Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism, by Newell G. Bringhurst, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2018)
Saints, Slaves, and Blacks draws on historical and scriptural sources to examine the history of Latter-day Saint thought regarding blacks. Author Newell Bringhurst notes that when the first edition of the book was published in 1981, “it attracted limited notice both within and outside the Mormon community.” Bringhust chalks the oversight up to bad timing—it was published just three years after the 1978 revelation lifting the priesthood ban, when “Mormons of all stripes” were “anxious to move on, focused on embracing their black brethren and sisters as ecclesiastical equals while ignoring the Church’s recently abandoned practice of black priesthood denial and prohibition on African-American entry into the temple” (xvi). Because of the book’s relatively limited circulation, this second edition is intended to make Bringhurst’s groundbreaking work available to wider audiences and introduce it to a new generation of readers.
The book is divided into nine chapters, which trace chronologically the place of blacks within the Church and its culture from 1820 to 1980, covering such topics as slavery, abolition, the priesthood denial, and civil rights. This new edition is largely unchanged from the first, with only minor adjustments made such as spelling corrections, repagination, reformatting, and an updated bibliographic essay. The book also includes a new preface from the author outlining the history of his creation of the book and its role within contemporary studies of race and the Latter-day Saint religion. Also added is a new foreword by Edward J. Blum and two postscripts by, respectively, Paul Reeve and Darron T. Smith—two scholars of race and Latter-day Saint religion.
Given the timing of the first edition and the book’s own focus (at least four of the nine chapters, plus an epilogue, deal directly with the priesthood denial), those who read the book in 1981 “primarily viewed it in terms of the 1978 ending of the priesthood ban on black men” (ix). It is fitting then that the book was reissued in the same year as the fortieth anniversary of the revelation that lifted the ban.
In addition to commemorating the anniversary of this historic moment, the new edition of this book is relevant for other reasons. Despite the passing of almost forty years, issues of race in America and religion are as salient and relevant today as they were then. As one of the first book-length studies of blacks in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this study, according to Blum, was “ahead of its time” (ix). With this book, for example, and “its central thesis that the ban emerged largely as the byproduct of Mormon ethnic whiteness” (xvi), Bringhust articulates a theory of “whiteness,” a topic and analytical approach that has since become a major focus in critical race studies. And Bringhurst’s commentary holds particular currency within contemporary academic conversations of blacks within the Latter-day Saint faith. Indeed, its thesis of a “Mormon whiteness” has been reiterated in several studies of the last decades, including in the recent publications Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness by W. Paul Reeve and Race and the Making of the Mormon People by Max Perry Mueller.
As Blum notes, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks “is a book to mind and to mine” (ix), and it will be of value to any person interested in such broad topics as American religious history and the history of race in America and in religious thought. But the book will be of most interest to Latter-day Saints who wish for a deep dive into the changing status of blacks in the Church and the culture surrounding the religion.