From Nasty Nupe to Devout Mormon
Much like the pairing of shrimp and grits, socks worn with sandals and snow on the Fourth of July, as a member of the Mormon Church, N.C. State alumnus, Keith Hamilton is an anomaly. His status as one of the 180,000 blacks who account for only three percent of the Mormon Church’s population, makes him even more of an anomaly.
Given the scarcity of blacks in the Mormon Church the subject has been one of little discussion until recently. During the past year, as Americans sought to learn more about Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith, there has also been an increased interest in black Mormons and how they would be casting their votes.
Still, for many, why any person of African descent would chose to practice Mormonism has remained more interesting than how they would vote. Caitlin Boyce, an English major and student at N.C. State said, “I do have a lot of fondness for my religion [Mormonism], but it does tend to be white, American, and male-dominated, [which makes] it interesting to explore why anyone else would want to be a Mormon.”
Shortly after its inception in 1830 by Joseph M. Smith, Jr., the Mormon Church, more formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), implemented a policy which banned blacks from joining its priesthood. Though the Mormon Church claims no knowledge of when the ban was implemented, or who implemented it, it is largely believed that in 1852, Brigham Young, the Church’s second president, made the declaration that blacks were unfit to join Mormon priesthood.
Young, who had 55 wives and fathered 57 children, is known to have played an integral role in establishing the fundamental belief within the Mormon Church that to obtain celestial glory, one must participate in a series of sacred ordinances. These ordinances include an endowment ceremony, which prepares one for the afterlife, and a sealing, which formally binds a family together.
Because they were denied priesthood, blacks in the Mormon faith were unable to partake in these ordinances, which according to Mormon theology left them doomed to damnation. This doctrine remained in place until 1978, just two years before Hamilton, 55, made the decision to join the Mormon Church.
According to Hamilton, the discriminatory nature of this 126-year-old policy was not something that concerned or caused him pause. “I didn’t buy into the history or the stories about the Church. For me, it was a matter of faith,” said Hamilton. “Priesthood is authority to do things in the name of God; since [the ban] wasn’t applicable to me I didn’t see it as restricting me from doing what I wanted to do.”
Always on the “cutting edge” of things, Hamilton began his undergraduate career at N.C. State in the fall of 1976. While completing his undergraduate studies he worked at the student radio station, WKNC-FM, under the stage name Special K and helped charter N.C. State’s Kappa Xi Chapter of the historically black Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Because there was not a chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi at N.C. State Hamilton pledged at the neighboring and historically black campus of St. Augustine’s University.
During the process of joining Kappa Alpha Psi, Hamilton inherited the nickname “White Boy,” greatly in part because he attended predominantly white N.C. State. “I despised being called ‘White Boy,’” said Hamilton, “especially while receiving instructions from my big brothers.”
Though it has been more than three decades since Hamilton pledged Kappa and graduated from N.C. State, the stigma of being a “White Boy” has continued to follow him as a result of his Mormon faith. “Some of the worst things that have been said to me have come from black people…I’ve been told that I’m less ‘than a black person’ and ‘a traitor to my race,’ ” said Hamilton.
Along with the former ban against blacks joining its priesthood, many blacks have remained unreceptive to the Mormon faith because of its teachings on the Curse of Cain, which labels blacks as descendants of Cain, who have been cursed with black skin as a result of him killing his brother. “People tried to use [the Curse of Cain] to explain why the priesthood was denied [to blacks], but the church came out and said that wasn’t the case. That wasn’t the churches position, that was people,” said Hamilton, “and they were entitled to individual rationale.”
Despite the Church discrediting the Curse of Cain, many people, blacks especially, feel that whites within the church hold on to prejudicial sentiments because of these teachings. “I don’t deny that,” said Hamilton “[But] some people are prejudice and some are not.”
A recent graduate of N.C. State, Jeffery Despian is one of those people who aren’t prejudiced. “My family attends a congregation in Cary and the bishop, a non-paid church leader, of that congregation is African-American,” said Despian. “He is one of the most hard-working and caring men I have ever met. He leads a predominately white-majority congregation but I have never heard anything but praise for his leadership and dedication to the members of his congregation.”
Although he was reared in the Mormon Church and baptized when he was eight, Despian remains unclear about the origins of the former ban against blacks in Mormon priesthood. “We may not know the reason why African-American men were not able to hold the priesthood prior to 1978, but what I can tell you is that when the time did come for the priesthood to be given to worthy African-American men, the members of our church rejoiced. I was not alive at this time but have heard many stories of this wonderful day,” said Despian.
Unlike Despian, Hamilton was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church. He did not become acquainted with the Mormon faith until his senior year at N.C. State when he was approached by two Mormon missionaries.
Two weeks after their encounter and lots of prayer, Hamilton made the decision to join the Mormon Church. When he shared the news with his family, they were initially alarmed. “My family was concerned, they didn’t know much about it. I had always been the type of person who marched to a different drummer though,” said Hamilton. “Over time as they saw me growing and maturing they realized and accepted that it worked out for me.”
The first African American to study and obtain a law degree from Brigham Young University, Hamilton was also one of the first blacks to bishop a Mormon Church. Currently residing in Utah as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, Hamilton published his autobiography, The Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon in 2011. With this book, Hamilton once again tries to answer the questions of how and why he chooses to participate in the Mormon faith as a black man. “Overall I’ve had a positive experience in the Mormon Church, I’ve seen it all,” said Hamilton. “I’ve always looked at people as children of God and I try to be respectful of them. For the most part [other] people do too.”