Saturday, May 13, 2000

Orson Scott Card on blacks and the priesthood

Orson Scott Card is a Latter-day Saint and a science fiction author.  I love his books.  He maintains a website for his fans.  Part of that website offers answers to research questions regarding his work and himself.  One person asked If he could describe his experience when he was a missionary for the Mormon Church in Brazil

Of course this was far too broad a question to answer, but Card promised to try to answer more specific questions, so I asked if he could describe the instructions he received from his mission president regarding the teaching of black people in Brazil because I knew that different missionaries received different instructions at different times. 

My father-in-law, for example, received no instruction at all and actively proselyted among Brazilians of African descent. 
Here is Orson Scott Card's response

May 12, 2000: Because Mormon congregations are completely staffed by lay members - no hired priesthood - they need to have at least a minimal number of priesthood-holding men in order to function.  In Brazil, so many people have African descent that the rule the Church had before 1978, barring the priesthood from them, made it so that out of necessity, the Church had to restrict its missionary activity among people of African ancestry.  We were told to put obvious barriers in front of people whose African ancestry was apparent, so they had to be exceptionally motivated in order to join the church.

This was a painful thing, in practice.  So many people that were really interested in the Church were, in effect, turned away - not meanly, but nevertheless effectively - that many of us yearned for that restriction to be lifted.  Most of us, of course, had grown up in the American west - an area that has very few blacks.  So we had not seen the effect of this policy in our own lives, among our friends or acquaintances.  Now that we saw first-hand how much more receptive the Brazilians of African descent were to the gospel, it was hard to think they in any way "deserved" to be cut off from it.  Naturally, in order to "justify" the Church policy, many people had invented folk doctrines or seized on doctrines invented by others that, in effect, blamed blacks for the restriction.  But in fact the policy had been introduced solely to preserve the Church in its early days on the American frontier, when, in Missouri, the local slave-holding culture hated and feared the mostly-Yankee Mormons because they were growing in number and represented potential anti-slavery votes.  When it became clear that Mormons were baptizing and giving the priesthood to freed slaves, the anti-Mormon mob went into a frenzy.  That was when the policy to no longer give the priesthood to blacks was introduced.  And, during the era when blacks were grossly discriminated against throughout all of America, that policy helped the Mormon Church survive in bigoted Bible-belt areas.  By 1973, however, the policy already seemed pretty dated to some of us.  Though we also knew that change would only come when the leaders of the Church felt that they had the Lord's permission to make a change.  Some of them had expressed their personal belief in some of those folk doctrines, making it seem sometimes that they would be highly unlikely ever to change.

And the worst thing was what the policy did to many of the missionaries there.  It was like a carte blanche for racism.  Some of the disparaging comments I heard, the hostile or mocking attitudes toward blacks, shocked me.  I had never heard anything like that from my family.  While I grew up hearing some of the fear-centered stereotypes about blacks, there was never anything even approaching hostility toward or mockery of any racial group, and I could not believe that people calling themselves Latter-day Saints could have such attitudes.  I was not the only one to get into arguments with some of the most excessive of the racists - but it was hurtful how THEY claimed to have the Church on their side.

Still, I also saw many examples of faithful members of the Church who, having joined the church despite the restrictions, or having done their genealogy, discovered African ancestry, and had their priesthood "suspended," nevertheless remained loyal, faithful, loving Latter-day Saints.  They helped dispel much of my own ignorance and racial stereotypes.

And when, five years after I got home from my mission, the announcement came that the restriction was lifted, I was one of many former missionaries to Brazil who longed to go back and find all those people we had to turn away when they were seeking the gospel.  Since 1978 the Church has grown by leaps and bounds within Brazil.  Why did it take so long?  I do not think for a moment that the Lord or the Church were waiting for Africans to be ready - they were ready all along.  First the wait was for American culture to be ready to accept fully integrated churches in every region of the country; then the wait was for the Church members themselves to be ready to embrace the change.  And embrace it we did.  Yes, there were areas where substantial numbers of Church members stopped coming to church and haven't been back. But the vast majority of the Saints were ready and eager to see that restriction lifted from our shoulders - for it burdened us as surely as it burdened any of the African-Americans (and African-Brazilians) who joined the church despite the rule or missed out on it because they could not bear the inherent racism of the policy.

It was a racist policy that had been instituted by a non-racist church for the sake of the survival of the church in a racist region, and, like racism in America in general, it lingered far too long.  But I'm proud of the fact that we Mormons don't do things by halves - we are now one of the most rigidly ANTI-racist Churches.  Throughout the South where we live now, most churches are segregated, not by rule but by custom - blacks go to mostly-black churches, whites to mostly-white churches.  But the Mormon churches are integrated and black members are fully involved in leadership and service.

I hope this answers your question.  I'd love to know what prompted you to ask it.

Orson Scott Card

* The Casting Broad
* Fresco Pictures
* Hatrack River: The Official Website of Orson Scott Card
* Lost Books
* Nauvoo: A Gathering Place for Latter-day Saints
* The Ornery American

I was greateful to receive this reply from Card, and sent him a reply in return.  I don't recall all of what I wrote, but he replied again.

May 13, 2000: I truly wish the issue WERE dead.  As far as the official church is concerned, it is ... but several issues remain.

1. The previous folk teachings about race continue to be taught despite our best efforts to stamp them out - so many members still hear all that old nonsense about why blacks deserved inferior treatment in this life, etc.

2. Members who think that EVERY action of EVERY authority of the Church must be inspired by God are grossly disillusioned at the discovery that many if not most actions of church leaders from the lowest to the highest offices are merely those leaders best decisions at the time, based on their own understanding and their own preferences and judgments.  when you think about it, this shouldn't be a problem - God isn't creating puppets here, he's creating people, and that means we have to have experience making decisions, even harmful ones - and also bearing with and being patient with the mistaken decisions of others.  However, the story that everything is inspired, while it has the convenience of getting many people to accept decisions without argument, does the great harm of setting up the members of the church for disillusionment and loss of faith.  The decision to restrict blacks from holding the priesthood was one such decision - it may have even been inspired at the time, but all the nonsense set up in support of it certainly was NOT inspired ...

3. The language with which the declaration was made left the implication that there is an unwritten revelation somewhere in someone's memory.  Quite the contrary.  what there was - all there EVER was - was President Kimball's profound assurance, given by God, that the restriction should be lifted.  He spoke of this to the 12 in the temple, and all of them agreed, in a very spiritual meeting in which it was clear to all that this was the will of God.  My wife can steer you to where the best account of this has been written down.  So what was not given in words cannot be written down in words.  Still, there could have and should have been an official account of how this revelation was given ... except that I think part of the reason for not doing so is that to have such an account in the scripture would lock in the fact that the racial restriction ever existed, and there is, I think, a profound wish among the Brethren that the memory of that old policy might just go away.

It won't, of course.  But it can be set aside by most members and nonmembers alike, and perhaps, unlike polygamy, it will NOT continue to be one of the first things that people think of when they think of Mormonism <wince>.

Anyway, I'm glad that you're one of those who are not only concerned that the true doctrine be taught and widely understood, but are taking part in that effort. I'm looking forward to reading your paper - the table of contents looks good.


I also received this kind response from Kristine Card

May 15, 2000: Hi, I'm Scott Card's wife, Kristine.  He asked me to send you the reference to the place I think is one of the best accounts of the revelation on the priesthood.  But, I'll bet you have already read it.  If not -- it is Chapter 11 "The Long Promised Day" in Leonard J. Arrington's biography "Adventures of a Church Historian".  The book was published in 1998 by University of Illinois Press.  I know you can get it from Deseret Book or Amazon because my bookclub just read it and that's where everyone got their copies.  Best wishes, Kristine Card

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