Guest post: Edward Blum, “On Mormon Racism: A Response to John Turner”

By August 22, 2012

Edward Blum is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and most recently, co-author (with Paul Harvey) of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012), which will be available next month. He is the co-editor (with Paul Harvey) of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (2012), (with Jason R. Young) The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections (2009), and (with W. Scott Poole) Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (2005). Ed also blogs at Religion in American History and Teaching United States History.


In this so-called ?Mormon moment,? everything about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be getting attention. With newfound notoriety, media outlets have paid increasing attention to scholars far and wide. Jon Stewart featured Joanna Brooks and her memoir The Book of Mormon Girl on The Daily Show, while The New Yorker reviewed an assortment of books about Mormonism (from wonderful scholars, including Matthew Bowman, Spencer Fluhman, and John Turner). Businessweek ran a controversial story (and image) on how ?Mormons Make Money.? In many ways, it is good to be a writer on Mormonism in these latter-days.

Amid the laughs and the groans, the thorny issue of race has started to become prominent in some of the discussions. The Daily Beast and The Atlantic ran stories on links among Mormonism, race, politics, and imagery, while the New York Times this past weekend printed John Turner?s op-ed piece ?Why Race is Still a Problem for Mormons.? As a scholar of race and religion in the United States (and not as a scholar distinctly of Mormonism), I wanted to reflect on Turner?s essay and perhaps provide some twists.

On one hand, Turner?s op-ed piece builds upon his forthcoming biography of Brigham Young, a work I have read, enjoyed, recommend, and reviewed for The Christian Century (not sure when it will be out). One of the fascinating elements of his book is how and when Turner places Young and early Mormonism in the context of other trends and norms of nineteenth-century American Protestantism and evangelicalism. If Jan Shipps was dedicated to showing how Mormonism was to American Protestantism as early Christianity was to ancient Judaism, Turner wants to show how nineteenth-century Mormons were and were not a part of the broader society. This is the basic element of his New York Times essay ? that Mormons have a history of racism and racial segregation, but one that is quite similar to other white Christians. As he writes, ?Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church?s past racial restrictions, except maybe for their duration. Their church, like most white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.?

There are three points about this approach that trouble me. First, it flattens American religious history and the relationships between race and religion. Second, it sounds strange when put in comparison. And third, it neglects the crucial importance of theology (and theological particularity) within Mormonism. (I want to stop here and say that I recognize Turner?s essay was an op-ed and can only be so nuanced; I also want to reiterate that I am a fan of his work and am making these points to broaden discussions, not to attack his scholarship in any way).

First, when I say that Turner?s claim flattens out history, I mean that it does not take into account that race in American churches has been wildly complex, contested, and changed over time. To simply say that white churches have been racist or parts of America?s racism is to miss so much. Nineteenth-century churches and denominations split over the problems of slavery. Many white Christians joined crusades to improve the lives of African Americans, some of which were even willing to be counted as ?Negro? so that other whites did not disturb them. (I detail lots of this in my first book, Reforging the White Republic). Some white churches and colleges had study groups that read W. E. B. Du Bois?s The Souls of Black Folks, while some revivalists (like Dwight Moody) agonized over what was right with regards to segregation. Blanket statements about race and religion just cannot be made.

But even more, Turner?s comparison renders Mormon history flat. As we already know from Newell Bringhurst?s exquisite work, early Mormon attacks on slavery were not necessarily pro-black statements. And changing contexts altered meanings. When LDS writers attacked education for African Americans during Reconstruction, it was not simply because of white supremacy. It was also because they (Mormons) were being legislated against. LDS leaders were appalled that the federal government was supporting rights for former slaves while hindering rights for Mormons. Then throughout the twentieth century, new Mormon art dramatically whitened and masculinized Christ at the same time some of its leaders expressed frustration  with George Romney for supporting civil rights marches. Race, even among Mormons, has never been stagnate, because the structures and cultures keep changing.

Second, for a scholar to simply claim that Mormonism?s white supremacy was just part of the broad context of nineteenth and twentieth-century America sounds strange if we put it into comparison with, say, scholarship on patriarchal sentiments among African American leaders in the early twentieth century. Over the past ten years, African American historians have gone to great lengths to study and expose the misogynistic and patriarchal elements of African American leadership (in church and outside of it). Barbara Savage and Kevin Gaines, for instance, have shown the gendered elements of black culture, society, and church lives. To my knowledge, no scholar has tried to give W. E. B. Du Bois, or Booker T. Washington, or Benjamin Mays a pass for this because patriarchy was the norm.

In large part, scholars of African American history do not give these fellows a pass because they were the ones confronting oppression. They were the ones who knew what it meant to be singled out and hated for perceived differences. They were the ones to be innovative, to think outside of the box, to question that which seemed unquestionable. So, the logic goes, they could have stood against patriarchy if they wanted. Why shouldn?t the same approach hold to studying Mormonism?

Many scholars of Mormonism have focused on the terrible experiences early Mormons had, and for good reason. They were attacked; they were forcibly exiled; they were maligned politically. They were mocked culturally. The prophet was assassinated. So why, when it comes to race, did Brigham Young advocate execution for anyone who married an African American? And what does it mean for the flagship university of a faith tradition to bear the name of that individual? Why did early Mormons not look at African Americans and say ?we welcome you, downtrodden like us?? It is not because early Mormons did not have the intellectual capacity or imagination to do so ? it is because sacred disclosures (to them) said not to, and ?not to? in old and new ways.

Since Mormonism taught so many new customs, mores, texts, and ideas (many of which are beautiful and full of the respect for abundant life), why was anti-black white supremacy so vital? (and, of course, their positions on people of African descent different dramatically from other people groups) Instead of avoiding the question, we should look into the particularities. One particularity brings sheds light on an important distinction of Mormon theology: its emphasis on corporeality and the anthropomorphized sacred. Unlike many nineteenth-century Protestants who wanted to avoid from the body (in spiritualism, for instance), Mormonism moved the body to center stage. God has a body. Jesus had and has a body. Early Mormon doctrine dissolved the supposed separation between body and soul that many Christians had tried to make. And when they linked physical bodies to spiritual essences, they participated in the long and tangled history that Paul Harvey and I detail in The Color of Christ, which is basically a book about how race and religion get woven together in America from 1500 to the present.

This is what makes race so important to talking about Mormon history and Mormonism. Not because anyone should label Mormons as ?racists? or not; not because they segregated the priesthood. Race matters, in part, because Mormonism?s conceptions of the body collided historically with American obsessions with defining and categorizing bodies, with uniting them and separating them, and with representing holy celestial bodies among moral humanity. This is why the physicality of Jesus in John Scott?s ?Jesus Christ Visits the Americas? matters (and it does not just replicate other art, and its? place in LDS Bibles is important as well) To respect Mormons and Mormon history is not to avoid any of these issues or to shoo them away. Instead, we should dive deeply into them so that we can all understand the faith and the church in the broader sweeps of time and space.

Article filed under Christian History Comparative Mormon Studies Current Events Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues Public History Race Theology


  1. Good thoughts, Ed. I liked John’s op-ed, and appreciate his careful and thoughtful tone and general approach to the subject.

    I like where you take the discussion, though, and am glad you offered to post this here. I especially like this:

    Why did early Mormons not look at African Americans and say ?we welcome you, downtrodden like us?? It is not because early Mormons did not have the intellectual capacity or imagination to do so ? it is because sacred disclosures (to them) said not to, and ?not to? in old and new ways.

    Those are important questions for both historians and believing Latter-day Saints to consider. I think a lot of currently in-progress scholarship on Mormonism’s racial history (including the work of Paul Reeve, Max Mueller, and others) will go a long way toward helping us better understand that paradox historically, and I hope that Latter-day Saints take the time to consider these issues as well as we try and make sense of our tradition’s history and legacy re: race.

    Comment by Christopher — August 22, 2012 @ 8:53 am

  2. What a great exchange. While I really liked John’s Op-Ed, I also really appreciate this response, especially the last paragraph. Mormon history is lucky to have two exceptional scholars add important insights to the field.

    Comment by Ben P — August 22, 2012 @ 8:59 am

  3. I didn’t read John’s op-ed as an absolution, and as you note, it was very short. I also appreciated your effort to complicate some of the simple ways we condense many of the issues at play. Like Christopher, I look forward to Paul’s book, which I think is a huge step forward in Mormon conceptions of whiteness and of their broader racial history. I think that I probably disagree on some specifics. E.g., I see the ascendency of the “Christus” in similar terms as Tiffany’s furnishing of the Salt Lake Temple (including artwork depicting sacred events)–the evidence is pretty clear about Mormon leaders wanting to show a more demonstrable (mainstream) Christian aesthetic. I do think it is important to contextualize Mormon statements, policies and doctrines on race and I don’t see John as offering a facile apologetic. The positions on these issues by other large groups is important context.

    Thanks for taking the time to engage this important topic, Ed.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 22, 2012 @ 9:14 am

  4. I will recuse myself from commentary right now, since I’ll be reviewing _The Color of Christ_ for AML, but I do wonder what this line means: Why did early Mormons not look at African Americans and say ?we welcome you, downtrodden like us?? It is not because early Mormons did not have the intellectual capacity or imagination to do so ? it is because sacred disclosures (to them) said not to, and ?not to? in old and new ways.

    What “sacred disclosures” are you referring to, Edward?

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — August 22, 2012 @ 9:54 am

  5. “Then throughout the twentieth century, new Mormon art dramatically whitened and masculinized Christ”

    So, Mormon art used to show Jesus as not being white? People have always tended to depict Jesus as looking like themselves, so I don’t know that it can really say anything about racism.

    Comment by mapman — August 22, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  6. Already excited by the discussion here!

    Margaret, the “sacred disclosures” I’m referring to, in part, are the reference to Mary as “fair” in the Book of Mormon, the circulating ideas of Jesus having blue eyes by the early 1840s, and then the words of leaders like Brigham Young who preached that African Americans would be enslaved forever.

    Re: mapman: it is not the case that white people have always depicted Jesus as white and it is not the case that people have always depicted Jesus as looking like themselves (those are 2 huge points in The color of Christ). Joseph Smith, moreover, used the word “indescribable” to articulate what he saw in the first vision … so why did Mormons create art of that moment anyway?

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 22, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  7. Prof. Blum, thanks for sharing your insights here. I’m looking forward to your book, which, like all your (and Paul’s) work, should be full of fascinating insights.

    Comment by David G. — August 22, 2012 @ 11:41 am

  8. Ed – as I read it, the central thesis of John Turner’s piece was that the Church would do well to acknowledge that “the priesthood ban resulted from human error and limitations rather than a divine curse.” He suggests that if the Church did so, “the veneration most Latter-day Saints have for their leaders would readily survive a fuller reckoning with their human frailties and flaws.”

    Do you agree?

    Comment by Morris Thurston — August 22, 2012 @ 11:41 am

  9. Related to Morris’s question, I’m wondering if you could comment on John’s hoped-for apology in the context of other recent apologies offered by churches for past racism?

    Comment by David G. — August 22, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  10. I’d be interested to see some sort of visual timeline of Mormon depictions of Jesus – is there already one in existence?

    As for the increasingly “masculine” Jesus, I have always assumed that the Mormon depiction of Jesus was based on Orson F. Whitney’s widely read vision, in which he says “He was of noble stature and majestic mien– not at all the weak, effeminate being that some painters have portrayed” and “He was taller than I.” Of course, it is possible that the same undercurrents that would cause a change in artwork precipitated Whitney’s descriptions, but I imagine that many modern Mormons’ imagination of Jesus is shaped in part by the quote.

    Comment by Craig M. — August 22, 2012 @ 11:56 am

  11. OK, I’m sure that you know more about the topic than me. But could you provide examples of how the Mormon depictions of Jesus have become more white?

    Comment by mapman — August 22, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  12. For those interested in artistic portrayals of Jesus, perhaps a starting point is Noel Carmack’s important “Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint Visual Culture, 1900-1999,” BYU Studies 39 (2000), 3:19-76 (with illustrations).

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 22, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  13. mapman, Ed and Paul discuss in their book a change in Mormon discussions of Jesus’ appearance from bright to white. You’ll want to check out the book when it hits shelves next month.

    And I second Gary’s recommendation of Noel’s article, which Ed and Paul rely on in their discussion of the Mormon Jesus.

    Comment by Christopher — August 22, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  14. Thanks for the reference Gary.

    Comment by Craig M. — August 22, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

  15. Excellent post, Professor Blum. I think adding nuance is what this sensitive subject requires, but often does not receive. Over simplification leads to misunderstanding in many things. I enjoyed Professor Turner’s op-ed as well, I’m loving the rich discussion it is producing.

    Professor Turner’s most interesting question to me, is where he opines that racial matters in the Church would be better and materials related to racial policies were openly and frankly discussed by Church leaders. How would you respond to that? How have other Churches responded to their own racial histories?

    Comment by J Stuart — August 22, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

  16. Edward: Good post on an important subject. I think that Margaret was driving at the given fact that there are no “sacred disclosures” that justified the practice of excluding blacks from the priesthood. A reference to Mary as “fair” (read very attractive) doesn’t support the practice in even the most remote interpretation. Brigham Young didn’t have or claim to have revelations that justified the practice. Jesus having blue eyes doesn’t seem remotely like a sacred disclosure to me — and frankly neither do artists imaginations placed on canvas.

    I am also missing any tie to God’s physicality to justify the practice. God isn’t caucasian — he is just seen as emitting immense light. I am not aware of a single Mormon source ever attempting to justify the practice based on what God looks like or even referring to it in the context of racial issues whatsoever. So this suggested theological tie-in seems like a real stretch to me.

    Comment by Blake — August 22, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  17. 1 Nephi 11

    13 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
    14 And it came to pass that I saw the aheavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
    15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.

    Mary is explicitly described as “white”. As she is explicitly described as “white”, as well as “fair”, this might have something to do with her and her son being depicted as brown haired, blue eyed and white skinned.

    Comment by Skyway — August 22, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

  18. First off, this is exactly why I told Chris Jones that I “made the big time” when JI accepted my blog post. For years, you all have had the best, most robust discussions of any blog I follow (and Paul and I thank the blog in our acknowledgments for providing such an incredible model).

    Now to the newest comments:
    I don’t have a timeline of Mormon art … but will put one together (powerpoint) for teaching materials website (would anyone like to help with that???)

    Carmack’s essay is a truly outstanding piece of scholarship. He will be providing one of the video responses at to Janet McKenzie’s new ‘stations of the cross’ paintings out next year. Here is a link to hsi article (one that Prothero uses a lot as well!)

    Regarding the phrase “sacred disclosures”, this may be an important “outsider” versus “insider” distinction. When Brigham Young preached (as one Utah diarist recorded) ?Touched on Slavery; said it always was so and would be. The inferior would always be in subjection to the superior.? That strikes me as a ‘sacred disclosure’, but of course, it is not a “revelation” as the church itself defines it. What language should I use to differentiate the two (words from esteemed leader v. revelation … I tried disclosure, but that sounds too much like rev?)

    Re: Turner’s point about apologies. These are nice. They are pleasant. But in the 1960s what most African Americans wanted was material resources. They demanded $ from churches and synagogues to go to an educational fund. And, in many ways, this is what churches do … they educate people (esp. as children) in norms of morality and civility that help in the rest of life. By keeping such resources from African Americans, they kept material gain possibilities from them (including networking, work mores to get jobs at white-owned businesses, etc).

    And, apologies do not change broader imagery problems. The Christus is all about portraying Mormons as Christians … but as particular kinds. (masculinizing here by showing his big chest muscle). And while other church members have created other images of Jesus in different guises, they have not displaced the main ones. Go to a hotel and open a Book of Mormon there … it has John Scott’s “Jesus Christ Visits the Americas” (which, by the way, seems awfully important for understanding Jon McNaughton’s work). When Mormons present themselves at welcome centers or in their hotel Bibles, they do so with a particular image of Jesus … an image they created, they selected, and they distribute. (and yes, the Christus was made by a non-Mormon, but note its timing and Smith’s first vision).

    The ultimate point is this: as historians, I do not think we respect Mormonism by explaining any aspect of it as “well, they were people of their times.” All people are people of their times – that’s not an historical answer. Mormonism has one of the most fascinating histories in all of American history (and increasingly in current global studies). At this point in my career, I am saddened and shocked that the only books I read for my phd training that referenced the LDS were the Kingdom of Matthias and a textbook on the Gilded Age. And I took a field in US religious history! That, to me, is a travesty, because I have found so much intellectual delight in studying Mormonism these past 7 years as part of our study of race and religion.

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 22, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

  19. Oh, and the whiteness of Mary/Jesus, I think, has a lot to do with Mormons trying to overcome perceived religious differences that were sometimes understood as racial differences (in this, Paul Reeve and I have a lot in common).

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 22, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

  20. Ed, I enjoyed your post, but I found the following absolutist statement pretty off-putting:

    “This is what makes race so important to talking about Mormon history and Mormonism. Not because anyone should label Mormons as ‘racists’ or not; not because they segregated the priesthood. Race matters, in part, because Mormonism?s conceptions of the body collided historically with American obsessions with defining and categorizing bodies . . .”

    I would say that what makes the race issue so important to talking about Mormonism is its very real and ruinous consequences for people of color, not its place in some abstract history of (white people’s) ideas. Maybe I’m misreading you, but I find it unsettling that you appear to have explicitly foreclosed the importance of priesthood segregation in favor of some construct focusing on the history of white culture.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 22, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

  21. Blake, you said that you are “missing any tie to God?s physicality to justify the practice.” I’m not sure an explicit tie is necessary; the relationship is an indirect one. Because the body is essential to exaltation, Mormonism reifies and moralizes bodily characteristics in ways that Protestantism does not. The more important point Dr. Blum made, to my mind, was that “Early Mormon doctrine dissolved the supposed separation between body and soul.” I would phrase it a little differently: Mormon revelation introduces explicit theological reasons for treating racial markers (skin color, blood, and inheritance) as measures of holiness, righteousness, and religious authority. Nineteenth century Protestants used racial markers in a similar way, but Mormonism constructed a religious logic for this practice and concretized it in its theology and sacred texts.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 22, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

  22. First, thank you for great post and very interesting discussion in the comments.

    Were it not for the priesthood ban, I think Mormonism would have ended up with a racial history other churches would envy by comparison (speculation of course). There were early inclinations toward inclusion and defense of blacks. I think these would have continued and grown were it not for Brigham Young introducing the priesthood ban. So much energy went into justifying that ban from theological standpoint and the ban generaly entrenched Mormonism in a posture which could not be overcome while it was in place. Some of that ?we welcome you, downtrodden like us? sentiment *can* be found in early times, but it was largely squelched wherever it existed due to the penumbra of the ban.

    So, I find it hard to separate the rest of Mormonism’s racial history from the effects of the ban. When we try to dig into the source of the ban, it seems to be much more tied to specific circumstances around Brigham Young leading up to the ban than it was to theological considerations. Those came later as ad-hoc justifications of the ban in my estimation. I’m not an expert on any of this, however, so I would welcome corrections.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 22, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  23. Ed–

    I echo my thanks for your important post here. I’m glad that John Turner’s important Op-Ed is getting the serious and thoughtful attention that it deserves.

    I’m wondering here about when we start, or better yet, when we end our designation of “early Mormons.” It seems to me that placing all the blame on Brigham Young was, and is, an attempt at letting Joseph off the hook (we can find much of the genesis of later theological defense of the priesthood restriction in Joseph’s writings/translations/midrash, for example).

    Here is one thing though that I think is worth bringing our attention to:
    Why did early Mormons not look at African Americans and say ?we welcome you, downtrodden like us?? It is not because early Mormons did not have the intellectual capacity or imagination to do so ? it is because sacred disclosures (to them) said not to, and ?not to? in old and new ways.

    I’d suggest giving some attention to Joseph Smith’s 1844 Presidential platform.

    My cogitations, like Daniel?s, have for a long time troubled me, when I viewed the condition of men throughout the world, and more especially in this boasted realm, where the Declaration of Independence ?holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,? but at the same time some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours; and hundreds of our kindred for an infraction, or supposed infraction, of some over wise statute, have to be incarcerated in dungeon glooms, or suffer the more moral penitentiary gravitation of mercy in a nut-shell, while the duelist, the debauchee, and the defaulter for millions, and other criminals, take the upper-most rooms at feasts, or, like the bird of passage find a more congenial clime by flight.

    Now we can certainly take issue with “the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” Still I read this as Joseph saying that the promises of the Declaration of Independence has failed two peoples in particular: first, African American chattel slaves, and then the Mormons.

    I read this as Smith in fact indicating that their was kinship between the Saints and the slaves, united here as victims of America’s broken promises.

    Thanks again for this conversation. It’s certainly close to my own heart (and work)!

    Comment by Max — August 22, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

  24. Simply put, you apologize when your own moral sense tells you that whether by ommission or commission you have caused undeserved harm to another. Is the harm that we did over the years to African Americans worthy of such an act of contrition? I cannot see why not.

    By not making an apology and indicating the error of the positions taken earlier, we enable the Randy Botts of the world to still believe the previous racist attideas and practices to be correct. Are we not partially responsible for this garbage to still exist? Will we be held accountable for only doing half the job with the Revelation?

    I am reminded of the Calvin Grondahl cartoon of some clerk in a church office building saying (roughly) “See when ever you see negro, just hit delete. That will solve all of our problems.” Not.

    Comment by Stan Beale — August 22, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  25. Sad … long comment I wrote a while ago got lost 🙁

    I’ll keep it simple:
    1) wow, great comments
    2) priesthood ban 1 part of much larger issue of racialized religiosity in US history and the larger problem has morphed and changed all over
    3) apologies nice; wealth/cash/education better (when churches segregated any people, they cut them off from a series of networks and groups and lessons that could be vital for social growth … such as jobs)
    4) Juvenile Instructor comments/discussions are best I see of all blogs, anywhere

    My original comment was witty, interesting, thoughtful … I said something sweet about Margaret that would have convinced her to write a glowing review of the book, etc. (kidding!)

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 22, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  26. Dr. Blum: I think that you are right — the “sacred disclosures” usage is a distinction that is different for insiders/outsiders. To insiders it means that BY somehow claimed divine revelation to support his practices — I think. I think it is clear that he dredged up purported scriptural interpretations to support his bigotry — based largely on a strain of Evangelical interpretive trajectory of certain scriptural passages that is well documented. But he didn’t claim that it was revealed to him. I think that his participation in a prevalent bigotry is an explanation that insiders would accept — at least I do.

    Christopher: I think that you have missed Dr. Blum’s argument. He is claiming that the belief in divine embodiment somehow supports the racism of the priesthood ban. I don’t see the link from a logical perspective and I am not aware of any historical sources that support such a link. It is customary to support historical claims with some evidence. I believe it is lacking entirely.

    You are certainly correct that there is a basis in Mormon scripture for skin color being a marker of belonging to a covenant-faithful people — but that is vastly different from divine embodiment. Moreover, one doesn’t have to look at any unique Mormon sources, after all the genetic lineage of Levites was determinative of their right to engage in priesthood related ordinances and, more generally, belonging to the covenant people. The entire link to genetic inheritance as a marker of covenant status is undoubtedly the most prominent and well-established fact of the entire Old Testament. However, I fail to see how that is related to Dr. Blum’s argument from divine embodiment/physicality.

    Comment by Blake — August 22, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

  27. Ed, I think that your comment made it (see #18 above, which tracks with your summarized version).

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 22, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  28. Blake,

    Yes, lineage features prominently as a marker of covenant status in the Old Testament (and even, to a lesser degree, in the words of Jesus). But Protestants regarded that as largely superceded by Paul’s vision of the unclean animals in a sheet. Mormonism revived the lineal emphases that Protestants had abandoned, and placed them on a foundation of modern revelation. It also, of course, incorporated a number of nineteenth century racialist notions not present in the original OT framework such as an emphasis on the color of one’s skin, and also introduced some fairly novel concepts such as the changing of the blood.

    As for Dr. Blum’s argument, I think it’s you who’s missed the point. I saw him using divine embodiment as simply one example of Mormonism’s “emphasis on corporeality and the anthropomorphized sacred,” not as a total explanatory framework for the priesthood ban.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 22, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  29. Ha … too many great comments that I couldn’t even find my own. Speaking of Joseph Smith and slavery, another HUGE wrinkle in all of this are his prophecies about the Civil War and of slaves rising up. As Paul and I discuss, as the Civil War unfolded so many Mormons thought the end times were near (and it was more proof of Smith’s revelatory powers). When Reconstruction turned against them and for African Americans, it led to another brand of whitening. That’s another, albeit separate, discussion.

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 22, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  30. Ed–

    Interesting to note, also, Joseph and other church leaders interest in colonization, and way before Lincoln.

    This story is so rich that it’s why I’m dedicating my life to it these days!

    Comment by Max — August 22, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

  31. Enlightening Piece! Thank-you Frustration and consternation over blacks and priesthood could be better understood considering Godly principles of biblical timing.

    “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” or
    “Preaching to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles.” or
    the parable of the early and late workers given the same salary.

    The important thing is the beautiful outcome of integrated congregations today. This racial integration that Mormon congregations enjoy is not the reality of many other religious congregations.

    Comment by Marcia — August 22, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

  32. Edward,

    I’ve been following along in the news and blogs and have a long comment. If you read it great. If not, no worries.

    For me it is a matter of audience and objective.

    In Turner?s NYT piece, I think it can be agreed upon that he is not writing to fellow academics. On my reading, he is writing to Mormons in general, leadership if he can get their attention. And he does so as someone who sees a problem that needs to be resolved ? still, like a friend who calls out another on an issue, not to embarrass or garner attention for himself, but from genuine concern. I think the piece is about heartfelt suggestions that would benefit all Mormons of whatever race, starting with blacks. Such is my impression anyway. Turner really understands what it?s like to be a Mormon and *now.*

    For instance, where he writes at the beginning about statements of past church leaders:

    ?They cause pain to church members of African descent, provide cover for repugnant views and make the church an easy target for criticism and satire. The church would benefit itself and its members ? and one member in particular, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee ? by formally repudiating the priesthood ban and the racist theories that accompanied it.?

    This shows a lot of empathy for the people, the religion, under study (elsewhere). Because he can feel what it might actually be like to be a Mormon, the academic steps out of his strictly professional role and tries to make things better for them, if they will take his advice.

    In your post here, you acknowledge that Turner is writing an Op Ed piece, but I think you either don?t give enough consideration to his audience and objective, or you come to the table having already decided that the academic must be all business all the time.

    As far as I can tell, your critique is solid in terms of American religious history. I myself groaned inside a bit reading where Turner?s seems to suggest that all objectionable Mormon statements and positions on race came about after Joseph Smith?s day. (Your #2 makes sense, though I don?t see how it exactly applies to the piece, which I don?t think is about giving anyone a pass. Sure Turner tries to make it as easy as possible for his Mormon audience to take his advice, but that is only good psychology and effective writing, if the objective is as I understand it to be. Your #3 about theology and the body is very astute and intellectually fascinating.)

    But is the critique misapplied?

    In your comment 18 above, you say:

    ?The ultimate point is this: as historians, I do not think we respect Mormonism by explaining any aspect of it as ‘well, they were people of their times.’ All people are people of their times ? that?s not an historical answer.??

    For most Mormons though, the people that Turner is writing to in the Op Ed, this given of scholarship is not obvious at all. This is precisely what he is trying to get them/us to admit, which we have not been able to admit as a religion, even after recent embarrassing incidents (traps??) such as the Randy Bott interview in the Washington Post.

    Our belief in divine revelation unmediated by humanness does not allow us to admit that our leaders are fallible in any serious way, leaving us stuck with a single answer on all kinds of problematic issues, racism being just one of them: ?we don?t know why God told prophet ___ to do/say ___; God just did.?

    Turner understands this, and he is trying to help us get over it. But it?s a scary thread to start pulling. If we admit that there is humanness in our revelation, how will we be able to identify which parts are divine (if any)?
    Turner seems to understand this as well, hence what you read as him giving us or former church leaders a pass.

    If I were not LDS, I think I would respond to Turner?s piece as you do. I appreciate the perspective of detached study that is strictly academic. But I have to say that based on my reading of his Op Ed and your response, my reading of you cited in the Daily Beast and his response at Patheos, I feel like Turner is the one who understands me and my co-religionists (many of whom may completely disagree with me).

    Which is kind of sad, because in the comments to his response at Patheos, I think some Mormons just saw the words ?white supremacy? leveled at them, assumed they were Turner?s words, and went on the over defensive.

    Comment by g.wesley — August 23, 2012 @ 3:01 am

  33. Dear G.Wesley, of course I read your comments and will have more to say in a few hours (have to commute to office now).

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 23, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  34. What a wonderful testimony to John’s works g.wesley. I’m so glad to read that. He and I have been friends for years and I even built off his first book (on Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ) in The Color of Christ.

    It was very sad to me as well that readers thought John was the one who was suggesting the Christus had any connections to white supremacy. That was me … and it was for a story written by Jamie Reno. Reno was the author and his question was not about Mormon history per se but about this interesting question: why do people freak out when the hear “Jesus is black” but not care when Jesus is represented as white? And the Christus, like it or not, is white (not only the material made, but also the vast majority of other LDS art).

    When I referred to it as an icon of white supremacy, I meant that it builds off various religious traditions (including Mormonism) that have sanctified whiteness (on purpose sometimes, and by accident on other times). Warner Sallman did the same. The Ku Klux Klan did that as well.

    And this may bring us to a big difference between my work and John’s. “As a scholar of race, I cannot take people simply by what they say. I have to look at what they do, as well, and at how others interpret them. Take, for instance, “all men are created equal” from Thomas Jefferson. Did his slaves experience that reality? Of course not. Dwight Moody didn’t think racial segregation in 1876-1877 was a big deal. Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells disagreed. Who is right isn’t really at issue … it’s that racialized actions, images, etc. have a multiplicity of meanings.

    At exactly the moment the Christus was going up, African Americans elsewhere were painting over such statues with black paint (this happened in Detroit and elsewhere). We cannot take it out of its context: the 1960s, when many, many, many white people were shifting away from blatant rhetorics of white supremacy. By the 1990s, for instance, Billy Graham would say ‘Jesus is not white.’ But he has never accounted for using Warner Sallman’s head of christ at his meetings as a big spectacle of the spiritual. Jesus became, for many, implicitly white without words.

    But alas, I’m giving too much of Color of Christ away.

    Oh, and one more point: do you have a story about a material image of Jesus – any of them? Want to share them? We have a place for that at our website and we would LOVE to have LDS reflections:

    Comment by Edward Blum — August 23, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  35. Edward,

    Thank you for the post. The Warner Sallman Head of Christ is what we had hanging in our primary room (where the kids go after sacrament meeting) where I went to church as a kid. I remember thinking that Jesus looked a little darker in that painting than me and my primary classmates. So from Sallman’s painting I had the impression of Jesus being a little darker than “white” when I was a kid.

    The Del Parson’s painting became all the rage in the ’80s as I recall, and I remember thinking that Jesus looked a little lighter than He had in the Sallman painting. Of course I didn’t think of them in terms of the painter, to me they were just “primary room Jesus” and “official official Jesus” (Sallman was official to me because it was in the primary room, but Parsons was especially official because we were told the the First Presidency had approved it).

    I don’t think I would have thought much about it, but I remember my Dad giving family night lessons on how the paintings in the Book of Mormon were racially incorrect. He didn’t present the paintings as racist per se, just as incorrect.

    I remember seeing the movie Malcolm X as a teenager, and was struck by the scene where Malcolm confronts the prison minister over Jesus’s race, particularly the issue of Jesus being blond and blue-eyed. That was literally the first time I had ever seen a blond-haired blue-eye Jesus. I remember thinking, “yeah, what a bunch of idiots, clearly Jesus has brown eyes, and dark hair” like the the “primary Jesus” and the “official official Jesus.”

    Is it possible that Graham didn’t see the Sallman painting as presenting a white Jesus? Again, to me as a kid, that painting represented Jesus as not really white.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 23, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

  36. Steve … yes, yes, yes. Your points are exactly what we are getting at … that these images get made and then are interpreted into countless different (racialized) ways. I would love for you to share any/all of that at the ‘share your story’ page. The Malcolm X moment (which was probably made up for the story appeal in his “auto”) is fascinating. Just as was Vernon Jordan playing Jesus on stage at an almost all-white college in Indiana around the same time.

    Comment by Edward Blum — August 23, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

  37. Thanks for the amicable reply, Edward.

    Your project is obviously ambitious in scope and the topic important. (I recently heard Benjamin Valentin speak on Elizondo and Jesus as mestizo.)

    About white supremacy in particular, it is nice that you qualify and distinguish between on purpose and by accident. But don’t you think it’s somewhat flattening itself to group Mormons together with the KKK under the category of white supremacy, even if we’re talking about how others interpret meaning?

    Comment by g.wesley — August 23, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

  38. I didn’t hear about the blue-eyed Jesus comment of Joseph Smith until I was in my twenties, and it wasn’t in a church context but an academic one. I think there is some over-reach in CoC’s assumptions about how far-reaching the blue-eyed remark by Joseph Smith actually was for Mormons. I noticed in Color of Christ the authors don’t trace at all how often it crops up in any LDS literature aside from the original source. That isn’t to say Mormonism hasn’t adopted and advanced a whiter Jesus than other communities, of course.

    Comment by BHodges — August 24, 2012 @ 7:05 am

  39. The “blue eye” issue relates to which Americans first discussed Jesus with blue eyes (it was not until 1910s and 1920s that many other Protestants made that explicit). But you are 100% right that we did not trace discussions of Jesus or blue eyes any further than the couple mentions in 1840s.
    The lumping with KKK has nothing to do with vigorous violence. It has everything to do with racializing Jesus in particular moments. Klan of 1860s didn’t care about Christ at all. Klan of 1910s/1920s did … for some important historical reasons. At no point do we ever claim LDS whiteness is akin to KKK whiteness.
    With that said, I hear a lot of conversation linking Mormon oppression with what African Americans went through historically (even from scholars). And I have to say this publicly: as horrible as anti-Mormon persecution has been throughout US history, can we really compare it to the Middle Passage or enslavement or lynching? (and I know that some Mormons were extralegally murdered … heck, a certain very important Mormon!) But as a scholar of race, when I hear those comparisons I think “wow, this person has no conception of breadth, time scale, or overall sense of what happened.” I’m not trying to push buttons with this last point; I merely trying to say that the comparison shows little respect or compassion (in my thinking) for the realities of what African Americans went through.

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 24, 2012 @ 7:54 am

  40. (and this is totally a joke)
    but I think the real lesson we learn here is that the Color of Christ isn’t just a book we should know exists, it is one we should purchase, assign to our classes, give as gifts for Christmas and pioneer day. Bible, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, D&C … Color of Christ. It just feels right. (those who know me at all know that I’m kidding, kidding, kidding here)

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 24, 2012 @ 7:57 am

  41. But as a scholar of race, when I hear those comparisons I think ?wow, this person has no conception of breadth, time scale, or overall sense of what happened.?

    As a Mormon I think the same thing, Ed, and feel fairly confident that most others hear agree with you on the point.

    Comment by Christopher — August 24, 2012 @ 8:21 am

  42. Thanks for the further clarification, Edward.

    I just think that white supremacy is a bit loaded, especially when the KKK is mentioned in connection. Why not just say sanctification of whiteness, which does not carry with it the violence and professed hate that I think comes to mind when most people hear white supremacy?

    As for comparisons between the relatively very very minor persecution of Mormons and the centuries long enslavement of Africans on this continent and elsewhere, I don’t think those comparisons should be made at all, obviously. I can’t think of a time I’ve heard them before, for what it’s worth. If they have been made, by scholars or otherwise, that is nonsense, as you say.

    Comment by g.wesley — August 24, 2012 @ 11:56 am

  43. And I have to say this publicly: as horrible as anti-Mormon persecution has been throughout US history, can we really compare it to the Middle Passage or enslavement or lynching?

    Of course we can compare it, yes. Compare it to demonstrate how wide the divide in experience really was, and probably continues to be! (ha, I know what you meant.)

    I actually can’t recall ever seeing an explicit claim that the Mormon experience was as bad as the African American experience, though I figure someone somewhere has said as much. Does anyone have some examples? I’d actually be interested to see how that played out.

    Comment by BHodges — August 24, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  44. This may be a reference to the whole “women of color” thing that was in the press. One of the women defended the word choice saying something like “Mormons are also spoken badly of, like women of color” or something. I’m not aware of any direct comparisons to slavery.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 24, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  45. ick … I’m doing the one thing I respect so much about Juvenile Instructor because it doesn’t happen here too much: hearsay/unsubstantiated claims. The ‘well I hear people saying x, y, and z’ comment. I’m sorry for doing that. (hangs head in shame)

    So here is the substantiated discussion:

    The unsubstantiated hearsay comes ONLY from academics. Full disclosure, the only member of the LDS with whom I spent in-person social time is Joanna Brooks (and I’m usually just hanging out with David). If logistics were different, I would be happy to post up Chris or Ben and miss layups; and if we could wrestle Matt or Spencer away and hire them in San Diego, I would take them to the Kansas City BBQ over and over and over and sing from Top Gun tunes. And, as those who follow me on twitter know, I idolize Tona’s teaching media skills.

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — August 24, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

  46. Edward, I thought you meant there were claims that Mormons historically have had it harder or as hard as African Americans. There may be examples of that but I’m not aware of any. The ridiculous “women of color” thing was disheartening, of course. It’s hard to even take such a thing seriously.

    Comment by BHodges — August 24, 2012 @ 8:25 pm


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