Film chronicles history of blacks in Mormon church
MURRAY, Utah — Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James and Green Flake hold a unique, but rather obscure place in Mormon history. All three were members of their church in the mid-1800s, and all three were black.
They also stayed faithful when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) denied blacks full membership in the denomination.
Abel was the first black man ordained to the church priesthood in 1832. James worked in the home of church founder Joseph Smith and followed the faith’s next president, Brigham Young, across the frontier to Utah in 1848. Flake came to Utah as well, but as the slave of white members. He was freed by Young in 1854.
Now, filmmakers Darius Gray and Margaret Young have chronicled those stories and the struggles of other black Latter-day Saints in a new documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.”
“To me, it’s parallel with the story of African Americans, period,” said Gray, who is black and has been a member of the church since 1964. “We talk about the black history and contributions being either lost, stolen or strayed generally, and it’s the same within the LDS church.”
Nearly six years in the making, the film is an extension of a longtime partnership between Gray, a former broadcaster, and Young, who is white and a writing teacher at the church-owned Brigham Young University. Together, the pair has written three books on black Mormons.
Wrapped in soulful, black spirituals, the 72-minute film takes viewers on a journey from the days of Mormon pioneers to the 1960s civil rights era, when some university athletics teams refused to compete against BYU because of the way blacks were treated by the church. It ends with current black church members sharing their own stories — good and bad.
“We’re not hiding anything, we’re not sugarcoating anything,” Young said. “We’re telling a very difficult history, but the people who are telling it have come through it.”
Tamu Smith, of Provo, is one of those storytellers.
“It’s liberating,” Smith said of sharing her struggle to fit in and find other people of color in her faith. “We don’t talk about black Mormon history and it’s sad. Every person in the church needs to see this.”
Church history shows that founder Smith granted blacks full membership in the faith not long after founding the church in 1830. Brigham Young reversed the policy after the Latter-day Saints came to Utah.
Young said blacks bore the “mark of Cain” and implied they were inferior to whites. Blacks were banned from church temples and denied full church blessings, including the sacred ceremonies which Mormons believe bind families for eternity. Black men were excluded from the priesthood, which gives LDS men ecclesiastical authority.
Blacks remained marginalized until June 8, 1978, after a revelation from then-president Spencer W. Kimball restored the priesthood for black men.
Although the LDS church keeps no race-based membership statistics, some critics have said Kimball’s revelation was driven by practical, not spiritual, concerns. Since 1978, the church membership has grown significantly in Brazil, the Caribbean and Africa, where the church now claims more than 250,0000 Saints. Worldwide, the church has 13 million members.
An interview subject in the film in addition to his behind-camera role, Gray said black Mormons needed to tell their own story instead of letting others continue to interpret their history.
“It’s important to be validated and it’s important to share it with our white brothers and sisters so that can have an appreciation for who we are and from whence we’ve come,” he said. “Part of it is sweet, part of it is bitter, but it’s our story.”
Young said a goal of the film, which was not produced in conjunction with the church, is to build a bridge between blacks and whites both in and out of the church.
Gray and Young have been shopping their project to film festivals across the U.S. To date, it has been shown in Dallas, Detroit and San Diego, where so many turned out that festival organizers had to move the showing to a larger theater. They hope to find a distributor that will allow the film, which was funded largely through a University of Utah grant, to be widely seen.
Earlier this month, the film drew a crowd of more than 100 at the Foursite Film Festival, in Ogden, Utah.
“This was very impressive,” schoolteacher Tamara Lei Peters said. “There have been so many questions about black people in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It made me weep in a few places.”
Peters said she knew nothing about black Mormon history before seeing the film.
David Rowe, who teaches at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, knew the history, but said he was surprised by the film.
“I would say it was bracingly forthright about the black Mormons’ struggle,” said the self-described evangelical. “I didn’t expect them to allow quite as much criticism along with the commendation. I expected a bit more of PR gloss, but I didn’t find it overly romanticized.”
Mormon Jeanette Lambert of Salt Lake City said perhaps the film can begin to heal the divisiveness wrought by the past treatment of black church members. Sadly, some old doctrines that support the idea that blacks are less than full church members are still taught, said Lambert, a hospice nurse.
“I think there needs to be a concerted effort made to acknowledge that some things were wrong. It’s a part of the repentance process,” said the mother of two teenagers.
Early Latter-day Saints like Abel, James and Flake, “should be some of our heroes,” she said.