What Does It Mean to Be ‘Friend’

Yesterday morning, readers of the New York Times opened their Sunday papers to find John Turner’s op-ed, “Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons.” Turner, an assistant professor at George Mason University and the author of the soon to be released, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, provides a careful and concise history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) often troubling relationship with people of African descent. Turner also argues why the contemporary church (and its membership—especially those running for high elected office) could benefit from more frank talk from the “brethren” about why the LDS Church abandoned its race-based exclusionary policies, and how Mormons should understand this past.

Turner’s piece came just days after another hot-button revelation from the always expanding “Mormon beat.” Last Thursday, The Huffington Post’s Andrea Stone reported a new Helen Radkey discovery, unearthed in the electronic archives of the LDS Church’s Family Search database: the names of some deceased family members of the newly selected GOP vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan—whom Mitt Romney himself pointed out is a “faithful Catholic”—appear on a list for future posthumous baptisms. And some of Ryan’s kin, including Ryan’s beloved father, might have already been baptized by proxy.

There are some superficial parallels between these two stories. Both touch on two of the most sensitive topics in Mormonism (namely, race and proxy baptisms for the dead). And for that reason, both stories worked some Mormons—and perhaps even more Mormon detractors—into a lather.

But I want to explain it is vital to describe the differences in method and motivation between these two stories. This is vital because—and I’m mostly addressing Latter-day Saint readers—in these differences what emerges is an answer to the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘friend,’” and specifically, “What does it mean for a scholar of Mormonism to be a ‘friend’ to the Latter-day Saints?”

My totally unscientific survey of responses to these two stories comes from reading my Facebook friends’ (or more often, friends of friends’) comments, which appeared after these two stories were posted and shared over the weekend. (Yes, the irony is not lost on me that a Peculiar People post on ‘friends’ is largely inspired by the social network that has, in many ways, redefined what the word ‘friend’ means).

Let me summarize (and sanitize) many of the hundreds of comments these two stories received. From a certain segment of Mormon readers, the response was more or less this: “How dare those ‘Antis’ lecture us about who we are and what we do!” (To be sure, there is some justification for such response, due to the long history of Mormon persecution). And from those “Antis,” (real “Antis” I mean) a noxious chorus, “Look at those Mormons being cultish and racist!” erupted.

Yet, at least for me, this is where the similarities end.

First, there is the question of method.

In his article, Turner makes the point that the “priesthood ban” (the shorthand for the racial exclusion of black Mormons, though the restrictions also affected African American women too) did not begin at the founding of the church. Instead, the ban has a human history: It was an evolving practice, then policy, then doctrinal fixture, articulated and defended by prophets from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith well into the twentieth century.

Turner then contextualizes the ban, placing it in the history of American religion. “Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions,” Turner writes. “Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.” It is perhaps only the priesthood ban’s “duration,” Turner argues, that is unusual, and perhaps, yes, shameful.

What Turner does—contextualize and historicize—Radkey does not. She digs and then dumps, leaving the analysis to others (however, it should be acknowledged that with the church watching her so carefully—after all, Radkey is responsible for many of the muckraking discoveries of proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims, Gandhi and a myriad of celebrities—this is quite a feat in itself).

Second, motivations. I don’t claim to know what motivates Radkey (I’ve never met her). My understanding is that she considers herself a whistleblower, who, at best, works to hold the LDS Church accountable to its own policies about who is eligible to submit certain names for temple work, and what names should never be submitted for such rituals (e.g. Holocaust victims). [1]

I believe whistleblowing is often a brave and important act. Uncovering misdeeds in governments, industries, and churches can serve to protect the public, the consumer, and the believer from abuse, which is often protected, or covered up by bureaucracies.

But what if your goal is to critique the institution itself, not to tear it down, but to better it, so it can more effectively serve its own constituencies?

This is, I believe, what Prof. Turner, and many other non-Mormon scholars, myself included, intend to do, especially when we write about Mormonism for the popular media.

I would guess that for most readers of Peculiar People, Turner provides little new historical insight into the troubling history of race and Mormonism. But breaking new ground isn’t what the op-ed page of The New York Times is for. Instead, Turner offers a cautious challenge to the LDS leadership (and its membership) to more seriously grapple with the moral as well as historical reasons why the ban was ever instituted in the first place, and why it came to be removed.

I believe that Prof. Turner—and a growing number of non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism like him—have earned the right to make such challenges. After all, such scholars have dedicated, hours, days, even careers to the careful study of Mormon history.

What we find in these lifetimes spent in the archives is sometimes troubling, sometimes heartwarming, but most often mundane. Yet what we always find is human. And it’s our duty as scholars to capture this comprehensive humanity.

What also happens in the archives (at the Church History Library, in particular) or in more virtual communities like this one, is that non-Mormons become friends with Mormons. We grow to respect Mormons as thinkers, scholars, and believers (and hopefully this is reciprocated).

Friends stand up for their friends against bullies (non-Mormon scholars are more often called Mormon apologists by Mormon haters, than anti-Mormons). But friends are more than sycophants, too. As Mormon Studies continues to grow past its sectarian origins, this hopefully will become more apparent, and also more recognized.

[1]. I too have investigated troubling findings in the Family Search databases. I leave it to the readers of my article at Slate to determine what, if anything, separates my work from that of Radkey’s.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Prophecy of This Book”
  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    Good points. Motives should be considered by those feeling singled out (I am a Mormon too). While I didn’t get unduly upset at either of those articles, I have with previous articles. They miss that the Bible is full of examples of priesthood exclusion. The tribe of Levi was allowed, the sons of Aaron were allowed, but no one else after their return to Israel. Another context often missing from press reports is that Joseph Smith didn’t limit the priesthood and was a fervent abolitionist. Another point, that LDS congregations were never segregated beyond the somewhat natural segregation made in organizing wards in different areas that might be predominantly one population or another. And the LDS Church should be given credit where credit is due in those areas. Thanks for listening.

  • Rockgod28

    America fought a civil war that was anything but civil. Over 600,000 dead. Not by nuclear bombs or weapons of mass destruction that began in later wars that used gas like chlorine.

    No most of these deaths were the result of hard fought bloody terrible battles in person by either looking your opponent in the eye as you drove a bayonet through their chest, shot them as you tracked them down your sight or blew them away from cannon artillery fire at a distance as they charged.

    It was a personal war that was father against son, brother against brother. A nation divided.

    With so much blood spilt why did it take nearly 100 more years for America to become civil when it came to race?

    America was racist. Most people don’t know or care to know how bad it was from 1831 when laws were passed in the South to prevent reading and writing of slaves. How part of the reason Missouri hated Mormons was because they were trying to prevent slavery in the state.

    Neither do people care that Joseph Smith was killed because he ran on a platform of wanting to free the slaves without collapsing the economy of the South that would have worked preventing the deaths of 600,000 American lives.

    Instead the focus on one passage from Brigham Young that further on he disputes himself.

    It is simple why Blacks did not hold the priesthood. America was racist. Not just racist, murderously racist. God would have held America responsible for the murder of his servants, missionaries and leaders in church callings of authority.

    Black men would have been called to labor in the South and would have been murdered. Congressmen, public opinion, laws and other means would have been more vigorously used against the LDS Church if Blacks held the priesthood. America would have come under the judgements of God and because nations can not be punished in the next life the United States would have been destroyed.


    Racism. From 1915 the to 1944 the Klan murdered, plotted and gained a lot of political power. The attitude of America of blacks was terrible. Years of civil rights movements marred by communists attempting to use the civil unrest to destabilize the US did not help.

    By 1978 when the priesthood ban was lifted America was mostly healed from the deep divisions of race. There are a few remants of racism, but they are part of older generation that have passed away and getting older.

    America repented of its racist past and God blessed the faithful. It has now been over 30 years with no hint of reinstituting any ban of the priesthood to anyone because of race. The LDS Church is growing in Africa by leaps and bounds where most if not all members are black.

    There never was a reason given for the ban. There was no revelation, just a simple policy which had been prayed over by successive leaders of the LDS Church to know the will of God.

    It is speculation on my part to say the reason for the ban was because America was racist, but my guess is based on historical facts.

    Blacks were ban from the priesthood not because they were black, bloodbof Cain or any such nonsense to justify the ban which reason were not revealed or known to anyone. The reason for the ban was Joseph Smith Jr. was murdered and a martyr in the cause of racial equality, defending the saints and upholding the best ideals of the Constitution of the United States.

    In 1857 the US Amry marched through Salt Lake City armed and ready for battle on false reports of rebellion. If blacks held the priesthood, were given equality in 1857, held positions of authority in government as well as leadership in the Church do you really think the US Army would have left Slat Lake City in peace?

    No. America was racist and a report of Americans in rebellion coupled with equality for blacks out West would have caused the South to go ballistic in rhetoric against Utah. Missouri would not have joined the Union if there were reports of the Mormons giving blacks equality.

    The Democrats wanted to expand slavery into the West. A place like Utah where black not only were free, but equal would have driven racist America into a frenzy.

    So no blacks were not denied the priesthood because they were black. It was preservation. To preserve the country, protect black people from murderous racism, and an opprotunity for America to repent which it did.

    It takes an understanding and study of history to see the tender mercies of the Lord for those with dark skin discriminated against by America. Murderous racism was the reason for the priesthood ban.

    So then you ask, well if God is all powerful and can protect his people who have his priesthood why deny blacks the priesthood.

    Again it is by a study of history that we have learned through sad experience that miracles never convert anyone.

    Let’s say there was never a priesthood ban and black missionaries from the church preached in the South. Remember murderous racism. Not just the South, but in other parts of America felt the same way. God would protect his servants. Would that convert racist men with murder in their hearts?

    No. In fact it would make things worse to see God’s divine protection upon black men called to be missionaries to preach the word of God. The more miracles, the more anger would be stirred up.

    America would have stood in condemnation for attempting to murder black men holding the priesthood, representatives in his holy name to act in his place with his power.

    Now the media and political elites would lovebfor America to ignore the past. To not acknowledge the truth of the history of racism in America as the cause of the ban.

    Blacks and all worthy men hold the priesthood of God. It has been so for over 30 years and will continue to be true. No apology required.

    • Don Harryman

      What utter and complete nonsense. Utah had legalized slavery, and this country had long settled the question of equality with no help whatsoever from the ‘True Church’. Mormons continued its vicious racism long after most of the country had rejected it. Blaming everyone else rather than taking responsibility for its own racist doctrines and policy amply demonstrates what I said earlier. ‘America made us do it’ just doesn’t cut it.

      • Raymond Takashi Swenson

        utah was a territory until 1896. Congress, not the state leguslature, determined whether slavery was allowed or prohibited in the territories. Remember that “Bleeding Kansas” was a territory where pro-slavery Missourians tried to extend slavery, leading to armed conflict in the 1850s that contributed to the division that caused the Civil War, with over 200 people killed on both sides, some by abolitionist John Brown, and some 150 in a single raid in 1863 by Confederates in Quantrill’s Raiders.

        Most Mormobs were from free states in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and from Britain and Scandinavia. They were not slave owbers before andbthey did not become slave owners in Utah. Again, that difference was a source of tge hatred if Missourians agaibst Mormons, the same hatrd that was directed agaibst anti-slave settlers innKansas.

        When Utah became a state, it did NOT enact Jim Crow segregation laws. Utah had no segregated schools. Nor were Mormon churches segregated. Black families were in the congregation I grew up in during the 1950s in Salt Lake, and I helped teach and baptize a black Army sergeant in Colorado in 1974.

        Note that there was never any Church restriction on any other race, despite deep animosity by otger Americans. Mormons had very positive relations with Indian tribes in Utah and actively recruited them into the Church. Mormon missionaries were going from pioneer Utah to Hawaii in 1855 to baptize native Hawaiuans and found tge community of Laie, where BYU Hawaii operates today as the most racialky diverse campus in America. Mormons began to recruit Japanese in 1901, and reopened that mission in 1948, despite the animosity promoted by the US government. Mormons began concerted proselyting in Latin America a century ago, and tgere are now a million Mormons each in Mexuco and Brazil.

        Indeed, the general feeling of many historians is that the urgency of receiving divine direction about the issue became acute in 1978 because of the many peopke of African descent who were joining the Church in the US and Brazil and demonstrating their faithfulness. The polucy never affected blacks who were NOT Mormons, but only blacks who chose to believe in the message of the Restoration of original Christianity and asked for baptism ibto tge Church. Today there are some 200,000 black Mormobs in the US, 400,000 in African nations like Nigeria, and more in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Brazil, and other nations, about threebquarters of a million total.

  • Jerry Parker

    Mormonism as religion would do well if L.D.S. Mormons were to stop trying to make a case for the L.D.S. phemonemon as Christian. Mormonism is a full-blown world religion on its own terms. In that light, it is a rather interesting one, with a certain amount of intellectual matter that is worth studying, some “New Agey” wisdom (or seemingly so), and so forth. However, L.D.S. Mormonism simply is not “Christian”. The major Mormon group that is identifiably Christian is the R.L.D.S. (Community of Christ) group, but the L.D.S. distrust of the R.L.D.S. is inevitable; one is pagan, the other is Christian, so they cannot coexist.

  • g.wesley


    Seeing this now. (Your general, non-sensationalizing title, didn’t catch my de-sensitized eye.)

    Thanks for this. I agree. And appreciate those who want/dare to go beyond the job description.

  • Rockgod28

    America was racist. There were Mormon converts from the South who had slaves. In other Christian churches there were teachings to support the practice of slavery. However all Christianity or pretense was thrown out when slaves were forbidden to read or write.

    It only got worst especially in the South. While a person was a slave that never meant a person was to abuse, neglect, or torture another person by the master.

    In Utah abuse and torture was fobidden. As well as sexual interaction.

    As I posted previously America was racist, murderously so in the extreme. If Utah declared itself a free state 1857 would have caused more tension in the Utah War.

    There were blacks that held the priesthood, but the ban kept others from the priesthood. Why?

    No reason was given.

    However it is clear today. America was racist. Church leaders speculated reasons for the ban without considering that America was racist. It never occured to them that it was America’s attitude on race.

    Black people who were given the priesthood were sent to Canada or other safe places. I already pointed out what would have happened to blacks if they held the priesthood in America. America would have been under condemnation and been destroyed because America was murderously racist.

    Now it has been over 30 years since the ban has been lifted. It is part of our shared history of America. James Madison the main creator of the Constitution felt slavery was a stain upon the constitutional convention. That stain or blight resulted in misery and death of over 600,000 people.

    I feel the focus of the ban of blacks from the priesthood should not be on the LDS Church. Instead the reasons for the ban should look inward toward the people and culture of America.

    A revisionist history does not do justice to the lives affected by slavery, discrimination and racism of America to black people. America was not a safe or friendly place in the 19th Utah century or the early 20th.

    The world still isn’t. There is deep racism in many countries and nations. America is now the exception not the rule any more. It always has been an exceptional nation with high ideals we do not always live up to.

    We are a republic if we can keep it and not give our rights to the central government.

    God bless the United States of America.