June 12, 1967, was a watershed day in the history of civil rights in the United States, for the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple that had been sentenced to a year in prison for having an interracial marriage, which was still illegal in 16 states up to that time due to the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that the 14th Amendment “requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by individuous racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
For many of us born well after those events, it’s difficult to imagine a world where interracial marriage was an issue. And yet, official teaching manuals of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still contain some language dissuading mixed-race relationships. An Aaronic Priesthood manual as well as a marriage course manual both feature a quote from President Spencer W. Kimball about seeking commonalities among potential mates, including being of similar race. To be sure, these are small mentions from a few non-prominent manuals, but they still exist as living curricula.
But before getting into that, some context. The Church does not currently say much of anything about interracial relationships other than they are not forbidden. Interracial sealings occur in LDS temples, both for the living and for the dead. Interracial couples live their lives as others would do.
However, it was not always the case. Early pioneers witnessed Brigham Young and subsequent Church presidents condemn interracial relationships repeatedly, typically couched in language about the seed of Cain. As recently as 1954, Apostle Mark E. Peterson was quoted as saying “To intermarry with a Negro is to forfeit a Nation of Priesthood holders.”
Naturally others, such as Bruce R. McConkie, later famously admitted errors, reminding us that even prophets operate with the limited understanding of mortality, and it is all of our duty to get in line with what the current prophet says and not dwell in the past.
Back to the remarks from President Kimball. Delivered nine years after Loving v. Virginia, the 1976 address “Marriage and Divorce” contains a brief section that seems at odds with current teachings on race and the priesthood. The body of the speech holds valuable counsel regarding the selection of a spouse. But in explaining the results of a survey that showed how temple marriages resulted in fewer divorces than non-temple marriages, President Kimball mentions the importance of commonalities between spouses, including shared race:
We are grateful that this one survey reveals that about 90 percent of the temple marriages hold fast. Because of this, we recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question. In spite of the most favorable matings, the evil one still takes a monumental toll and is the cause for many broken homes and frustrated lives.
Blink and you’ll miss it. To be clear, President Kimball does not argue that spouses should be of “the same racial background generally” because of the curse of Cain or of a threat to Israel’s priesthood or any other antiquated notion. He simply states that racial background can be roped in with educational, financial, social, religious, and other backgrounds when assessing long-term compatibility with someone. That looser concept certainly makes sense. But conflating cultural differences with racial ones is a bit dicey, and certainly a sign of the times (and it also happened two years before the priesthood ban was lifted).
Kimball was not alone. A year later during a BYU speech entitled “Follow the Rule,” Elder Boyd K. Packer essentially doubled down on the prophet’s remarks:
Things are not always easy when we receive counsel, whether the counsel is to return to serve among our own people or whether it is counsel to marry among our own culture and racial backgrounds. Always there is a decision. Always we can say, “We’re an exception.” But I say, in the words of that Relief Society sister, “As for me, I’m going to follow the rule first; and then, should there be an exception, perhaps that will be made known.”
Although we have an archive of these remarks, they are not present in any current curricula. And just like President Kimball, Elder Packer makes a brief comment about race in the greater context of something else, in this case the importance of adhering to simple rules administered by prophets.
To go back to Elder McConkie, again, the current prophet does not say such things. We don’t have this sort of narrative in the current Church. As it has become more internationally and racially diverse, outdated purity doctrines don’t have a place in the proceedings. Indeed, the excellent Gospel Topics essays that started in 2013 go into great detail. Just look at this excerpt from “Race and the Priesthood“:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
Since that day in 1978, the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans, African Americans and others of African descent has continued to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual’s race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.
The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is “no respecter of persons”24 and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of race—is favored of Him. The teachings of the Church in relation to God’s children are epitomized by a verse in the second book of Nephi: “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
Boom lowered. Right there, clear as crystal it states that mixed-race marriage is not a sin.
So why make a fuss about something from 2013 that should obviously supersede anything from 1976, per Elder McConkie? Because the 1976 language remains in our manuals and is thus codified. It’s one thing to keep a record of older remarks that are undone by later generations. It’s another to maintain those older remarks as part of curricula.
Both Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3, Lesson 31: “Choosing an Eternal Companion”; and Eternal Marriage Student Manual: “Marriage for Eternity” feature the Kimball quote. The latter provides very little context as it is essentially a compendium of talks on the the subject of marriage. The former sort of glosses over the race remark, even omitting it when asking young men, “Why is it important for a couple to have a similar economic, educational, and cultural background?” It’s also worth mentioning that while this manual is still in play, updated youth manuals from a few years ago are more likely to be used. But the counsel about race is still there, and any young man in 2017 could read through the manual and think his Church is telling him not to date that cute girl of another race if he wants his temple marriage to last.
As with any major undertaking, the creation of Church curriculum is a long, slow process. Too often in life we wish for a call to action to yield immediate results. That is rarely the outcome, and even less so in the Church. If you want to learn more about the development of Church curriculum, we recommend this great episode of LDS Perspectives with David B. Marsh and Russell Stevenson.
Overall President Kimball gave great counsel. Nobody should refute that. Relationships are certainly easier for those of similar backgrounds, even if the occasional pauper and princess do cross paths. And again, it is important to be absolutely clear that the Church does not preach that interracial marriage is a sin, but it does continue to endorse, through its manuals, the idea that a mixed-race relationship might be unwise. That should change.