Repenting of Racism is “Well Doing” – A Response to Elder Cook

“Brigham Young also said things about race that fall short of our standards today.  Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time. During this period, Brigham also taught, with respect to race, ‘Of one blood has God made all flesh.’ ‘We don’t care about the color.’”

Elder Cook said Brigham Young also expressed admiration for Native Americans. “He said they had as ‘noble spirits among them as there are upon the earth.’”

Church News Report on an August 24th talk by Elder Quinten L. Cook
Fort Utah in Provo, 1849

A pathetic, small group of 26 women and children huddled under a cannon platform in the center of Fort Utah on a bitter cold February 1850 morning. It was so cold that a dead body killed just a few days before would already be frozen. So cold that the gruesome task of sawing the heads off those dead bodies left on the battlefield was made a much simpler chore.

The huddled survivors of the “battle” could see the 40-50 heads of their husbands and fathers in the boxes in front of them, ready to be shipped east for “scientific examination.” The head of their leader “Old Elk” was stuck on a pike as a warning against further Indian aggression.

Squaw Peak, named for the wife of “Old Elk,” who died from a fall scrambling to escape from the Militia.

Just a couple days before, Daniel H. Wells, with the blessing of Brigham Young, issued an Extermination Order against the Timpanogas tribe in Utah Valley.

Wells was ruthlessly efficient. On the first day of fighting he destroyed the main group of belligerent Indians, who refused to surrender. The survivors split in two and fled in different the directions. Wells split his militia in two; one group following a trail of blood east into Rock Canyon, slaying those they found. Wells led another group to the south side of Utah Lake where, in what today would be considered a war crime, he killed 29 Indians who had surrendered and then took their women and children prisoner. The prisoners were sent to homes in the Salt Lake Valley to be Christianized, but within a few months they all had either died or ran away.

On January 4, 1857, Daniel H. Wells was ordained an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and became Brigham Young’s second counselor.

“Alluring Alternative Visions”

There is a strain of thought in the Church which Elder Cook promotes that Brigham Young was like your crazy uncle, who says the most bizarre, embarrassing things, but deep down he would never act on those racist things he said. According to Elder Cook, “some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time” but to call any of his actions wrong is to adhere to a Satan inspired “alluring alternative vision.”

I argue that the narrative Elder Cook is portraying is in and of itself an “Alluring Alternative Vision.” The reality is that Young’s words and actions did have lasting effects that shaped church culture for decades. Here are some facts of history:

  1. When the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley there were an estimated 20,000 Native Americans. Within a few decades war and starvation pushed that number was down to less than 3,000. The extermination of the Timpanogas was just one of many bloody conflicts. The cultural heritage of these “Lamanites” was actively stamped out. Reading the definition of genocide sure makes me squirm.
  2. Utah was the ONLY western territory to legalize slavery, and they did it for both Blacks and Native Americans. It remained legal even as Civil War raged and was only made illegal due to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln. Three slaves were part of the initial company that entered the Salt Lake Valley. Several Apostles owned slaves, and slavery was a large part of the settling by Latter Day Saints of San Bernardino California.
  3. There was a Priesthood/Celestial Kingdom ban that created inequalities based on race that caused immense pain. Families were eternal, except for Black families. To pin it all on Brigham Young is fallacious, as every prophet from Young to Kimball upheld the ban.
  4. The language in the Book of Mormon was at the very least broadly interpreted in a racist way in the Church by its leaders and in Church literature.
  5. The Church leadership did NOT support the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, with the exception of Elder Hugh B. Brown, who for his efforts was one of few councilors in the First Presidency history to be removed when Harold B. Lee became President. It is particularly ironic that Elder Cook would appeal to the Civil Rights Movement as a paragon to aspire to saying “In contrast to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where leaders were motivated by their devotion to Christianity, various movements today are deeply opposed to religion and people of faith.” He was a grown man when Elder Ezra Taft Benson, as an apostle, regularly railed in conference talks about the Godless Communists who were secretly controlling the Civil Rights Movement. Utah was the last state in the Union, after all the southern states even, to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  6. The Church did teach that mixed race marriages were sinful. Mixed racial couples could not be sealed together as a family in the temple.

These are all racists actions. It is so alluring and comfortable to simply believe that Brigham Young and others never made mistakes or always acted with the best of intent. There is nothing alluring about confronting the sins of your past. It is much more difficult for an organization to humble itself, feel Godly sorrow, and repent of its past mistakes.

Elder Quinn: “President Hanks made it clear that if anyone had feelings of racial superiority, they needed to repent”

The Church as an institution sinned. It absolutely DID promote racial superiority. Justifying actions, covering sins for vain ambition or any other reason will ultimately corrupt the Church from the inside.

– It doesn’t matter if the racism was a doctrine or a policy. It still happened.

– It doesn’t matter if Brigham Young and others were well meaning in their racism. Indian populations were still decimated. Humans were still enslaved. Ethnic groups were still excluded from exalting ordinances.

– It doesn’t matter if there were also nice things that Brigham Young and others said and did to those of other races, which there undoubtedly were. It does not negate the bad things that were done no matter how good.

– It doesn’t matter if the priesthood ban was a product of the culture of the times. The culture was wrong. Certainly we should be empathetic to the motivations of those who grew up in that time, and “judge not that we be not judged,” but whatever their motive, the end result was still horribly wrong.

– It doesn’t matter if, as Elder Cook says, in the Book of Mormon the “skin of blackness, related solely to that people during that period of time.” That it was a long time ago does not justify racism, even in 600 BC.

– It doesn’t matter if some Indians were stealing cattle in Utah Valley or elsewhere. Brigham Young undoubtedly faced a daunting task in keeping his people alive in a hostile desert. It doesn’t justify the mistakes that he and others made.

Even if all the above were true, no matter the rationale, the Church as an institution still sinned.

Building the Church Up

Elder Cook quoted historian Matthew Grow, who cautioned,

“Be careful about sources of information that just seek to tear people down.  Look instead for sources of information that are based on the records left by the people themselves and that seek to be fair to them.”

Matthew Grow

This is wise advise. Being dogmatic is not helpful when it comes to finding truth. Trying to put oneself into the shoes of the person making the tough decision is difficult.

No church or organization is perfect. They ALL have made mistakes and continue to make mistakes. Brigham Young made mistakes as the leader of the Church. So did many of the other leaders of the Church in the name of the Church.

We can show empathy for these people, be fair to them and the situation they were in, while at the same time not excuse their behavior. We can still honor the sacrifice they made, the trials they went through, the brutal rejection and horrors they faced in Missouri and Nauvoo, and still reject their actions in other regards.

If we do not recognize and rid ourselves of our Church’s sinful past, it will rot the Church from within.

The theme of the conference where Elder Cook spoke was “Be Not Weary of Well Doing,” Repenting IS well doing.

How do we Repent?

Here are some ideas for how to repent of past racism:

  • Actually apologize. For whatever reason, Dallin H. Oaks has come out pretty strongly against this. It was just 2013 that the Church disavowed past reasoning for the Priesthood/Celestial Kingdom ban on black people. It is time to disavow the actual doctrine/policy.
  • Condemn white supremacy specifically that still exists in the Church today. Excusing past racism gives tacit permission to excuse racism today.
  • Don’t edit out the Native American perspective, and be fair to them. In the Church History book “Saints,” the story of the Timpanogas Extermination is not even mentioned, and one is left with the impression that relations between Native Americans was mostly jovial, with minor disagreements that were quickly worked out. This complete disregard of the Native American perspective is glaring.
  • Incorporate the Native American experience into July 24 Pioneer Day celebrations. Elder Marlin K. Jensen gave a strong recommendation to do this about ten years ago.
  • Stop using artwork that portrays white people as good and black people as bad. Stop using artwork with Jesus looking like a Scandinavian supermodel with deep blue eyes.
  • Change wording in the Book of Mormon to not even appear racist. Joseph Smith frequently edited the Book of Mormon text to clarify misunderstood passages, so there is precedent.

Letter to President McKay

I end this response with a letter from a faithful brother in 1967 to President David O. McKay that speaks to the incredible suffering the priesthood/temple ban caused. I urge you to weep with this Brother. Read of his pain and “be fair to him.” Go beyond a mere disavowal of the reasons for the ban. Be braver than Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who so callously stated, “the word ‘apology’ doesn’t appear in LDS scriptures.” How do you repent without an apology? We can be better.

Should we not repent?

Ogden, Utah June 4, 1967

Dear Beloved, President McKay:

I too, have been born of goodly parents and have been taught to love The Lord and to live as He wants us to. I have spent many wonderful and happy hours attending Sunday School, Primary and other church activities with my friends. There we have been taught of the love of Christ for little children and those who love The Lord. I remember what great joy and happiness filled me when I reached my eighth year and was taken into the waters of baptism. I remember talking with some of my friends, that day, as we waited for it to happen. Some of them expressed fear at the thought of being held under the water, yet I had no such feeling because, I could remember so strongly the teaching of my mother and Sister Wilson, my Primary teacher. They had taught me that Jesus loved me and I knew that if Jesus loved me there was nothing to fear in this whole, wide, wonderful world as long as I loved Him in return.

After my baptism, I remember, I was so happy I thought I heard angels singing. Then, the even more wonderful feeling that came to me as I sat and felt Bishop Jensen’s hands on my head as he confirmed me a member of the Church and promised me the gift of the Holy Ghost, if I would do what was right in the sight of God. The years that followed have been wonderful and happy ones as I have felt myself grow in the Gospel under the wise teaching of my parents and others.

As I now look back and recall how quick the time passed and I was twelve years old, this age is a mile stone in the life of most Mormon Boys. It is an age when a whole new life begins to open up. I soon passed my twelve year of life, I saw my friends receiving the Aaronic Priesthood and become active in their Deacon’s Quorum, but for some reason I was not there with these friends with whom I had enjoyed Primary so much. They were able to learn their new duties in the Church by passing the Sacrament, the emblems of Christ’s suffering on the Cross of Crucifixion for me, yet, I couldn’t join my friends in this. They were able to bring the Fast Offerings of the faithful ward members to the Bishop, this I could not do. I could still go to Sunday School and MIA where I joined the Boy Scout Troop and there had the association of my friends.

I saw my friends advancing through the quorums of the Priesthood, learning more ways of service. Although I was in Sunday School and advancing through the ranks of scouting, I often felt left out because they had the brotherhood of the Priesthood. As I grew older I sometimes sensed a feeling of distance on the part of these, my friends, who had been so dear to me in my earlier years.

As the years passed I found myself attending fewer Sunday Schools and MIA meetings. Soon I was nineteen and I saw my lifelong friends being prepared to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood as well as preparing to go on missions for the Church. I sensed disappointment as I realized I could not be a missionary and carry the wonderful knowledge of Christ to others who don’t know Him as I had learned to know Him in my childhood.

As these my friends left to serve The Lord as missionaries, I lost my last real ties with the Church and I began drifting away, I seemed to have the feeling that I had reached a spiritual ‘dead end.’

I continued my education in college, where I made many new friends. I tried to be active in Institute even as I had been in Seminary, but it all seemed so different. I guess it was because those childhood friends were no longer with me. I found myself associating more and more with young people who did not have the same ideals as my Mormon heritage had given to me. But, at least, there was no gulf between us because I didn’t hold the priesthood, since they didn’t either. As much as I seemed to enjoy these new found friends, life with them was lacking something. It just wasn’t like it used to be when I was active in church.

One day, quite by chance, I met Lisa, a wonderful girl and we seemed to have so much in common. As we got better acquainted we found that both of us had been taught much the same when it came to an understanding of the love of Christ and His great sacrifice made to open the way whereby we can come back into his presence. The months passed and my heart filled with happiness and thanksgiving for having found such a wonderful girl as Lisa. We began to make plans for our marriage. Some of those old friends who had by now returned from their missions and completed a couple of quarters of college work, were also making plans for marriage. But, what different plans they were. Oh, to be sure, we had Bishop Thomas perform our ceremony, but my old friends were taking their brides to the Temple, where dressed in the robes of the Holy Priesthood they were sealed for all time and eternity, by the power and authority of God. Bishop Thomas, by the power invested in him under the laws of the State of Utah married us for ‘until death do you part.’ Why the difference? I knew because I had been taught that the Temple Sealing is reserved for holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and that I did not have.

As my old friends continued to return, Lisa and I renewed old friendships and soon we attended church more frequently. I saw these old friends bearing their testimonies and relating the wonderful experiences of their missions. Their personalities glowed with fine qualities of leadership and I saw them being called to positions in the ward and the stake. On the other hand my spiritual progress seemed slow. At times I seemed to be at a standstill. Lacking the priesthood made it impossible for me to be called to serve in any responsibility of leadership in the Church. Because I was an Eagle Scout I did have an assignment with the Scouts in MIA which brought me great joy.

The day approached when my wonderful and faithful wife, Lisa, gave birth to our first child. After the birth of our son she became very ill. The Elders were called in. They administered to her, while all I could do was stand at the foot of the bed and watch and pray. Because of our faith, the mercy of God and the power of the priesthood, of these friends, exercised in her behalf, she was healed and soon took her place in our home again. She has been the type of mother to our children as mine was to me, teaching them to pray and trust in the Lord.

The day arrived when our first born son, David, was to receive his name and a father’s blessing. What a dark cloud seemed to hang over me as I realized I could not give him that blessing reserved for the Priesthood holder. Our wonderful Ward Teacher, Brother Drayton, carried our son to the front of the chapel. In the circle were friends holding my son, and a lifelong friend giving him a Father’s blessing by proxy. I was denied the privilege that some fathers have had since the dawn of creation, because I lacked the Holy Priesthood. I could sense, written upon my face, a feeling of sadness and yes, for the first time, some bitterness.

With the passing of time a second child, a beautiful girl, was given to us. She was a lovely child and because of her beauty and cheerful nature many were the friends who sought her companionship as she grew. Little did we realize the short life she was to share with us and others. At the age of six she was suddenly taken from us. A cold chill coursed down my spine as one day my wife said: “We will not be able to raise our little Jill in the hereafter, as will the Randall family who lost their daughter last year.” They were sealed in the Temple and their children were sealed to them. Since our marriage will dissolve when we die, we’ll not have need for children and our family life.

Nearly eight years have elapsed since our son was born. He is now ready for baptism. He has been faithful in his attendance at Sunday School and Primary, and I see in him a reflection of my own happy childhood. I contemplate and wonder about his future, will it be like mine has been? I find myself praying that he will not lack the blessings of the Priesthood as I have. Again, as it has so many times in the past, my friends will substitute for me in the baptism and confirmation of my son, again I will stand on the outside.

Now, I feel developing within me a spirit of bitterness the likes of which I have never felt before. I find myself on my knees, again and again, asking God to free my soul of this canker. But it persists. I see others who have recently been baptized into the Church, and after a few short weeks receive the Priesthood. Now we have ‘Project Temple’ organized in our stake and I see men with whom I have worked and associated for years being given special lessons and concessions. Men who have been indifferent to the Church, men who have had their nasty little jokes about the Word of Wisdom, about Tithing and many of the things that have meant so much to me. Men who had received the Priesthood in their youth but who denied its power and through their own ignorance had damned themselves far more than I who had not received the Priesthood. Men, who though they held the Melchizedek Priesthood had thought so little of the women they loved that they denied them the blessings of a Temple Sealing. Yes, and some who had scoffed so much at the Church that they were married by a justice of the peace. Now, I see these men suddenly so swept up in a wave of religious revival that after twelve short weeks of special lessons are to be given the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood and take their wives and children to the Temple where they will be endowed and sealed. This, in spite of my faithfulness, I am denied.

I begin to wonder of the justice of such things and as I wonder the realization strikes me like ten thousand bolts of lightning. I see myself a man, a child of God, one who knows of the great love and mercy of God, one who knows of the great redemptive powers of Jesus Christ, one who knows of the tremendous power embodied in the Holy Priesthood of God. Yes, one who knows that without the Holy Priesthood there can be no Church, nor can man reach perfection, eternal life and Celestial Exaltation.

As these truths dawn on me, even as they have many times before, I find myself shocked out of this nightmarish day dream with the realization that it is not merely a bad dream, but it is the truth. I realize more fully than ever before that as things stand now, I cannot receive the Holy Priesthood nor can my son for we are black, and the blood of Cain courses through and contaminates our mortal bodies. One question stands foremost in my mind, is this the will of God or the will of man?

Sincerely yours,

David Gillispie