Brigham Young was a racist white man who initiated racial discrimination into the official policies and practices of the Mormon church (more specifically: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination of the Latter Day Saint movement).
One key racist policy of the Mormons was to exclude blacks from “the priesthood”. In the Mormon faith “priesthood” was not limited to just a few select members of the church (as in the Catholic faith). Any adult male or boy who is at least twelve years old can, and usually does, become a member of the priesthood in the Mormon faith:
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination of the Latter Day Saint movement, priesthood is recognized only in men and boys, who are ordained to offices in the priesthood as a matter of course once they reach the age of 12, so long as they meet requirements of “worthiness”. There are no other requirements for ordination, although prior to 1978, the church did not ordain men or boys who were deemed to be of black African descent, based on the mid-19th century teachings of Brigham Young…
So, excluding blacks from the priesthood did not only keep blacks out of leadership roles in the Mormon church, it also made black males clearly and obviously second-class members of the Mormon church.
Brigham Young initiated this racist policy and practice in 1852, and it remained in place for 126 years. Mormon Church President Spencer Kimball ended the policy of excluding blacks from the priesthood in June of 1978.
Although the Mormon church has officially abandoned the racist policies and practices of its past, racism is still a problem in the church, as indicated by the recent racist remarks of a Brigham Young University professor of religion:
February 29, 2012 7:56am
Racist Remarks by popular BYU Religion Professor Spark Controversy
Post by JOANNA BROOKS
[except from opening paragraphs of the article]
Racist apologetics by a popular Brigham Young University religion professor are sparking controversy, as election-year scrutiny sheds a revealing light on the persistence of racist belief among LDS Church members.
On Tuesday, Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, told the Washington Post that the LDS Church’s historic prohibition on priesthood ordination for men of African descent was a “blessing” to blacks because they were not “ready” for priesthood authority.
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott… Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth—although not in the afterlife—protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
Bott was the highest-rated professor in America in 2008, according to RateMyProfessor.com. He teaches large sections of required religion courses, including courses designed to prepare future missionaries, to as many as 3,000 students a year. This semester, more than 800 students are registered in Professor Bott’s classes. (Eleven are registered for BYU’s African-American history course this semester.) Professors at BYU routinely find themselves having to address racist and sexist content taught in Bott’s classes, and many are outraged and embarrassed by his rogue remarks to the Washington Post, say sources at the university. “Dr. Bott does not speak for BYU or the Church and his views are his own,” one religion faculty member told me.
Brigham Young was not the first racist leader of the Mormon church. That distinction belongs to Joseph Smith, who founded the church in 1830. In 1836 Joseph Smith published a pro-slavery article that gave a number of standard arguments in defense of slavery:
At least five major objections to the abolitionist cause can be identified in Joseph Smith’s discussion:
—First, he believed the course of abolitionism was “calculated to … set loose, upon the world a community of people who might peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society,-chastity and virtue….”
—Second, any evil attending slavery should have been apparent to the “men of piety” of the South who had raised no objections to the institution.
—Third, the Prophet did “not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall …”; the signing of petitions in the North was nothing more than “an array of influence, and a declaration of hostilities against the people of the South….”
—Fourth, the sons of Canaan (or Ham) whom Joseph Smith identified with the Negro were cursed with servitude by a “decree of Jehovah,” and that curse was “not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come … and those who are determined to pursue a course which shows an opposition … against the designs of the Lord, will learn … that God can do his work without the aid of those who are not dictated by his counsel….”
—Fifth, there were several other biblical precedents for slavery (in the histories of Abraham, Leviticus, Ephesians, Timothy).
Neither White nor Black
Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds.
Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview
Lester E. Bush, Jr.
In the same issue of Messenger and Advocate (April 1836), Oliver Cowdery proposed his own racist defense of slavery. Oliver Cowdery was Joseph Smith’s right-hand man, at least during the initial year of their new religion (Smith was known as “First Elder” of the church, and Cowdery was known as “Second Elder”):
Oliver Cowdery’s article was more directly concerned with race. He touched on most of the points raised in the other two articles, but dwelt at much greater length on the problems of insurrection and the social implications of emancipation:
… Let the blacks of the south be free, and our community is overrun with paupers, and a reckless mass of human beings, uncultivated, untaught and unaccustomed to provide for themselves the necessaries of life—endangering the chastity of every female who might by chance be found in our streets—our prisons filled with convicts, and the hangman wearied with executing the functions of his office! This must unavoidably be the case, every rational man must admit, who has ever travelled in the slave states, or we must open our houses, unfold our arms, and bid these degraded and degrading sons of Canaan, a hearty welcome and a free admittance to all we possess! A society of this nature, to us, is so intolerably degrading, that the bare reflection causes our feeling to recoil, and our hearts to revolt….
He also saw little alternative to slavery:
… The idea of transportation is folly, the project of emansipation [sic] is destructive to our government, and the notion of amalgamation is devilish! … And insensible to feeling must be the heart, and low indeed must be the mind, that would consent for a moment, to see his fair daughter, his sister, or perhaps, his bosom companion, in the embrace of a NEGRO!
[excerpt from Chapter 3 of Neither White nor Black]
A few years later Joseph Smith changed his mind and began to oppose slavery. During his presidential campaign in 1844, “he proposed abolishing slavery by 1850 and compensating slaveholders through sale of public lands.”
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smith, viewed 8/23/13).
The one racist idea that Smith held onto was opposition to interracial marriage, specifically marriages between white persons and black persons:
In favoring “equal rights” for Negroes, Joseph Smith did not wish to remove all legal restrictions on that race. Nor should the impression be conveyed that he was completely free of nineteenth-century prejudices. The aversion to miscegenation apparent in the articles in 1836 was later incorporated into the laws of Nauvoo; and in the same breath that the Prophet advocated “national equalization” for Negroes, he expressed a desire that they be confined “by strict law to their own species.”
(from Neither White nor Black, Chapter 3)
For some reason Brigham Young adopted the racist pro-slavery views of Smith and Cowdery from 1836 and ignored Smith’s more liberal-minded abolitionist views from 1844.
One likely explanation for Young’s taking a racist pro-slavery position in 1852 was that this was, in part, a reaction against marriage and sex between black men and white women, specifically marriage and sex between a particular black Mormon man and a particular white Mormon woman in Massachusetts, which occurred shortly after Massachusetts rescinded its law against such marriages.
To be continued…