|How to Reach African-Americans|
by Marvin Perkins
During the 176th General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Gordon B. Hinckley did not speak or conduct in the Saturday morning or afternoon sessions. In the general priesthood session held that same evening, however, he spoke emphatically, urging priesthood holders to do everything in their power to wipe out racism in the LDS Church.
"When a man grows old he develops a softer touch, a kindlier manner. I have thought of this much of late. . . .
"Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.
"Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that 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. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
"Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.
"Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.
"Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.
"Why do any of us have to be so mean and unkind to others? Why can't all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Why This Presentation?
Two independent studies list African-Americans as the number-one culture in the United States when it comes to seeking religion. One of the studies done in October 2005 by the Higher Education Research Institute, associated with the UCLA Graduate School of Research Studies, revealed that African-Americans led in 7 of 12 spirituality categories.
According to the 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the annual church membership figures compiled by the National Council of Churches show that the LDS Church is the fastest-growing and fourth largest in the United States. This study also states that the country’s main-line Protestant churches—Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and others—are being overtaken by Mormon, Pentecostal, and Black churches.
The Mission of the Lord
Moses 1:39: "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."
Three Missions of the Church
We're Trying to Reach
As far as I can tell, the LDS Church has the largest and most organized missionary program in the world. These dedicated young men and women go whereever they are called to go and serve. They enter the Missionary Training Center (MTC), where they learn the language of the people they are going to serve. They are taught classes on cultures to better understand how they might reach those they’d like to teach. I spoke to a friend who served in Indiana. She told me that there was no need to learn a language or culture, but she remembers very well the heavy emphasis in the MTC on communication skills, how to approach people respectfully without offending them or scaring them off. She mentioned that she really wished that she had been given some training on the “Black” issue (which includes the priesthood and skin color and curse issues) because she taught many African-American families without any preparation in dealing with these issues; as a result, she was not successful in bringing any of the families into the Church. I once spoke to a missionary in Los Angeles who said she avoids African-Americans because she knows the issue will come up, and she doesn’t know what to say.
So if we truly want to reach African-Americans, both inside and outside the Church, we must first understand that which I call the language and culture of this people. There are hidden cues, unspoken understandings, and points of significance in every culture, group, religion, and so on. Have you ever met some, for instance, while doing business? You begin a conversation, which is pleasant. Then you discover that they are also LDS, and pleasant turns to excitement. You also feel like you know so much more about this person and have a great deal in common with them. This is what I’m referring to when to when I make reference to understanding the language and culture. Many times I will see an African-American at a Church function. I’ll approach them to introduce myself. I’ll ask how long they’ve been in the Church and how they found it. Then I’ll ask them how they’re growing and doing with everything. Nine times out of ten, they will hesitate a bit, and then tell me that they’re having trouble with the Black issue, the answers they’re getting from ward members, or with family of other faiths who have presented them with unflattering material regarding the Church and Blacks. Though I’d never met these Saints that I’d approach, because the African-American culture has our unique “language and culture, I understand that they may be having difficulty reconciling this issue, where without this information, ward members, leaders and friends may never realize this ongoing internal struggle.
Without this understanding, the percentages of those affected by these issues that will come into or remain in the Church are very slim. This would also be the case if we sent missionaries to South America without teaching them anything about the language or culture of our brothers and sisters there.
So allow me to share what I, in my experience, have come to call the language and culture of most African-Americans. I feel somewhat qualified for that seeing that I’ve been African-American all my earthly life. My Father asked me if I would accept the assignment to come to earth in brown skin, and I jumped with excitement at the opportunities.
What Is the Language and Culture of African-Americans?
The language that circulates among most African-Americans is that Mormons are racists, have a long history of racism, and think that Blacks are cursed. This is always uncomfortable for some to hear, but this is the reality. If you truly want to reach this group, you must be able and understand that there is a great chance that this is being thought, even if not spoken.
The culture of African-Americans is that we all will have to deal with the “Black” issue at some point, either before discussions, during discussions, or after baptism—sometimes many years after baptism. Two brothers who came to me looking for information after not finding it locally come to mind; one had been a member five years, and the other twenty-five years. And the guidance given to us by the Lord through the scriptures has proven successful in removing these obstacles that keep good men and women who are concerned about these issues out of the Church.
Realizing What's Out There
Christ was the only perfect being to live on earth as man. What that means is that all the rest of us will have some faults for our entire journey here on earth. Part of our test is to be able to look past the faults of men in order to see the things of God. As an exuberant new member of the Church, I was in a conversation with someone, trying to share the gospel. As we spoke, he pointed out what he said was a fault of Joseph Smith. In my inexperience, I defended Brother Joseph with denial: “Impossible. . .couldn’t be.” My new member mind was saying, "The Church is true, so what this man is saying couldn’t be." I’d later find out that his claim was true. It didn’t bother me as much to find out that Joseph was human, as it did that my credibility with this man was shot because I was willing to defend something in total ignorance. I had not studied the issue he’d presented, yet I was willing to speak out on it. Once my credibility was gone, I felt I had little chance at helping him to want to know more about the Church.
This may also be the case when friends and family find out that African-Americans (and other cultures as well) are investigating or have become new members of the LDS Church. Often times, we will be presented with anti-Mormon literature. I was presented with many of the writings of the early and latter leaders who had made derogatory comments regarding Blacks, in an attempt to persuade me not to join. I have no desire or need to rehash any of those statements. My point here is to simply point out that this information is given to investigators and members alike. One can go into LDS bookstores today and find these books still for sale. You can find these writings easily on the Internet. So when we are handed this material, it’s obviously troubling and we seek to find answers. Many times the answers are sought outside the Church, which is unfortunate, because that method will almost never turn out well. The obvious place to turn would be to the person fellowshipping the individual or the ward members or leaders if they’ve began going to Church. In this case, it is important that we don’t put up our automatic walls of defense, like I did in my early days; we will lose our credibility. If one were to do an study of the Old and New Testaments, he or she will find that all dispensations were populated by humans as well. By studying this subject through the scriptures, we can have “oil in our lamps,” thus being prepared in that time of need.
Scriptures I Show Investigators and Struggling Members
to Demonstrate LDS Doctrine
The Old Testament
The Children of Israel were in bondage for more than four hundred years. When the Lord used Moses and Aaron to free them, He also wanted to get them back to serving Him. To go from one extreme to another took quite some time. It was so difficult that they were given a simple law, the Law of Moses, to help them to gradually be able to abide the whole law. They wandered for forty years trying to get it right, and still needed more time before they would be more ready for what Christ would bring many years later.
The New Testament
In Matthew 28:19, the resurrected Savior commands the disciples to take the gospel to all the world, which included the Gentiles:
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."
But even though they had a direct command from the Savior who had just, in great majesty and power, risen from the dead, they would not do as He had commanded. Because of their feelings toward the Gentiles, they did not reflect the Lord’s view in 1 Samuel 16:7. In fact, they had established a law to keep themselves separate from their brothers. For the Jews to go from that extreme to one of sharing in the love of the gospel with them—and thus becoming one with them—would not happen overnight, but would take much time and effort in changing their hearts. It would also take another command from God.
In Acts 10, Peter receives the vision of the blanket knit at the four corners and receives the commandment again to take the gospel to all nations. Verse 28 reads:
"And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean."
Verse 47 continues:
"Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?"
And now being commanded a second time, they began taking the gospel to the Gentiles. So here, as in the Old Testament, we see that changing the hearts of the natural man did not happen overnight.
The Doctrine & Covenants
When the Church was restored in 1830, the atrocity of slavery was in place in the United States. Until the passing of the Civil Rights act of 1964, discrimination was actually the law of the land. If we go to the scriptures, we’ll find similarities in the Doctrine & Covenants to the scriptures we’ve just discussed in the Old and New Testaments.
On December 16, 1833, while in Kirtland, Ohio, the Prophet Joseph received a revelation letting the Saints know that slavery was not right. He recorded this as verses 78 and 79 of Section 101:
"That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
"Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another."
Yet when the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley some thirteen years later, there were three slaves in the first pioneer company, demonstrating that some continued in the practice despite the revelation. Slavery would actually be legalized in Utah in 1852 and would only end in with the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which outlawed it in the United States.
What Keeps Many African-Americans Out
I went to a parenting seminar last week in California, and the presenter happened to be LDS. As we discussed this issue, he told me, “Marvin, I don’t get it. The African-Americans are some of the most spiritual people I know. I’d think they’d be really receptive to the gospel.” I asked him to imagine being in an environment where a good number of the membership think, but may not say—and then again some may actually say or teach—that you are or were cursed, were less valiant in the pre-existence, the only race on earth not ready or worthy of the priesthood, or the only interracial marriage that is not acceptable is White marrying Black, and so on. Now can you imagine wanting to remain in that environment?" He replied, “No I wouldn’t.”
During the period when I was investigating the Church, the teachings I just spoke of left me with a feeling of “my God doesn’t feel like that about any of His children. So we must be worshipping a different God.” I can imagine that there are others who feel the same.
How Can We Use the Scriptures to Show That
We Truly Believe We Are All Alike Unto God?
I’ve broken this part of the presentation down into four categories that most African-Americans want to know about:
Many in and outside of the Church are not aware that all men were holding the priesthood when the gospel was restored in its fullness. So actually, the 1978 revelation gave the priesthood back to Blacks.
African-Americans Who Were Ordained to the Priesthood in the 1800s and 1900s:
President David O. McKay, 1954: “There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this Church that the Negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the Church of any kind pertaining to the Negro. ‘We believe’ that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the Negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.” (Sterling M. McMurrin affidavit, March 6, 1979. See David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince and William Robert Wright.)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, Part II, The Mission of the Holy Ghost, Chapter 9—Revelation on the Priesthood 1989 (also spoken at a CES conference at BYU in August 1978):
We Follow Living Prophets
"Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and light line upon line and precept upon precept (2 Ne. 28:30; Isa. 28:9-10; D&C 98:11-12; 128:21). We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter anymore.
"It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year . It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light into the world on this subject."
One of the key points of Elder McConkie’s statement is that “we have now had added a flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all of the views and all of the thoughts of the past.”
So if we are to do away with all that was taught on this issue prior to 1978, what understanding would the Lord, through the Brethren, want us to have? What new direction came with this flood of intelligence and light that Elder McConkie wrote had been added unto them? Well, the flood of new light came in 1978. With that flood, we received a new edition of the scriptures in 1981. So we find that direction in the scriptures, more specifically, in the series of footnotes and at least one word change that I’m aware of. We’ll take a more in-depth look at these new additions as we continue.
So Why Did the Prophet Joseph Give the Priesthood to Blacks?
One of the great things about the Doctrine & Covenants is that it is not translated scripture from another language as it is with the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon. It is direct revelation given in our language, in our day, for our day, with one of the main purposes of giving the Prophet's direction on how to set up and administer the Lord’s restored gospel. According to D&C 18:3-4:
"And if you know that they are true, behold, I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written;
"For in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock."
So What Did the Lord Reveal to Brother Joseph
Regarding Who Should Receive the Priesthood?
As we go through these scriptures, keep in mind that many, if not all, of the passages that we’ll cover had footnotes or words within the footnotes added as part of the “flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject” that the Brethren received with the 1978 revelation. There will be at least three questions to ask yourselves:
Thoughts and ways of life, engrained for decades and many generations, don’t disappear overnight, but dissipate over time when the desire to do so and effort to eradicate them are present. We each grow line upon line, precept upon precept; yes, even in the 1800s, as we do today. What made a man accept the gospel of Jesus Christ and still maintain slaves? The desire for him to extend all the blessings given to him from God may have required much prayer, growth, experience, and time.
President David O. McKay said in 1954, “There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this Church that the Negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the Church of any kind pertaining to the Negro." (Sterling M. McMurrin affidavit, March 6, 1979. See David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince and William Robert Wright.)
My current understanding of the definition of “curse” is much different from the one I used to have. This is all due to the Book of Mormon. My own cousin told me that we Blacks were cursed—and if I didn’t believe him, I should look it up in the Bible. And though I didn’t believe that, I could never find sufficient confirmation of that until I joined the LDS Church. Now I had these scriptures that gave us some of the plain and precious truths that were not clear to my understanding before. For me, this heightens the importance of continuing revelation.
The Book of Mormon teaches me that a curse is a separation from God, His Church, His ways, His knowledge and blessings, and/or His spirit because of the way that we live. Some of the sons of Lehi would not obey the commandments, thus they lost the gifts of the Spirit and separated themselves from God and the church. Thus, were they cursed. When they repented, they regained the Spirit and the presence of the Lord, and became once again pure, clean, and delightsome; in such a way, the “curse” or the “separation” from God is removed.
Let’s take a look at just a few scriptures that I feel illustrate this.
What New Direction Have We Been Given on Skin Color?
If one were to study the Old and New Testament, they would understand that the words “black” and “white” were not used in reference to skin color in either of these two sacred works. There is one exception when the word “white” is used in reference to leprosy.
The word “black” is found in the scriptures 44 times. Each time it is used in reference to man, the footnote, chapter heading, or circumstance within the context of the verse denotes being gloomy, in anguish, or in spiritual darkness.
Follow the footnotes for each citing of the word “black” in all of its forms:
"Black" appears 26 times in the Old Testament and New Testament combined.
Note that the only use of the word “white” in reference to skin color is in Numbers 12:10, when Miriam murmurs against Moses because he’s married an Ethiopian woman, a Black woman; after she murmurs, she is made leprous and her skin becomes temporarily white as snow: "And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous." (Numbers 12:10.)
Correcting What Was Previously Misunderstood
Note that with the flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject that Apostle Bruce R. McConkie spoke of in his 1978 statement, in 1981 LDS scriptures were updated to include footnotes to the passages of scripture in the Book of Mormon that prior to that time potentially gave readers the impression that they were speaking of literal skin color changing. Also in 2 Nephi 30:6, the word originally translated as “white” was changed to "pure," a change that Joseph Smith made in 1840, stating that the word "pure" better described what the passage of scripture meant. The change was made in 1981.
Continuing Revelation Offers a New Understanding
Just last summer, a sister approached me in Cleveland and told me that she was bothered by 2 Nephi 5:21 (as many are), so she approached a ward member about the meaning of the passage, only to be told that she was cursed. Let's look at the footnote:
2 Nephi 5:21: "And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them."
Follow new footnote “d” to 2 Nephi 30:6 to get an idea of what is meant by “skin”:
2 Nephi 30:6: "And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people."
Follow footnote “b” to the bottom of the page. Scales—TG Darkness, Spiritual, TG Spiritual Blindness.
As you follow all footnotes in the Book for Mormon relating to skin, mark, curse, dark, darkness, black, blackness, white, delightsome, and filthy, they all tie back into 2 Nephi 5:21, 2 Nephi 30:6, and Jacob 3:8. So what the Brethren gave us in the 1981 scripture updating, after receiving a flood of intelligence with the 1978 revelation, is quite significant. However, we have to be aware of these changes in order to help others.
More Scriptural Support
In order to reach African-Americans we must:
"And all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yea, even an hundred fold, to be cast into the Lord’s storehouse, to become the common property of the whole church." (D&C 82:18.)