Mormons and Racial Diversity
By David Metcalfe
November 4, 2019
As I’ve spent time at Brigham Young University, I can’t help but notice the racial diversity. There are white people, more white people, possibly an asian, and I think I may have seen a black person at one point. It’s kind of the same at the churches I’ve been to- in Ontario, Alberta, and Utah. It was also the same at General Conference in Salt Lake City- seas of white people in suits and dresses.
So, my question is: why is this the case? Is it due to the historical racism of the early church? Is it due to the early church being predominantly white, and then endemic marriage resulting in legacies of white, white, and more white with each succeeding generation? Could there be current racist sentiment in the church? Is there a scriptural basis for excluding other races from church membership and full participation?
I think it’s best to start with the facts before delving into the theories. Is it possible that I happened to show up to areas with a lot of white people, and the church actually has tons of racial diversity?
Racism or Regionality?
The Pew Research Center includes this chart on racial demographics among Mormons in US:
From this data, it seems as though Mormons have significantly more white people than the general population (86% vs 71%), and much less black people (3% vs 11%). But this data is actually deceptive, because it’s considering the “general population” as the entirety of the United States, but Mormonism has much higher and lower concentrations of members by state. Let’s take a look at racial diversity by state: (these graphs were taken from https://www.governing.com/gov-data/census/state-minority-population-data-estimates.html).
This chart shows the 9 states with the highest percentages of black people. These are also states with very low Mormon populations; all under 1% (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints_membership_statistics_(United_States)).
This chart shows the 9 states with the lowest percentages of black people. Two of the states- Utah and Idaho- are two of the states with the largest percentages of Mormons. Mormon universities are located in Utah, Idaho, and Hawaii- all three have low black populations.
Two of the other high Mormon areas- Arizona and California- also have fairly low black populations (4.1% and 5.5%, respectively).
When correcting for regionality, Mormons actually have nearly identical racial demographics compared to the regular population. This is good evidence that Mormon racial demographics are more a result of location than of systemic racism. In addition, it should be noted that majority of Mormons are actually outside the United States, in places like South East Asia, South America, and Africa (the fastest growing area of Mormonism).
Is There Racism In Mormonism?
It’s important to separate three things when we refer to “Mormonism”. There is true Mormon doctrine, there is human interpretations of Mormon doctrine, and there are cultural things that have nothing to do with Mormonism itself and everything to do with the culture it’s situated in.
There was a popular theory, believed by majority of members of the early church, that black people were cursed to never receive the priesthood. There was also a rejection of inter-racial marriages in the early church, and a variety of segregation practices. It is important to remember that the modern church began in 1830- long before slavery was fully abolished and in a time when even the most progressive people would be considered racist by modern standards.
So what existed, in regards to race, was a combination of two aspects of “Mormonism”: human interpretations of doctrine and cultural influence.
As “Angelus News”, a Catholic media outlet, notes about their own church, there was very strong racism in the Catholic Church for centuries: “There wasn’t a family that didn’t know someone who tried to get into seminary and was turned away by white folks,” he said of the Jim Crow era. “When someone was treated poorly, families developed an attitude that was passed down generations that you don’t want your son to go through that, so they haven’t encouraged them to become priests.” The article goes on to note that, to this day, very few Catholic priests are black, percentage-wise, as a result of the historical legacies of racism.
As historian Christine Heyrman notes in “Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt”, the Southern Baptist Convention was started by slaveowners, who used the Biblical text to justify slavery.
I could go on and on, but the fact is: in the 18th and 19th centuries, racism was so enveloped in the culture that it made its way into every church. Mormons were no exception.
We can see easily how culture affected the early Mormon church, and how that warped human interpretation of scripture, but what about the most important aspect of Mormonism? i.e. actual doctrine.
There are certain scriptural texts that have been used to justify racism. “Fair Mormon” does a good job of dispelling these myths here: https://www.fairmormon.org/blog/2012/02/28/dispelling-the-myth-of-the-curse-of-cain. Basically, there is no legitimate case for deriving racism from scripture. The word “blackness” is not used, in that context, to denote a literal skin colour, but a spiritual state (like in the Bible, when it says you shall be made “white as snow” through the forgiveness of sins- it clearly does not mean that your skin will literally turn whiter when you accept Jesus).
What we see throughout scripture is a broad, humanistic, egalitarian approach to humanity and their relationship to God. Jesus says “whoever believes in me shall have eternal life” (John 3:16)- not just a certain race or gender or group. Paul says, “there is no distinction among you- neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Nephi says, “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2 Nephi 26:33).
While it may be convenient for critics of the Mormon church to label it as a racist organization, the evidence does not show that to be the case. The racial demographics show evidence of a regional, rather than racial, reason for disparities between black and white populations. Just like every church in past centuries, many members of the Mormon Church also developed racist attitudes and warped interpretations of scripture due to to the cultural context they were situated in and the limited knowledge available at the time. In modern times, people of all races are allowed full participation in all aspects of church membership- priesthood, marriage, temple access, etc.
The upcoming generations of Mormons, growing up in a culture that cares about social equality, will have an advantage in the way that particular aspect of culture will affect their understanding of scripture. Mormons have already exhibited great strides in racial diversity and inclusion, and are projected to see continued growth and development in that. The history of racism, for both secular and Christian culture, is becoming farther and farther removed from the day to day realities of modern life, as the values, norms, and laws of society re-define the meaning of race and advance the whole of humanity.