Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because sometimes our story begins with those who came before.
Chapter 4 – MISSIONARIES
Once upon a time, a boy named Joseph said he talked to angels. He claimed he began receiving holy revelations as a teenager. In 1830, at the age of twenty-five, those conversations became the foundations of the church he built, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also called the Mormons.
According to church teachings, the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph and showed him where golden plates engraved with ancient text had been buried for thousands of years in the hills near his home in Manchester, New York. Smith translated the words, telling the history of the Israelites in America.
These words became “The Book of Morman,” a seminal scripture of the church. Once the translation was complete, Joseph returned the golden plates to the angel Moroni rather than keeping them as proof.
Some believe the Book of Mormon came from words translated from golden plates, while others believe the words sprang from Joseph’s vivid imagination.
Those who joined Joseph Smith’s church called themselves Latter-Day Saints or Mormons. Mormons believed Joseph Smith was a living prophet—God’s mouthpiece who received modern-day guidance. The church continues to be led by a man called the living prophet.
Mormons believe we have spirit bodies before birth and live with heavenly parents in a premortal existence. They believe families are forever, which means husbands, wives, and children can be sealed together for time and all eternity.
Mormons believe Jesus Christ provides the way for resurrection. Salvation after death is achieved through obedience to the gospel and faithfully doing rituals called ordinances. These ordinances include baptism by immersion, receiving the Holy Ghost’s gift through the laying on of hands, and Sunday sacrament. Worthy men receive the priesthood, which is the power and authority of God. Sealing families for time and eternity and celestial marriages between a man and woman are other sacred rituals. For part of the church’s history, polygamous marriages allowed men to marry and seal themselves to multiple wives.
Mormons believe their church is the only true and living church. With that knowledge comes the responsibility to share the gospel.
Two years after the church’s founding, Mormon missionaries traveled north to Upper Canada, where Daniel, Mary, and their three young children lived. At the time, the Wood family were members of the local Methodist church.
The teachings by the missionaries piqued Daniel’s interest. After the missionaries returned to America, Daniel became convinced of the gospel’s truthfulness. Undeterred that there wasn’t a Mormon available to baptize him, Daniel asked a local Methodist minister to baptize him into the Mormon faith. For some reason, the minister obliged.
A year later, more missionaries returned. One of these was Brigham Young, who would become the second prophet of the church after Joseph Smith’s assassination.
Brigham Young would remain the prophet until his death. Under Young’s leadership, the church began its official ban on black families based on God’s revelation. Black men could no longer receive the priesthood. This command also meant black husbands, wives and children could not be sealed forever as a family. During Young’s reign as Governor of Utah, the citizens voted “Yes,” to becoming a slave-holding territory.
But that is getting ahead of my story. For in 1833, Brigham Young was simply a traveling missionary spreading the gospel. Daniel invited neighbors to his home to hear Young share the gospel principles.
Daniel was interested in the Mormon’s ritual of baptism by immersion. Instead of sprinkling babies with baptismal water, the Mormons waited until a child was eight years old. At this age, they believed a child could consent to baptism and be fully responsible for their actions.
Daniel may have been enthusiastic about a church led by a living prophet who speaks to God rather than the Methodist church, which was based mainly on words written by dead men.
The Mormon church then and now views itself as the only true church; this means the Methodists and all other faith variations are, by default, untrue.
Since his parents and siblings remained Methodists, I wonder if this caused fractures. Did Daniel’s parents try to dissuade him from joining the church?
Years earlier, Daniel’s parents, Henry and Elizabeth, had given their allegiance to the British crown in exchange for land. Their son, Daniel, now gave his loyalty to Joseph Smith in exchange for his salvation.
Daniel was steadfast. Once he made up his mind, nothing swayed him from it. Before the missionaries left, Daniel asked to be re-baptized. Dressed in white, Brigham Young led Daniel to the river bank. Daniel made a covenant to Heavenly Father before having his sins washed away. Since it was February, I imagine Daniel felt the sting of the frigid waters and the holy spirit’s burning fire as he was submerged.
My whiteness allows me to exit and reenter the freeway of denial quite easily. At this point, I don’t want to believe my grandfather chose to join a racist church even though The Book of Mormon used derogatory words to describe dark skin. Maybe Daniel did not or could not read the scriptures. I don’t know the level of his ability to read or write.
I wonder if those missionaries preached about white skin purity or mentioned the belief of black skin being a mark of ancestral sins or not fighting as valiantly against forces of evil in the premortal existence.
Later, missionaries avoided sharing the gospel with black people or those who, while white in appearance, may have drops of black blood in them.
The revelation and subsequent commandment to ban black people from sacred rituals came nearly sixteen years after Daniel’s baptism.
I will never know what Daniel knew regarding the church related to skin color when he joined. Maybe like a naïve home buyer, he bought a house without a thorough inspection. Perhaps he didn’t climb into the dark attic or dank crawl spaces, checking for rodents and rot.
I merge back onto the freeway, of fact, for what I do know is in Daniel’s nearly sixty-year church membership, until his death, it would have been impossible for him not to see the racism flowing through the church.
At some point, he knew. And he chose to stay.
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Here are a couple poems I wrote reflecting on life.