Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Leo Lionni’s book “A Color of His Own” is a children’s book about a chameleon who changes color depending on where he stands. He turns purple on heather, yellow on a lemon, and black and orange striped on a tiger. Determined to stay one color, he remains on a green leaf, but alas, when autumn comes, the leaf changes to yellow, then red, and so does the chameleon. He is relieved to find another chameleon who also changes color. Now he will never be alone.
Joseph Smith reminds me of a chameleon, especially regarding his beliefs about slavery and black people. I wonder if, like a chameleon, he adapted his dogma to what most benefited himself and the church.
Smith had immense charisma to birth a religion based on stories of meeting an angel and translating golden plates. Although now I do not believe this happened, I did for nearly twenty years. The majority of Mormons still do.
Although I now disagree with Mormon doctrine, I am in awe of Joseph Smith, who was able to pull off what, in my opinion, was one hell of a con job. Countless believers left their homes and countries to follow him. They willingly faced ridicule and persecution for Smith’s version of the one true church. He also convinced husbands and wives to open their marriage beds to polygamy.
Joseph Smith could have used his incredible influence to lead the church toward abolitionism and equality. Before his untimely death, he could have left clues leaving no doubt the Mormon God abhorred slavery and embraced all people. He could have done it, but he didn’t.
Joseph Smith’s church started in the north, where opposition against slavery was strong. His budding religion mirrored that sentiment and seemed to lean towards anti-slavery.
But during the years of wandering and persecution in the search for Zion, the church body spent time in slave states like Missouri. Here Smith said God revealed to him that Mormons should not interfere with slavery. He further implied that southern men of God would not be in the business of slavery if it were against God’s will.
My grandfather’s journal entry describes a tense exchange with an angry Missourian. This man was fearful the Mormons would attempt to free Missouri’s enslaved men, women, and children. Daniel reassured him he had nothing to fear, for what happens between a master and those he owns was no business of the Mormons.
Smith allowed enslavers to become church members. Like Brigham Young, Smith feared the potential power of free black people to overrun the country and violate the purity of white women.
Thinking enslavers could be benevolent, Smith urged them to treat those they enslaved humanly. As if a humane form of slavery was possible. The enslaved, in turn, owed obedience to their masters.
Brigham Young’s views on black inferiority and slavery as a divine institution didn’t waver. On the other hand, Smith sometimes showed an interest in abolitionist views.
The most telling sign of where he stood near the time of his death was in his bid to become president of the United States. His assassination ended his run months after it began. Running as an independent, he called for a gradual end to slavery. While against immediate emancipation, he believed the government should pay enslavers a reasonable price for those they enslaved. Smith planned to fund this by selling public land and reducing Congress members’ salaries.
One person I spoke with about racist foundations in the Mormon church used Joseph Smith’s presidential platform as proof Smith and the church were free of racism. I disagree because, in my opinion, Joseph Smith did not do enough to earn the honor of being an abolitionist. He didn’t put anti-slavery doctrines into place or use church resources to free the enslaved.
After Smith’s death, when given a choice, most of the saints followed Brigham Young, who said he was neither anti-slavery nor pro-black.
A short time later, their white supremacist beliefs made it easy to accept Young’s story of receiving a revelation from God to ban black people from the holiest church rituals and any position of power.
A ban the church, including my family members and myself, upheld for nearly two hundred years under multiple prophets.
Before his death, Joseph Smith had ultimate power in the religion he created. All it would have taken was for him to say he’d received a revelation from God like the one he supposedly got promoting polygamy. But in this one, God would have revealed his wish for slavery to end and for black men, women, and children to be treated everywhere as unequivocal equals.
One of my deepest sadnesses is not knowing who my father would have become if he had not died at age thirty-seven. My father did not die a great man. He was still figuring out who he was. His tombstone reads, “Greatness In Disguise.” I hope with more time, he could have become one.
Could Joseph Smith have become a great, humane, and moral leader? If not for the bullets in his back at age thirty-nine, would Smith have eventually led the church towards freedom and dignity for all people, and would the saints have followed?
Maybe Smith was not a chameleon with fluid morality based on what served him. Perhaps he was a man with conflicting and changing views.
Whether for fathers or self-appointed prophets, the great equalizer is we are each judged not on who we could become but on who we are with the time we are given.