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Tuesday, May 19, 1998

LDS Leaders Haven't Discussed Racial Disavowal


    Many Mormons and others in Utah were tantalized by a report Monday in The Salt Lake Tribune that LDS leaders are considering repudiating some early church statements that black skin is the biblical ``mark of Cain.''
    Arcane Mormon theology and the possibility of rejecting it was the talk of morning radio shows and the topic of Internet messages flying between Los Angeles, the East Coast and Salt Lake City, all fueled by the Los Angeles Times story.
    But the LDS Church's governing First Presidency, led by President Gordon B. Hinckley, quashed the suggestion later Monday, saying ``the matter . . . has not been discussed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.''
    The leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints simply reiterated that since the 1978 announcement granting its priesthood to all ``worthy'' males, ``millions of people of all races have embraced the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and are enjoying full blessings of membership in the church.''
    Indeed, any perceived racism has not seemed to slow the Mormon Church's growth in Africa, where 110,000 people have joined since 1978, or in other developing countries.
    The Times report, however, said only that the proposal to disavow these teachings, which link black skin color to curses from God recounted in Hebrew and Mormon Scriptures and to behavior in a pre-mortal existence, was ``under review by the church's Committee on Public Affairs,'' made up of LDS general authorities.
    Such a repudiation is necessary, the Times quoted Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss as saying, because in the absence of ``any official corrections, these speculative and pejorative ideas will continue to be perpetuated in the church indefinitely.''
    Such ideas can be found in several important books that are ``not only still in print but remain in considerable demand among the Saints,'' Mauss will say in his address to the Mormon History Association in Washington, D.C., this weekend. His subject: ``In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race.''
    Brigham Young University English Professor Eugene England seconds Mauss' concerns about continuing racist beliefs among LDS folk.
    In a March speech in Los Angeles, England said he periodically surveys his BYU classes and finds that ``a majority of bright, well-educated Mormon students'' continue to believe the blacks-are-cursed theories.
    ``They tell me these ideas came from their parents or seminary and Sunday school teachers, and they have never questioned them,'' he said. ``They seem largely untroubled by the implicit contradiction to basic gospel teachings.''
    Church founder Joseph Smith, in fact, ordained a black man into the church's all-male priesthood in the 1840s and insisted that blacks were not inferior to whites.
    However, under Brigham Young, the church's second president, blacks were denied the Mormon priesthood and could not participate in sacred temple ceremonies. Although there is no specific reference in Mormon scripture as to why, Young and other Mormon officials -- along with many other church leaders at the time -- publicly theorized it had to do with the biblical curse of Cain, Adam and Eve's son, who murdered his brother Abel.
    Mormon theology includes another reason: Blacks on Earth were cursed with a dark skin for having failed in a heavenly pre-existence to fight with God in a battle with the devil.
    While that changed in 1978, when President Spencer Kimball announced his revelation opening the priesthood to all worthy males, ``It is the linkage to Cain that so distresses Mormon African-Americans today,'' the Times quoted a paper written by Irvine, Calif., attorney Dennis Gladwell.
    But in April, Hinckley became the first LDS Church president to speak to a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and assured participants that the Mormon faith embraces people of all races.
    Lester Bush, a Maryland physician, wrote the definitive history of the LDS Church's black policies and doctrine in 1973. At the Mormon History Association meeting, Bush will revisit the experience of writing the history.
    ``Can we not now acknowledge what the old genealogical assumptions actually were -- concepts imported into mainstream Mormon thought from 19th-century science and contemporary Protestant theology,'' Bush wrote in a paper to be delivered in Washington.
    ``It is past time to quietly admit this, and get the assertion out of ostensibly authoritative doctrinal texts,'' Bush wrote. Mormon leaders have ``thrown out the baby but kept the bath water. We don't need this water anymore.'' [an error occurred while processing this directive]