Latter-day Saints urge church to spread the word about manual’s mistake on race

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Book of Mormon, the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In a rare move, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acknowledged an “error” in its 2020 Sunday school printed manual for members on the issue of race and corrected the mistaken commentary online.

But some members were hoping for an even rarer action — a statement from the faith’s governing First Presidency detailing the problem, disavowing racism and laying out the church’s position on “dark skin” as it is used in its signature scripture.

Or, better still, they would like to see church headquarters “recall and destroy” the printed manuals with the false message.

“We are devastated we must continue to defend and dispel this false teaching,” reads a petition to that effect that is circulating online. “This will only perpetuate the long abandoned ‘curse of black skin’ teaching amongst church members.”

It is an extraordinary moment, these Latter-day Saints believe, to help those in the 16.3 million-member church overcome racist teachings of the past.

It is, after all, Black History Month and, in the coming weeks, Latter-day Saints across the globe will encounter verses in the Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints believe tells the religious history of peoples in the ancient Americas, about a “dark skin” descending on one of the clans.

The note in the printed “Come, Follow Me” manual offers this explanation.

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith. “The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord. ... Dark skin ... is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse.”

Smith’s interpretation of the “dark skin” passages had been used for much of the faith’s history.

When early readers complained about the Smith commentary, the church changed the descriptions online. But copies of the 2020 “Come, Follow Me” manual for Sunday school and home study had already been printed, and that is what many members will see when they discuss the scripture.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to comment about whether the church would issue a statement about the manual on its website, send an email to all members, or recall the copies.

But Hawkins did point to a statement the church gave to The Salt Lake Tribune in January, acknowledging the “error,” and saying the Smith statement “doesn’t reflect the church’s current views on the topic.”

The church “disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else,” spokeswoman Irene Caso wrote. “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."

The online manual says that “the curse of the Lamanites [one of the groups] was that they were ‘cut off from [the Lord’s] presence … because of their iniquity. … When Lamanites later embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, ‘the curse of God did no more follow them.’ ”

Hawkins also mentioned a speech to the NAACP’s Salt Lake Chapter by apostle Gary E. Stevenson on Martin Luther King Day, saying he was “saddened and hurt” by the unfortunate inclusion of the Smith statement in the manual and promised all future church materials would reflect current church teachings.

Not all Latter-day Saints, however, know about either of those clarifications.

Without a strong message from the top to members and lay leaders about the mistake, bishops and stake (regional) presidents are scrambling to ensure their teachers and congregants know about the problem.

“It’s exceedingly disappointing in an era of open church technology that nothing has been shared with the members,” says Emily Jensen, web editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “It says that the church is more worried about offending members than repenting by addressing the offending words.”

The church “has long swept racist words under the rug of silence. Now is the time for swift action through repentance,” Jensen says, “action like telling the entire church about the problematic language.”

Such initiatives now appear to be up to local leaders to undertake — and some are doing so.

Correct ‘disavowed teachings’

As a half-black/half-white Latter-day Saint in Provo, Amanda Ogilvie says it was “harmful and painful” to learn about the manual mishap.

“After a week of soul-searching, crying and praying about what to do, my husband and I had a meeting with our bishop to discuss it,” Ogilvie writes in an email. “He thanked us for bringing it to his attention because he had not heard about it.”

Ward leaders decided to print the revised online statement and distribute the page to their entire congregation, as well as having a member of the bishopric discuss the confusion from the pulpit and read Stevenson’s statement.

Ross Trewhella, a bishop in England with a multicultural congregation, mandated that his teachers disregard statements in the printed manual that contain “incorrect and disavowed teachings regarding race.”

If the topic is raised in class, Trewhella told them, “it is important that any reference to the incorrect commentary in the printed manual is swiftly and accurately corrected.”

Most of his congregants “still use the printed manual,” he writes in an email. “I needed to make sure our Sunday school teachers were aware of the correction and had an easy guide to correct any comments from class members.”

His ward includes a mixture of nationalities and races, Trewhella says, so “it’s important to be sensitive and make sure erroneous teachings of the past are not perpetuated.”

The race issue is even tougher to address in nations such as South Africa.

“The gospel teaches us that we are all equal in the sight of God,” the recall petition says, “but ignorant and racist members of the church will seize this mistake as an opportunity to further divide people of color from the fullness of the everlasting gospel.”

Pumza Sixishe, a practicing Latter-day Saint in Johannesburg, signed and posted the petition online.

Since the country is vast, how the lesson is taught will vary from place to place, she writes in an email. “The teachers in my specific ward usually are well-prepared and try not to cause any controversies. The concern lies in some of the older white members who are essentially nostalgic about the good ol’ days of apartheid. Their comments in Sunday school or [the women’s] Relief Society can be disturbing … [yet] no one corrects them.”

In recent years, Sixishe says she has heard fellow believers say at church that “black people are of the seed of Cain,” a notion the Utah-based faith officially has rejected.

A friend in a neighboring ward worries about how this lesson will go, she says. “Her daughter already experienced a lesson in [children’s] Primary last year where she was told by her older white teacher that the dark skin was a curse. She came home and asked her mother if black people were the bad guys in the scriptures. … My friend will make sure her children don’t even attend the week they teach this lesson.”

It doesn’t matter that “essays published on the church’s website have been written, or that apostles like Bruce R. McConkie retracted their statements after 1978 [when the church lifted a temple/priesthood ban on blacks],” Sixishe says. “We as LDS people need to stop running away from some of our ugly history and actually grow from it and become better people.”

One of the South African lay leaders tells her in an email that “the church needs to completely scrap references to skin color. All attempts to pretend these to be references to the spirit instead of the skin are a mockery of the truth, if not the church itself.”

A teaching moment

Even before the Sunday school manual blunder became public, LaShawn Williams and a group of African American women were hard at work planning the third annual Black LDS Legacy Conference at the Washington, D.C., Temple Visitors’ Center.

Race will continue to be a crucial conversation in Mormonism, says Williams, a lifelong Latter-day Saint and a mental health therapist in private practice in Orem, which is why the conference is so essential.

“We would like to believe that issues with regard to race — specific to black communities — are resolved because they’ve been officially disavowed,” she says. “We find the annual Black LDS Legacy conference to be a significant touch point for all members of the church seeking ways to effectively and intentionally minister to one another.”

The conference, which is open to all members, is built on the church’s “fourfold mission: to perfect the saints, proclaim the gospel, redeem the dead, and care for the poor and needy.”

The hope is to help attendees “deepen their connection with Christ and their baptismal covenants to see each other and to be seen as one.”

In the end, Williams says, the conference will repeat what the Book of Mormon says in another passage, “All are alike unto God.”