Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
One way Mormons set themselves above other religions is the belief they are led by a leader who is in real-time conversations with God. Unlike other religions, which may solely rely on old scriptures. This leader is called a prophet.
In the movies where there is a good cop and a bad cop, some would say, Brigham Young, the second prophet, played the role of the bad cop regarding racism within the Mormon church. Justified or not, Young often gets more blame for the church’s racist actions against black people than the original church founder, Joseph Smith, did.
The church was left without a leader when vigilantes murdered Joseph Smith. Before his death, Smith had not taken decisive action to steer the church towards anti-slavery. After he died, most church members followed Brigham Young, who favored slavery, rather than the smaller contingent who favored abolitionism.
Brigham Young believed slavery was an institution put in place by God as punishment for bad behavior by black descendants of Cain. It was their destiny to live lives of servitude. Young felt it was blasphemous to fight against it. God would remove the curse and end slavery when righteousness prevailed.
Young believed enslavers could be benevolent and were responsible for humanely correcting and punishing the enslaved. Since Young felt blacks could not care for themselves, being ruled by a white person meant they would have a better life. He saw slavery as a blessing and a win-win situation.
He criticized Northern states for what he perceived as the worship of blacks and viewed abolitionists as radicals. He was against both the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. He was sure that left unchecked free blacks would rule over whites. The church would face destruction if blacks dictated anything to white men.
Brigham Young is a prime example of someone who took his white supremacist biases and created systems to keep whiteness in power.
Young held the top political and theological positions of power as governor of Utah and prophet of the Mormon church. He created policies to keep black men and women subjugated within the church and the halls of government.
Young advocated for legalizing slavery and spoke against free black people holding leadership positions. Since Young viewed black people as cursed and childlike, it was the responsibility of white men to make decisions for them. Using the ruse of a revelation from God, he banned black church members from holy ordinances and rights within the church.
In my opinion, the only thing that kept Utah from not enslaving more men, women, and children was location and timing. The theological mindset of Mormonism combined with the political will of Young would have allowed slavery to flourish.
In his speeches, Young’s words encouraged and grew racists within the Mormon church. He admonished saints not to abuse God’s gift of slavery but instead treat the enslaved as you would treat children. But unlike white children who grow into adulthood with autonomy over their own lives, black men and women were forever infantilized.
He spoke of leaving the governing and voting to white men. Let the others plow. He promised to speak out forever against those trying to make the black man equal.
Brigham Young was fully aware of slavery’s brutality. In one speech, he noted that some enslavers knocked down, whipped, and broke the limbs of the men, women, and children they owned. But rather than denounce slavery, Young encouraged enslavers to do better. He had the gall to say a well-used black man is better off than a free black man.
Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, was clever when creating the church by making himself a living prophet who spoke to God. Each successive prophet also receives current revelations from God.
Young used this belief to silence church members who disagreed with him and chastised them by asking how faithful saints could question the mouthpiece of God. Disobedience to the prophet is the greater sin, even if the prophet turns out to be wrong.
I wish Daniel had challenged church leadership. I deeply regret that I blindly believed everything the prophet and church leaders said while I was in the church. Mormon indoctrination taught me to let the prophet think for me; to question would mean the devil was leading me.
Brigham Young caused immense harm by using his theological justification of racial discrimination to set a precedent that future prophets followed, and which still reverberates within present-day Mormonism.