Brigham Young, critic of racism

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Brigham Young, in an unsourced photograph from ca. 1850
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

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In his important book Religion of a different colorPaul Reeve relates an interesting episode involving Brigham Young:

An early mixed-race (black and Native American) member of the Church named William McCary – a rather slender and somewhat erratic and even unbalanced man, as it turned out, who ultimately did not endure faithfully to the end – had encountered racial prejudice among some members of the Church.

In response, President Young counseled the Saints to “use this man with reverence.” (The verb use is used here in a somewhat archaic sense common to Shakespeare. See below. In today’s English, we would use the verb to treat.)

But some problems persisted. And he kept complaining.

Was he somehow sub-human or even non-human?

“It has nothing to do with blood,” President Young replied, “for of one blood God made all flesh.

Professor Reeve comments on this exchange:

“It was an echo of the same New Testament verse (Acts 17:26) that [Joseph] Smith quoted in his presidential platform three years earlier. Both relied on the Bible to affirm a broad community among mankind and simultaneously recognized a broader racial debate that then animated the scientific and Christian communities. In paraphrasing Acts 17:26, Young and Smith were referring to an important verse then commonly quoted by 19th-century Christians. Believers have used the verse to defend themselves against a theory of polygenesis, then stirring up scientific arguments about the origins of different races. The scientists who promoted the polygenesis theory believed that there were multiple independent creations rather than a single biblical creation. Each creation gave birth to a new race, which meant that whites and blacks were actually different species. Even though the two species could reproduce biologically, one argument was that an innate reluctance against interracial mixing was intended to preserve “species distinctness”. Those who violated innate repugnance were actually violating nature, which was a sure sign of their moral degradation. Physical degeneration followed and within a few generations the offspring of such unions would be sterile.

See W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 128-131.

It’s fashionable in recent years to demonize Brigham Young as a racist, even vicious – and in some cases to essentially forget that there was anything other To the man.

I resist this.

He wasn’t perfect, of course.

Nor has any apostle or president of the Church been. Neither do I. Neither do his detractors.

“Use every man after his desert,” wrote Shakespeare (in Hamlet II.ii), “and that shouldscape whippingOr, to paraphrase: treat everyone only on their merits, and who would not be worthy of censure or even punishment?

On racial matters, Brigham Young said things that shock us today, and that we cannot agree with. We cannot deny it. He was, as we all are—even the prophets among us—a man of his time, of his culture, and of his origins.

But he was a good man, a remarkable man, truly a great man, a sincere follower of the Lord and a prophet who sought to do the will of God.

I choose to be with him. “The soul that leaned on Jesus to rest, I will not, I cannot, abandon to its enemies.” And, on the specific racial issue described above, President Brigham Young was—despite the dismissive stereotype of him that is currently in vogue—on the side of the angels.

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And now, on a very different note, some thoughts in the general area of ​​science and religion, culminating with a quote from, well, Brigham Young:

“Science has faith. We make assumptions. We cannot prove these postulates, but we believe in them.

Charles H. Townes (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1964)

Dr. Townes believed that “science and religion [are] quite parallel, much more similar than most people think, and in the long run they have to converge. “Science,” he writes, “tries to understand what our universe looks like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is about understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or a meaning, it must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and therefore in science.

“He was one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century,” Dr. Reinhard Genzel, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, remarked on Dr. Townes’ death. “His strength was his curiosity and unwavering optimism, grounded in his deep Christian spirituality.”

I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly belittled by scientific reductionism, with its claim, in promiscuous materialism, to ultimately account for the entire spiritual world in terms of patterns of neural activity. This belief must be qualified as superstition. . . . We must recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.

Sir John C. Eccles (1903-1997), neurophysiologist

1963 Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology

“Scientific progress is the discovery of an ever more comprehensive simplicity. . . . Previous successes give us confidence in the future of science: we are becoming increasingly aware that the universe is knowable. (Father Georges Lemaitre [1894-1966]Belgian astronomer, physicist and priest and, undoubtedly, at the origin of the theory of the “Big Bang”)

“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is understandable.” (Albert Einstein, German-American physicist [1879-1955])

“The idea of ​​a universal mind or Logos would, I think, be a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory.” (Sir Arthur Eddington, British astronomer, physicist and mathematician [1882-1944])

“The origin of life, whether human or lesser, must be housed in a character that I have not seen! Follow it back, it doesn’t matter if it’s for six thousand years, six million, six million million or billions of years, numbers and numbers are irrelevant, I have to come from a source; my natural philosophy teaches me. But, leaving the natural philosophy of the child free from false traditions, let us ask ourselves. What does the philosophy of Christian sects, or many, not all, teach? “God created the world in six days, out of nothing!” This is very false; no child should learn such dogma. God never made a world out of nothing; He will never do it, he will never be able to!

Brigham Young, Speech log13:248 [25 September 1870])

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