Certainly these efforts are partly about public relations. But they also reflect a recognition on the part of the hierarchy in Salt Lake City that there are ethical limits to the what the LDS Church claims as its God-given mandate: to unite the whole of humanity into one eternal family through temple rituals. History—especially the history of atrocities against religious and racial minorities—must inform, and in some cases, limit this sacred work.
And just as Mormon leaders have restricted the practice of proxy baptism when it comes to Holocaust victims, they must review who is considered “married” in the Family Search database. Hemings and Jefferson are only the most sensational instance of what is, in fact, a broader concern. In the LDS Church’s earliest years, several southern slave owners converted to Mormonism. Mormon leaders encouraged these slave-owning converts to free their slaves, but several nonetheless brought their slaves to Utah when the Mormons settled in the intermountain west in the late 1840s and ’50s—and, in 1852, the LDS-dominated legislature legalized slavery in Utah, making it the only western territory where slavery was sanctioned.
In 1850, North Carolina-born Mormon convert John Hardison Redd brought his slave Venus and her enslaved children to Utah with the rest of his family. In the 1850 territorial census, Venus is listed as “black” and her children are listed as “yellow,” a common designation for mixed-race slaves. According to family history, after John Redd’s untimely death in 1858, Venus stayed with the Redds—and with the church. Though Venus left no written recollections of her own, the Redd family remembers her as a devoted Mormon who attended each Sunday’s services, often singing in the choir. One family member said that when Venus found out she could not go to the temple because she was black, she scratched her arm until blood poured forth. “See!” she is said to have proclaimed, “my blood is as white as anyone’s.”
Venus would have her day in the temple, more than a century after her own death. While a record of her proxy baptism is no longer available, on Oct. 6, 1992 she was, according to Family Search, sealed by proxy to John Redd as his wife in the Provo Temple. (Redd was also sealed to another female slave, “Chaney,” in the Spokane, Wash. Temple in August, 2006.)
If we take the Redd family’s word for it—and it’s not a given that we should—Venus probably would have welcomed the proxy baptism. Yet the same questions that Jefferson and Hemings’s union presented arise for Redd and Venus: Even if she was a committed Mormon, would she really want to spend eternity with the man that held her in bondage and enslaved their shared children?
Even more troubling is the case of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Mississippian Mormon convert Robert M. Smith brought Biddy and her mixed-race children—as well as dozens of other slaves—first to Utah and then to the Mormon settlement in San Bernardino, Calif. In 1856, Biddy and Smith’s other slaves sued him for their freedom, arguing that since he had moved them into the free state of California, then they are “forever free.” Judge Benjamin Hayes agreed.
Mason won her freedom just in time: A year later, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that the U.S. Congress had no right to prevent slavery in any state, and that African-Americans, free or enslaved, had no right to sue in court.
This fortunate timing forever changed the history of Los Angeles. Biddy took the last name of “Mason” (most likely the last name of her first master); newly self-christened, she quickly became an in-demand nurse and midwife. Investments in real estate made her wealthy and famous, the matriarch of black Los Angeles. She helped establish an elementary school for the city’s black children. In 1872, after a vision from God commanded her to do so, Mason founded the city’s oldest black church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME). Today FAME is a megachuch of some 19,000 members and 13 corporations and a center of black pride and power in Los Angeles—which is also home to Biddy Mason Park. The city named Nov. 16, 1989, “Biddy Mason Day.”
Unlike Venus Redd, who reportedly remained with the LDS Church, when Mason gained her freedom, she built her own religious institution, one that welcomed her as a full member.
Despite this well documented history, on May 21, 2004, Bridget Biddy Mason was baptized by proxy in the Oakland, Calif. Temple, with the rest of her temple ordinances to follow in the months after. According to Family Search, Mason has not yet been sealed to Robert M. Smith. But the LDS Church’s genealogical database does recognize her as Smith’s wife (and Smith as the father of her children). The actual sealing between Mason and Smith is, according to Family Search, “ready” to be completed.
Two weeks ago, when the existence of such sealings was first brought to the LDS Church’s attention, communications passed quickly between high-ranking officials in both the Church History Department and the Church’s Family History Department. The sealing of Venus to John Hardison Redd was removed from the Family Search website. (Because this massive database often contains multiple entries for individuals, however, one of John and Venus’ duplicate sealings is, as of this writing, still retrievable.)
Ideally, removing these sealings from “public” view is not about the church covering its tracks. Rather, it should—and may—signal the beginning of what will be an agonizing process in which LDS Church leaders figure out what to do with such sealings. To undo them—which would require formal approval from church leaders—might serve to end the symbolic violence of such rituals, which link slave masters to slaves they sexually abused. It would also send a loud and powerful message about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to this aspect of Mormon temple practice.
When performed according to church policy, and in the true spirit of the ritual, this often misunderstood practice can be quite moving. Margaret Young, co-producer of the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold History of Black Mormons, told me about a proxy baptism and sealing that she witnessed. Young sat with an African-American convert named Susie as she watched her two sons, who “had died violent and tragic deaths” without being baptized, receive this ritual by proxy in the Provo Temple in 1998. “For Susie, this was a redemptive experience,” Young told me, “recalling her sons’ names and, in some measure, returning them to her and to the principles she had raised them to believe.” That same day, Susie was sealed to her late husband, Arthur, with Darius Gray—emeritus president of the Genesis Group, the largest organization of black Mormons—serving as proxy for Arthur.
“This is what temple ordinances should be,” Young told me, “the hearts of the children return to their mothers and fathers, and the hearts of their fathers and mothers return to their children.”
*Correction, March 29, 2012: This article origianlly misspelled Arun Gandhi's last name. It also misstated the year of Jefferson's presidential race. It was 1800, not 1802.