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Mormons May Disavow Old View on Blacks

May 18, 1998|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Twenty years after the Mormon church dropped its ban against African Americans in the priesthood, key leaders are debating a proposal to repudiate historic church doctrines that were used to bolster claims of black inferiority.

The proposal to disavow the teachings, which purport to link African American skin color to curses from God recounted in Hebrew and Mormon Scriptures, is under review by the church's Committee on Public Affairs, made up of members of the church's highest governing circles, known as general authorities.

Sources close to the sensitive and still secret deliberations hope that a statement will be issued as early as next month, the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1978 decision by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to admit all worthy men to the priesthood, regardless of their race or color.

Although the church's leaders now proclaim racial equality as a "fundamental teaching," the process of repudiating old doctrines remains difficult. Those involved in the internal discussions say church leaders are searching for a formula that will allow them to retract earlier statements without undermining the faith of believers or the credibility of previous church figures whom the Mormons revere as prophets whose pronouncements were inspired by God.

"They feel like a lot of people may not believe the church is true because a lot of these things were said by previous prophets, and a true prophet of God shouldn't make mistakes," said David Jackson, an African American Mormon who is among those calling for change.

Continued Growth in Africa

The call for change comes at a time when the 10-million-member church is enjoying unprecedented growth in Africa and other developing countries. Several months ago the church's president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, wrapped up a five-nation tour of Africa, where the church reports about 110,000 converts as of the end of 1997, the latest figures available.

But black members of the church in the United States as well as some Mormon scholars warn that the "racist legacy" contained in various Mormon documents and authoritative statements risks undermining its mission unless they are disavowed.

"In the absence of any official corrections, these speculative and pejorative ideas will continue to be perpetuated in the church indefinitely," Mormon scholar Armand L. Mauss wrote in one internal paper prepared for church officials. Mauss is president of the Mormon History Assn. and a professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.

For most white members, the place of blacks in the church was resolved once and for all by the church's landmark 1978 decision on the priesthood.

For many blacks, however, the decision did not go far enough.

"What [the 1978 revelation] doesn't say is we're no longer of the lineage of Cain, that we no longer did these things in preexistence. It does not say we are not cursed with black skin," Jackson said.

Irvine attorney Dennis Gladwell, who has been working with Mauss and Jackson, made a similar point in a paper presented in October 1996 to Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a high-ranking official of the church and a public affairs committee member.

"It is the linkage to Cain that so distresses Mormon African Americans today," Gladwell wrote. "It places their spiritual lineage in shambles, since they are alleged descendants of a man who has come to symbolize evil on the same level as Lucifer himself."

Although church officials would not comment directly on what the First Presidency, composed of Hinckley and his two counselors, or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, may have considered, they confirmed that discussion of the issue is moving forward. The First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles are the principal policymaking and administrative officers of the church. The Quorum of the Seventy, of which Jensen is a member, ranks just below and carries out their policies.

"There appears to be general enthusiasm for moving ahead to clarify anything that would have previously hurt African Americans," one source close to developments in the public affairs committee said.

William S. Evans, a public affairs committee staffer, confirmed that the committee members have discussed the matter. But he cautioned that only the church's highest authorities--not the committee--could make such a statement.

An opening for the church could come as early as next week when Mauss delivers what is described as a major paper on the subject in Washington, D.C.

Among those who have read the paper is Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. She said the paper makes the point that the church's racist legacy developed only after the death of its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith.

"So the church itself could pull back from it as a matter of reinterpretation without having to lay itself open to the charge of changing doctrine," Shipps said.

Mormon Theology, Hebrew Scripture

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