“Racial Segregation,” Church History Topics (2022)
“Racial Segregation,” Church History Topics
During the 1800s, many centuries-old systems of race-based slavery perpetuated by European nations began to be dismantled. Most newly independent states in Spanish America abolished slavery between 1830 and the 1850s. European colonial powers outlawed slavery beginning with Great Britain in 1833. In the United States, slavery was abolished in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the racial prejudices that fueled and were reinforced by slavery remained widespread. New laws and customs were put in place in many parts of the world for the purpose of maintaining racial separation and preserving the social, economic, and political advantage of people of European ancestry.1
Some of these new systems were explicit and overt. For example, Jim Crow laws enacted in parts of the United States beginning in the 1870s mandated, among other things, the racial segregation of public services and the implementation of standards that prevented many Black people from exercising their right to vote or marrying outside their race.2 Apartheid laws implemented in South Africa between 1900 and 1948 similarly banned interracial marriage, limited employment and political opportunities, and created separate residential areas for Black and white South Africans.3 Even after social movements such as the US civil rights movement during the 1960s and South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle succeeded in overturning these legal obstacles, more subtle forms of social and economic discrimination often took their place.
Religious organizations responded in a variety of ways to these realities. Some churches allowed Black congregants to attend but only in segregated seating. In other instances, churches split at the denominational level.4 For example, in the late 18th century, Richard Allen, a Black minister, helped form the African Methodist Episcopal Church because of the ways that he and other Black Methodists had been discriminated against in other Methodist congregations.5 These separate churches created valuable spaces for Black expression and solidarity. Black churches in the southern United States became important cultural institutions and were instrumental in the efforts of civil rights advocates to achieve greater equality for Black Americans. But segregation also resulted in the alienation and abuse of many Black worshippers.6
The Church has never had a central policy calling for the racial segregation of its congregations.7 Even so, between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, some local leaders occasionally implemented segregated worship in their congregations, usually reflecting local social norms. Many Church members of color found friendship and support in the Church community, but experiences of feeling unwelcome or being poorly treated by their white brothers and sisters made it challenging for many to continue in the Church.8 Others found ways to fellowship one another within local environments.9 For example, Len and Mary Hope in Ohio, United States, and William Paul and Clara Daniels in Cape Town, South Africa, held worship services in their homes with the help of missionaries and local branch leaders to ensure they and their families were spiritually fed even when they were not welcomed by some white members in their branches.10 In Utah, faithful Hawaiian pioneers built a community called Iosepa after experiencing discrimination in Salt Lake City.11 In El Paso, Texas, Spanish-speaking youth excelled in church drama and sports even during years when they were not allowed to compete with white youth in the Church’s regional competitions.12
A 1978 revelation ended the Church’s prior restriction on priesthood ordination and full temple participation for Church members of Black African descent.13 This revelation resulted in the flowering of the Church in Africa and in other parts of the world that have large multiracial populations. This growth underscored the need for greater unity, love, and respect among Church members of all backgrounds.
The structure and organization of the Church encourage racial integration. Latter-day Saints attend Church services according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation, so the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Latter-day Saint wards generally mirrors that of the wider local community. The Church’s lay ministry also facilitates integration: a Black bishop may preside over a mostly white congregation, and a Hispanic woman may be paired with an Asian woman to visit the homes of a racially diverse membership. Church members of different races and ethnicities regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations.
Church members continue to grapple with racial differences and disparities. In 2020, President Russell M. Nelson urged Latter-day Saints to do better. “We need to foster a fundamental respect for the human dignity of every human soul, regardless of their color, creed, or cause,” he taught. “And we need to work tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than creating walls of segregation.”14