Tag Archives: racism

Some Standard Wisdom for Hiring Help

Continuing with the amusing theme of anti-Irish racism picked up in the Deseret News, this week’s tidbit from the Christian Standard has it all: racial, class, and religious chauvinism.

The people who need house servants find the Chinese more serviceable than any others they employ, and they have relieved them from the tyranny of the Irish girls. Mr. James Redpath says, “The real secret of this outcry against the Chinese is that the Catholic Church can no longer levy a tax on every Protestant family on $5 a month, which used to be added to the Irish girl’s wages; and the Irish girls openly avow it.”

The world has changed so much. Whereas once Americans advocated switching to Chinese domestic labor, now Americans are content to let the Chinese stay in their own country and do American labor (all the while, of course, complaining that no labor is domestic anymore).

Tagged , , ,

Good Ol’ Fashioned Racist Humor

Reports the Deseret News, December 26, 1855:

An Irishman, on arriving in America, took a fancy to the Yankee girls and wrote to his wife as follows: “Dear Norah–These few lines are to inform you that I died yesterday and I hope you are enjoying the same blessing. I recommend you to marry Jemmy O’Rourke, and take good care of the children. From your affectionate husband till death.”

Those Irishmen. Scamps, every last one of them.

Tagged , , , ,

Some Standard Wisdom for Converting Blacks

Less than a month into this series, I already feel the need to sound the reminder that in quoting some of these articles, my intent is not to endorse or make light of or even to stand in judgment of some of the darker sides of late nineteenth century thought. This warrants particular restatement with the following article by J. W. Crenshaw. It would be easy to read the below and assume either that my intent is racist or callous or anarchonistically judgmental. It is none of these. Instead, the following article sounds, among other things, a pair of themes that I have tried to reiterate here in various ways. The first is the need to complicate the narrative of the Civil War that we all learned in school: the North invaded the South to free the slaves and give blacks their rights. Historians have almost entirely abandoned this carefully constructed fiction, but the public still casts the Civil War in these terms, failing to see the stark racism and paternalism that dominated in the North no less than the South. The other is the sinister overtones that education often takes on in the hands of progressives. It’s a message that has ongoing merit.

Even if neither of these themes were present, however, the following is important to read both for those in the Stone-Campbell Movement because it is part of our collective history the consequences of which we continue to live with in the de facto racial segregation of our churches and for Americans in general who need to be forced to read chapters of our history which serve neither to glorify US nationalism or to provide the starting point in a narrative of national redemption. What follows in “Difficulties in Christianizing the Colored Race” is precisely the shades of grey that we all need to grapple with in the formation of our historical consciousness.

As to what the future of the colored race of America is to be, socially, politically or religiously, we do not believe any one can conjecture with any degree of accuracy. Naturally superstitious and with their race prejudices to contend with, we approach them more from a sense of Christian duty than from any hope of achieving grand results. To succeed in our mission work among them we must agree upon some decided policy. If properly approached, we do not believe that there is a better missionary field in the world.

Experience has proven that we can not reach them through the preaching of white men. The colored leaders now, excepting a few, are ignorant and superstitious. In what direction, then, does hope lie? Certainly not in this shouting generation. The hope and the only hope, speaking from experience, is in the children. And when we educate a few colored men, as we have been doing for this work, we must not measure their success by converts made. The children, who are just learning to read, are the ones most benefited. Those whom we send out must be impressed with the importance of continuing to sound into the ears of the auditors that Christianity is something more than shouting the clothes off in the first part of the night, and serving Satan the balance of the night. We need to select young men of good character to educate them for this work. There are brethren among us who have the means to help build such a school as we need for this purpose. With the plain gospel plea that we have, if loving liberal hearts, could be interested in this work, in the next generation many of the difficulties that now so hinder our progress could be surmounted, and thousands of this unfortunate race could be Christianized.

Brethren, this is a question worthy of the attention of every Christian.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Denying the Holocaust: Albany Teacher Suspended for Teaching Nazism

The Nazis are stealing your children!

The Nazis are stealing your children!

Nazis are bad. I learned that lesson in high school like everyone else, though, let’s be honest, we all knew that Nazis were bad before we ever made it to high school. Nevertheless, that is the lesson I was taught. Nothing more; nothing less. At Albany High School in New York, one teacher tried to take this lesson a little further in three sophomore English classes:

As part of the 10th grade English persuasive writing assignment, the Albany High students were asked to pretend their teacher is a Nazi government official who must be convinced they believe Jews are the source of Germany’s problems: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

The teacher is on leave, facing possible termination, because school officials and government leaders were appalled. Said Superintendent Vanden Wyngaard, “You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that’s my struggle. It’s an illogical leap for a student to make.” Said New York City Councilmen David Greenfield, “The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs.” Said Director of the Jewish Federation Shelly Shapiro “It’s not how you teach about how prejudice has led to genocide.”

Well it certainly was not how I was taught that prejudice led to genocide. I learned, “Prejudice leads to genocide. It happened with the Nazis. So don’t be prejudiced like the Nazis.” And that was it. Something tells me that Shapiro is short-selling the pedagogical value of what is happening here. These students, in addition to learning a valuable lesson in English (because no creative writer has only had to write the perspective of laudable characters with whom everyone agrees), would take away from this assignment a powerful and deep understanding of not merely the tired truism that “prejudice has led to genocide” but an experience of precisely how it led to genocide. It teaches the student, in the most basic way, what it was to be a civilian in Nazi Germany, under a government that flooded the intellectual marketplace with antisemitic propaganda and expected you to learn a new cultural script to mirror it. The applications extend far beyond merely a better grasp of the history of 1930s Germany to a life lesson in the way propaganda continues to be employed and continues to shape the thinking of citizens around the world. Some clever honors student might even have concluded that the consumption of media in contemporary America might be shaping his or her thought in similar ways.

Renowned scholar of religion and American culture Stephen Prothero draws much the same conclusion:

I think it’s Greenfield who is lacking in common sense here. And it’s the superintendent who is being illogical.

I suppose it is possible that the teacher is a closet Nazi attempting to reconstruct the Third Reich in Albany. But isn’t it more likely that he or she is trying to teach students about the dangers of propaganda and the horrors of the Holocaust?

Consider the student who felt “horrible” about doing this assignment. Is that really a bad thing? How are high school students today supposed to feel about Nazism and the Holocaust?

Apparently, what they are supposed to feel (and think) is nothing, because the lesson high school teachers are going to take away from this fiasco is to avoid this topic at all costs, lest they risk losing their jobs.

Prothero points to a further dimension of “this fiasco,” the special place of the Holocaust in the American imagination. Historian John Fea has pointed out that if the principles espoused here to teaching the Holocaust were universally applied, teachers could no longer teach the thinking of Puritans who killed witches, settlers who killed Native Americans, southerners who kept slaves, nativist who oppressed Catholic immigrants, etc. What a moralistic history we are left with! And an incomplete history at that, a half history. Of course, no one would ever suggest hamstringing historians on those topics because they are not blessed by the kind of special pleading that surrounds the Holocaust. There is no villain like Hitler, no enormity like the Holocaust, and no racism like antisemitism. That, in the end, is the kind of lesson we were taught by the two-dimensional treatment of Nazism in school. No depth, no perspective, because the history of Nazism is alone a truly simple matter in history. It is a lesson against thinking for most students, and it is a tragedy that this teacher should suffer for bringing thought–in the form of an entertaining thought experiment the like of which I never enjoyed in high school or college–back into the subject of Nazism.

I hope the teacher is reinstated, because termination over something so ridiculous is unthinkable. I also hope the teacher is fired, because to take any punishment, even a slap on the wrist, and then return willingly to that environment of educational repression strikes me as a tacit admission that the teacher actually did something wrong. Of course, the teacher is probably sitting at home now worrying about paying bills, working long enough to retire some day, and coping with social ostracism. So what I really hope is that whatever the teacher wants happens. It’s a shame that it had to go this far.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press

Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Caroline Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The time of the early nineteenth century as the period of change is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman’s work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman’s more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

A Lesson in Political Speech from Sinclair Lewis

The following is a passage from Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry in which the Reverend Elmer Gantry contemplates the KKK and what stance to take on them publicly. With characteristic wit, Lewis gives the reader a picture of the vacuity of the vast majority of public discourse. Whoever can read the following without hearing the clear echos of our current political partisans either hasn’t been paying attention (lucky them) or does not have “ears to hear.”

The new Ku Klux Klan, an organization of the fathers, younger brothers, and employees of the men who had succeeded and became Rotarians, had just become a political difficulty. Many of the most worthy Methodist and Baptist clergymen supported it and were supported by it; and personally Elmer admired its principle–to keep all foreigners, Jews, Catholics, and negroes in their place, which was no place at all, and let the country be led by native Protestants, like Elmer Gantry.

But he perceived that in the cities there were prominent people, nice people, rich people, even among the Methodists and Baptists, who felt that a man could be a Jew and still an American citizen. It seemed to him more truly American, also a lot safer, to avoid the problem. So everywhere he took a message of reconciliation to the effect:

“Regarding religious, political, and social organizations, I defend the right of every man in our free America to organize with his fellows when and as he pleases, for any purpose he pleases, but I also defend the right of any other free American citizen to demand that such an organization shall not dictate his mode of thought or, so long as it be moral, his mode of conduct.”

That pleased both the K. K. K. and the opponents of the K. K. K., and everybody admired Elmer’s powers of thought.

[emphasis added]

Tagged , , , , , ,

A Change of Perspective

Africa's Discovery of EuropeIt has been a long time, a very long time, since I have been excited about reading a history text outside my field of academic specialty, but a brief description of David Northrup‘s Africa’s Discovery of Europe (2nd ed) was more than enough to arouse my interest. In this concise but engaging study, Northrup attempts to dissect the Afro-European encounter of the pre-colonial era from the perspective of the Africans. The approach doesn’t seem all that novel on its face, until you really begin to consider just how euro-centric our perceptions of the “discovery” of Africa are. It doesn’t take long before Northrup begins to turn standard wisdom on its head, forcing the reader to reconsider what idiosyncratic ideologies, politics, and historiographies have motivated the retelling of this history up to this point. The final result is a more fully rounded, realistic picture of Afro-European relations, one that is not dominated by the historiography of racial guilt but which privileges the historical recordings of actual Africans to European assumptions about what Africans must have been doing, feeling, and thinking.

The only real drawback in his exciting new approach is that Northrup has a frustrating habit of hedging his bets, an unfortunate necessity in an academic climate where the fear of political intrusion with its standard accusation of racism has taken on far too much weight. It is so obvious that it ought not need restating that the experience of Africans in the Americas was dominated for centuries by overwhelming racial prejudices. This fact notwithstanding, we ought to have the intellectual fortitude to let the evidence decide what the experience of Africans in Europe was or, for that matter, that of Africans in Africa encountering Europeans. The regular reminders by Northrup that his facts may be tainted, biased, skewed, or corrupted eventually begin to come across as defensive and indecisive, even if he follows these caveats with assurances that he is confident in his rendering. It is not for the historian to remind us that historical records are not scientific data which can be analyzed like so many particles under a microscope.

Nevertheless, Northrup’s text is deeply challenging and, because of this, immensely satisfying. He takes direct aim at the popular notion of the African encounter as one between the exploitative light-skinned pillagers and the poor, dark, benighted villagers. He points out that war, plundering, and the slave trade all antedated the Africans first encounters with the European. Taking specific aim at the politicized notion of a European-induced cycle of selling slaves to get guns to capture more slaves, Northrup even cites explicit statements from African rulers that capturing slaves is a centuries old part of African culture (as it was in European culture) and that he never goes to war simply to take slaves. The guns, Northrup points out, that so fascinated the Africans, actually did very little to give any one combatant a decisive advantage in war, making such a cycle unlikely if not impossible. Northrup also debunks the notion that European trade somehow destroyed native craftsmanship. He combats blanket assumptions of racism, showing cases where Africans were encouraged to marry white Christian woman rather than black pagan ones and numerous cases in which Africans in Europe translated a lionizing of their skin color into educational, political, and social opportunities.

What remains then is a less stylized and more human picture of the Afro-European encounter. Contrary to prevailing notions, Africans and Europeans entered into mutually beneficial economic, social, and political relationships which made many on both sides extremely wealthy at the expense of the lower classes (an economic circumstance which has always dominated history). Africans and Europeans mingled and even intermarried at almost every level of society with restrictions of class and religion being infinitely more important than those of race. Of the many successful and long-lasting conversions to Christianity, those which were in any sense forced were the exception rather than the rule, and most accounts by actual Africans represent the choice of Christianity as a conviction of faith that they embraced rather than a decision of expediency. (Interestingly, Northrup points out as a historian what many theologians and ministers have been realizing for some time now, that the metaphysical world of tribal Africa is on many of its most important levels, compatible with Christianity.) Local artisans continued to create local crafts, local peoples continued to embrace local customs, and even “westernized” Africans remained acutely aware of their cultural heritage and those features of it which were non-negotiable just to suit their fascination with the technological and cultural advances of the West.

This is, of course, not to say that everything was rainbows and roses. Africans made war on Africans; Africans made war on Europeans; Europeans made war on Africans. Slaves were taken by Africans to be kept, to be sold to other Africans, or to be sold to Europeans (who would in turn typically resell them). Slaves ships, while probably not most accurately represented in the polemical accounts of the abolitionists, did have a one in eight mortality rate, with the cause of death ranging from disease, dehydration, capital punishment, and, all too often, suicide. However muted the inter-cultural animosity among Europeans and Africans was, it is an inescapable fact that many Africans ended up in the Americas where conditions were brutal and racism rampant, and, before long, European colonialism would irrevocably change the dynamic between the cultures.

Nevertheless, what Northrup offers is an account that steps away from using history in the ongoing blame-game and instead engages the accounts on their own terms. He admits that his credulity in reading some of the accounts will strike some historians as naive, but–and I cannot stress my agreement with him here too strongly–the alternative method of assuming a certain narrative and then discounting accounts which deviate from it is infinitely more suspect. What Northrup does instead is challenge the reader to take Africans at their word rather than assuming to speak for them, which seems to me to be a more pernicious form of racism anyway. The final product then is not only a great work of history covering a specific subject in a specific time period but also a convicting challenge to be wary of our inevitable and natural inclination to assume that history exists only in our default perspective of it.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Genovese on the Difference Between North and South

Here are an interesting pair of quotes from Eugene Genovese on the historic and enduring differences between the culture of the American North and the American South. They probably each warrant entries of their own with attendant commentary, but–as is the case with other great thinkers, like David Bentley Hart–I find that Genovese’s thought is often more compelling when allowed to simply speak in an annotative void:

There nonetheless remains a fundamental difference between northern and southern versions of religious tolerance. In the North people are wont to say, “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship him in ours.” This delightful formulation says, in effect, that since religion is of little consequence anyway, why argue? In contrast, the southern version, well expressed in an old joke, says: “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship him in His.” From the early days of the Republic, when the Baptists led the fight for religious freedom and the separation of church and state, white southerners have done rather well in living together with mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s religious views. Always reminding themselves of human frailty, they are perfectly tolerant of some damned fool’s right to choose eternal damnation. But they are not about to pretend that they regard another’s religion as intrinsically equal to their own.

“Prejudice,” like “discrimination” and “tradition,” is a positive word in the southern lexicon, much as it is a dirty word in the liberal lexicon that prevails in academia…It rests upon a belief in an omnipotent God who necessarily can only be approached through a faith that requires community-grounded prejudices and apparently nonscientific modes of discrimination. This viewpoint warns against the unforeseen and often destructive results of social experiments that derive from an appeal to abstract reason—in effect, to ideological constructs. We might recall, for example, that “reason” in the guise of the most advanced scientific thought contributed to the pernicious triumph of racist thought in the nineteenth century. The religiously orthodox Old South, in contradistinction to the religiously liberal Northeast, stood on its prejudice in favor of a literal reading of the Bible’s account of the monogenesis of the human race and rejected scientific racism. Generally, this view of prejudice says that a community’s historically developed sense of right and wrong should be permitted to defy the latest fashions in reasoned speculation until they are empirically established.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Orthodox Teased with The Promise of Union

The issue of jurisdictional unity in America is a hot button issue in certain circles. Even though I don’t run in those circles, it is something of a pet issue of mine as well. Once upon a time, when I was but a wee lad, my interest in Orthodoxy was piqued through correspondence with a priest of the Orthodox Church in America. He expressed his disappointment, even shame, that there were ongoing divisions (albeit primarily administrative ones) among the various ethnic Orthodox churches in the United States. He admitted, with candor and sincerity, that it was one of the greatest barriers to growth and evangelism for the Orthodox in the States. I have since asked several more priests to explain it–typically in more public venues and under the guise of genuine ignorance. Their tendency has been to brush off the issue as inconsequential.

The Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople (1872) didn’t see it that way. In fact, it condemned ethno-centrism, or “phyletism,” as a heresy. Churches should not, cannot (ideally), cannot be divided or organized along ethnic lines within a single jurisdiction. It amounts to nationalistic idolatry and racial discrimination. Yet, 140 years after the Constantinople decision and fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement initiated the downfall of racial segregation in America, the churches in the United States are still divided on ethnic lines, with Greek, Antiochine, and Ethiopic congregations all coexisting in the same jurisdictions, at times even occupying the same city.

Now, after decades of trying to sort out the problem, it appears there may be some hope:

On orders from patriarchs in Constantinople, Russia, Serbia and elsewhere, all Orthodox bishops in this country are working on a plan for one American Church.

The patriarchs say they want to approve such a plan at a yet-unscheduled Great and Holy Council of global Orthodoxy. The last such council was in A.D. 787. In 2010, 66 American bishops formed the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, to devise the plan.

“This has great potential,” said Bishop Melchisedek of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the Orthodox Church in America, which is self-governing but has Russian roots. He cited existing differences on matters such as divorce or re-baptism of converts.

“The canon law of the church allows for only one bishop of a city, but here in Pittsburgh we have four. It’s a situation that can create unnecessary conflict. Now we have the potential for the church to speak with one voice.”

…There are now 13 Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, with 800,000 members. The Pittsburgh region is a stronghold, with perhaps 25,000 adherents.

In 1994, when all of the Orthodox bishops in the Americas gathered near Ligonier and called for unity, the ecumenical patriarch accused them of rebellion.

“When we started this work 20 years ago it was anathema to talk about the possibility of administrative unity. Now we’re not only talking about it, but hopefully the hierarchs will be looking at what is necessary to accomplish it,” said Charles Ajalat, a retired lawyer from Southern California, chairman of the pan-Orthodox social service agency FOCUS.

Of course, the Orthodox have made noise about unity before and to no avail. The best anyone can hope to do is wait and see if a centuries old bureaucracy can be nimble enough to respond to the troubles of the twenty-first century. I’m hopeful. After all, the Patriarch of Russia knows how to use Photoshop. Will wonders never cease?

Tagged , , , ,

Mormons Grapple with Sacred History

All my life I have never heard of anything but progress in the growth of the Mormon faith. With Mormon friends in my youth, I accumulated scores of anecdotal evidence about the triumphs of Mormon missionaries (though I never became remotely convinced of the truth of their message). This perception was reinforced as an undergraduate studying under, and eventually working under, a specialist in religious statistics. Mormons are one of the largest religious groups in America, and however much my professor qualified the statistics with references to natural growth, no one denied that aggressive evangelism and a certain social appeal of the religion were major contributing factors. Some time ago, however, an article awoke me to the fact that whatever may be said about the continuing growth of Mormonism, there is also a substantial amount of disaffection. There has been a sharp rise in “apostasy” in the last ten years, and a recent survey suggests that 39% of those leaving cite church history as the primary reason for losing faith, 84% at least a strong or moderate factor.

Mormons, like Christians, have a strong sense of sacred history. One of the peculiarities of the Mormon history, however, is that it includes a rejection of the standard Christian retelling of history in favor of a latter day reinterpretation. It is grounded in the belief that the initial revelation on which the church was founded was incomplete and open to misinterpretation by subsequent Christians. The result is a period of profane history between Christ and Joseph Smith before the narrative is once again picked up and purified. “Put another way,” in the words of Hughes and Allen, “early Mormons, by rooting themselves int he primal past, simply removed themselves from history and the historical process and claimed instead that they had sprung full blown from the creative hands of God. In April of 1830, they said, their prophet had restored to earth the ancient church with all its gifts, miracles, and visions.” The problem which arises from this is that, in the cold light of day, it is easy for Mormons to look at the supposedly restored, ancient church–born as it was directly form the mind of the divine–and to become disenchanted with what they see.
The article mentions the rather conspicuous blots of polygamy–which was undeniably abandoned not out of religious conviction but political expediency in the Utah statehood process–and racism–particularly the ban on people of “African descent” participating in sacred rites or ordination which was not lifted until the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. These deserve scrutiny, given that the Mormon faith is rooted in the more perfect revelation of God given to its leaders in the nineteenth century. If this revelation really was intended to correct and redeem Christianity out of its flawed state, why were so many of the special beneficiaries of God’s revelation so utterly misguided? Why did Joseph Smith and Brigham Young endorse polygamy? Why did their racial attitudes seem to reflect the lowest common cultural denominator rather than an eternal God? Most importantly, why were both these issues reformed under the guise of “new revelation” at moments in history when it was most politically expedient to do so?

There are of course other issues from a historical perspective. Early apostates give an interesting alternate account of the beginnings of the faith, particularly those who were supposed eye witnesses to the first miraculous underpinnings of the movement. There is also, of course, the wealth of outlandish mythology which dominates Mormon narrative, made all the more difficult to accept because it lacks the antiquity and alien culture of traditional Jewish and Christian myth (whether they are factual or not). Consider also the driving belief among early Mormons that the absence of abundant charismatic gifts (e.g. healings, visions, prophecies)–now muted in the contemporary church–indicated the absence of divine approbation. The list could, obviously, go on.

Nevertheless, the purpose here is not to try to convert Mormons–mostly because I doubt many are reading this. Instead, it is to highlight the peculiar problem which history ought to (and apparently does) pose for Mormons. The strong root of the faith in corrective revelation makes the historical stumblings (which is a grossly inadequate euphemism for a century of institutional racism) of the religion that much harder to reconcile with. After all, it is easy for me to distance myself from the Crusades or the Inquisition (grossly misunderstood as both are by uninformed modern critics) or, more to the point, “Christian” defenses of slavery in the antebellum South. God did not inspire those events, and I can specifically point to the authoritative text which joins me in my condemnation of them. Mormon history is not so easily dispensed with. The gross errors are those of the authoritative actors themselves operating within a normative, sacred history. Their best defense has been to duck behind a progressive revelation which declares polygamy, for example, appropriate for one time and inappropriate for another. Except I think we all know intuitively that racism was never appropriate for any time. Apparently, there are Mormons coming face-to-face with their own history and finding that they know that intuitively as well.

Tagged , , ,