By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 1998; Page B09
A panel of five African Americans surprised members of the Mormon History Association in Washington last weekend by arguing against an effort to force an apology from Mormon leaders for the church's former racist doctrines -- an effort, the panel said, that would be a "detriment" to church work and a catalyst to further racial misunderstanding.
"There is no pleasure in old news, and this news is old," Bryan E. Powell, a mortgage broker from Suitland, said in response to a paper urging the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to rid itself of "an unresolved legacy of the nineteenth century."
The legacy, recounted in a 45-minute presentation at the association's annual meeting, was a onetime belief that blacks were spiritually inferior to whites and should be excluded from priesthood, a position achieved by most Mormon men. Mormonism has no paid clergy and relies on a laity with broad-based powers to lead worship and perform such sacraments as baptisms, ordinations and infant blessings.
"What the brother read here is a detriment to my race and to my church," said Theodore Newkirk Jr., a "high priest" of the church and first president of the recently organized Capitol Hill Branch. "We must put an end to this information fast."
Like other denominations, Mormonism -- organized in 1830 -- once taught that blacks were descendants of Cain, Adam and Eve's son who was banished after murdering his brother Abel, and of Ham, Noah's son who broke a taboo when he looked at the nude body of his drunken father. In what became known as the "curse of Ham," Noah condemned to slavery the descendants of Ham's son Canaan.
Mormon theology added the belief that blacks embodied spirits that had fought on God's side in a celestial battle of Good vs. Evil but had performed "less valiantly."
Powell said that the church, which has about 48,000 Washington area members, rejected its earlier teachings on race two decades ago, when leaders proclaimed that "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."
But as the June 6 anniversary of that proclamation approaches, some white and black Mormons have pressed for an outright admission that past teachings on race were erroneous.
Tensions increased last week after an unnamed source leaked documents to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that "key leaders" at the church's Salt Lake City headquarters were debating a proposal on whether to publicly disavow the church's earlier teachings on race. The office of President Gordon Hinckley, whom Mormons consider a prophet, released a statement denying that he and his counselors are considering such a proposal.
"Since the 1978 revelation granting the priesthood to all worthy males, millions of people of all races have embraced the restored gospel of Jesus Christ," the statement said. "[That] declaration continues to speak for itself."
But Armand L. Mauss, a sociologist from Pullman, Wash., who is president of the Mormon History Association, said in an interview that he has talked with dozens of black Mormons who believe that some Mormon leaders and laity still view blacks as inferior.
Mauss said that some of the teachings did not originate with Mormons but with the Protestant groups from which Mormons converted. "Every major Protestant denomination in history has taught that blacks are descendants of Cain and Ham," he said.
Yet teachings that "died a natural death" over time among Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others, he said, have lingered in Mormonism as indicated by books published as recently as 10 years ago.
"The only way to neutralize what's out there is a public repudiation" of earlier doctrines, said Mauss, who is white.
Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College, agreed in a telephone interview with most of Mauss's assessment. "All white denominations" at some time have used the curse of Ham to justify slavery or racist attitudes, Mamiya said. "It's not so much that it was officially preached but that it existed in the culture."
This "mythology has never really disappeared," Mamiya said. It resurfaced during the unrest of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and "is still alive today, particularly among many fundamentalist groups."
Mormon arguments over race come at a time when church membership is blossoming in Africa and other developing areas that have predominantly nonwhite populations. Spokesman Don LeFevre said the 10 million-member church does not identify members by race and has no idea of the racial breakdown of its constituency.
In February, Hinckley completed a six-day tour of Africa, where the church has 112,000 members in 32 countries -- most of whom have joined since 1978, LeFevre said. More recently, Hinckley addressed a regional conference of the NAACP -- a first for a Mormon leader.
But last weekend's panelists, meeting at the Washington Marriott, said some issues are better left alone, including trying to squeeze an apology from the church hierarchy. "I would like to erase the past 200 years of racism in this country, but no, I can't do it," Powell said, adding that he had a personal revelation of the church's validity when he converted in 1993. "Regardless of past policy, this is a true church."
Gladys Newkirk, Theodore's wife and a pharmaceutical representative from Suitland, said she has seen numerous cases of the church helping unemployed African Americans find and keep jobs since she joined 10 years ago.
As an African American, "I've never experienced any problems in this church," she said. "I don't need an apology. . . . We're the result of an apology."
Cleeretta Smiley, a doctor of holistic medicine in Kensington and a Mormon since 1975, three years before the church's race declaration, was the only panelist to directly address the church's old teachings on race, calling them "damnable heresies." But she said that any generation of believers is capable of "misinterpretations" of scripture and revelation and agreed that it's time to put the matter to rest.
"We are all speaking from our hearts," she said.
Gregory Prince, a medical researcher in Rockville who helped plan the four-day conference, said he gave the panel no guidelines other than to speak about their experiences in the church. He looked perplexed when asked after the session about the panel's position on the question of retracting old doctrines.
"I was surprised at how strongly they articulated their feelings," said Prince, who read a paper by Lester Bush, a longtime advocate of racial equality in the church who was unable to attend. Theirs, he said, is "one voice we need to listen to." [an error occurred while processing this directive]