Social Distances: A Study of Changing Views of Young Mormons toward Black Individuals

Phillip R. Kunz and Yaw Oheneba-Sakyi

Phillip R. Kunz and Yaw Oheneba-Sakyi, “Social Distances: A Study of Changing Views of Young Mormons toward Black Individuals,” in Religion, Mental Health, and the Latter-day Saints, ed. Daniel K. Judd (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1999), 237–244.

Phillip R. Kunz was professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, and Yaw Oheneba-Sakyi was associate professor of sociology at State University of New York College at Potsdam when this was published. This article was originally published in Psychological Reports 65:195–200; reprinted with permission.


In 1978, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received a revelation that allowed black members of the Church to obtain the priesthood. Using the Bogardus Social Distance Scale, it was determined that during a period beginning three years before the revelation, Brigham Young University students showed less social distance than their national peers toward black individuals. In 1989, this study used the Bogardus scale on BYU students to establish whether or not the social distance had continued to lessen in the years following the revelation. It was found that the social distance toward blacks had continued to decrease gradually through the eleven years. Additionally, the social distance toward other ethnic groups was also tested and compared for the 1979–89 period. Most notably, students felt significantly closer to and more positive about Russians, who had the greatest social distance decrease.

In 1978, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) began to ordain “all worthy male members” to the priesthood. Male members so ordained can officiate in the ordinances practiced by the Church, some of which are seen as essential to eternal salvation in the next life. Blacks have been members of the Church almost from its inception, but black males had been excluded from the priesthood while their white peers have always been eligible.

The official position of the Church before the 1978 revelation was that black men could not have the priesthood because God had not permitted it. Some argued that such exclusion was grounded in one of the Church’s canons of scripture. The Church never had any official doctrine which explicated the reasons for the practice, only that black men could not be ordained until the Lord permitted it. The assumption had always been that the time would come when black men could be ordained but that it would be in the Lord’s own time. Generally, Mormons believed that the time was not imminent.

For several years, the Mormon Church and its members were targeted by various social activists who viewed the exclusion as discrimination growing out of attitudes founded in prejudice. Nevertheless, in spite of the media attention given to the relationship of black members and the Mormon Church, the doctrinal change of ordaining black men to the priesthood came suddenly and without any previous indication that the change was going to occur.

The following was part of the statement sent to Church leaders throughout the world:

Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple, supplicating the Lord for divine guidance. He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come, when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the Holy Priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. (“Blacks Get Priesthood,” 1978)

The change was a significant event for Mormons. Within hours of the announcement, the word had spread to most Mormons in the various countries of the world. For many members of the Church, both black and white, this was a great and happy occasion.

Research data obtained shortly after the announcement indicated that Mormon university students were happy with the announcement. A measure of social distance, using the Bogardus scale (1959), showed a greater movement toward less social distance between the students and black individuals during the period three years prior to the reported revelation and just after the revelation (Kunz, 1979).

The literature indicates that the changing of attitudes is very complex. It is often assumed that attitudes are changed more easily when certain conditions are met, such as information presented by a person of high status, date couched in scientific research, and so on. If attitude change is to persist, the assumption is often made that there must be some reinforcement (Albrecht, Chadwick, & Jacobson, 1987). Some changes do not seem to have the same permanency but rather quickly wash out following the initial exposure (Insko, 1967). One can ask the question, then, whether change toward closer social distance reported in the above research would grow out of the euphoria of the moment because the change was unexpected or whether the change would be enduring.


To examine this question, the Bogardus Social Distance Scale was again used as in 1979 (Kunz) to assess the change in social distance over time. Data were obtained from several classes of introductory sociology students attending Brigham Young University in the winter of 1989. This particular course is a general education class, which is taken by a wide range of students from across the university. Fifty-three percent of the sample were freshmen, 26 percent sophomores, and the rest were upper classmen. The sample included 57 percent female and 43 percent male. Of the total, 90 percent were Mormons, 94 percent were white, and the reported parental income tended to be well above average, with a mean of $49,000.

The Bogardus Social Distance Scale has a range of one to seven and is constructed so that each respondent selects the item which best fits his personal beliefs relative to each ethnic group. The groups, which are listed in Table 12.1, are shown by Bogardus in such a manner that they sometimes seem to be national, sometimes racial, and are not always mutually exclusive. His finding was that people tended to understand groups in that manner, so white Americans might not think of a black person as also being in the American group like themselves.

The respondent thought of the group and then responded in terms of the following items.

Would admit members of each group as follows:

1 = to close kinship by marriage

2 = to my club as personal chum

3 = to my street as neighbors

4 = to employment in my occupation

5 = to citizenship in my country

6 = as visitors only to my country

7 = would exclude from my country

Mean scores were computed which could range from one to seven. A score of one would indicate no social distance, while seven would indicate much distance.

Kunz (1979) found a decrease in the overall score from 2.2 to 2.0 from 1975 (prior to the revelation) to 1979 (after the revelation). That was a reduction of .25 for the total score for all of the thirty groups originally used by Bogardus. During that same time the social distance decreased by 1.2 for black individuals or by several times as much as the average reduction.


Table 12.1 presents mean social distance scores for the two previous time periods, as well as for 1989. One may observe a decrease from 1975 to 1979, with a gradual decrease also occurring from 1979 to 1989. As may be observed in Table 12.1, the total means for each of the time periods are 2.2,2.0, and 1.6, which indicates that the overall social distance has declined. The rank for black individuals may be observed in Table 12.1, as from thirtieth up to twenty-second where it remained for the third time period.

Table 12.1: Changes in Social Distance for Racial and Ethnic Groups, 1975–1989

Changes in Social Distance for Racial and Ethnic Groups, 1975–1989

In 1989, data were obtained for two categories with reference to black individuals. The 1975 study used the term “Negroes,” which was equivalent to what Bogardus had originally used and was not out of use in 1975. By 1979, the term “Negro” was generally replaced by “black”; however, “Negro” was used then to correspond with the earlier term. We decided to use both terms in this study to make a comparison with the earlier data more understandable and also to ascertain whether any real differences would be evoked from the two different terms in this study. There was only a minor difference in the social distance reported in the two terms. Apparently, both terms are perceived as referring to the same group of people by the respondents. In any event, that decrease in social distance is still extant in the population we tested—young students at Brigham Young University.

Discussion and Conclusions

It can be argued that the original decrease in social distance was not just a reaction to the unexpected change within the Mormon Church relative to black members and the priesthood but that the decrease was to be a more enduring reclassification of social distance with other groups. This decrease in social distance would probably also be reflected by an increase in more intergroup dating and marriage as well, although we have only an impression of this. Examination of the data in Table 12.1 supports the notion that an overall reduction in social distance has taken place toward all of the groups, as specified by Bogardus (1959). This is not surprising in view of the civil rights legislation, the integration of the educational systems, and so on. Perhaps this continued decrease in the social distance may also stem from the extension of Mormon missionary work and the establishment of various organizations of the Church into Nigeria, Ghana, and other African countries. These activities are generally well publicized among the members of the Mormon Church. In addition, there are more black students enrolling in Brigham Young University at a time when the total number of students permitted to register has been frozen by Brigham Young University administrative policy. While there is a continual increase of requests for admission, the university has stayed virtually the same size for several years.

Our findings cannot be generalized to all Mormons in the world but should represent those who are beginning university students at Brigham Young University. Mormon students at other universities may be somewhat different from those who attend Brigham Young University, so caution should be used in generalizing these findings.

It is interesting to note the change in two other ethnic groups in the present study: Japanese and Russians. Values in Table 12.1 show the movement through the different time periods in terms of the rankings. The rank for Russians went from twenty-eighth to thirtieth, and then up to sixteenth, which is a remarkable change. From 1979 to 1989, the greatest decrease in social distance took place toward Russians. In recent times, the Russian policy of glasnost has been extensively discussed so the decrease may be a reflection of this. On the other hand, the social distance has increased toward the Japanese. Their ranking went from eighteenth in 1975 to twentieth in 1979 and then to thirtieth, or last place, in 1989. We do not have any evidence regarding reasons for this increase in social distance, but it may stem from the general overall economic climate between Japan and America that has been widely discussed and reported. In any event, the increase does not apply for the Japanese Americans. This appears to be directed more toward Japan as a country or people but not toward those of Japanese extraction. One might have argued that the discussion and subsequent settlement for Japanese Americans institutionalized during the Second World War might have been generalized to increase the social distance of the Japanese in this country, but that apparently did not happen for the present sample. There ought to be more research conducted on these groups.

One may conclude that the general social distance has decreased and appears so for all peoples. The decrease during the latter period was not so sharp, however, perhaps because the distance already moved was large. Overall, the data indicate that there has been a shrinkage in social distance in general and that the gain in distance relative to black individuals just after the Mormon revelation has not decreased but in fact has continued on the same course.


Albrecht, S. L., Chadwick, B. A., & Jacobson, C. K. (1987). Social psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Blacks get priesthood: God reveals new policy to LDS prophet. (1978, June 9). The Daily Universe: Universe Special Edition, pp. 1–3.

Bogardus, E. S. (1959). Social distance. Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch Press.

Insko, C. A. (1967). Theories of attitude change. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

Kunz, P. R. (1979). Blacks and Mormonism: Asocial distance change. Psychological Reports, 45, 81–82.