Joanna Brooks’ Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence (Oxford University Press, 2020) has given me new ways to think about Steven Epperson’s review of McConkie’s and Millet’s book Our Destiny and BYU’s subsequent investigation and decision to fire him. “This book,” Brooks tells readers with her first sentence, “seeks to instigate soul-searching—academic, institutional, and personal—on the matter of how American Christianity has contributed to white supremacy.” With its historical priesthood ban for supposed black-skinned descendants of Cain, Mormonism provides a disturbing case history. The story grows most interesting for me when Brooks addresses the official silence on the issue after the 1978 revelation that extended the priesthood to Black men, a troubling unwillingness to wrestle with a racist past. “To maintain control over the narrative,” she writes, “the institutional LDS Church and Mormon culture repressed internal critique and dissent. In place of critical self-examination, the LDS Church has used multiculturalism, rhetorical evasion, and duplicity to manage the legacy of Mormon anti-Black racism without taking responsibility for it.”
Steven’s review took up the responsibility his leaders were shirking. “Is it possible,” he asked, “just when the LDS community is emerging from ethnic, linguistic, and geographical parochialism to become a world-wide religion, that Our Destiny would unwittingly turn us back?” The question was doubly potent given the status of the authors and of the press that published the book (Deseret Book, as I write, still offers an eBook version of Our Destiny for sale). BYU Professor of Religion and author of more than two dozen books, Joseph Fielding McConkie, was the son of apostle Bruce McConkie and of the daughter of President Joseph Fielding Smith. Robert Millet was Dean of Religious Education at BYU and author of a series of books that eventually numbered more than sixty.
That Mormon writers would claim literal blood descent from Abraham earned by valiance in pre-mortal life and giving them rights to the priesthood and thus prospects of hierarchical advantages in the next life is not surprising. Such racist claims had been made by many Church leaders since Brigham Young, including Joseph McConkie’s father-in-law Joseph Fielding Smith, whose book The Way to Perfection spoke of the curse of Cain and of his descendants (people whose black skin marked them with the curse), and by Joseph McConkie’s father, Bruce McConkie whose Mortal Messiah claimed that Jews were cursed for rejecting Christ (explaining the suffering of millions of Jews over the centuries) and whose Mormon Doctrine explained that Blacks were denied the priesthood because of lack of valiance in the pre-mortal existence. But the 1978 revelation extending the priesthood to Black men should have ended that. Bruce McConkie said as much in a devotional address at BYU on August 18, 1978 titled “All Are Alike unto God”:
We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years. We . . . have said to ourselves, “Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.” . . . We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
Still, Elder McConkie held on to the belief that Black men had been denied the priesthood until 1978 because God required it:
And the other underlying principle is that in the eternal providences of the Lord, the time had come for extending the gospel to a race and a culture to whom it had previously been denied, at least as far as all of its blessings are concerned. So it was a matter of faith and righteousness and seeking on the one hand, and it was a matter of the divine timetable on the other hand. The time had arrived when the gospel, with all its blessings and obligations, should go to the Negro.
Our Destiny, fifteen years later, continued the racist story.
Joanna Brooks’ book, however, raises questions about the institutional non-response to Our Destiny. Why didn’t someone at Deseret Book, owned by the Church, say: no, we’re no longer in the business of publishing racist ideas? Why didn’t the General Authority members of the BYU Board of Trustees say: no, we are trying to move on from our institutional racism and this book works against that? And most interesting for Steven Epperson’s case, why didn’t BYU administrators, at the latest when Steven’s review appeared in BYU Studies in 1996, call in the Dean of Religious Education and the Professor of Ancient Scripture and require them to recall their book and to publicly recant its racist ideas? Instead, Joseph McConkie’s uncle Oscar (senior partner representing the LDS Church for the firm Kirton McConkie) threatened legal action. Instead, BYU administrators submitted Steven’s book Mormons and Jews for review and asked what he would do if it were found to doctrinally unsound. Instead, BYU administrators summarily fired Steven because, they said, his Bishop would not endorse his worthiness. They should have promoted him and offered him tenure for his service.