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Blacks and the Mormon church: A dark history based on skin color

Brittney M. Walker | 8/10/2011, 5 p.m.

Some might say a Black Mormon is like a diet ice cream, an oxymoron. Although they don't go door to door in California like Jehovah's Witnesses, there is a growing Black Mormon presence throughout the country and abroad.

Black people have a long, interesting history with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dating back to American slavery.

The earliest reference to black skin and people of African descent is found in the Book of Mormon, published in the 1820s. For many years, the church believed that people of African descent were cursed.

Latayne C. Scott, a former member of the LDS church, writes in "The Mormon Mirage: A Former Member's Looks at the Mormon Church Today," about her journey out of Mormonism and discusses some of the preeminent issues the church has faced and continues to face.

She explains that although the church has been transformed from its outright racist policies and theology, problems still linger.

"According to [Bruce R.] McConkie [author of 'Mormon Doctrine'], God himself sent individuals to earth with racial markings--not just the differentiation of color and other bodily characteristics--but in what McConkie called 'a caste system of his [God's] own, a system of segregation of races and people,'" Scott wrote, discussing the indoctrination of Mormons in the recent past.

Scott further explains that dark skin was believed by the church to be an indicator of individual's rebellious preexistence.

"If he or she was not faithful--on the side with God and Jesus in the battle against Lucifer--he or she would be sent to earth in dark skin. In the case of the Lamanites, a dark-skinned nation of indigenous Americans, their earthly rebellion against the teachings of God's prophets caused their skin to become dark. The skin color of the Lamanites, however, was only temporary and could be changed--that is, lightened--if they would simply accept the Mormon gospel," she writes.

Lamanites were considered the cursed and bore the dark skin because of their rebellion and the rebellion of their fathers. And those who did not rebel were called the Nephites and were forbidden to mix with the Lamanites.

The racist notions and theology in the church also prevented African Americans from becoming priests. It wasn't until June 6, 1978, that Black Mormons were allowed to preach the church's Gospel, after officials in the organization spent hours in the "upper room of the Temple" asking God for guidance on the matter. The day was dubbed "Black Friday" by some media wits.

According to "Black and Mormon," a book written by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, before church acceptance, the number of Black Mormons was minuscule.

According to Newsweek, "most estimates [ranged] between 1,000 and 5,000, out of a total LDS Church membership of 4.2 million."

That was when leaders advocated that the church spread the Mormon Gospel across the nation into the inner cities and the far reaches of Africa.

More than a century before the ban was lifted, founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith initially supported slave laws before he changed to support abolition. But after his death, leader Brigham Young instituted a policy of exclusion of people of African descent from the priesthood, thus beginning a journey of racist sentiments among members of the Mormon Church.