40 years after end of priesthood ban, some black Mormons still see discrimination

Saturday , July 15, 2017 - 12:00 AM3 comments

JANAE FRANCIS and MATILYN MORTENSEN

Kimberly Teitter anticipated only joy on her wedding day.

But the Salt Lake City woman instead had to deal with racism in an LDS temple. 

A temple worker, apparently assuming Teitter is a convert because she is black, asked for her conversion story. 

But Teitter is a lifelong member of the church.

Her new husband, who is white, is a convert. He wasn’t asked for his story. 

Members of the church often make assumptions about her church activity because of her race, Teitter said.  

While some black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say they haven’t faced discrimination or racial tension, others, like Teitter, say the church’s history of racism isn’t confined to the distant past.

From 1852 to 1978, black men were not ordained to the church’s priesthood — which allows men to hold leadership positions in the church and, it teaches, is a power from God that can heal and serve other people. Black men and women also could not enter the church’s temples, where members participate in sacred ordinances the church says are essential to living with God after death.

That changed in 1978 when church President Spencer W. Kimball announced the policy would be reversed and priesthood and temple blessings would be available to all worthy members of the church.

Nearly 40 years later, some black members say they don’t see discrimination in the church but others recall times they felt unwelcome in their congregation because of the color of their skin.

“I have never felt like I was treated differently because I was African-American or anything,” said convert Sean Frazier, of Layton. “It doesn’t matter whether we are black, white, Chinese or whatever; we are all children of God.”

Frazier said when he questioned the former church policies regarding race, he prayed and received an answer from God.

“This is God’s church and everything is done in God’s time, whether we understand it or not. ... For some reason, he waited until 1978,” Frazer said.

Another milestone in the church’s relationship with black members was the 2013 publication of an essay on “Race and the Priesthood” on the church’s website.

The essay acknowledges the church’s complicated history of racial discrimination.

When the church was first organized, people of all races were allowed to join through baptism, according to the essay. And there are records of black men receiving the priesthood and participating in temple ordinances during the life of the church’s founder Joseph Smith.

But in 1852, church President Brigham Young declared that black men could no longer receive the priesthood. Later, church leaders further restricted involvement in the church for black members, according to the essay.

Weber State University history professor Gene Sessions says the issue came up because of the personalities of church leaders and racial tensions in the 19th century related to slavery and its end after the Civil War.

While Smith was an abolitionist, Sessions said, “Brigham Young was a classic, mid-19th century racist.”

As Utah looked to join the union, political pressure also contributed to the positions of church and political leaders in the area, Sessions said.

“What this did was institutionalize racism in the Mormon Church,” Sessions said. And because members believe the church is inspired by God, they assumed its position on race must be inspired, he said.

That led to church leaders and members speculating about why God would ban blacks from full church membership, Sessions said.

As the church’s essay puts it: “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”

But it wasn’t until well after the height of the civil rights movement that the church changed to this position.

“Most people who study Mormon history think it took the church too long to turn around,” Sessions said. “Most scholars, Mormon and otherwise, believe it was the internationalization of the church — rather than the civil rights movement — that put final pressure on the church to make the change in 1978. ...

“Mormons, of course, believe the change came by revelation from God and not from external pressures,” he said.

Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, a church program for black members, said that even though he knows the history and he still encounters some racist biases today, he’s tired of the “bitter stuff” and goes around it.

“I really believe the Lord is guiding this church the way he wants it to go,” he said. “You can’t believe in God and believe in all that hate. ... We need to live in the precious present, not in the dead past.”

The Genesis Group began in 1971 as a support group for black Latter-day Saints. They meet in Cottonwood Heights on the first Sunday of every month, with more than 500 members attending, Harwell said.

African-Americans are the group’s main audience, but not all who attend are black. Some are white members who have adopted black children.

Alice Faulkner Burch, the president of the Genesis Group’s all-woman Relief Society, said the experience of white couples adopting black children has helped to ease racial tensions in the church.

“They are learning, in a very hard way, about racism because their children are being attacked with it,” Burch said.

American Fork resident Alysa Whitney, 15, is black and was adopted by a white family when she was a baby.

“I have never found prejudice at church,” she said. “In my church stuff, I’ve always felt included.”

Other members, like Burch, had vastly different experiences. She was 20 years old and living in California when she joined the church in 1984. A few years later, a friend invited her to move to Utah.

Before she moved, Burch said her religion teacher warned her she would experience racism like never before.

“I thought he was joking,” Burch said. “I thought he was setting it up to be something harder than what it really was.”

Burch soon discovered that wasn’t the case.

“I have experienced a lot of racism, a lot bigotry and a lot of prejudice,” Burch said. “In all honesty, every piece that I have experienced has come from members of the church. I’ve never experienced any of that from nonmembers.”

Despite the challenges, Burch has continued to attend the LDS church.

“I stay in the church because I believe that this is where I belong, spiritually and religiously, and I have a right to be here,” Burch said. “God led me here.”

Burch also stays because of what she can offer to others.

“I have gifts and talents and skills and abilities that God is able to use,” Burch said. “He is able to use them for the furtherment of the gospel and the betterment of this church.”

But Burch also says over the years she’s seen general improvement in the attitude of the LDS church as a whole toward black members.

What black members of the church need now, Burch said, is fellowship and support from their fellow members, both inside and outside of church settings. She said it would be nice if white members were willing to stand up for black members when hurtful things are said.

“For African-Americans being in the church, it’s difficult,” Burch said. “So when we go into our wards on Sunday, we don’t need people making it more difficult.”

You can reach reporter JaNae Francis at jfrancis@standard.net or 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE or like her on Facebook at facebook.com/SEJaNaeFrancis. Contact reporter Matilyn Mortensen at mmortensen@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @MatilynKay.

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