Nobody Knows ... at the Movies

Segregation is one issue that is not addressed by Nobody Knows.  The priesthood ban is referred to as "de facto segregation" throughout the film, although this seems to be an oversimplification.  There is a large difference between ‘de facto' segregation and actual segregation - not allowing black members to pass the sacrament in church is genuinely not the same thing as not allowing them in the church building at all.  As theorized previously, if without the priesthood ban the Church would likely have become segregated anyway given the culture and the society it existed in (and as many of the other modern Christian churches from the 19th century onward did), one still might have a case that the ban was indeed caused by human failings, yet still defensible as the least worst of the two likely options.  (Note that the ban made true segregation effectively impossible.)

Even if the ban itself could be defensible in some context or another, though, the folklore that followed seems to present the larger problem to deal with in black LDS history.  The LDS Church is not unique, certainly, in having white members (and leaders) who believe blacks were "spiritually inferior" in some way.  (Nobody Knows quotes several leaders of other churches showing that the commonly held LDS opinion was not unique.   The film also notes astutely that society at large did not notice or care about the LDS priesthood ban for almost 100 years until the Civil Rights era - as, of course, it was not out of line with secular social policy at the time.)

However, the primary question remains:  if one believes that the Lord is the active leader of the Church, then isn't it reasonable to expect... you know, some leadership?  (Even a casual observer can see it sure seems like the inmates are running the asylum at times.  Joseph Smith himself was anti-slavery, but Utah voted to become a slave-state when originally organized into a territory.)

One black member quoted in Nobody Knows asks a direct and reasonable question about why folklore about ‘the curse of Cain' or ‘neutrality in the War in Heaven' persisted without any guidance or correction from leaders.  Indeed, it was many of the prophets and apostles themselves who were teaching and supporting such 'doctrine'.  It's hard, as this member sister notes in the film, to try to convince people that such speculation is not "Mormon Doctrine" when it appears in a book entitled...Mormon Doctrine - which we should note, is still in print. (Mormon Doctrine was authored by a General Authority, but was not a Church publication. The President of the Church at the time was chagrined at its publication.)  Fallibility is one thing, but isn't it reasonable to expect, as this sister does, that the one thing in which Church leaders should be most reliable is "teaching correct doctrine"?

But, again, Nobody Knows is not interested in being overly judgmental, which is why it succeeds in being a positive experience for viewers in the end.

  One comes away from the film not with a sense of bitterness and doubt, but with a love for those faithful Saints who struggled for years to find the respect and dignity they deserve.  One certainly hopes the stories of black Saints, including those in this film, will also find the audience they deserve.


Kevin Burtt is a father and software engineer, and blogs at

10/26/2009 4:00:00 AM