The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (renamed the Community of Christ in 2000), one of the inheritors of the legacy of early Mormonism who developed a moderate theological position and coalesced as a recognizable group beginning in 1851, has never imposed official restrictions on African American members as did the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (Mormons) under Brigham Young. Instead, Reorganization leaders and members pragmatically accepted American middle class racial concepts and reflected them back to larger society. Currently, there are probably about 1,000 active African American Community of Christ members on the church’s rolls, no exact figures are present because statistics on race are not kept. This is probably the largest number of African Americans ever to be members in the church’s history.
The Community of Christ pursued a two-pronged policy concerning black members, one emphasizing the ideal and the other the practical. The first prong has remained unchanged since the church’s organizational meeting: the gospel is offered to all humankind. This position, documented in restoration scriptures asserts that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all humanity, promoting universal Christian salvation without regard to race, color, or condition. The atonement of Christ is available for all. According to the Book of Mormon (II Nephi 11:113 15): “He inviteth them all to come unto him . . . black and white, bond and free, male and female, . . . all are alike unto God.” The Doctrine and Covenants (Section 1:1b) contains similar statements: “the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape, and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.”
A review of the church’s General Conference Resolutions on race reveal a corresponding official position. A 1956 resolution said, as an example, “The gospel is for all mankind. It knows no distinction of race or color.”
This official position tells only part of the story. The second prong of the church’s racial policy suggests a wide divergence between the ideal and its implementation. The Community of Christ has allowed practical considerations to impinge on its implementation of the official policy of complete racial equality. It has mirrored those racial conceptions present in mainstream American society.
There is a cognizance in this discussion that the Community of Christ has been since its inception in the 1850s and continues to be a white, American, Midwestern based religious movement. It has also been a relatively conservative movement, in spite of whatever radical conceptions it might have inherited from early Mormonism. Its story is largely one of the American mainstream. Its leaders have been firmly incorporated into the American value system. Because they either were or aspired to be middle class, they accepted, by and large, the racial attitudes of those Americans.
Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), son of Joseph Smith Jr. the Mormon founder and president of the Community of Christ between 1860 and his death, is a fine example of the embracing of middle class racial ideas by a church leader. He was very much a product of his Midwestern society. Like others in antebellum Illinois, he became an early and vocal advocate of the abolition of slavery. As early as 1848, when he was not yet 16, Smith went out of his way to serve as the Nauvoo guide of Owen Lovejoy, an antislavery congressman from Illinois, so he could tell Lovejoy how he admired his stand against slavery. In 1858 he became a lifelong devotee of Abraham Lincoln and the antislavery politics of the Republican Party. At the same time, Smith was not interchangeable with a 1960s urban liberal campaigning for desegregation. He always held African Americans in an inferior position to whites, and sometimes referred to them in derogatory terms. He commented during the Reconstruction era that whites must not “sacrifice the dignity, honor and prestige that may be rightfully attached to the ruling races.”
When the Community of Christ first began to send missionaries into the South immediately following the Civil War, it planned to carry out an egalitarian racial policy. In 1865 the church agreed to ordain African Americans to the priesthood, on the face a courageous decision that stood up to the ideal. There were at that time, however, no black Reorganization members.
Virtually the same was true in April 1866 when one of the ruling ecclesiastical bodies, the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, considered “whether Coloured Members should be organized by themselves into Branches or in connection with the White Brethren.” After considerable discussion they “Resolved that as the Author of Life and Salvation does not discriminate among His rational creatures on account of Colour neither does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” In spite of good intentions, this resolution was enormously naive. The church hierarchy was largely ignorant of race realities in the South, and it misinterpreted the depth of racist ideology of most American southerners.
Although the Community of Christ’s official racial policy remained unchanged, as its missionaries gained experience in the South, made African American converts, and conditions in the nation shifted during the latter nineteenth century the implementation of the policy shifted radically. From the outset, racism in the South made a truly equalitarian policy toward black members impossible. Virtually every letter from missionaries in the field complained of the difficulties of dealing with this issue. L.F. West, a church member in Alabama, wrote about this problem in April 1872. He wrote, “to break down the middle wall of partition from between the two races is beyond the power of mortal man, this can only be done by time.” He sadly concluded, “To cultivate too much familiarity with the blacks, offends the whites, to neglect the blacks, will offend the Lord.” The dilemma of race relations prompted the church to take a path less visionary than originally intended.
Practical concerns forced a rethinking of the implementation of the church’s policy of complete racial equality, but not the overall position itself, and in ways that were important practical considerations chipped away over time at the implementation of the ideal of racial equality among the members. This led to the adoption of an informal policy of segregation of the races in Community of Christ congregations in the South by 1881. It illustrated in graphic terms the acceptance of the racial status quo. From this expedient racial segregation sprang a whole series of compromises concerning race relations.
Between Reconstruction and World War II the church’s official policy of racial equality remained unchanged. It was reaffirmed periodically in church publications and official correspondence, and if members raised the issue of racism in the church they were promptly told that none existed. If one scratched the surface of this official policy, however, they would find an unquestioning acceptance of the nation’s racial caste system. This era was the most trying of any experienced by black members of the Community of Christ. Because of the lessened status of African Americans in larger society, they suffered in the church as well.
As racial consciousness in American society rose in concert with the changes of World War II, some black Saints and a large number of white members began to address the inconsistency between the official racial policy and its less than egalitarian implementation. Without the shifts in larger society, however, Reorganization members probably would never have come to grips with this inconsistency. It was not, therefore, a move toward leadership in social issues but a natural following of the American mainstream. Always it was a cautious position, one which placed the church squarely in the middle of social structure. At first hesitant to endorse the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, by the end of the church hierarchy had come out in favor of the non-violent efforts of such black activists as Martin Luther King, again reflective of the larger society.
This aspect of the implementation of Community of Christ policy resulted from some basic trends in the church. The church has never been able to transcend the society in which it resides. Even if the movement as a whole wanted to do so–which is not usually the case–any far reaching commitment to racial equality would invite suspicion from outside the movement. The Reorganization’s small size, its dissenting nature from Mormonism, and its membership’s desire to fit in with neighbors made it imperative the church reflect larger social ideals. Additionally, the basic practicality of the presidents of the church has also fostered this position. Committed to the preservation of the institution, they have sought to take positions that would not invite harsh criticism either internally or from those outside. Without some semblance of church unity and relative peace with surrounding culture, the larger objectives of the church as a vehicle for converting humanity and establishing Zion could not be accomplished. They have been willing to forego issues that had less support or were potentially divisive if they did not appear the most critical to the movement’s overall welfare.
F. Henry Edwards, a long time church official during the twentieth century and member of the First Presidency between 1946 and 1966, offered this assessment of the position of the church hierarchy on the Civil Rights Crusade in the 1960s: “Socrates was a gadfly, but gadflies don’t build nests.”
Consequently, even if some members demanded that the church take a stand on an important and just issue, the First Presidency would refuse to do so until a consensus of support could be built at the grassroots level.
There has been, therefore, what can only be described as a push pull relationship in the racial policy of the Community of Christ. One part aims at lofty principles, the other recognizes the reality of human prejudices. The result is compromise. It is rather like the principles governing aeronautical flight. The lift component seeks to raise the aircraft off the ground, while the drag coefficient keep it earthbound. Flight represents a compromise between the two principles. All of these factors have come together to form the two pronged race policy in the Community of Christ. One prong takes an officially egalitarian position and the other one is an imperfect implementation of the official policy.
The church has never satisfactorily overcome its relationship to society and indeed reflects the prejudices and positions present in society to a strikingly embarrassing manner to the present. Perhaps it never can overcome this relationship; the result has been a small organization with throughout its history a minuscule African American membership.