For Mormons, Race Is a Lightning Rod

From Joseph Smith to Brigham Young, color is controversial in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Brigham Young (Photos.com/Thinkstock)

In 1852, Mormon leader Brigham Young described black skin as the curse of Cain, but in 1978 a letter from the Mormon presidency stated "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color." These words made it possible for blacks to hold the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, previously banned, but did little to change deep-seated racism in the church.

It is through this lens that many black voters take issue with Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. The New York Times delves into why race remains a thorny issue for Mormons.

In a country deeply stained by slavery and anti-black racism, the church, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, was noteworthy for its relative racial egalitarianism. Smith episodically opposed slavery and tolerated the priesthood ordination of black men, at least one of whom, Elijah Abel, occupied a position of minor authority.

It was Smith's successor, Brigham Young, who adopted the policies that now haunt the church. He described black people as cursed with dark skin as punishment for Cain's murder of his brother. "Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him cannot hold the priesthood," he declared in 1852. Young deemed black-white intermarriage so sinful that he suggested that a man could atone for it only by having "his head cut off" and spilling "his blood upon the ground." Other Mormon leaders convinced themselves that the pre-existent spirits of black people had sinned in heaven by supporting Lucifer in his rebellion against God.

The priesthood ban had sweeping ecclesiastical consequences for black Mormons. They could not participate in the sacred ordinances, like the endowment ceremony (which prepares one for the afterlife) and sealings (which formally bind a family together), rites that Smith and Young taught were necessary to obtain celestial glory.

Read more at the New York Times.

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