Among my most distinctive childhood memories is of looking at Del Parson’s famous
painting Christ with Children, the one where He is seated in a red robe with four children around
Him. Three white, one Black. I looked for myself and settled on the fact that both the girls and I
had brown hair. However, I think a tiny part of my child’s mind knew that, as a half-Chinese girl,
I didn’t look quite like any of the children (ironically, the Latter-day Saint Media Library also
refers to the painting as Christ and Children from around the World). I didn’t think much of the
experience then, but now I feel a pang of disappointment and frustration every time I look at
another Latter-day Saint painting that doesn’t represent my experiences with God and my belief
in His love for all His children.
My experience is not unique. The photographs, illustrations, and stories of the Friend and
other Church publications have diversified in recent years, but the religious art that appears in
Latter-day Saint publications, bookstores, and homes remains dominated by white and
European-looking figures. However, the focus of Church-themed art on the white Latter-day
Saint experience fails to reflect the growing diversity in the Church. We lose an opportunity to
teach the world about Latter-day Saint beliefs concerning the nature of God and the inclusiveness
of the Church. Racially integrating Latter-day Saint art will help more members and investigators
feel seen and included in the Gospel as they learn and relearn that “God is no respecter of
persons” (King James Version, Acts 10:34).
Deseret Book is one of the best-known sellers of Latter-day Saint supplies; there are
around 1,200 products under the Art category of Deseret Book’s website. Of the first fifty-eight
products under Deseret Book’s Featured Art tab which are not portraits of Jesus, Church leaders,
and packs of mini art prints, I found that twenty-four depict scriptural stories, twenty-seven
portray no clear non-scriptural person of color, and approximately five portray at least one
unmistakable person of color. Countless more paintings depicting primarily white subjects exist
beyond what I analyzed; very few clearly depict a person of color and fewer clearly depict more
than one person of color. People who look like my Chinese mother and her family continue to be
overwhelmingly absent from Latter-day Saint depictions of this world, the spirit world, the
millennial paradise, the entirety of the Plan of Salvation. Most of my non-white friends disappear
from these paintings as well.
Latter-day Saints of color remain a minority in the United States — the Pew Research
Center reported in 2009 that 86% of Latter-day Saints in the US are white — but millions of
members live in South America, Asia, and other continents. In contrast to the growing diversity
of the Church, Latter-day Saint artwork as a whole continues to exclude people of color from its
subject matter. Latter-day Saint art would be better able to serve as a teaching tool and a visual
representative of the Church to the rest of the world by representing more of God’s children.
Art has been an important part of Latter-day Saint tradition since the early history of the
Church. BYU’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains the purpose of Latter-day Saint art:
Artworks have been used to help teach gospel principles…Artworks are also used to teach
non-Mormons about Church history and doctrine. … The spirit of Latter-day Saint art is
essentially the same: it evokes a sense of the goodness of God and of a belief in his
eternal plan for mankind … Their [Latter-day Saint artists’] quest consists of the attempt
to translate their religious ideals into their various mediums. (Peacock 73-75)
One doctrine that Church leaders emphasize is the importance of racial diversity and unity and
the wickedness of racism. In an article entitled “Unity in Diversity,” Mormon Newsroom
explains, “Whatever the ethnicity or outward appearance, they [Latter-day Saints] have a
common identity as children of the same Heavenly Father. Race is an affirming part of human
purpose. As much as these differences enrich, the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends them all.”
Artwork that focuses primarily on white subjects denies viewers opportunities to learn
and relearn the principle that everyone has a place in the Gospel and in God’s plan. Given the
importance of images to the way we process and internalize information, the worldwide Church
needs artistic images that remind us to include other people and ourselves, no matter what we
look like. Racially homogeneous artwork can also confirm to misled critics and investigators that
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a white church when in fact God “inviteth…all
to come unto him and partake of his goodness” (Book of Mormon, 2 Ne 26:33). By affirming
beliefs in God’s love and humankind’s “common identity” through racially inclusive artwork,
Latter-day Saint artists, distributors, and members testify of God’s love to members as well as to
anyone concerned about the Church’s past or present stance on race.
Although Latter-day Saints of color have traditionally comprised a minority in the
Church, our doctrine teaches us that God does not ignore the minority. The fact that people of
color are a minority in the Church is irrelevant to the need for them to have the same access to
representation that Caucasian members have had for generations.
A few artists have attempted to reverse the racially homogeneous trend in Latter-day
Saint art by painting children of color. While browsing Deseret Book for a gift for the Latino
children we tutored, my mother found a painting of Christ with a girl who almost looks like me.
However, our continual inability to find children in Latter-day Saint art who more closely
resemble the children we befriended diminished my short-lived satisfaction. As I have learned, it
will take more than several paintings to upset a decades-long racial imbalance in Latter-day Saint
art and to represent a wide variety of people of color.
Artists and Latter-day Saint distributors have an important, direct role to play in
diversifying Church art as they create, promote, and sell new paintings that shape the religious
art market. However, members must use buying power and word-of-mouth to show retailers that
there is a demand for racially representative artwork. The next time you want to add a piece of
Church-themed art to your home or display art in your lesson, try looking through the collections
of lesser-known artists such as Yongsung Kim, Jorge Cocco Santangelo, Brian Kershisnik,
Kathleen Peterson, Elspeth Young, or other creatives featured in the Church’s international art
competitions. As members promote the popularity and profitability of racially diverse artwork,
the amount of representative art in the mainstream Latter-day Saint market will increase. I hope
that diverse artwork inundates Latter-day Saint culture until children of color can easily find
paintings of people who look like them. I imagine that instead of my saying to myself, “Those
girls next to Jesus have brown hair like me,” the next generation of children of color will say to
themselves, “That person looks just like me!” and realize and remember that they belong in
Jesus’ arms too.
“A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, 24 July 2009,
The Holy Bible. Authorized King James Version, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, 2013, Acts 10:34.
The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, 2013, 2 Nephi 26:33.
Peacock, Martha Moffit. “Art in Mormonism.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillan
Publishing Company, 1992, pp. 73-75. eom.byu.edu/index.php/Art_in_Mormonism.
“Unity in Diversity: A Series on the on The Worldwide Church.” Mormon Newsroom, The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 25 Mar 2015.