Confronting and Unpacking Mormonism’s History of White Supremacy

When Joanna Brooks wrote the manuscript for Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence (Oxford University Press), she likely didn’t expect it to be so timely. (Few historical works ever are.) But the official publication date for the book, June 1, coincided with protests across the nation that called for an end to racial oppression. The loud chants for #BlackLivesMatter have forced institutions, corporations, and churches to reassess their connection to the systematic racism upon which America was built. Mormonism and White Supremacy, then, was perfectly timed to add to a growing chorus at a moment of discursive crescendo.

Yet in other ways, Brooks’s work was a long-time coming, as it reflects decades of work within the LDS intellectual community, and it builds on the efforts of previous historians and activists who have paved the way to reassess Mormonism’s troubled history with white supremacy. Yet what the book lacks in novelty it certainly makes up for in punch: it is one of the most trenchant and persuasive appeals to confront the history of LDS anti-black racism, past and present, and is a clarion call for academic intervention in contemporary issues. Scholarship, she argues, must accept its role of “unsettling and interjecting urgency into conversations around religion and race in America.” In this instance, her aim is to “evolve our discussion of the role of American Christianity has played in securing and sustaining racial privilege more broadly.”

Historians, Brooks explains, have done an admirable job at outlining the extreme examples of racism, but have not taken a full account of how religions built a world that enabled a theology and culture that keep white believers from acknowledging their privilege. This she calls “racial innocence,” or the notion that one is “innocent–morally exempt–of systematic and pervasive anti-black racism.” The reorientation of sin and guilt from a collective to an individual level has allowed Christians, including Mormons, to maintain a belief in moral superiority despite historic and contextual evidence otherwise.

In the Mormon case, Brooks emphasizes a full accounting of the faith’s anti-black racism, especially these key lessons:

  • The Mormon fear of racial mixing often outweighed their commitment to racial equality.
  • Mormon leaders formally excluded black voices from positions of power, relegating their experiences and beliefs to the margins.
  • Mormon theology and history has often cast black exclusion as divinely justified.
  • In the twentieth century, Mormons largely adopted America’s silent agreement that enables white innocence.
  • Mormon leaders have consistently repressed internal critique and dissent, instead buttressing and solidifying prophetic infalibility.
  • Church leaders have used multiculturalism, rhetorical evasion, and duplicity to manage the legacy of Mormon anti-Black racism without taking responsibility.

Mormonism and White Supremacy moves in a chronological narrative from Joseph Smith’s day to the present, detailing both specific episodes and “micropolitical decisions” that led the church to prioritizing whiteness over emancipatory possibilities. Brooks refuses to turn away from the most damning episodes and startling quotations, and often spends extended time on particular moments or documents that exemplify the codification or perpetuation of white innocence. Even after the 1978 revelation that ended the temple and priesthood ban, the church’s conscious decision to “move forward,” rather than address the past, resulted in an inability to fully account for historic wrongs and completely decolonize a theology still rooted in racial superiority.

Brooks is at her best when showing what happens when we foreground race in our examination of crucial episodes and documents in LDS history. Her strongest chapter is her coverage of the early twentieth century, when theologians and leaders synthesized Mormon theology. Previous historians have identified how figures like James Talmage, John Widtsoe, and BH Roberts created a modern form of orthodoxy, but few have demonstrated how central race played in their ideological projects. To give an example of this argument, and provide a taste of Brooks’s powerful prose, here’s an extended excerpt:

With only a few dozen African American people living in LDS communities, white Mormons could maintain an untroubled ignorance of Black experience and Black perspectives, then reframe their ignorance as religious knowledge. Just as American Protestant fundamentalists used systematic theology and correlation in these same decades to retreat from urgent ethical questions about race, Mormon theologians produced systematic theologies and curriculum that erased and retreated from responsibility for Black Mormon lives. The systematization of Mormon theology went hand in hand with a centralization and bureaucratization of Mormon religious life at the turn of the century. Consequently, modern Mormonism instituted one of the most rigidly enforced systems of racial segregation in the history of American Christianity.

These are arguments that not only add to our existing historical narratives, but also demonstrate the power of scholarly intervention into racial discourse.

Scholars familiar with Mormon history will likely not find much new with regard to historical figures, texts, and stories, as Brooks is mostly building upon and drawing from a host of existing scholarship. Further, the depth of some of Brooks’s interpretive interventions can at times be uneven, as it is not clear why she chose some case studies over others, or how representative the tales were, especially in her chapters covering the Civil Rights era. And finally, though Brooks initially frames this project as one meant to address the broader issue of American Christianity through the lens of Mormonism, much of the narrative is told in a contextual vacuum that does not fully engage the extent of assimilation with or divergence from broader cultural currents.

But it would be unfair to expect this book to fit into the typical categories and standards of traditional historical monographs. Mormonism and White Supremacy is, at its best, a scholarly jeremiad, an attempt to use academic tools to address contemporary problems. It is written in the tradition of Eddie Glaude, Anthea Butler, and Jonathan Walton, ethicists who use their work to merge the scholarly and public worlds. And even if there have not been many works in Mormon studies that fit within this genre, Brooks is fulfilling an important Mormon desire to “speak from the dust” and indict a sinful society.

I hope this book gets a wide audience, beyond just this current moment. These are the types of conversations the LDS community needs.