Lowry Nelson Communications on Race

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A series of letters transcribed and held within the archives at the Utah State University record a unique series of communications between the First Presidency of the Church and a prominent LDS sociologist by the name of Dr. Lowry Nelson. Careful examination of this exchange presents a unique snapshot of the thoughts and attitudes of Mormon members and leaders struggling with how to deal with the issues of race as seen from a societal and religious perspective.

Contents

Background

Dr. Lowry Nelson was an internationally known LDS sociologist working at the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in 1947. In 1944 he did a study for the State Department on rural life in the Caribbean which involved him spending several months in Cuba and other islands in the region.

In 1947 Heber Meeks, a prior schoolmate of Dr. Nelson, was the Mission President of the Southern States Mission who had been tasked with exploring the possibilities for establishing a missionary presence in Cuba. He had traveled to Cuba and spent some time meeting with people and examining the culture and society. While there he met with a common friend who informed Meeks of Nelson's prior visit and work.

The First Presidency who had assigned Meeks to this task was composed of President George A Smith and his counselors J. Reuben Clark and David O McKay.

Initial Query by Meeks to Nelson

After completing his visit to Cuba. on June 20, 1947, Heber Meeks wrote a letter to Dr. Nelson asking for his insights into the "advisability of doing missionary work" in Cuba - particularly among the rural communities. His letter contained numerous statements that reflected views that Meeks held regarding race. These views were not unlike those that had been taught by prior church authorities and long held by LDS church members.


Heber Meeks.png
“... I would appreciate your opinion as to the advisability of doing missionary work particularly in the rural sections of Cuba, knowing, of course, our concept of the Negro and his position as to the Priesthood.

Are there groups of pure white blood in the rural sections, particularly in the small communities? If so, are they maintaining segregation from the Negroes? The best information we received was that in the rural communities there was no segregation of the races and it would probably be difficult to find, with any degree of certainty, groups of pure white people.

I would also like your reaction as to what progress you think the Church might be able to make in doing missionary work in Cuba in view of, particularly in the rural section, the ignorance and superstition of the people and their being so steeped in Catholicism. Do you think our message would have any appeal to them?”

20 June 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, Heber Meeks, Archive.org [1]



Nelson's Initial Response

Meeks query inspired a straightforward response from Dr. Nelson.

As a Mormon and Sociologist

In his letter Nelson begins to address the issue of race from the perspective of a lifelong Mormon as well as a sociologist, making some key points:


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The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad. Your letter is the first intimation I have had that there was a fixed doctrine on this point. I had always known that certain statements had been made by authorities regarding the status of the Negro, but I had never assumed that they constituted an irrevocable doctrine. I hope no final word has been said on this matter. I must say that I have never been able to accept the idea, and never shall. I do not believe that God is a racist. But if the Church has taken an irrevocable stand, I would dislike to see it enter Cuba or any other island where different races live and establish missionary work. The white and colored people get along much better in the Caribbean and most of Latin-American than they do in the United States. Prejudice exists, there is no doubt, and the whites in many ways manifest their feelings of superiority, but there is much less of it than one finds in USA, especially in our South. For us to go into a situation like that and preach a doctrine of "white supremacy" would, it seems to me, be a tragic disservice, I am speaking frankly, because I feel very keenly on this question. If world brotherhood and the universal God idea mean anything, it seems to me they mean equality of races , I fail to see how Mormonism or any other religion claiming to be more than a provincial church can take any other point of view; and there cannot be world peace until the pernicious doctrine of the superiority of one race and the inferiority of others is rooted out. This is my belief”

26 June 1947 Letter to Heber Meeks cc: 1st Presidency of LDS church, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [2]



His initial points are very direct:

  • He was aware that prior church leaders had taught racist things, but was not of the impression that this doctrine was fixed or irrevocable.
  • The people of the Caribbean and Latin-America, while in possession of some amount of prejudice, were much less divided by race than America.
  • If the church did not change it's doctrine on race, which he considered to be that of "white supremacy", its introduction to Cuba would be a disservice.
  • God is not a racist and the notions of world brotherhood and universal God require equality of races.
  • The concept of racial superiority is a significant inciter of war at the expense of world peace.

Racial Purity

After making a few comments about the relationship of Cubans to the Catholic Church and protestant missionary efforts, he returns to the issue of race.


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“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

26 June 1947 Letter to Heber Meeks cc: 1st Presidency of LDS church, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [3]



His comments are more pointed here:

  • There are no pure races. Each apparently distinct race is the result of mixed progenitors
  • To bring in the Mormon religious organization with it's ethnocentric view of race would introduce racism where it does not already exist and sanction it where it does.
  • The concept of racial superiority cannot be separated from the smugness and intolerance which invariably follow it.
  • The notion of "white supremacy" embodied by current LDS doctrine is of similar character to that which fueled the Nazi's atrocities and resulted in the recently concluded World War 2.
  • He does not recommend that the LDS church enters Cuba until such time as the doctrine has changed to remove it's racist elements.

Forward to the First Presidency

Dr. Nelson thought the issue was of such importance that he also sent a copy of this exchange to the First Presidency of the Church. He included a letter to President Smith explaining his motivations and hoping for some statement or clarification on the matter.


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"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

26 June 1947 Letter to Pres Smith, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [4]



Again, Dr. Nelson is bold in his assertions:

  • He was aware of racist statements and impressions by past church leaders, but was not of the impression that they were crystallized doctrine.
  • His many "mixed-blood" friends who knew him to be Mormon would be shocked to learn that the Church endorsed a doctrine of racial superiority.
  • While the Church could do great good in Cuba, it would be better not to enter the country than to promote racial distinction.
  • Ethnocentrism is an evil which is a root cause of war.
  • He would rather see the Church promote love and harmony rather than racial division.

1st Presidency Response

On 17 July 1949, upon receipt of Meeks initial inquiry and Dr. Nelson's response, First Presidency replied to Dr. Nelson.

Contrast with Doctrine

They begin by restating Dr. Nelson's premise and contrasting it with LDS doctrine:


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"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."

17 July 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency, Archive.org [5]



Here, the First Presidency reinforces church doctrine on the following points:

  • God promised Abraham that his seed would have a special or superior relationship with God.
  • Some people were assigned superior positions prior to this life.
  • The circumstances of people's birth in this life are a reward or consequence of their choices in the pre-mortal existence.
  • It has always been Church doctrine that "Negroes" are denied the full blessings of the Gospel.

Endogamy - God's Rule

The First Presidency then takes some time to focus on a key point that they perceived in the Dr. Nelsons letter, though it had not been directly addressed. That is the issue of inter-racial marriage between Black and White people.


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"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."

17 July 1949 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency, Archive.org [6]



Their forceful response on the issue of inter-racial marriage is:

  • Inter-racial marriage is "repugnant"
  • God's law is "endogamy" or marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social group, rejecting others on such basis as being unsuitable for marriage.
  • Even though intellectuals are starting to advocate the breaking down of racial barriers to marriage - it is contrary to LDS Church doctrine.

Dr. Nelson's Reply to the Brethren

Dr. Nelson received the First Presidency's reply and was sufficiently disappointed in its content to respond on 8 October, 1947.

Societies change - Institutions resist

In his response, Dr. Lowry employs his experience as a sociologist to lay out a case for justifiable change of policy that is in keeping with both the principles of a dynamic society and the traditions of religious authority:


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"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."

8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [7]



Dr. Nelson explains that:

  • Societies are always in a state of flux or change
  • Institutions tend to resist that change with the intention of preserving themselves - even religious institutions.
  • Christ himself taught of this principle and the religious institutions of his time resisted the change even to the point of killing the Messiah.

Biblical Ethnocentrism & Change

Dr. Nelson then explains the concept of ethnocentrism or the worldview that "one's own group is the center of everything and all others are sealed and rated with reference to it." He states that this "in or out" thinking leads to the in group assigning everything else an inferior status and that this tendency exists in all groups.

He goes on to make several observations of biblical history in the context of these ideas of social change and ethnocentrism:


Lowry Nelson.jpg
"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."

8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [8]



Here Dr. Nelson explains that:

  • The first parts of the Bible representing the early history of the Hebrews depict such a progressive evolving society with changing understanding of God and his relationship to man.
  • Christ's Gospel of love represented further progressive change in the Hebrews understanding of God.
  • Their attitudes towards blacks comes from their earliest stages of societal development
  • Once those societal attitudes were documented in their scripture history, they assumed a sacred aura which tends to preserve them as there is great hesitation to change scripture.
  • Giving people a lesser status based on race does not accord with a modern standard of justice.
  • Nothing in Christ's teachings would support the notion of racial inequality.

War and Allies

Having made a case based on principles of sociology and scripture, Dr. Nelson turns to his concern regarding racism as a cause of war as well as pointing out who the allies of racial inequality also include:


Lowry Nelson.jpg
"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."

8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [9]



He makes the points that:

  • Ethnocentrism is one of the chief causes of war.
  • War is the major social evil sending societies to their destruction.
  • Promoting understanding between peoples is one of the key means to bring and sustain peace.
  • Religious doctrine which perpetuates racial inequality places God's endorsement behind "white supremacy"
  • On this issue, if the LDS church adheres to such a doctrine, they join the ranks of some of the basest factions of bigotry in America.

Real World Comparisons

Next Dr. Nelson draws upon examples of real people who, despite their clear qualities, would be relegated to a lesser status as the result of such doctrine:


Lowry Nelson.jpg
"This doctrine pressed to its logical conclusion would say that Dr. George Washington Carver, the late eminent and saintly Negro scientist is by virtue of the color of his skin, inferior even to the least admirable white person, not because of the virtues he may or may not possess-, but because through no fault of his -- there is a dark pigment in his skin. All of the people of India -- who are not Negroes, according to ethnological authority, but are Aryan -- would presumably, come, under the Negro classification. I think of the intelligent, high-minded, clean-living Hindu who was a member of the International Committee over which I had the honor to preside at Geneva from August 4 to 10, this year. He drank not, smoked not, his ethical standards were such that you and I could applaud him. Where should he rank vis-a-vis the least reliable and least admirable white person in Ferron? Or I could name you a real Negro with equal qualifications."

8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [10]



Invoking key people and societies, Dr. Nelson makes the following points:

  • An accomplished person like Dr. George Washington Carver would take a position lesser than that of the least admirable white as a result of his skin color alone.
  • The people of India are not technically "negroes" however their skin coloring is just as dark in many instances. Existing Church Doctrine would relegate an entire nation to a lesser status.
  • A Hindu from India may in fact adhere to Mormon standards more closely than a white person, and yet if converted would be deprived of the blessings of the Gospel due to race alone.

The Social Side of the Gospel?

Next, Dr. Nelson addresses the distinction that the First Presidency made between the "social side of the Gospel" and the "end thereof" at the beginning of their response.


Lowry Nelson.jpg
"Now, you say that the "social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof." I may not have the same concept of "social" as you had in mind, but it seems to me the only virtue we can recognize in men is that expressed in their relations with others; that is their "social" relations. Are the virtues of honesty, chastity, humility, forgiveness, tolerance, love, kindness, justice, secondary? If so, what is primary? Love of God? Very well. But the second (law) is like unto it."

8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [11]



Here Dr. Nelson is bold in pointing out that that Gospel of love taught by Christ is defined by virtues that are expressly in the realm of social relations.

Legalism

Dr. Nelson concludes his rejoinder by recalling his experiences seeing the devastation brought about due to the second world war. He had previously made the case that ideas of racial inequality had fueled this conflict and he is pained to see these ideas continue to flourish. His final plea is for the First Presidency to avoid the trap of legalism that Christ condemned the Pharisees for:


Lowry Nelson.jpg
"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?"

8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson, Archive.org [12]



First Presidency Final Response

On November 12, 1947 the First Presidency issued their final response to Dr. Nelson. It was pointed and direct.


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"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 reasonings 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."

12 November 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency, Archive.org [13]



In summary:

  • The doctrines of the Church regarding race as expounded in the prior letter are true.
  • The First Presidency does not receive counsel from the reasoning of men, no matter how well intentioned or well-founded.
  • Dr. Nelson is being led off from the Gospel by worldly learning.
  • Dr. Nelson should reorient his thinking to bring it in line with the word of God as presented in the prior letter.

Article: Mormonism and the Negro

In May 1952 Dr. Nelson published an essay titled "Mormonism and the Negro" in the May issue of the popular magazine "The Nation".

Courtesy to the First Presidency

Prior to publication he sent a copy of the article to the First Presidency for comment. Note that President George A Smith had passed away in 1951 and was by then succeeded by President David O McKay.


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"Your letter without date, addressed to President McKay, was duly received, with which you transmitted an article which you say you intend to publish.

President McKay wishes me to say that obviously you are entirely within your rights to publish any article you wish.

I should like to add on my own account, however, that when a member of the Church sets himself up against doctrines preached by the Prophet Joseph Smith and by those who have succeeded him in the high office which he held, he is moving into a very dangerous position for himself personally."

23 May 1952 Letter to Lowry Nelson, Joseph Anderson, Secretary to the First Presidency, Archive.org [14]



It is not clear whether President McKay read the letter, but the message of the Secretary is unmistakable.

LDS Doctrine and Lore on Race

In his article, Dr. Nelson lays out what has been taught to him regarding race as a life long member of the church:


Lowry Nelson.jpg
"According to Mormon theology the status of the Negro on earth was determined in the "pre-existent" state, specifically in the War in Heaven (Revelation 12:4, 7) . As everyone knows, Lucifer rebelled and was "cast down," taking with him one-third of the hosts of Heaven. These are the sons of perdition. Michael clearly had a majority with him, some more active supporters than others. Although I can find no Scriptural basis for it, I have heard it said that the active pro-Michael group was no more than one-third. The other third "sat on the fence," refusing to take sides. The latter, in the Mormon lore of my boyhood days, was identified as the Negro. This places him in a sort of never-never land, a twilight zone between the Satanic hosts and those who were ready to be counted on the side of Michael. Thus the blessings of the Mormon Church cannot be extended to anyone with Negro "blood."

Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952), copy at Archive.org [15]



Nelson re-iterates what has been confirmed to him as LDS doctrine by the First Presidency as well as some things which have been suggested by local leaders in his experience and may count as folklore:

  • Black people are born black as a consequence of their choices in the war in heaven in the pre-existence.
  • While a third each of the hosts of heaven followed Satan or Michael, the final third took neither side and as a result were not cast out, but came to earth as a lesser race - Black men and women.
  • One of the consequences to these people is being denied the full blessings of the Gospel in the LDS Church.

Consequences of Policy

While the First Presidency specifically indicated that the position of the Church in relation to race was a matter of "doctrine", Nelson is direct in calling this element of Mormon theology a matter of "policy". This supports his earlier argument that such teachings reflect a single point in dynamic societal evolution. He further observes some of the consequences that Mormons face as a result of this policy:


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"This unfortunate policy of the church is a source of embarrassment and humiliation to thousands of its members (the writer among them) who find no basis for it in the teachings of Jesus, whom all Mormons accept as the Saviour. The issue has become increasingly important as members of the church outside of Utah and adjacent states have increased rapidly in recent years and are brought into direct contact with Negroes, and who see their fellow-Christians engaged in programs to reduce racial prejudice—programs in which they cannot fully participate. Such persons would like to see the policy altered in the interest of peace and simple humanitarianism."

Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952), copy at Archive.org [16]



By identifying the theology of the Church regard race as "policy" rather than "doctrine", Nelson is providing a reasonable justification for the leaders of the church to change it's teachings on race. To a Mormon, Doctrine is God's Law and not subject to change. Policy, on the other hand, is man's implementation of programs in support of God's Law and may reasonably change and adapt to the needs of society. This seemingly minor technical point opens a wide possibility for change.

Racism Debunked and Contrasted

Nelson goes on to point out the archaic nature of racial prejudice and contrasts this with the characteristics of the Mormon people:


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"The doctrine of white-race superiority, so much the vogue in the early nineteenth century when Mormonism had its beginning, has been so thoroughly debunked as to catalogue its adherents today as either grossly uninformed or victims of traditional irrational prejudices, or both. Mormons as a group are not Ignorant people; they rank high in formal schooling, with an extraordinarily high proportion of college graduates. Many of them naturally find it difficult to reconcile what they learn in college about racial differences and equalities with the stand taken by their church."

Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952), copy at Archive.org [17]



Is Change Possible?

Having established the need for change, Nelson next describes the unique position that the church is in to facilitate this change of policy:


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"The basic question remains as to whether the church will modify its present stand on this matter. Perhaps a more important question is, can it change? Theoretically the Church has a means by which its doctrines may, be modified. It was founded upon the idea of "progressive revelation," that as God spoke to the people in Bible days, so He continues to do today through the head of the church. An announcement ex cathedra on this question would be accepted by the body of the church; joyfully by some although, no doubt, reluctantly by others. It is recognized, of course, that it is very difficult for a religion based upon revelation to modify its doctrines, but few other denominations have the procedures for change that the Mormon church has. The leaders of this church are men of good will. It is difficult to believe that deep in their own hearts they are not troubled by the ethical problem which this bit of dogma presents."

Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952), copy at Archive.org [18]



While acknowledging that it is difficult for any religion to modify it's teachings, Nelson makes the case that the Mormon church is well equipped to do so:

  • It was founded on the idea that God continues to speak to man through his Prophets
  • Pronouncements from the Prophet with the weight of his office are revered and accepted by the members - even if done so with difficulty.
  • It should be the disposition of the church leaders towards a doctrine of equality as they are men of good will.

The Mormon Underground

Finally, Nelson explains why it is difficult for Mormons to openly discuss these sensitive issues, alluding to his own encounter with the General Authorities:


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"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), copy at Archive.org [19]



Nelson openly describes the pressures that he and others have felt in the culture of the Mormon church where open discussion on topics such as race may carry the risk of excommunication. His description of the widespread "Mormon Underground" mirrors his own experiences and he acknowledges that he is taking that risk in writing an article for a national publication.

Conclusion

Dr. Nelson was in a unique position to make a public statement on issues of racial equality - he was an internationally respected sociologist who was highly regarded both in and out of the church. He shared the challenge that many in the church faced in his time period as he struggled to reconcile the tenets of his faith with the dictates of his conscience. His adherence to his convictions on the race issue, even in the face of reproof from his religious authorities, would not see it's effects for another 26 years. In 1978, after a revelation to the Prophet Spencer W Kimball and the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, The LDS Church ended it's practice of racial discrimination and afforded all men and women of all races the full blessings of the Priesthood and the Gospel.

References

  1. 20 June 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, Heber Meeks
  2. 26 June 1947 Letter to Heber Meeks cc: 1st Presidency of LDS church, Lowry Nelson
  3. 26 June 1947 Letter to Heber Meeks cc: 1st Presidency of LDS church, Lowry Nelson
  4. 26 June 1947 Letter to Pres Smith, Lowry Nelson
  5. 17 July 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency
  6. 17 July 1949 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency
  7. 8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson
  8. 8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson
  9. 8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson
  10. 8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson
  11. 8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson
  12. 8 October 1947 Letter to First Presidency, Lowry Nelson
  13. 12 November 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency
  14. 23 May 1952 Letter to Lowry Nelson, Joseph Anderson, Secretary to the First Presidency
  15. Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952)
  16. Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952)
  17. Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952)
  18. Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952)
  19. Lowry Nelson, “Mormons and the Negro,” The Nation 174 (24 May 1952)