Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE — Frederick Bethel was raised in the Baptist Church and as he grew up he had “no intention” of leaving the denomination. But as he studied the Book of Mormon, he became attracted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), seeing it as offering something that was different.
Bethel, who was raised in the Carol City neighborhood of Miami Gardens in Miami-Dade County, describes his discovery and subsequent conversion to Mormonism as “a path I clearly had to take.” He has now served five years as bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 1100 S.W. 15th Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
“I never thought I would leave (the Baptist church). Those who are not of our faith have to understand that there is something very powerful about this church that would make someone convert,” he said.
The LDS church has been criticized and accused of employing racist tactics regarding its leadership hierarchy. It was not until 1978 that blacks were allowed into its priesthood.
That policy is among a number of issues which blacks have expressed with the church and with Mitt Romney, a senior Mormon leader who is poised to become the Republican presidential nominee to challenge incumbent Democrat Ba-rack Obama in November.
It is an issue that has sparked a public condemnation from the Rev. O’Neal Dozier, pastor of The Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach and a leading conservative Republican. He called on Romney to repudiate the Mormon faith.
Bethel counters that people are focusing on the actions of men more than 100 years ago. “It’s their right but it really isn’t fair. Let’s evaluate who we are today and who we will become years from now, as a church,” he said.
Marvin Perkins, an African-American elder in the LDS church in Los Angeles, said the restriction against blacks serving as priests was started “for personal reasons.”
“My research revealed that it came as a result of Brigham Young trying to ensure that there were no interracial marriages,” he said.
Young was the second president of the LDS church and served from 1847–77.
“There was no great love for those of African descent coming from Brigham Young,” Perkins said. “But this was 1847, when the first restriction began, and it really did not become a public policy until 1852. You have to keep in mind what was going on in the country at that time … the 13th Amendment would not happen until 1865.”
Perkins, 49, was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He converted to the LDS faith in 1988.
“The new scripture has been revealed … all indicate that the Lord’s intention was for all men to hold the priesthood,” said Perkins. “That’s how the church actually started. In 1830, all men were holding the priesthood and many were African Americans. There was no restriction.”
The church’s position is clear, Bethel added. “We believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the church. We do not tolerate racism in any form,” he said The Book of Mormon has been criticized for its use of the word “black.”
According to Bethel, the book was originally written in, and translated from, the African language of ancient Egypt.
That book and the LDS version of the King James Version of the Bible explain that words “skin, black and darkness” are used in reference to the “state of the spirit, heart and mind, and not a reference to race or literal skin color at all,” he said.
Without the footnotes, the doctrine will appear racist, Perkins added.
“In fact, it did to me the first time I read it,” he said. “And we can understand people’s genuine concerns. But as you take a closer look and you begin to understand it, you know that the doctrine is not racist but misunderstood, even by those within the LDS church, obviously.”
Dozier is not convinced. “Footnotes don’t mean anything,” he said, when asked for a comment.
“Just look at the leadership of the Mormon Church. There are 104 men and only one of them is a black man and he is a Nigerian. There is not even one African-American man among them. I stand by what I said about the Mormon Church being racist.”
Regarding the number of blacks in positions within the LDS church, Perkins said the church does not keep records by race.
“However, of every person of African descent that is in the church, with the exception of the few who are struggling with something, at least 99 percent hold positions in the church,” he said. “And there is likely a minimum of a half million people of African descent in the church, worldwide.”
There are different offices in the priesthood, based on age and worthiness, Bethel said. “The church is quite liberal when it comes to the priesthood,” he said.
Positions within the LDS church are unpaid, Bethel said. “I put in quite a bit of time as bishop and still I work like everyone else. It’s quite a sacrifice on the ecclesiastical leaders of the church. But we do it because we are servants of the Lord and were called to do the service,” he said.
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net
Photo: Rev. O’Neal Dozier