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Mormon Leader Defends Race Relations

Interview: Gordon B. Hinckley says church does not need to further disavow its former teachings that blacks are cursed by God.

September 12, 1998|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In a vigorous defense of the church's record of equal opportunities for blacks, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said there is no need for any further disavowal of former Mormon teachings that blacks are cursed by God.

The church's black members are not asking for a reinterpretation of the old doctrines, Mormon President and Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said in an interview. "I don't hear any complaint from our black brethren and sisters. I hear only appreciation and gratitude wherever I go," he said. "But I don't see anything further that we need to do."

The church in 1978 eliminated its ban on people of African descent being members of the Mormon priesthood and now "gives to them every opportunity and blessing of the Gospel that we have to offer," Hinckley said.

Hinckley's statements Tuesday were his first on the subject since a Times story in May disclosed that lower-ranking officials in the church were reviewing a proposal to go further in repudiating old doctrines of black inferiority.

Hinckley, 88, has kept up a brisk pace of world travel and high- profile leadership at home since becoming the church's president in 1995. His vigor has been a contrast to his predecessor, President Howard W. Hunter, who had suffered from serious medical problems during much of his time in office.

During the course of the interview, Hinckley appeared alert and engaging, deftly fielding questions. He had flown to Los Angeles for an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" and returned to Salt Lake City later in the evening for an early morning meeting the next day.

On another issue that has been a center of recent controversy, Hinckley repeated the church's long-standing opposition to polygamy. The issue has returned to public view because of a case in Utah, where the Mormons are the dominant church, involving a 16-year-old girl who ran away from an abusive polygamous marriage.

The girl has told authorities that her father arranged for her to marry her uncle and become his 15th wife. When she ran away, she said, her father beat her.

"We are deeply concerned with the matter of abuse--spouse abuse, child abuse, abuse of any kind--in the church or out of the church," Hinckley said. "We think that the abuser ought to stand [before] the law . . . and be judged by the law on that matter."

The Utah case has led to the arrests of two patriarchs of the largest polygamous clan in the state and precipitated an unusual public debate that has filled the radio airwaves and echoed in the halls of state government.

At one point, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican and a descendant of polygamists, came under fire for suggesting that plural marriage may be constitutionally protected as a form of religious expression. Later, he amended his statement to add that illegal activities should be prosecuted.

Some early leaders and members of the church in the latter half of the 19th century, including founding Prophet Joseph Smith, entered into plural marriages.

But as a condition of Utah's admission into the Union in 1890, the state outlawed polygamy. At the time, Wilford Woodruff, then president and prophet of the church, reported receiving a revelation from God and declared that the practice of polygamy should be discontinued. But Utah officials concede that polygamy remains widespread in the state.

The issue of the church's historic policy toward people of African descent arose after the then-president of the Mormon History Assn., as well as several outspoken black members of the church, said that the decision to allow blacks to become priests did not go far enough. The church, they noted, had never officially repudiated an old doctrine that linked dark skin color to curses recounted in Hebrew and Mormon Scriptures.

But Hinckley said this week that he saw no need to make further changes in reinterpreting historic Mormon teachings.

"I don't look for any change. I don't look for the opportunity of saying anything," he said. "I feel we're doing for our black brethren and sisters what they wish done."

The so-called curse of Ham or Cain, set out in the Bible's Book of Genesis, was widely interpreted by many churches during the 19th century to explain why some humans had black skin. In addition, Mormon teachings up through the 1950s asserted that those of African descent had black bodies because they had failed to fight valiantly for God during a war in heaven with the devil. Mormon theology teaches that the war took place in a preexisting time before God's spirit children took on bodies and came to Earth as humans.

"It is the linkage to Cain that so distresses Mormon African Americans today," Irvine attorney Dennis Gladwell wrote the ranking church official in a 1996 paper made public in May. "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," Gladwell wrote.

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