Black Mormons

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Eldridge Cleaver, former major player of the Black Panther Party, and Mormon convert.

Most Mormons are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The church has never kept official records on the race of its membership, so exact numbers of black members are unknown. Black people have been members of Mormon congregations since its foundation, but before 1978 its black membership was small.[citation needed] It has since grown, and in 1997, there were approximately 500,000 black members of the church (about 5% of the total membership), mostly in Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean.[1] Black membership has continued to grow substantially, especially in West Africa, where two temples have been built.[2] In the United States, 3% of members are black.[3]

Notable early black Mormons[edit]

Prior to 1847, blacks that were members of the church included Elijah Abel, William McCary, and Walker Lewis.

Jane Manning James had been born free and worked as a housekeeper in Joseph Smith's home.[4] When she requested the temple ordinances, John Taylor took her petition to the Quorum of the Twelve, but her request was denied. When Wilford Woodruff became president of the church, he compromised and allowed Jane to be sealed to the family of Joseph Smith as a servant. This was unsatisfying to Jane as it did not include the saving ordinance of the endowment, and she repeated her petitions. She died in 1908. President Joseph F. Smith honored her by speaking at her funeral.[5]

Other notable early black LDS Church members included Green Flake, the slave of John Flake, a convert to the church and from whom he got his name. He was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 16 in the Mississippi River, but remained a slave. Following the death of John Flake, in 1850 his widow gave Green Flake to the Church as tithing.[6] Some members of the black side of the Flake family say that Brigham Young emancipated their ancestor in 1854, however at least one descendant states that Green was never freed.[7] Samuel D. Chambers was another early African American pioneer. He was baptized secretly at the age of thirteen when he was still a slave in Mississippi. He was unable to join the main body of the church and lost track of them until after the Civil War. He was thirty-eight when he had saved enough money to emigrate to Utah with his wife and son.[5]

Expansion in West Africa[edit]

The church began receiving letters from West Africa requesting information about the church in the 1940s. As the church began sending back literature, two LDS bookstores were formed. Because the Africans could not receive the priesthood, leaders hesitated sending missionaries.[8] In 1960, David O. McKay sent Glen G. Fisher on a fact-finding mission to Africa, where he found thousands of people waiting for him.[9] McKay decided to send missionaries, but the Nigerian government refused to issue the necessary visas.[10] Five months after the 1978 revelation, the first missionaries arrived in Nigeria. Anthony Obinna was one of the first to be baptized.[11] Within one year there were more than 1,700 members in 35 branches in West Africa.[12]

Wynetta Willis Martin[edit]

In 1970, Wynetta Willis Martin gained the distinction of being the first African-American member of the faculty at Brigham Young University. After being baptized she joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She accepted it as her personal mission to prove to the world that there were in fact African-American Mormons and that the Mormons were not racist. She toured with the choir for two years before accepting her appointment on the faculty at BYU. She was employed in the training of nurses and tried to help them become more culturally aware.[13] About the racial restriction policy, she said: "These two things: baptism and the Holy Ghost are the only requirements, contrary to popular belief, for entering the Celestial Kingdom and being with God for eternity if one is worthy. Therefore, the Priesthood covenants of the Temple which we are not allowed at this point are not really so crucial as popular belief dictates."[14]

Genesis Group[edit]

On October 19, 1971, the Genesis Group was established as an auxiliary unit to the church. Its purpose was to serve the needs of black members, including activating members and welcoming converts. It continues to meet on the first Sunday of each month in Utah. Don Harwell is the current president.[15] When asked about racism in the church, he said "Now, is the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints racist? No, never has been. But some of those people within the church have those tendencies. You have to separate the two."[16]

Joseph Freeman, Jr.[edit]

Joseph Freeman, Jr. was the first African American to receive the Melchizedek priesthood after the 1978 revelation.[17] Freeman was also the first black member ever to receive church temple ordinances.[18] On June 23, 1978, Freeman was sealed to his wife and five children in the Salt Lake Temple by then-apostle Thomas S. Monson.[17][18]

Helvécio Martins[edit]

Main article: Helvécio Martins

Helvécio Martins was the first person of African descent to be a general authority (a leadership position) of the church. Martins was born in Brazil to parents descended from African slaves. He had found success in his professional life but felt unfulfilled with the religious life he was pursuing. The missionaries visited his home in 1972 while he was going through a difficult spiritual crisis. The missionaries visited his home late one night and were worried about how to teach an African since the church had not yet reversed its policy. Indeed, Martins' first question upon inviting the missionaries into his home concerned the church's attitude toward race. The spiritual experiences that the Martins family had while investigating the church superseded their concerns for the racial policy of priesthood restriction, and they were baptized. They experienced much resistance from members of their extended family and former church friends, but eventually found peace with them. Martins served in his ward as a Sunday school teacher. He was not troubled by the priesthood restriction, but others were. Often, members of the ward would ask him how he could remain a member of the church without the priesthood. It was never an issue for him. He had resolved the issue in his own mind and never expected to receive the priesthood.

When the announcement came, he describes his reaction and that of his wife as unbelieving. It was something for which they had not dared to hope. Martins then served as a member of a stake presidency, as a bishop, a mission president, and finally as a seventy. His son was one of the first three people of black African descent to serve a full-time mission for the church in nearly 100 years.[19]

Growth in black membership[edit]

Dieter F. Uchtdorf visiting the Accra, Ghana LDS mission in 2007

The Church had an increase in membership upon repealing the ban [20] by experiencing rapid growth in predominately black communities while other mainstream sects have been losing members.[21] In the last 20 years, the church has been well received among middle-class African-Americans, and African American membership grew from minuscule before 1978 to an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 in 2005.[22] A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found that 3% of American Mormons were black.[23] African Americans accounted for 9% of all converts in the United States.[3] A 1998 survey by a Mormon and amateur sociologist, James W. Lucas, found that about 20 percent of Mormons in New York City were black.[24] Melvyn Hammarberg explained the growth: "There is a kind of changing face of the LDS Church because of its continuing commitment to work in the inner cities."[25] Sociology and Religious Studies Professor Armand Mauss says African Americans are particularly attracted by the focus on promoting healthy families. However, these numbers still only represent a fraction of total church membership in the United States, suggesting that African Americans remain comparatively hesitant to join, partly because of the church's past.[26] Still, Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, sees it as a sign that "People are getting past the stereotypes put on the church."[21] The revelation also helped pave the way for the church's exponential growth in areas like Africa and the Caribbean.[26] The church has been more successful among blacks outside the United States than inside, partly because there is less awareness of this past historic discrimination.[27] In 2005, the church had some 120,000 members in West Africa,[28] and two temples, the Aba Nigeria Temple and the Accra Ghana Temple.

Black people in church leadership[edit]

The church has never kept official records on the race of its membership, so exact numbers are unknown. No member of the two highest governing bodies, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, have ever been black. There have been several black members of the Quorums of the Seventy;[29] and, as of 2013, Brazilian Helvécio Martins (a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 1990 to 1995), Joseph W. Sitati (from Kenya) and Edward Dube (from Zimbabwe), both members of the First Quorum of the Seventy, have served as general authorities. There has never been a black member of the general presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, Young Men, or Sunday School. The first African member of the Relief Society general board[30] was chosen in 2003, and she shared her testimony at the general meeting of the Relief Society in September 2003.[31]

Mauss commented "As far as leadership is concerned, the role of the various minorities in Mormonism as a whole is not yet very great, but it is growing, and it is crucial in parts of the world outside the U.S."[22] Approximately 5% of church members have African ancestry (mostly in congregations in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean).[citation needed]

Notable black Mormons[edit]

Since her baptism in 1997, Gladys Knight has strived to raise awareness of black people in the LDS church.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ [1] quoting Deseret News 1999-2000 Church Almanac. Deseret News: Salt Lake City, UT (1998); pg. 119.
  2. ^ The Church Continues to Grow in Africa
  3. ^ a b Pond, Allison (2009-07-24), A Portrait of Mormons in the US, Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life 
  4. ^ Jerel Harris and Brian Passey, The History of Black Pioneers: Slaves, Free Blacks Among the First Utah Settlers
  5. ^ a b Embry 1994: 40-41.
  6. ^ Richard S. Van Wagoner; Steven C. Walker (1982), "Green Flake (1828-1903)", A Book of Mormons, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, ISBN 0-941214-06-0 
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ LeBaron, E. Dale, Church Pioneers in Africa LDS Living November 2001
  9. ^ LaMar Williams, interview by E. Dale LeBaron in Salt Lake City, February 12, 1988.
  10. ^ E. Dale LeBaron, "African Converts Without Baptism: A Unique and Inspiring Chapter in Church History", Marriott Center devotional address November 3, 1998
  11. ^ Larry Morris Obinna Brothers to the First Presidency LDS Living April 2007
  12. ^ Mabey and Allred, Brother to Brother, p. vii
  13. ^ Martin, 1972."
  14. ^ Martin 1972: 56, emphasis her own.
  15. ^ Genesis Group
  16. ^ Rosemary Winters, "Black Mormons Struggle for Acceptance in the Church", Salt Lake Tribune, November 4, 2004
  17. ^ a b Salt Lake Tribune, 1978-06-24.
  18. ^ a b "Mormonism Enters a New Era", Time, 1978-08-07.
  19. ^ Martins & Grover, 1994.
  20. ^ Gorski, Eric (2004-05-01). "LDS Church follows members to inner cities". The Denver Post (via The Salt Lake Tribune). Archived from the original on 2004-06-21-01.  Check date values in: |archivedate= (help)
  21. ^ a b Hurst, H. Allen (2005-12-23). "Black saints in a White church; Mormon Church grows in urban areas despite racist reputation". Baltimore Afro-American. 
  22. ^ a b Ramirez, Margaret (2005-07-26). "Mormon past steeped in racism: Some black members want church to denounce racist doctrines". Chicago Tribune. 
  23. ^ "Race by Religious Tradition" (PDF). Pew Research Center. 2007. 
  24. ^ Newman, Andy (2005-10-0). "For Mormons in Harlem, Bigger Space Beckons". New York Times.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  25. ^ Hill, Miriam (2005-12-10). "Mormons gain in inner cities". Philadelphia Inquirer. 
  26. ^ a b Shebeck, Amy. "Colorblind Faith". Chicago Reporter. 
  27. ^ Jordan, Mary (2007-11-30). "Mormonism spreading around the world". The Washington Post. 
  28. ^ Pres. Hinckley dedicates the Aba Nigeria Temple
  29. ^ For example, Elder Christopher Chukwurah, Elder Kapumba Kola and more.
  30. ^ Moore, Carrie A (2003-10-04). "Pair reflect LDS Nigerians' faith". Deseret News. 
  31. ^ "Testimonies: "Choose That Good Part"". Ensign. November 2003. 
  32. ^ About Alex Boyé | alexboye.com
  33. ^ SUV Choir
  34. ^ Testimonies | Blacklds.org
  35. ^ [3]
  36. ^ Deseret News, Aug. 23, 2010

References[edit]

Primary sources
  • Cherry, Alan Gerald (1985), Oral History Interview with Mary Lucille Bankhead, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah .
  • Cherry, Alan Gerald (1986), Oral History Interview with Gilmore H. Chapel, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah .
  • Cherry, Alan Gerald (1988), Oral History Interview with Cleolivia Lyons, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah .
  • Cherry, Alan Gerald (1970), It's You and Me, Lord!, Provo, Utah: Trilogy Arts Publications, OCLC 5039616 .
  • Martin, Wynetta Willis (1976) [1972], Black Mormon Tells Her Story (2nd ed ed.), Salt Lake City, Utah: Hawks Publications, ISBN 978-0-89036-023-1, OCLC 11749088 .
  • Martins, Helvecio; Grover, Mark (1994), The Autobiography of Elder Helvecio Martins, Salt Lake City, Utah: Aspen Books, ISBN 978-1-56236-218-8, OCLC 31288732 .
  • Phelps, Willian W. (July 1833), Free People of Color, Evening and Morning Star (W. W. Phelps & Co.) 2 (14): 109, retrieved 2006-07-15 .
  • Young, Brigham (February 5, 1852), Speech by Gov. Young in Joint Session of the Legeslature [sic], Brigham Young Addresses, Ms d 1234, Box 48, folder 3, LDS Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah .
  • Hawkins, Chester L. (1985), Report on Elijah Abel and his Priesthood, Unpublished Manuscript, Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah .
Secondary sources

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • black lds.org an independent (not owned or operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) site maintained by some black and some white Latter-day Saints.