The Lesson from Lowry Nelson

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With the benefit of hindsight, studying history has the ability to give us insights into the questions of our day. We can learn and grow by applying the lessons found in the history of the origin, establishment, retrenchment, and eventual dissolving of both the policy of denying blacks access to the priesthood, and the doctrine that defended the policy.

The exchange of letters between the First Presidency and Dr. Lowry Nelson, a sociologist at Utah State University, concerning the doctrine of race of the church illustrates how unquestioning faith can decrease the ability to see truth through reason.

As President Uchdorft stated in the 2012 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting,

“Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?”
The Lowry Nelson letters also illustrates an underlying culture of distrust of education, science, and reason if they contradict our current beliefs.  Fascinatingly, it was ultimately the education of men and scholarship that history vindicated.

Letter from Nelson to the southern states mission president, concerning the possibility of mission work in Cuba.  He also forwarded it to the First  Presidency.

June 26, 1947

“I am talking about the white people now; the rural people are predominantly white. That is, they are as white as Mediterranean peoples are – Spanish, Italians, etc., who have been in contact with “color” for centuries. The Moors occupied Spain, you know, for seven centuries. There are no pure races; on this anthropologists are in general agreement. Of course, this does not mean that Negro blood exists throughout the white race or vice versa. There is grave doubt, however, as to the purity of the Nordic, Mediterranean, or even the Negro. Because I think our system of religious organization could serve the rural Cuban people as no other system could, I am sad to have to write you and say, for what my opinion is worth, that it would be better for the Cubans if we did not enter their island – unless we are willing to revise our racial theory. To teach them the pernicious doctrine of segregation and inequalities among races where it does not exist, or to lend religious sanction to it where it has raised its ugly head would, it seems to me, be tragic . It seems to me we just fought a war over such ideas. I repeat, my frankness or bluntness, as you will, is born of a fervent desire to see the causes of war rooted out of the hearts of men. What limited study I have been able to give the subject leads me to the conclusion that ethnocentrism, and the smugness and intolerance which accompany it, is one of the first evils to be attacked if we are to achieve the goal of peace”

“Perhaps I am out of order, so to speak, in expressing myself as I have, I have done so out of strong conviction on the subject, and with the added impression that there is no irrevocable church doctrine on this subject. I am not unaware of statements and impressions which have been passed down, but I had never been brought face to face with the possibility that the doctrine was finally crystallized. I devoutly hope that such crystallization has not taken place. The many good friends of mixed blood – through no fault of theirs incidentally – which I have in the Caribbean and who know me to be a Mormon would be shocked indeed if I were to tell them my Church relegated them to an inferior status.
As I told Heber, there is no doubt in my mind that our Church could perform a great service in Cuba, particularly in the rural areas; but it would be far better that we not go in at all, than to go in and promote racial distinction.

“I wanted you to know my feelings on this question and trust you will understand the spirit in which I say these things. I want to see us promote love and harmony among peoples of the earth.

“I repeat, my frankness or bluntness, as you will, is born of a fervent desire to see the causes of war rooted out of the hearts of men. What limited study I have been able to give the subject leads me to the conclusion that ethnocentrism, and the smugness and intolerance which accompany it, is one of the first evils to be attacked if we are to achieve the goal of peace”

First Presidency  response.

July 17th, 1947

“The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things.
Your knowledge of the Gospel will indicate to you that this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a-vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does.

“Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the preexistence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we my be born, have a relationship in the life heretofore.

“From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.

“Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous. Modern Israel has been similarly directed. We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.”

George Albert Smith
J. Reuben  Clark, Jr.
David O. McKay

Dr. Lowry’s response.

October 8th, 1947

“As one studies the history and characteristics of human societies, one soon comes to recognize certain basic principles. One of these is social change. Any given society over the years undergoes changes . It is forever in a state of flux. Some scholars have regarded such change as progress, and have even considered that progress is inevitable. Others chart the rise and fall of civilizations and think in terms of cyclical change. Others express still different hypotheses, but none of them consider society as a static entity. Another principle which stands out as one studies the development of cultures is the tendency of institutions to resist change. Although they are established, or grow up, originally as a means to the end of satisfying the needs of man, they (the institutions) tend to become ends in themselves. It seems to me that Jesus was trying to get this point over to the society of his day, when he spoke of putting new wine in old bottles, and that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. This was an affront to the legalism of the Pharisees, and others of similar outlook, and of course, the institutions had to be protected even at the cost of His crucifixion.

“Now, what does this add up to in my thinking? It means that (1) if one accepts the principle of cultural or social change and applies it to the Hebrews, the Old Testament history of the group is interpreted accordingly. In their early stages of development they had beliefs and practices many of which were subsequently supplanted by other ideas. Jehovah to the Hebrews of the Pentateuch was essentially a tribal deity. It was not until Amos that the idea of a universal God was proclaimed. And the concept of God as love was an essential contribution of the mission of the Savior. (2) This, to me, represents a “progressive revelation”. It seems to me that we still have much to learn about God, and some of our earlier notions of Him may yet undergo modification. (3) The early Hebrew notion of the colored people with whom they had contact in the Mediterranean basin, was quite naturally, that those people were inferior to themselves, a consequence of their extreme ethnocentrism.
Why did they not have something to say about the Japanese or Chinese or American Indian? To me the answer is that they did not know these groups existed. But one can be pretty certain that if they had known about them, they would’ve developed some similar explanation regarding their origin to that concerning the Negro, and would have assigned them also to a position less exalted than their own.

“(4) And once these things got written down -institutionalized- they assume an aura of the sacred. I refer in this respect not only to the Scripture, but to more secular documents as well -the Constitution of the United States, for instance, which many people do not want to change regardless of the apparent needs. So we are in the position, it seems to me, of accepting a doctrine regarding the Negro which was enunciated by the Hebrews during a very early stage in their development. Moreover, and this is the important matter to me, it does not square with what seems an acceptable standard of justice today; nor with the letter or spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I cannot find any support for such a doctrine of inequality in his recorded sayings.

“I am deeply troubled. Having decided through earnest study that one of the chief causes of war is the existence of ethnocentrism among the peoples of the world; that war is our major social evil which threatens to send all of us to destructions and that we can ameliorate these feelings of ethnocentrism by promoting understanding of one people by others; I am now confronted with this doctrine of my own church which says in effect that white supremacy is part of God’s plan for His children; that the Negro has been assigned by Him to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water for his white-skinned brethren. This makes us nominal allies of the Rankins and the Bilbos of Mississippi, a quite unhappy alliance for me, I assure you.

“I must beg your forgiveness for this intrusion upon your time. I realize that I am only one among hundreds of thousands with whom you have to be concerned. My little troubles I must try to work out myself. But I desire to be understood. That’s why I have gone to such length to set down here the steps in my thinking. I am trying to be honest with myself and with others. I am trying to find my way in what is a very confused world. After seeing the devastation of Europe this summer, I am appalled by the sight of it; and the contemplation of what mankind can collectively do to himself, unless somehow we, collectively — the human family — can put love of each other above hatred and somehow come to a mutual respect based upon understanding, and recognize that others, although they may be different from us, are not by that fact alone inferior. Are we becoming so legalistic (after the fashion of the Pharisees) that we cannot adjust our institutions to the charging needs of mankind. Are we, as some have charged, more Hebraic than Christian?”

First Presidency response.

November 12th, 1947

“We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasoning of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.”

Dr. Lowry
An excerpt from an essay published in The Nation (1952).

“A very real difficulty is the fact that those who disapprove the church’s attitude have no way of expressing their point of view. It is safe to say that most of the one million members give passive assent to the present policy. For most of those living in Utah and adjacent states the Negro question is academic; they hardly ever see Negroes, much less live in the same community with them. In any case, they would find comfortable agreement with the white supremacy idea because of latent historical prejudices which they share with so many other white people. However, my knowledge of the deep humanitarianism of the Mormon people leads me to think that if the question could be openly discussed they would line up on the side of justice.
Such open discussion, especially in print, however, is a perilous undertaking for any member. It automatically leaves him open to the charge of “disobedience to constituted authority” which may lead to his being excommunicated. The upshot is that discussions by interested persons are largely sub rosa. So widespread are such discussion groups that they might be said to constitute a “Mormon underground.” The participants are not disloyal church members; rather they are generally active in the church and rationalize their conduct by weighing the many admirable features of their religion against the features with which they disagree.

In writing this article for publication the author does so in a spirit of constructive criticism and in the conviction that his church, with so many admirable qualities and achievements to its credit, is faced by a challenge to place itself alongside those other groups which are laboring against racial bigotry.”

Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952)


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