BYU study explores Black experiences in LDS Church, discovers both the good and the bad

“Some people see my race rather than seeing me for who I am” — Participants find profound spiritual joy in the faith, along with heartbreaking “racism and isolation.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Choir for the Genesis Group, a support congregation for Black Latter-day Saints, rehearses in this file photo. A new study explores the experiences of Black members of Utah's predominant faith.

Kristie Stanger-Weyland has to remind herself that people are trying to be helpful when they assume she is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She is one of 52 authors, leaders, scholars and interviewees who took part in a recent Brigham Young University study on the Black experience in a predominantly white church. Published last month in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the research analyzed public accounts of Black members and found they reaped positive spiritual joy, yet encountered “racism and isolation.”

Stanger-Weyland’s experience growing up in the church, serving a full-time mission and marrying in a Latter-day Saint temple has been a blessing to her life, she wrote in the June 2018 edition of the church’s Ensign magazine. But she is constantly reminded that to white members, she is an anomaly.

“The assumption that I must be new to the church because I’m Black,” she wrote, “reinforces that some people see my race rather than seeing me for who I am.”

The Utah-based faith is 1% Black, according to the BYU study, titled “Making Space Behind the Veil: Black Agency Within a Predominantly White Religion.” To analyze Black participants’ perspectives, the 52 writing samples were sorted into five categories ranging from assimilation to a full exit from the church.

Nearly half (44%) fell under the “Liberation Theology” category. It stands as a middle ground on the scale, said researcher Grace Soelberg. It typically represents someone who goes to church regularly and most likely holds a calling and a temple recommend but who is unafraid to speak out against racist rhetoric within the faith.

“It’s somebody,” she said, “who’s willing to make statements that use the Book of Mormon [the church’s signature scripture] or the Bible in ways that affirm diversity and social justice efforts.”

With a small sample size, however, Soelberg said it is unclear whether most Black Latter-day Saints would fall into that category. She said it could be that Black members willing to share public accounts of private experiences would be more likely to be categorized like that.

Explore ‘twoness’ or even ‘threeness’

(AP) W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term "twoness" to describe how Black individuals have to navigate a white world while also keeping in touch with being Black in America.

Soelberg, a recent BYU graduate entering a graduate program at the University of Utah, plans to continue her research over the next couple of years. She hopes to find a way to cover a wider range of Black members to learn more about their experiences.

This kind of work is crucial to expanding the church’s perspective of its Black members, said Soelberg, herself a Black Latter-day Saint. Often, they are thought of in reference to the former ban that barred Black men from holding the priesthood and Black women and men from entering temples.

This week represents the 45th anniversary of the removal of the nearly 130-year-long prohibition.

“There’s been a lot of work done on what Black Mormons might think about the priesthood ban,” Soelberg said, “but not so much about how they institutionally interact with the church.”

She wants to explore what Black people often describe as a sense of “twoness” — a term coined by William Du Bois, a Black sociologist, who is referenced in the study.

Du Bois described how Black people have to navigate a white world while also keeping in touch with being Black in America. That means they have to view the world through two lenses.

Black Latter-day Saints may face even more complexity.

“With Black Mormons, there’s almost a third dimension,” Soelberg said. “You are a Black person in the Black world, navigating the white world, but you’re also navigating Mormonism.”

Black women face additional challenges

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zandra Vranes, left, and Betty Juanita Jackson, right, next to the statue of Jane Manning James at This Is the Place Heritage Park, Friday, July 22, 2022. A new study explores the experiences of Black Latter-day Saints.

Another researcher who contributed to the study, BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh, noticed a consistent pattern with how Black women tended to view the church compared to that of Black men. (Women made up 70% of the “Liberation Theology” category and 54% of the overall study).

Black women have been part of the church since its early years, Rugh said. Jane Manning James, perhaps the most famous Black Latter-day Saint, lived with church founder Joseph Smith and his wife Emma and traveled to Utah as a pioneer. But Black women also faced the combined challenges of racism and sexism.

A common theme in the excerpts from Black women was asserting themselves in spaces that lack Black representation, Rugh said, everything from paintings in temples to articles in church magazines.

“What we saw just in terms of data,” he said, “is a lot of conversation about artwork and imagery was being led by women.”

This study demonstrates the value of speaking with underrepresented groups in the church, as well as other religious sects, said researcher Michael Wood, a sociology professor at BYU. Wood, the third researcher on the project, wants to pursue more specific data like this.

“We have a lot to gain by listening to what our members have to say,” he said.

White researchers like himself should also be mindful about how they insert themselves into the conversation, Wood said. He learned how to step aside and let the affected members speak instead of making his own assumptions.

In general, though, the process showed him many issues Black members run into that he had not considered — such as angels typically being depicted as white in church art.

“I was impressed by the commitment of these members,” he said. “Impressed by their faith in the face of what is often an inhospitable and unfriendly environment.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chantel Bonner, center, laughs as her husband, Mauli Junior Bonner, addresses the crowd during a ceremony at This Is the Place Heritage Park, Friday, July 22, 2022. Mauli Bonner was key in honoring three enslaved men — Green Flake, Hark Wales and Oscar Smith — and free Black pioneer Jane Manning James for their roles in settling the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. A new study explores the experiences of Black Latter-day Saints.