet to be resolved”:
First, do we really have any evidence that Joseph Smith initiated a policy of priesthood denial to Negroes?
Second, to what extent did nineteenth-century perspectives on race influence Brigham Young’s teachings on the Negro and, through him, the teachings of the modern Church?
Third, is there any historical basis from ancient texts for interpreting the Pearl of Great Price as directly relevant to the black-priesthood question, or are these interpretations dependent upon more recent (e.g., nineteenth-century) assumptions?
In answer to the first, Bush’s conclusions have largely stood up in the face of scholarly scrutiny. For the second, later scholars have bolstered Bush’s argument that nineteenth-century views on race heavily influenced Young and other leaders, with some innovations. And third, recent research in the history of interpretation of the Curse of Ham has suggested that ancient Jews usually viewed Africans in positive or neutral light, and that explicitly racist connections between Genesis 9, black Africa, and slavery did not emerge until the eighth century C.E., and that nineteenth-century American proslavery discourse represents the most racist application of Genesis 9 in its history. Although later scholars have filled in some gaps, Bush’s conclusions and his framework are still very valid for historians of the twenty-first century.