Whitewashing the Church: How We Erase the Voice of Latter-day Saints Abroad

Image from the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon | NPR/John Marcus
Russell Stevenson

Russell Stevenson

We are a global people, not an American people exporting our values to others.
Image from the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon | NPR/John Marcus

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or a good portion of my life, I have navigated (note the word choice; this is not my territory) indigenous contexts: Hmong-speaking and more recently, Igbo-speaking terrain. I spent 1.5 years speaking Hmong and more recently, conducting interviews in Igbo. Both languages have been subjected to government-sponsored erasure: whether through Communist oppression in Laos or through colonial rule in Nigeria. I don’t get to claim “woke” points, but I do—gladly—claim to celebrate contributions local knowledge and identity.

The tendency to stereotype, caricaturize, and one-dimensionalize outsiders is as human as comfort eating, watching Netflix instead of going to the gym, or eating a Jimmy John’s sandwich rather than ripping out the quinoa, kale, and whatever other concoction you’ve picked up at Trader Joe’s for a proper meal. It’s even easier to draw on voices familiar to your own to depict experiences. Indeed, in a devotionally-oriented effort in February, LDS Living published a piece on “member families… around the world.” The problem is that the chosen subjects “around the world” were, curiously, Caucasian expat Americans, not Nigerians, Chinese, or even French or Germans.

We sacrifice authenticity to the idol god of (whitened) familiarity. They lack the language, the experience, and the internalized rhythm of the local required absorbed through years of walking the streets, speaking the language, and eating the food. Whatever merits individual expatriates may have had, they participated—to some degree or another—in the broader process of reshaping economic, political, and knowledge structures in Africa, all while passing back accounts to their metropoles in Paris, Brussels, and London about indigenous backwardness, depravity, and benightedness. In some ways, times have changed. African nation-states can claim political (but not economic) independence. The academy celebrates the post-colonial critique whereas past generations professors questioned whether Africa even had a history worth telling. But in other ways, they haven’t. E. Dale LeBaron’s massive African oral history initiative in the late 1980s made no effort whatsoever to ask Nigerians, Ghanaians, or others questions in their indigenous language.

In some ways, I get it. It’s just easier (for white people). But it’s also wrong.

For instance, for nearly two generations, the American Church has waxed eloquent about the “Africa miracle”—celebrating the expansion of the faith into sub-Saharan Africa. Images of African Saints smiling, laughing, baptizing, and singing splash across Latter-day Saint periodicals. The genesis of the Church on the continent marks the “dawning of a brighter day,” we’ve said, celebrating what American missionaries have tended to imagine as a long epoch of darkness on the continent. In this rendering of African history, European and American missionaries are not a foreign presence but vanguard shock troops in releasing Africa from “primitive” times. For some, Euro-descended peoples on the African continent can even serve as stand-ins for the African experience writ large. Not only is the Church expanding, this narrative says; its Euro-descended members can speak for indigenes.

This narrative is not exclusive to Africa—though it comes close to being so. Conventional Latter-day Saint missiological rhetoric depicts Latin America as a primed land with “Lamanites,” a “fallen people” who, once chosen, have now become cursed through their wickedness. Lorenzo Snow spoke of Italy as being a darkened country during his mission, accepting, as he did, accepted Protestant notions of apostasy and reformation. To Latter-day Saint missionaries, European Christendom had represented more of an “evil empire” with wealth, might, and influence; Africans were not afforded the dignifying status of being “civilized.” Meanwhile, in popular literature about the missions, Nigerian proselytes seeking to join the faith pre-1978 have been depicted as docile, submissive, and patient—yearning for the day when the Church would arrive. Omitted from the narrative are comments such as those from one famous convert, Anthony Obinna, angry that he “never knew that Africans were not in this church, that the Church was meant for whites only,” questioning whether the Latter-day Saints were Christians at all: “Did Christ not say Go Ye into all nations and teach them the true religion of Christ?”[1]

The omissions of indigenous voices and languages from the narrative are unfortunate—and costly. Latter-day Saints miss out on the richness and depth of the intersection between indigenous identity and Latter-day Saint faith. For instance, in Hmong, the word for peace is translated: thaj yeeb nyab xeeb which offers us this delicious interpretation: “a field of opium and a pregnant daughter-in-law”); the phrase appears throughout the Hmong translation of the Book of Mormon. In Igbo, the word for God, “Chukwu” (the “great chi”) has a distinct meaning from Chineke (“the creator chi”). Seer stones, material religion, and visions do not face nearly the stigma prevalent within the thoroughly industrialized and heavily disenchanted West. Whereas prior Christian affiliation is celebrated (“Bring us all the good you have!” we cheer), indigenous religion is frequently spurned as superstition, foolishness, and, quite frequently, Satanic.

The (in)famous Book of Mormon Musical depicts two white LDS missionaries singing triumphantly about their identification with Africa: “We are the winds of the Serengeti; we are the sweat of the jungle man. We are the tears of Nelson Mandela; we are the lost boys of the Sudan.” American Saints are far from alone in this tendency; the Book of Mormon Musical drew its inspiration less from LDS popular culture and more from the rather schmaltzy spectacles of Bob Geldof and Bono: depicting starving African children and singing (demonstrably false) songs about whether Ethiopians knew it was Christmas. (As one of the earliest sites of Christianization outside the Holy Land—3rd century A.D.—it’s safe to suppose that Ethiopians knew.)

As with any community, Africans ought to be considered to be the center of their own knowledge production—as should we we all. A Ghanaian who has chosen to fully embrace both the convictions of the Latter-day Saint faith as well as the trappings of its American headquarters (a la white shirt, tie, pants) has not sacrificed his Ghanaian-ness because he did not live up to the standards that Western academics impress upon him. As a body of scholars such as Achille Mbembe and Chielozona Eze have argued, Afro-centered identity can embrace a wide array of cultural manifestations unbounded by strict, and while rejecting what Mbembe calls, “nativist” constructions of indigenous identity.

Latter-day Saint theology offers a compelling rationale to be expansive rather than restrictive in embracing the sacred from a variety of cultural contexts. In I Nephi 29:12, the Lord promises that he “shall also speak unto all nations of the earth, and they shall write it”—an assurance that resonant truths shall be found across the globe, not in the narrow confines of the world colonial societies have made. And it’s a richness that we will never experience if we continue to rely primarily on Americans for telling indigenous stories.

[1] Anthony Obinna, Interview with E. Dale LeBaron, June 4, 1988, Harold B. Lee Library, E. Dale LeBaron Oral History Collection, Box 11, fd. 3, 7-8.

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