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Important note: This article makes mention of a word that today is a grave racial slur. No offense is intended, and its use here is not intended to endorse its use. We include it the interests of clarity and historical accuracy.


Joseph Smith was a clear racist because he wrote about "...rebellious niggers in the slave States...."

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


There are four factors to keep in mind when addressing this criticism:

  1. Presentism - in Joseph Smith's day, the word "nigger" did not mean what it means today
  2. Selective citation - critics virtually always include only the short snippet of text above. When the statement is seen in context, it is clear that Joseph was not using the term in a racist or offensive sense.
  3. Prophets are not infallible
  4. Hypocrisy of some who raise the charge

#1: Presentism

Most importantly, this attack is an example of "presentism." Presentism inappropriately judges historical people by modern standards. The critics do not want us to know that the word "nigger"--a terrible racial slur in the twentieth and twenty-first century--was not always seen that way.

Wikipedia notes:

The variants neger and negar, derive from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black), and from the now-pejorative French nègre (nigger). Etymologically, negro, noir, nègre, and nigger ultimately derive from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger (black) (pronounced [ˈniɡer] which, in every other grammatical case, grammatical gender, and grammatical number besides nominative masculine singular, is nigr-, the r is trilled).
In the Colonial America of 1619, John Rolfe used negars in describing the African slaves shipped to the Virginia colony. Later American English spellings, neger and neggar, prevailed in a northern colony, New York under the Dutch, and in metropolitan Philadelphia’s Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch communities; the African Burial Ground in New York City originally was known by the Dutch name "Begraafplaats van de Neger" (Cemetery of the Negro); an early US occurrence of neger in Rhode Island, dates from 1625.[6] An alternative word for African Americans was the English word, "Black", used by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Among Anglophones, the word nigger was not always considered derogatory', because it then denoted “black-skinned”, a common Anglophone usage. Nineteenth-century English (language) literature features usages of nigger without racist connotation, e.g. the Joseph Conrad novella The Nigger of the 'Narcissus (1897). Moreover, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain created characters who used the word as contemporary usage. Twain, in the autobiographic book Life on the Mississippi (1883), used the term within quotes, indicating reported usage, but used the term "negro" when speaking in his own narrative persona.
In the United Kingdom and the Anglophone world, nigger denoted the dark-skinned (non-white) African and Asian (i.e., from India or nearby) peoples colonized into the British Empire, and "dark-skinned foreigners" — in general.
By the 1900s, nigger had become a pejorative word.[1]

So, by the twentieth century, nigger had become an offensive word, a racial slur--but, in the 1800s this was not the case. This happens with language all the time. To pick another example, the term "arse" used to be an offensive term for the buttocks. People would say "ass" instead of "arse," because they didn't want to be offensive. (In the same way, a modern English speaker might replace "hell" with "heck," or "damn" with "darn.") In a funny twist, the use of "ass" as a replacement became so common that it became the offensive word, and now "arse" isn't seen as quite so offensive--the words have swapped places!

To pick a more modern example, in the 1900s the polite term was "colored." The most offensive word then was "black." So, from best to worst, the terms would be colored > nigger > black.

But, if you called a black person "colored" today you'd get odd looks at best, and possibly start a nasty confrontation. Language changes. We cannot blame Joseph for speaking like a mid-19th century American. Who knows what words used today might be later regarded as offensive, even though we do not intend offense by using them now.

#2 Selective citation

It becomes obvious that Joseph was using the word in a non-offensive way if we read his usage in context, instead of the small snippet of text offered up by most critics.

Screen shot of the original article in Millennial Star 22:604 (1860). Joseph used a common, unoffensive word that has since become a racial slur.

The full citation (from Millennial Star 22:602 (1860)) comes from a letter written by Joseph Smith to a candidate for President of the United States. Joseph wanted to know what the candidates would do to redress the wrongs against the Saints who had been robbed, looted, and driven out of Missouri. Joseph wrote:

Would it not be well for the great men of the nation to read the fable of the partial judge; and when part of the free citizens of a State had been expelled contrary to the Constitution, mobbed, robbed, plundered, and many murdered, instead of searching into the course taken with Joanna Southcott, Ann Lee, the French Prophets, the Quakers of New England, and rebellious niggers in the slave States, to hear both sides and then judge, rather than have the mortification to say, "Oh, it is my bull that has killed your ox![2] That alters the case! I must inquire into it; and if, and if—!
If the General Government has no power to reinstate expelled citizens to their rights, there is a monstrous hypocrite fed and fostered from the hard earnings of the people![3]

So, Joseph is complaining that the Mormons have been mistreated and not gotten justice, just like other unpopular, weak groups or people in English and American history--including rebellious slaves. So, Joseph isn't condemning the slaves for rebelling--he's holding them out as an example of people who has been mistreated or persecuted by supposed "justice." If he was looking to put slaves down, why would he cite them as an example when arguing that his own people (the Mormons) should be promised better treatment by this presidential candidate? This clearly demonstrates that the word nigger simply didn't have the negative associations for Joseph and his contemporaries that it does for us now. Language changes.

(And, in fact, shortly after writing this, Joseph would run for President of the United States, and argue that slaves should be purchased from their masters through the sale of public lands and set free. Those are not the words of someone trying to put black people down. It was a far better idea than anyone else's, and if followed through on could have prevented the Civil War--it would have been cheap in human and financial terms.)

#3: Prophets are not infallible

Even if Joseph had uttered a racial slur (which he did not), that would not mean he was not a prophet. LDS theology does not see prophets as infallible, or without human weakness. Prophets often share the prejudices and perspectives of their culture. In Joseph's day, practically everyone was racist by 21st century standards.

#4: Hypocrisy from some critics

The most amusing aspect of this charge is watching conservative Protestants cluck their tongues at this sort of thing—many of their denominations, at the same time, were actively justifying slavery, segregating their congregations, and fighting the Civil War while invoking the Bible to defend their right to hold Africans in chattel slavery.[4]




In the case considered, Joseph Smith was using a common expression that was not regarded as offensive or prejudicial in his time and place. His usage in context makes it clear that he would not have wanted to use a disparaging term, because it would undercut the argument he is making. However, Latter-day Saints do not believe their prophets are infallible, or free from error--though in this case, Joseph is not guilty of the error with which he is charged.

It is worth considering the sincerity of those making such charges, and whether their own past would stand up to the kind of investigation and condemnation they are willing to inflict upon the Latter-day Saints.


  1. [note]  Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia, q.v. "nigger," emphasis added, internal citations silently omitted (accessed 18 January 2011).
  2. [note]  Joseph here refers to one of Aesop's fable, #14: "The Partial Judge," that follows these same events.
  3. [note]  This letter is also cited in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:158. BYU Studies link. Later editors changed the word "niggers" to "negroes," probably understanding that the word usage had changed from Joseph's day. This type of alteration would not be appropriate by modern historical standards, but was typical of the 19th century.
  4. [note]  See: Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White And Black Evangelicals in Colonial And Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and Stephen R. Haynes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2002). ISBN 978-0195142792

Further reading

FairMormon Answers articles

Blacks and the priesthood

  • Origin of the priesthood ban?
    Brief Summary: The origin of the priesthood ban is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Its origins are not clear, and this affected both how members and leaders have seen the ban, and the steps necessary to rescind it. The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban. (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Understanding pre-1978 statements by members and leaders of the Church
    Brief Summary: Critics frequently parade justifications for the ban by past General Authorities that are considered quite racist by today's standards. While these have not been officially renounced, there is no obligation for current members to accept such sentiments as the "word of the Lord," and they most certainly do not reflect the Church's current position and teachings. (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗

There exist previously taught ideas which have been repudiated by Church leaders since the ban. Among these are the notion that Blacks were somehow not as "valiant" in the pre-existence, and that interracial marriage is forbidden. (Click here for full article)

  • Less valiant or neutral in the pre-existence during the "war in heaven"
    Brief Summary: It is true that LDS scripture states that those with lighter skin color "are favored because of what they did as spirits in a pre-earth life?" Is it true that some Church leaders taught that people who were born with dark skin were "neutral" in the pre-existence? (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Inter-racial marriage
    Brief Summary: Even prior to rescinding the priesthood ban, the Church advised against inter-racial marriages only because such marriages might have more difficulties in being successful. Leaders lumped such advice together with advising married partners to seek those of the same culture and socio-economic level. The counsel was specifically stated not to be absolute, but merely general advice for maximizing marital success. (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗
  • The "curse of Cain" and "curse of Ham"
    Brief Summary: We often hear that Latter-day Saints believe and teach that blacks are descendents of Cain, and that they are cursed. In fact, on some occasions prior to 1978, blacks were denied access to temple open houses because they carried the “mark of Cain.” What critics never point out, however, is that the "curse of Cain" is a Protestant invention that was created in order to justify slavery in the 1800's. One would get the impression listening to critics that the Latter-day Saints originated the idea of the curse, and they point to the priesthood ban as evidence of such, while ignoring that fact of segregated congregations in Protestant churches of that era. (Click here for full article)
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  • LDS scriptures cited in support of the ban?
    Brief Summary: Is it true that the LDS scriptures link a person's skin color to their behavior in the pre-existence, and that the Book of Mormon is racist and promotes the idea that the "white" race is superior? Some contend that even though the doctrinal impact of pre-1978 statements have been greatly diminished, the LDS scriptures still retain the passages which were used for proof-texts for the ban and hence cannot be easily dismissed. A parallel can be drawn between Protestant denominations that have historically reversed their scriptural interpretations supporting slavery and a modified LDS understanding of their own scriptures that relate to the priesthood ban. Through more careful scripture reading and attention to scientific studies, many Protestants have come to differ with previous interpretations of Bible passages. A similar rethinking of passages unique to the LDS scriptures, such as Abraham 1:26-27, can be made if one starts by discarding erroneous preconceptions. (Click here for full article)
    ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Joseph Fielding Smith's racial reference in LOOK Magazine in 1963
    Brief Summary: Critics point to a 1963 statement by Joseph Fielding Smith LOOK Magazine in which he used the word "Darkies" as representative of the Church's racism. These critics, however, are applying a double standard to the Church in 1963. Not one article, photo, or ad in a full 154 pages of this colorful oversized magazine interrupts its perky Caucasian landscape by featuring an African-American. They are not to be seen in ads, Catholic schoolrooms, or even on a featured college football team. Looking at this slice of life from the sixties, the only reason one would have to think blacks even lived in the United States is one photo on page 118 where a few blacks are pictured as the recipients of charity. The patronizing hypocrisy of examining one small church's "attitude toward Negroes" in this sort of environment has, of course, not yet settled into the mainstream of American consciousness. (Click here for full article)
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FairMormon web site

1978 Priesthood revelation FairMormon articles on-line
  • FairMormon's BlackLDS site: FairMormon link (Key source)
  • Marcus H. Martins, "A Black Man in Zion: Reflections on Race in the Restored Gospel" (2006 FAIR Conference presentation). FairMormon link
  • Armand L. Mauss, "The LDS Church and the Race Issue: A Study in Misplaced Apologetics" FairMormon link


LDS Church and the Race Issue: Study in Misplaced Apologetics, Armand Mauss, 2003 FAIR Conference


Blacks in the Bible, Darius Gray, 2005 FAIR Conference
Reaching Black Saints, Marvin Perkins, 2005 FAIR Conference
Empathetic Imagination: Reading Between the Lines in 'Standing On the Promises' , Darius Gray, Margaret Young, 2004 FAIR Conference
A Black Man in Zion: Reflections on Race in the Restored Gospel, Marcus Martins, 2006 FAIR Conference (YouTube Video)

External links

1978 Priesthood revelation on-line articles
  • Stirling Adams, "review of The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by David M. Goldberg, review of Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, by Stephen R. Haynes," Brigham Young University Studies 44 no. 1, ??. off-site
  • Lester E. Bush, Jr., "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 no. 1 (Spring 1973), 11–68. (Bush argues for Brigham Young as author of the priesthood ban.) off-site
  • Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1984). ISBN 0941214222. off-site
  • Ronald K. Esplin, "Brigham Young and Priesthood Denial to the Blacks: An Alternate View," Brigham Young University Studies 19 no. 3 (Spring 1979), 394–402.. (Esplin argues for Joseph Smith as the author of the priesthood ban.) PDF link
  • Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61. off-site
  • Marcus H. Martins, "All Are (Really) Alike Unto God: Personal Reflections on the 1978 Revelation." off-site
  • Marcus H. Martins, "'Thinking Way Back': Considerations on Race, Pre-Existence, and Mortality," expanded version of a talk presented at a meeting of The Genesis Group, a branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 1 August 1999. off-site
  • Seth R. Payne, "A Work in Progress: The Latter-day Saint Struggle with Blacks and the Priesthood," paper submitted at Yale Divinity School, 5 May 2006. PDF link
  • John A. Tvedtnes, "The Charge of 'Racism' in the Book of Mormon," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 183–198. off-site

Printed material

1978 Priesthood revelation printed materials
  • David M. Goldberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). ISBN 0691123705 (2005 paperback edition).
  • Stephen R. Hayes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). ISBN 0195313070 (2007 paperback edition).
  • Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), Chapters 20–24. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
  • Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Chicago and Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2003). ISBN 0252028031.
  • Alexander B. Morrison, Dawning of a Brighter Day (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1990). ISBN 978-0875793382. ISBN 087579338X.

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