How The Boy Scouts Fostered Racial Equality In The Mormon Church

Illustration for article titled How The Boy Scouts Fostered Racial Equality In The Mormon Church

In July, the Boy Scouts of America finally decided to allow gay adult leaders, heralding a burgeoning age of sexual equality. 40 years ago, something similar happened when they forced the Mormon Church to accept black kids into leadership roles in its scout troops.


African Americans In The Church Of Latter Day Saints

The brief version of the story is that Joseph Smith was cool with the idea of black church members. During his leadership, there were black priests and he promoted abolitionist doctrine.

Brigham Young, though, was a racist. He famously said, “The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.”

From Smith’s death in 1847 onwards, African Americans were prohibited from obtaining priesthoods (leadership positions) in the church and therefore from entering the highest tier of heaven the church believes in.

This policy was rescinded in 1978 with a “revelation from god” stating, “…all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”

As Elder Kevin price sings in “The Book of Mormon,” “I BELIEVE that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.”


The actual motivations for this “revelation” appear to have been deeply rational. The church was trying to expand its presence in Brazil, a country with a large mixed-race population. Applying racist doctrines there was simply impractical.

The Mormon Church’s Role In Scouting

For the last 102 years, the Boy Scouts of America has played a vital role in the Mormon church, with the latter (har) essentially adopting the former as its de facto outside-of-church leadership program for its young men.


The Scouting program uses a de-centralized organizational structure, with the national organization providing a framework for local programs that are organized, led and sponsored by local community organizations. Those troops each have their own, unique traditions and mores, defined by the culture of that sponsoring organization. So, the experience a boy will have with a troop in Los Angeles will be very different from the one he might have in Salt Lake City.

But, this local influence is a two-way street. The LDS church sponsors 37,933 troops made up of 437,160 Scouts. So, the LDS church is responsible for over a third of the Boy Scouts of America’s membership.


Anecdotally, this is the reason cited by friends and family currently involved in Scouting for the BSA’s often too-conservative policies. It’s also what the BSA risked when it voted to allow gay scouts, then gay adult leaders. And it’s why the LDS church’s announcement in August that it will stick with the BSA, rather than one of the ultra-conservative alternatives that have cropped up since July, was so important to the future of Scouting in America. What is good for the Scouts is probably also going to be good for the church’s role in modern, secular society.

Illustration for article titled How The Boy Scouts Fostered Racial Equality In The Mormon Church


Four years before god changed her mind about allowing African Americans in the Mormon Church, a 12-year old kid wanted to become a Senior Patrol Leader — the highest youth leadership position — in his troop, but because he was black and his troop was sponsored by the LDS, he wasn’t allowed to.


The NAACP sued on his behalf; an Observer-Reporter article from the time explains why:

“The legal action arises from a year-old Mormon directive — since revised, but not to the NAACP’s satisfaction — which reserved top youth scout positions in church-sponsored troops for priesthood quorum leaders. Blacks are denied the priesthood and so were denied for scout positions.”


The Church claimed that policy was never intended to foster discrimination in scouting and changed its policy to remove the requirement for priesthood quorum membership for senior patrol leaders. The suit was settled upon that change.

It was a small, but important victory against church discrimination that preceded a total change of policy. Young church members were now learning — through Scouts — to think of their black peers as equals, or even leaders.


Gays And The Mormon Church

Much like black people until 1978, homosexuals are tolerated in the LDS church, but barely. Forgive me if I explain this as a lay person and not as a church member, but it’s my understanding that gays can only be a part of the church if they abstain from sex and the church teaches that gay can be prayed away. They can join the priesthood, but again only if they don’t act on their desire to sex up other same-sex types. Same-sex marriage is not accepted.


The BSA/LDS Compromise

The key wording that enabled the LDS church to accept the BSA’s pro-gay vote appears to be:

“This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own.”


The BSA is in no way forcing local troops to adopt gay adult leaders, it’s simply removing its ban on doing so. So a small, but important victory for gay rights. And one that, given the number of LDS youth in the organization, means some will invariably be exposed to gay adults being all good role models and stuff through Scouting.

Does that mean that god can be expected to issue a revelation that same-sex marriage is alright by her? Maybe not, but if you believe she lives on a planet named “Kolob,” then you can probably acknowledge that stranger things have happened. And if it does, it will be partially due to an organization devoted to teaching kids good leadership skills through the outdoors. Thanks Scouts.


IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.




Forgive me if I explain this as a lay person and not as a church member, but it’s my understanding that gays can only be a part of the church if they abstain from sex and the church teaches that gay can be prayed away. They can join the priesthood, but again only if they don’t act on their desire to sex up other same-sex types. Same-sex marriage is not accepted.

Just to be clear Wes, anyone not legally and lawfully married must abstain from sex to hold the priesthood in the church. Given that gay marriage and its legality are only recently recognized, this pretty much automatically excluded any gay members who had sexually active lives from holding the priesthood.

Given the legality of marriage in the current day and age it would stand to reason that the policy would change, but the LDS church has an intractable stance on the divinity of gender roles in the eternities, so that’s not likely to change regardless of the legality of the marriage. To put it another way, there was no reason to consider the idea of gay marriage parity to hetero marriage during the time of the Doctrine & Covenants (revelation regarding the governess of the church written as received revelation in response to questions that came up as a natural consequence of trying to figure out the ins and outs of a restored faith) and as such there was no need to specify that the marriage be not only legal and lawful but with respect to the Divine nature of Gender in the eternities.

I’m telling you this so that you can understand that the priesthood and leadership governess in the church is related not to attraction, but to adherence to the revealed will of God. I.e. a non sexually active homosexual is entitled to all the privileges of the priesthood just like a non sexually active heterosexual is. A sexually active non-married heterosexual is denied the priesthood just as any sexually active homosexual would be. Given that the church has strictly defined definitions of gender in the marriage equation (and I’m sorry but this isn’t likely to change ever...also sorry but the church has the right to define marriage how they want in the operation and governance of their organization) then it makes sense...logically...that if you are having sex and you are gay...then yeah, you can’t hold the priesthood.

I should also point out that “pray away the gay” is a derogatory use of the notion of faith. Its in line with the tone of your piece to vilify religion (as is the prevailing theme of the day) but if you actually intend to report accurately and with journalistic integrity you should consider both perspectives and be sensitive to ideas other than your own. Isn’t tolerance the name of the game these days?

Homosexuality is on equal footing with any other sin as defined by a religion you clearly don’t understand, so you could say “pray away the clepto” or “pray away the hate for you neighbor” only those just make you sound like douche when you say them, as opposed to the tired old trope that’s familiar but still derogatory.

I’m not blind, also, to the fact that the church has a history of behavior towards people that is not in line with the teachings of the church. The church is imperfect people and those who are faithful in the church strive for that perfect faith that isn’t mired in human fault. What this means is that church isn’t for the perfect people to congregate and congratulate each other on their perfection, its a place where imperfect people try to be better.

My point being that, yeah, its easy to crack wise at the LDS church, or point out the many failings of its many members to not treat all of humanity equitably and then use that position as a justification to heap back the same crap that was heaped the other way. But if we all ACTUALLY want the world to be a better place, the trick isn’t to fight eye for eye, but to grow in an understanding of humanity, love and compassion. i.e. just because the LDS church (or any church, organization, etc) has done you or others wrong in the past, doesn’t mean that you have to do the same wrong to them to make it right.

As for the practice of Black people and the church, the church is a living breathing organization (yeah, we still have active prophets and apostles and yes, revelation is not dead) There is a time and place for revelation and sometimes all it takes (actually most times now that I think about it) is to ask god “hey, is this thing we’re doing right?” to which you may get a “actually, I’m glad you asked, because the time is past for those practices to be done away with.”

This is true of Christianity throughout the ages, practice and doctrine change in accordance with the time and season when it can be accepted.

Lastly, I would like to point out, as SOOOOO many of your colleagues have during the “I identify as black” issues...that race and gender are not equivalent issues, so it would probably be best to stop treating them that way in the context of this scouting issue as it relates to the church. We get it Wes, you don’t like them Mormons...we like you though.

Dayum this is a longer post than I wanted to write when I started out.