Q&A With Russell W. Stevenson, Author of *For the Cause of Righteousness*

By May 13, 2015

Russell W. Stevenson, author of For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013 has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his work. The book was reviewed on JI a few weeks ago. Please add any other questions you may have in the comments!

When did you begin researching For the Cause of Righteousness?

Since this developed as an outgrowth of an earlier project, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, one might say that I began researching as early as fall 2011. However, I began writing For the Cause in earnest in spring 2013.


Front Cover

How did you select the title? Why the use of “blacks and Mormonism” rather than “blacks in Mormonism”?

Casting this story as one about black Latter-day Saints would have excluded the notable ways in which Mormonism interacted with the African, African American, and Afro-Brazilian communities. Identities have layers; any one of us experiences a variety of identities at any given time: men, women, Caucasians, Africans, piano players, boxers, ballet watchers, or football fans.  Each identity interacts with the others in a variety of fascinating ways, weaving within ourselves a Geertzian “web of significance” that binds our complex identities together. [1]

And the story about the relationship between Mormonism and peoples of African descent plums much more deeply than Mormonism’s black members. When Ezra Taft Benson condemned the civil rights movement as a Communist plot, he cited “knowledgeable Negroes” (almost certainly referring to black John Birch Society members such as George Schuyler and E. Freeman Yearling) who claimed to have insider information about the “true nature” of the civil rights movement’s Communist agenda.  Booker T. Washington effused about the strength of the Mormon community in the national press. When Joseph Smith cast the black community as a set of dangerous characters, his words extended far beyond the community of black Mormons. When Sterling M. McMurrin spoke about the priesthood restriction before the NAACP in 1960, he spoke largely to a non-LDS audience.

How did you decide to publish with Kofford Books?

There are many very good publishers of Mormon history. Since I planned to commence a graduate program in fall 2014, time was of the essence. Kofford has a good reputation in publishing works on Mormon history and theology: Mark Staker’s volume on Joseph Smith’s Kirtland, Joseph Spencer’s For Zion,  I did not want this book project still hanging over me as I navigated the demands of a graduate program. Kofford Books showed impressive effectiveness and celerity in moving this project from the manuscript to the bookstores.

Why did you choose to present your book as “neutral” rather than presenting a historical argument?

Much of the historiography on the black-Mormon relationship situates its development against dialogues had among top leaders of the Church; my work argues that racial formation was a collaborative project between all levels of Church membership. Moreover, as I discuss in the introduction of the book, the black-Mormon dialogue reveals important historical forces within the development of the Mormon hierarchy: who draws the parameters of what lived Mormonism will look like. Who pulls the strings? Who dictates terms?  Therefore, I would resist that characterization, as my volume argues that race was experienced, made, produced, and reproduced at the ground-level circumstances of the particular at least as much as from the universalizing decrees of Sunday sermons and official circulars.  Indeed, historicizing the comments of Parley P. Pratt, Brigham Young, B.H. Roberts or others is an important element of dismantling what some students think is a monolithic and consistent history. In reality, as Sterling McMurrin observed, its history was “shot through with ambiguity.”

Moreover, for any historian to suppose that they can achieve Leopold Van Ranke’s goal of telling the story “as it actually happened” is to indulge in a marked hubris. Even Ranke himself saw his task as one driven by theological conviction; history, he writes, perceives “in every being, something eternal, something from God, and this is its vital principle. . .We believe that there is nothing without God, and nothing lives except through God.”

Seeking for a neutral narrative reveals no “noble dream” but a stunning lack of self-awareness and humility. Periodization, archival choices, and the cast of characters renders a “neutral” narrative impossible. Though I wrote it in a way in which a non-specialist would appreciate it,  I make no claim to telling a story that exists in some kind of epistemological Eden, as it were, above the fray of the pulls and thrusts of academic debate.

How did you choose which documents to include in the second section of For the Cause of Righteousness?

As I had started doing presentations on Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables in spring 2013, I found that one of the most powerful documents for listeners was Elijah Ables’s priesthood certificate.  The idea of a written, documentary record holds a deep resonance within the Latter-day Saint tradition; even Adam and Eve kept a “book of remembrance”to compile their family’s doings.

I chose these documents for a variety of reasons. Some, such as Elijah’s ministerial license, is a “smoking gun,” demonstrating with certainty for the holdouts that Elijah did in fact hold priesthood office. Others I selected in order to tell an untold story, such as the letter of N.B. Johnson, the ordinary man who fretted over whether his African ancestor disqualified him for priesthood office. Some documents, such as BYU professor Alma Heaton’s highly-racialized recollection of 1950s rock and roll dance, reveals the depth to which Mormon racial culture extended beyond a restriction of priesthood office.  While some of the documents are familiar (such as the 1969 statement by Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner), others are less so, such as the transcript of Sterling M. McMurrin’s 1960 speech before the NAACP.

In the academy there is frequently tension between popular and academic history. How have your advisors responded to your popular historical works?

My doctoral committee has been generous in their support of my efforts to make scholarship accessible to the reading public. Dr. Nwando Achebe, a professor of modern Nigeria and my committee chair, believes that it is “extremely important that I bridge those tensions in my own writing, much like you’ve done in yours.” “I call myself a people’s historian,” Achebe writes. “My primary duty as I see it is to explain my society to itself, so that people can actually see themselves in history.”

Another member of my committee, Dr. Walter M. Hawthorne, a historian of the Atlantic slave trade, has also been supportive of my work: “the tension between popular and academic history is a myth,” saying that “if that is not true everywhere, it should be.” He and the other committee members “praise [my] undertaking.”[2]

What are you working on right now?

On May 15, I will be flying to Nigeria to commence  oral-history research on Mormonism within the Igbo-speaking community of Southeastern Nigeria.

[1] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in Clifford Geertz, ed., The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 5.

[2] Above quotations used with permission.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Interesting! Thanks. I’d love to hear more about your research outcomes in Nigeria–sounds fascinating.

    Comment by Saskia — May 13, 2015 @ 11:02 am

  2. I’m going to cop to asking the question about popular and academic history. Let me explain some of the background surrounding it. One of the things that I have found interesting about your trajectory is the number of things that you have published before graduate school. Most of the students in my PhD program do not publish before entering grad school and wait to publish until they are well into their graduate careers. The reason is that people’s ideas frequently change and their writing becomes more adroit as they mature as scholars. There is also an assumption that much of the work that students should finish their dissertations before writing for popular audiences — because translating things for popular audiences can actually be harder than writing for an academic audience. I have quite frankly been surprised at how supportive your committee has been of your pre-graduate school publications and your decision to publish with nonscholarly presses. It will be interesting to see what it ultimately means for your academic career and how the academy as a whole reacts. Perhaps your experience is indicative of a sea change.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 13, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

  3. Thanks for taking the time to participate and answer questions, Russell.

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2015 @ 9:30 am

  4. Thanks again, Russell!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 14, 2015 @ 10:13 am


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