Own Your Religion: Understanding Racism in Church History

Own Your Religion: Understanding Racism in Church History

18 min read

This week in 2020 racial tensions have boiled over after a series of high-profile violence against black people. This should cause everyone to reflect on the hard realities of racism and our collective responsibility in naming and dismantling it individually and in our institutions.

We have had several friends in our faith reach out for help in better understanding and confronting racism in our faith’s own history. We both feel that owning one’s religion is very important to deepen faith not in the soil of dogmas and status quo but in the soil of peace and justice. We’ve put this post together as a collection of resources to use to better understand racism. Neither one of us will claim to be experts or free of racism ourselves. But we have found the following useful after several years and many hours of study and attempts to listen.

Church History

In his book “Planted”, Patrick Mason has a chapter titled “A Principled Approach to Church History”. In it, he warns:

History is not an assemblage of arcane and inconsequential facts. It is not about clinging blindly to tradition. And it is not useless.

Planted, pg. 75)

While the whole chapter is fascinating, he gives “five broad principles for thinking about church history, particularly its more nettlesome aspects.”

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Do your homework
  3. The past is a foreign country
  4. There is none good but God
  5. Learn the lessons of history

Patrick Mason notes:

these principles help us approach history and the people who live there in more Christian terms. God does not ask us to suspend our critical faculties, but he does require us to enhance them with humility, generosity, and most of all charity.

(Planted, pg. 97)

When studying history, we should constantly ask ourselves: Are we coming to a topic with strongly held notions? How might our existing beliefs and opinions affect how we will understand this history? – just as we would ask those things of authors (both present and past). History can, and should, challenge our beliefs. Working through that challenge and letting its lessons teach you requires diligence, humility, and charity as Patrick Mason noted.

One last piece of advice on the topic of history: seek primary sources. While not perfect (no account is), many of the best historical works rely heavily on primary sources and carefully note when and why they might use a secondary source over a primary source.

Church History Resources

The following is a list of resources for understanding church history on the topic of race:

Official Declaration 2 (1978) – this is probably the most impactful official church publication/policy affecting race relations in the church. Canonized into church scripture, this revelation extended priesthood ordination to all worthy black males and temple access to all worthy black men and women.

Race and the Priesthood – Published in 2013, this church publication addresses the history of racism and its effects on past church teachings and policies. This essay strongly states that “the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

1973 Dialogue article from Lester Bush – Lester Bush, after several years of careful historical work, published this essay in Dialogue which countered many of the common justifications at the time for church policy that barred black men from being ordained to the priesthood and black men and women from attending the temple. Before publication, Bush shared his notes and eventually met with several church leaders and administrators who had varying responses to his work (see Bush’s publication in Journal of Mormon History Vol. 25, No. 1, 1999 – pg 229 – detailing his experience researching and publishing the 1973 Dialogue article including his meetings with church leaders). More recently, Bush has reflected on his experience writing this history in the Fall 2018 Dialogue issue.

David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism – In 2005, Greg Prince published David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism which contains a chapter titled “Blacks, Civil Rights, and the Priesthood”. While situated prior to Spencer W. Kimball’s reversal of the policy excluding blacks in 1978, Greg Prince uses primary source material from David O. McKay’s thorough journals and papers to chronicle how thoughts on race informed church policy and teachings up until McKay’s death in 1970.

Recent Church Events

The church has recently spent considerable efforts to focus on this topic:

Church Releases Statement Condemning White Supremacist Attitudes (2017) – On the heels of the Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia by white supremacists and neo-Nazis the church released a statement citing a Gordon B. Hinckley General Conference talk in April 2006 where he said, “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.” and that “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

“Be One” celebration (2018) – In commemorating 40 years after the 1978 revelation, the church held a large musical and cultural celebration of ethnic unity. Dallin H. Oaks reflected on his response in 1978 when he heard of the change, “I observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons. I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them… I wept for joy.” President Nelson urged all to “overcome any burdens of prejudice and walk uprightly with God — and with one another — in perfect peace and equity.”

President Nelson speaks at the NAACP annual convention (2019) – President Nelson associated the work of the NAACP to a teaching in the Book of Mormon: “‘All are alike unto God.’ You who are gathered here in this room strive to make this heavenly truth an earthly reality. I commend you for it. And yet we all realize that, as a society and as a country, we have not yet achieved the harmony and mutual respect that would allow every man and woman and every boy and girl to become the very best version of themselves.” The church also made a sizable donation to the NAACP.

Elder Stevenson speaks at annual NAACP luncheon in downtown Salt Lake City (2020) – Speaking on racial and ethnic unity, Elder Stevenson took time to address controversial content in the 2020 “Come, Follow Me” curriculum which contained what Elder Stevenson described as “outdated commentary on race”. Elder Stevenson went on to apologize that it was “mistakenly included in the printed version of the manual”, “removed in our annual online manual”, and that “any future printed manuals will reflect this change” He went on to say, “We are asking members to disregard the paragraph in the printed manual.” and that the church is “deeply saddened and hurt by this error, and for any pain that it may have caused our members or others.”

President Nelson shares thoughts on “evidences of racism and a blatant disregard for human life” (2020) – In the midst of continued protests and violence, President Nelson shared a rather lengthy social media post in which he stated that, “We join with many throughout this nation and around the world who are deeply saddened at recent evidences of racism and a blatant disregard for human life. We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin… Any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent!”

Racism continues to surface in the Church and at BYU (2020)** – In Winter 2020, BYU journalism students examined issues that directly impact the BYU community and its vision of “The world is our campus”. As part of a series published from that effort, the Daily Universe published an examination of racism on campus. BYU President Kevin J. Worthen acknowledged the issue of racism in a published message stating: “We know there is work to do, on campus and throughout the nation, for us to better come together, to address injustice and to truly love one another. It will take sustained effort from all of us to make things better. We remain committed to doing that.” He also affirmed that “BYU stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”

Prophet Joins NAACP Leaders in Call for Racial Harmony in America (2020) – On the anniversary of the 1978 revelation, President Nelson and NAACP issued a joint statement calling for racial harmony in America. In the full statement, it says, “Prejudice, hate and discrimination are learned. Thus, we call on parents, family members, and teachers to be the first line of defense. Teaching children to love all, and find the good in others, is more crucial than ever. Oneness is not sameness in America. We must all learn to value the differences. We likewise call on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all. It is past time for every one of us to elevate our conversations above divisive and polarizing rhetoric.”

NAACP would like to see the LDS Church do more (2020) – The Salt Lake Tribune reported on June 9th that while joint efforts and dialogue between the church and the NAACP are encouraging, Wil Colom, special counsel to the NAACP president, commented that while “Both of us have been willing to listen to and learn from each other” he noted “no willingness on the part of the church… to do anything material” and that he looks forward “to their deeds matching their words”.

Committee formed to examine race and inequality at BYU (2020) – On June 17, BYU announced that “At the request of President Kevin J Worthen and under the direction of Academic Vice President Shane Reese, last week a committee was appointed to examine issues of race and inequality at BYU and provide recommendations to the university about specific actions to address these issues.” Citing President Nelson’s “charge” made at the NAACP to “review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all” the group identifies goals to “Foster our faith in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man; Foster a fundamental respect for the human dignity of every human soul, regardless of their color, creed or cause; and Work tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than creating walls of segregation.”

Darius Gray joins Maxwell Institute’s advisory board – On September 19, Maxwell Institute announced that Darius Gray has joined the Institute’s advisory board. In Gray’s Maxwell Institute profile page, he is described as “A frequent lecturer on genealogy, Black history, and LDS history” and having “been actively engaged in human rights and civil rights causes”.

Voices of Black Latter-day Saints

While being informed of church history and current events on the topic of race is good, it is no substitute for earnestly listening to the voices of racial minorities in the church. Some of the best advice we’ve heard in entering into a space that may be unfamiliar to you is to first just listen. When we are ignorant of another’s perspective, our intuition or impulses can be very wrong and often harmful. The call, in the Book of Mormon, to “mourn with those who mourn” can be done best by first making sure we have heard and understand those who are mourning and letting them tell us what we can do.

Here are some links to resources and places where we can hear and read the voices of black Latter-day Saints:

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s messages about racial harmony and justice stand the test of time. The Stanford Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has collected papers and works about or by Martin Luther King, Jr. Audio artifacts can be found here.

One of our favorite speeches given by Martin Luther King, Jr. is his sermon titled “Loving your Enemies” (youtube link to our favorite section).

A frequent point of debate is what to think about and how to respond to violence that can attend heated civil protests. Martin Luther King has some of the best wisdom here:

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.

But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?

It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.

It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.

And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.

And so in a real sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.

Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Martin Luther King Jr. – “The Other America” (1967)


In addition to history, current events, and the voices of black people, science has come a long ways in understanding and debunking matters surrounding race. While physical features do have biological origins, a reductive biological basis for race (as we’ve inherited the idea of race) is all but debunked. Misunderstandings of biology drove, and sadly still drive, ideologies promoting racial superiority.

Here are two resources to better understand what science can teach us about race:

What Can I Do?

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Knowledge alone cannot change the world. We must act on what we know to be true and good of our own volition. Our scriptures teach that we are to bring about positive change and justice:

26 … it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he [or she] that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

27 Verily I say, men [and women] should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.

Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28 (inclusive genders used)

Knowledge should tell us here that there is much that we can and should do. It can be natural to feel helpless or overwhelmed facing a problem as complex, entrenched, and sometimes elusive as racism. Happily, there is an endless variety of things that can and need to be done, we don’t have to do everything, and we don’t have to do it alone. Again, we emphasize how important it is to listen to racial minority communities around you to best inform your actions.

To help you get started, here are some lists people have compiled or positive actions people can take to help bring about positive change:

Own Your Religion

Owning our religion means not just knowing its past and present, but actively working to make its future better together. We cannot do this alone and here we cannot do it without our fellow black Latter-day Saints leading the way.