This daily feature is an introduction to a full book review by Russell W. Stevenson. To read the full text of this review, follow the link below.
Mormonism’s fraught relationship with American and global racial diversity remains for many observers and believers one of the religion’s most troubling aspects. The most perplexing aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ historically racialist policies was overturned in 1978 when the Church leadership granted priesthood ordination to all worthy men regardless of color or racial background, and allowed all qualifying members, without respect to race, to enter its temples. Yet the Church and its members continue to wrestle with the legacy of those policies and the flotilla of race based theological pronouncements assembled and deployed particularly during the religion’s first century-and-a-half. Recent decades have witnessed the consistent output of outstanding and truly significant scholarship on Mormonism and race, mostly but not exclusively focusing on the black-white divide. In late 2015, the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah convened a major conference examining the “evolving status of black Saints within the Mormon fold.” For its part, the LDS Church has recently published an official online essay denouncing racism of any form and repudiating past theories taught in the Church to support racialist policies.3 Furthermore, in its ubiquitous “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, the Church has gone to pains to demonstrate—and perhaps exaggerate—the degree to which it has become a racially and ethnically inclusive body of Saints.
Two significant additions to this ongoing conversation are Russell Stevenson’s book For the Cause of Righteousness and Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color. Both award-winning authors, Stevenson is currently a doctoral student in African history at Michigan State University, and Reeve is a professor of history at the University of Utah. Although their books deal with the relationship of Mormonism and race and overlap in certain key respects—notably coverage of the origins and impact of the LDS priesthood-temple ban—in fact the two books are as different as they are similar. Stevenson offers a mostly linear history of LDS racial policies and how blacks who came to believe in Mormonism’s precepts, both in the United States and beyond, sought to navigate the biases of the institution, its leaders, and members. Reeve goes beyond the more traditional narrative of Mormons’ views of racial minorities (especially blacks and Native Americans) to consider how those racial beliefs were constructed as a dialectic alongside the racialization of Mormons by non-LDS outsiders, particularly in the nineteenth century. In its sophisticated conversation with whiteness theory and the history of American race relations, Reeve’s book is the more innovative and theoretically ambitious of the two, though both have important merits.