On June 1, the Mormon church will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the “revelation” that black men should be allowed to be full members of the church. In anticipation of the event, top leaders of the Mormon church, including president Russell Nelson, met this week in Salt Lake City with national leaders of the NAACP. The meeting was significant, given the history of tension and enmity between the groups; the NAACP led a march in the city against the church’s racial policies in the 1960s, for example. But the substance of the meeting—education initiatives, humanitarian work, and a shared commitment to civility—was hardly revolutionary.
Hours earlier, however, a forceful statement appeared online, labeled as an official church release and looking every bit the real thing.
“President Nelson Meets With NAACP; Offers Apology for History of Racism,” the headline announced. The statement included what was described as a statement Nelson would deliver at the meeting with the NAACP. “I offer a full unqualified apology for the error of racism which was taught from this office and in the tabernacle and over the pulpits of our churches the world over,” the statement read, before a detailed repentance of the church’s wrongs toward black members. “Our souls are harrowed up by the memory of this sin.”
The full-throated apology left many Mormons, especially black Mormons, in a state of happy shock. The local Fox outlet posted an article about the apology (now removed). But within hours, word had spread that the letter was a sophisticated fake. The URL included an extraneous hyphen, for example, and the fine print included a reference to the church’s official “pasquinade”—satirical—newsroom. The revelation devastated many of the same people who had celebrated it just hours before.
“Anyone with an ounce of sense or empathy would instantly know this is cruel and wrong,” Steve Evans, an author at the Mormon site By Common Consent, wrote to me Thursday when it was still unclear who had posted the fake. “If well-intentioned, it’s a vivid demonstration of white privilege.” At the time, some critics were speculating that the statement had been designed in part to mock black Mormons.
Race is a sensitive issue within the LDS church, which has made fitful attempts to reckon with its history in recent years. Until 1978, the church prohibited black men from the priesthood, a category encompassing basically all male church members. The ban originated under the church’s second president, Brigham Young, who attributed it to the supposed “curse” of Cain. The church formally disavowed the ban in 2013. Just 1 percent of Mormons in America are black, according to Pew, although black people make up 1 in 10 converts to the faith.
Some critics saw a particularly Mormon cast to the deceptive statement’s medium. Max Perry Mueller, an historian who wrote a 2017 book about race and 19th-century Mormonism, connected the parody statement to the work of forger Mark Hoffman, who crafted false historical documents intended to discredit the church’s founders in the 1980s. “Mormons are, by divine mandate and culture, a textual people. They look to prophets’ words, especially written ones, for guidance,” Mueller told me. Both Hoffman’s work and this week’s fake apology “attempted to take advantage of Mormons’ faith in their prophets’ written pronouncements.”
By Thursday night, the prankster had revealed himself as Jonathan Streeter, a former Mormon in Texas who blogs about issues related to the church. Streeter, who is white, told a Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City that he had hoped to start a “discussion” on racism in the church. Acknowledging the emotional roller coaster he had launched, he suggested some of his detractors were directing their anger toward him because it was emotionally safer than being angry at an institution they are still devoted to. “They could either criticize the leaders of the church for not living up to that aspirational depiction in the parody website, or they could hate me for creating it,” he said. “I’m hoping the discussion continues.”
But plenty of Streeter’s critics are perfectly capable of condemning both the cruelty of the prank and the failures of the church. Zandra Vranes, a black woman who co-created the blog Sistas in Zion, read the fake statement in a teary, forceful Facebook Live video on Thursday morning. Vranes scorned the “heartless” poster (still anonymous at that point) for “retraumatizing” black Mormons by raising and then dashing their hopes. But she also criticized the church itself. She lamented the vagueness and weakness of the actual statement released by the church on the occasion of the NAACP meeting, which included no apologies, and did little more than reiterate that “all people are God’s precious children.” “What we actually got,” she said, “it was nothing.”