Talking about Mormons

I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle on this madcap idea of not saying “Mormon” when you mean “Mormon”. That’s President Nelson’s personal demon. My gut says be polite and look the other way.

Now, we have some guidance from the Associated Press, via the Salt Lake Tribune, and in my case found on Mormonism Research Ministry a year after it was news.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT. The Associated Press, which published a journalistic style and guide book, has decided to make changes in light of the request made last year by President Russell M. Nelson. The news organization says that the full name of the church (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) should be used for the initial reference in an article, with “the church,” “church members,” and “members of the faith” preferred on second and later references. However, the AP did not agree to refer to the church as “the Church of Jesus Christ” or “the Church” on subsequent references, which Nelson requested. In addition, the AP said that the use of the adjective or noun “Mormon” can be used when “necessary for space or clarity or in quotations or proper names.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 8, 2019)

Quitting Mormon

I don’t remember exactly when I left the Mormon church. 1982 or 1983, probably. I was living in the Avenues area of Salt Lake.

The Home Teachers stopped by for the first time ever. I tried to put them off. They weren’t having it. They got pushy. I pushed back. We got to the point where I told them to remove me from the membership rolls. They asked me to write a letter. I wrote it while they waited.

Then for the next 6 weeks I was deluged with procedural garbage. It drove me nuts. I had the firm idea that when I said I wanted out they should have to let me out then left me alone. Nothing doing. Not in the Church, not in those days.

They held a Bishop’s court. I didn’t go. I’m sure they called or wrote to me about the outcome, but I was focused on saying “Leave me alone!” I have no idea what happened.

About a year ago I started trying to find out whether I was Excommunicated or Disfellowshipped. I wrote to Church HQ in Salt Lake. Never heard back. I asked my local Bishop. He did some checking, said he can’t find any info, and suggested I to write to Church HQ in Salt Lake.

(Confidentially, I think he’s afraid I might want to come back and it might put him in the middle of a controversy about gays in the Church.)

Today I was cleaning out my bookmarks. I came across this one: Quitmormon.com. (Ready to leave the Church? Let us help.)

Resigning from the Mormon church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints) can be a tedious and painful process. If you've decided that you no longer want to be a member of the church, resigning on your own can result in unwanted contact from church leaders and multiple requests before your resignation is finally processed. We provide a free service that lets you resign without the hassle.

I can’t think why I might have saved that one. Proof, maybe, that other people have hassles if they try to leave. Or maybe I wanted to share it with some of my relatives who stay only because they don’t want to deal with it.

Early Black Mormons: Joseph Ball

When I was first researching the early Luce converts to Mormonism, I wanted to focus on primary sources rather than just repeating the same stories. I already knew the Luces were converted to Mormonism by Wilford Woodruff during his 1838 mission to Maine.

And that’s almost true. Actually, when Wilford Woodruff arrived at Vinalhaven, Maine on 13 January 1838, His mission companion Joseph Ball had already baptized six converts on the North Island: Malatire (sic) and Ruth Luce, their son and daughter-in-law Stephen and Nancy Luce, and their daughter and son-in-law Susan and Nathaniel Thomas.

Several years later, at Nauvoo in 1841, Woodruff wrote about the drowning of Stephen and Nancy’s two young sons—Samuel W. Luce and James F.C. Luce—saying he had baptized the couple himself. Regardless, the Luces seem to have credited their conversion to Wilford Woodruff. They even named a baby after him later that year.

Fun stuff, but that’s not the best part of the story. Several years ago I came across a source that said Ball was black. Really? That seems strange. Until 1978 the Church refused to give the priesthood to blacks. I heard different explanations over the years but the most common was that blacks sat on the fence during the war in heaven in the Pre-existence, so they were allowed to come to earth with human bodies but they were marked by the color of their skin.

With just a little research I discovered the ban on blacks in the priesthood dated from 1849. In other words, it was the teaching of Brigham Young, not of Joseph Smith.

Ball was ordained an elder sometime before January 1838 and the mission with Wilford Woodruff to the Fox Islands. Does that mean the early church allowed blacks to hold the priesthood? The answer isn’t clear.

Ball seems to have joined the Church in 1832. He was probably baptized in Boston by Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith. He might have been privileged to hold his priesthood because of his friendship with William Smith, who was the Prophet’s brother.

But it’s not clear his Mormon contemporaries thought Ball was black. Ball’s father was born in Jamaica. In 1796 he was a member of the African Society of Boston. The 1810 census shows the Ball family as non-white. The 1820 census shows them as “Free Colored Persons”. Then voilà, in 1830 Ball was white. And he was white thereafter. None of his Mormon contemporaries seem to have ever commented on his race, nor is there any evidence they regarded him as black.

I like this story. It pushes our boundaries. In his own lifetime Ball was black, then white. Later generations found out about his background, so retrofitted him to the role of a black man who held the priesthood against what had become the normative rule. For some, he could be pressed into service as an example of the difficulty of policing race in the Church. And now, now we discard all that and just notice the problems of defining race by something like the “one-drop rule“.

So, we have this little bit of history piled on top of the conversion to Mormonism. I like that a lot.

In 2015 I started a project at Geni.com for Early Black Mormons. Just the breath of a beginning. It hasn’t gone very far but I’m hopeful that there is gathering interest in this kind of research.

More Information

  • Geni.com users, Early Black Mormons (updated July 26, 2018), visited Aug. 31, 2019.
  • Jeffrey D. Mahas, Joseph T. Ball, in Century of Black Mormons at University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library, visited Aug. 31, 2019.
  • Mica McGriggs, Darius Gray, and Christopher C. Smith, Episode 13: Early Black Mormons (Aug. 30, 2019), at SunstoneMagazine.com, visited Aug. 31, 2019.

Book Burnin’ Mormons

John Larsen at Sunstone has this new Facebook group. The idea is to bring Mormons and ex-Mormons together in a way that will promote healing and reconciliation. Cool idea, or so I thought. I turned to be much uglier in reality. I think the basic problem there is that people who have suffered religious abuse aren’t necessarily rational about it, and they don’t mind lashing out at anyone who disagrees with them. I won’t be going back there.

The piece that set me off was a discussion about killing kittens book burning. Some guy said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. People react badly when you kill their kitten burn their book. Someone responded that she’s killed 100 kittens burned 100 books and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Then someone else said it’s very cathartic. We shouldn’t criticize. And the moderator said he doesn’t kill kittens burn books himself but he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

That’s when I left. It turned out not to be the safe environment it was touted as being. As least not for librarians and booksellers. My opinion, as you might guess, is that if you’re suffering from religious abuse you were abused by people not by books. Burning someone else’s holy books is not going to heal you. It’s just another way of perpetuating the cycle of violence you learned from your abuser(s).

As a gay man living in Salt Lake City in the 1970s and 80s, our conventional wisdom was to never, ever date Mormon boys. They would always be so screwed up by their religion that no meaningful relationship would ever be possible.

Back then I laughed with the rest of them (because it’s sooo true) but I made the decision early on — 20, 21, 22, something like that — that I wasn’t going to get involved in someone else’s religious war. I’m 7th generation Mormon. I’ve always been an aficionado of Mormon history. Most of my relatives outside my immediate family are Mormon. I wasn’t raised in the Church but I converted. And after I left, I vowed that I’m not going to become anti-Mormon like all the other people I knew who failed at it.

That is, until I joined Larsen’s group. Now I’m in odd sort of world where all those old issues seem real again (though probably only for a day or two), and the bad guys are the same ones who were the bad guys back then — the howling mob of ex-Mormons.

I don’t think this is what healing and reconciliation is supposed to look like.

Edited August 30, 2019 to add resources.

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Brother Brigham, Brother Young


Brother Brigham, Brother Young by Corb Lund

One of my newest discoveries, shared so more people will hear this gem. Check out YouTube for the lyrics, and for more by Corb Lund.

Ethnic Mormons

I tell people I’m an “ethnic Mormon”. The label confuses almost everyone, and that’s why I do it. It gives me a chance to explain. My experience is that when you’re a Mormon you’re a Mormon whether you believe or not, and whether you belong to the Church or not.

I was excited to see Masaman’s newest YouTube video. I enjoy almost everything he does (although I’ll never live long enough to watch everything). His latest video is Masaman’s Ultimate 2019 Ethno-Racial Map of the World. Quite an accomplishment, so maybe it’s a little self-serving to say my favorite part is where he affirms Mormons are their own ethnicity:

Now if you’re curious, I did indeed count Mormons as a separate ethno-religious categorization from Anglo-Americans or English, as the majority of the Mormon community of the western states are a tight-knit group that has somewhat become a homogenized, cohesive population with a separate identity, and hence many consider old stock, non-convert Mormons to functionally act as an ethnicity in their own right, as I discussed in the past.

Okay. Not really a blunt “Mormons are their own ethnic group” but close enough for now.

As a Mormon / Non-Mormon / Ex-Mormon living in Colorado, as soon as someone finds out I’m from Utah the first thing they ask is whether I’m Mormon. I’ve had dozens of different answers to that over the years. Most often, I’ve often described my relationship to Mormonism as similar to the relationship a non-religious Jew has toward Judaism. You’re not ever going to get away, and what would be the point anyway?

This idea of ethnic Mormons is still an emerging idea, I think. That is, the idea is emerging. The reality has been around for a long time, with roots in the “jack Mormons” of my childhood.

The idea that Mormons are not just active church members only became possible over the last few decades as the Church has lost some of its stranglehold on Utah, leaving many ethnic Mormons with lives not oriented to the Church and its members. It’s possible to stay in Utah and not be a Church member anymore.

And the general consciousness of Mormons as a separate group, not just a quirky religion, really only dates back to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. And the cartoon South Park. Let’s not forget South Park. This would be 2012, which also happens to be when the term Ethnic Mormon was added to UrbanDictionary.com.

When I lived in Salt Lake City (1977-1986) some of us used to joke about being ethnic Mormons, and occasionally we’d swear off dating Mormon men (because of the many problems). I think my first encounter with the idea that ethnic Mormonism could really be a “thing” was David G. Pace’s article, “After the (Second) Fall: A Personal Journey Toward Ethnic Mormonism”. (I’m fairly certain he must be a relative, and maybe one of these days I’ll look it up.)

Pace’s idea in short is: “I for one am not interested in changing the corporate church as I am in exploding the notion of what it means to be Mormon. There is a difference between being a Mormon and being a member of the LDS church; the former embraces the latter.

Since Pace’s article, I’ve heard bits and pieces of chatter here and there, but nothing very weighty. Probably the best has been Mette Ivie Harrison, What is an Ethnic Mormon? but still I want more. My sense is that I’m going to have to wait. More people need to notice that ethnic Mormon is a thing, and more people need to join the conversation.

Update March 22, 2019

I finally checked our relationship to David Pace. He’s Dad’s 3rd cousin.

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