Racism and Hypodescent in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I've spoken before on race and patriarchal blessings on Twitter several times. Every time I share it, it always manages to find someone for whom it is new information. This reality of concealment is in and of itself a form of racism. And believe me, we'll come to that.

In case you're unfamiliar with the custom of patriarchal blessings, they're a ritual that exists to declare and connect Latter-day Saints to the House of Israel through tribal declarations. This is the one distinction between patriarchal blessings and all other priesthood blessings of healing and comfort. A patriarch could declare his authority, give a tribal declaration, and close in the name of Jesus Christ, and it would be a perfectly valid patriarchal blessing.



This practice as we now know and understand it began in earliest days of the Church. It was a privilege extended to all baptized members in good standing, independent of race. Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James both received patriarchal blessings under the priesthood restriction. The difference for them was they were denied the crucial element that defines a patriarchal blessing: a tribal declaration. This began a practice that has been disavowed in theory, but continues in practice for many individuals today.

What is the significance of tribal denial?

Latter-day Saints believe tribal declarations relate to our identity and future responsibilities in the kingdom of God/the Second Coming of Christ. As told in Revelation, we believe they make up our inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom. To deny a black person of African descent a tribe in their patriarchal blessing is akin to saying "You don't have an inheritance in God's kingdom. I'm not interested in a heaven where you are present, and I don't believe God has any use for you."

This practice was policy, and it was deeply entrenched in white supremacy. Church leaders took it upon themselves to declare that black people were unworthy of entering into and living in God's presence. There's no nicer way of putting it and I don't suggest looking for one.

Since the Church existed primarily in the United States at its conception, there wasn't much of a need to be granular in their treatment of black people with this policy. If you were black, the policy applied to you. The absence of black bodies in those congregations is a legacy of racism. You'll hear the line that church congregations are a reflection of the communities that surround them, meaning predominantly white communities produce white congregations. But this is a gross misrepresentation of the Church's history with race in the United States, which could be an entire separate post on its own.

As the Church spread across the planet, this didn't stop the restored gospel of Jesus Christ from reaching people in places far from Salt Lake City. Outside of the administrative reach of the Church, groups would form their own congregations. Areas that had access to the Book of Mormon would use it. Otherwise, the Church would provide basic materials and let these groups govern themselves without access to priesthood or ordinance administration until the groups became more established. The Church wasn't organized formally enough near them for them to know a race restriction even existed. Language and cultural barriers were sufficient to create informal barriers for many years. This allowed the Church and its leadership to continue perpetuating institutional racism in belief, policy, and practice for another decade or so before countries like Brazil finally caught up to them.

Imagine a country with no white people. Well, at least no notion of "purely white" people. Brazil is a country where people who've lived there for generations are all mixed race. There are lighter or darker skin colors, but there's no such thing as "pure" whiteness in Brazil.

How do you spread the Church or build temples in a country like Brazil, where no one is "white enough" to meet the racial standard for participation the Church has set?

Genealogies and Patriarchal Blessings as Racial Identifiers

Until this point, black and mixed race church members were required to submit genealogies before they could fully participate in the Church. If anyone within the last 4 generations of their family was black, the priesthood restriction would be applied to them. These church members could still attend Sunday services, be baptized, receive patriarchal blessings, and pay tithing. But that's where their progression in the Church stopped. They couldn't enter the temples, serve missions, or hold senior leadership positions.

That may work in the United States, but it doesn't work in Brazil. Most people there only knew as much family history as was passed down orally. So their skin color would be inconclusive, they'd have no genealogy to submit, and no way of seeking out that information. What then?

I don't know who came up with this practice. If anyone does, they're not telling. But the solution they came up would be elegantly simple if it wasn't so deeply inhuman. They let the patriarchs declare race as part of people's patriarchal blessings. The mechanism was already in place to give no tribe or nonsense tribes (like Ham or Cain) for black church members. This was a continuation of that practice. If the patriarch felt "inspired" to give you a real tribe, you were white enough. If not, you weren't.

For more information, this article from Dialogue was instrumental in unraveling and piecing together much of this history.

If you're a white member of the Church, think about that for a second. Imagine if, as part of your patriarchal blessing experience, you were going to to have to pass a whiteness test to determine if you were white enough to be an equal in the Church.

What would you do if you didn't pass?

What experiences and opportunities in your life would you never have had?

That was the reality for church members in places like Brazil who lived through the priesthood restriction. They're still alive. They still remember it. I know that because they were still living when I served my mission in Sao Paulo. I had the privilege of hearing some of this history directly from their own mouths while participating in ministry beside them. Part of why I continue to recount this history is so their faith and sacrifices are never forgotten, or perhaps even worse, deliberately erased.

Official Declaration 2, 1978

On 1 June 1978, the priesthood restriction was abolished. Every faithful, worthy man, regardless of race, was to be ordained. Every family, including women and children who had also been excluded, received the ability to worship in temples and serve in leadership positions. Desegregation was officially coming to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But was that the end of racism in the Church? Of course not. All the justifications that white people used to justify the race restriction—the mark of Cain, the curse of Ham, the idea that black people were neutral in the preexistence, even the idea that white God has to remove blackness from them before they can be exalted—these are all still in circulation today. I've heard these ideas perpetuated by older white members in the United States. The last time was in an all-white Sunday School class in rural Delaware in 2013. I also heard them too many times to count in Brazil in 2011-2012.

I was in Brazil for less than two weeks the first time I had to have this conversation. I could barely speak Portuguese. I was at a lunch appointment with my companion and a member in her late twenties. They started comparing notes on the priesthood restriction during our lunch appointment. Specifically, they were talking about black people being neutral in the war in heaven. They not only believed it, they got angry with me when I tried to contradict them.

"You're telling me that what I was taught by a Seventy was wrong." It wasn't a question. It was a challenge.

So with my broken Portuguese, I told them: "I don't have the vocabulary to respond more. But I've heard an apostle of the Lord say those things are false. And I know that's true."

It was the first coherent sentence I formed on Brazilian soil.

I'll be honest with you: I was angry that I was put into that position by the leaders of my Church. At that time, there were no resources translated into Portuguese that talked about race. I had no training, no preparation, to do any better than I did that day. The statement I was referencing was from Jeffrey R. Holland in an interview he did back when Helen Whitney's The Mormons came out on PBS in 2007.

The only reason I knew this interview existed is because I joined in a part of Maryland where Baptists and Catholics are at war with each other. I'd been attacked by them constantly on everything under the sun, including racism in the Church, since I was a teenager. I internalized a very painful lesson from that period in my life, that I never want anyone outside the Church to think they know what I believe better than I do, or to put words in my mouth. It comes from constantly being put into that position over and over again. 

When I had to utilize that knowledge in a foreign language completely alone—with no help, no resources, no training, and no support—I realized something else.

The burden to do this shouldn't rest squarely on me.

I shouldn't have to point to resources outside of the Church to contradict the racist folklore still being passed around. I shouldn't have to translate it in a language I don't speak fluently. I shouldn't be the one offering apologies for the harm senior church leaders have caused. They should be the ones doing that. They should be using the full power and authority of the priesthood they hold to be actively eradicating racism from the Church. They should be setting the example for how to offer sincere apologies for our racist legacy. They should be creating resources to combat racism for the entire church, in every language.

There are still black people throughout the Church, living and dead, who have never received valid tribal declarations in their patriarchal blessings. There are patriarchs today who know nothing of this history, yet refuse to make corrections and addendums for these individuals.

How do I know?

Because I've spoken to them. I've listened to them talk about their experiences. I've seen the pain and frustration it has caused them. No one deserves to ever feel that way, but especially not at church. Not at our church. Not in any church. Church leadership has much for which they should apologize. But I can think of nothing more pressing, more timely, than to take some accountability for our legacy of institutional racism.

There can be no healing without accountability, and no accountability without acknowledgment. 

More Posts from Me

The Unimpressive Origins of Anti-Queerness in the LDS Church

"Sister Collins, why don't you believe being queer is a sin like the rest of the righteous, obedient Mormons?" Because despite...