ATLANTA, Ga. — President Russell M. Nelson mentioned compensated emancipation Thursday night when he received the 2023 Gandhi-King-Mandela Peace Prize during a ceremony at Morehouse College.

Compensated emancipation was part of Joseph Smith’s campaign platform when he ran for president of the United States in 1844. The presenter of the peace prize said President Nelson has honored that heritage as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Carter said to President Nelson:

“As an internationally recognized medical scientist, revered president, prophet, seer, and revelator for the 17-million-member church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have continued the legacy of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saints movement and the first nationally recognized religious leader in the United States to advocate for the freedom of enslaved Africans by affirming racial and ethnic equality and running for the American presidency on a political platform of compensation emancipation.”

President Nelson responded in a pre-recorded video shared during the event at the historically Black college:

“Reverend Carter, in your gracious letter of invitation, you recounted Joseph Smith’s political platform of compensation emancipation in his run for the American presidency. That was in the year 1844. The very year he gave his life as a martyr. We honor his vision.”

What is compensated emancipation?

So what is compensation or compensated emancipation?

Compensated emancipation was a proposal to end slavery by paying slave owners to release their slaves.

Joseph Smith proposed raising money through the sale of public lands and cutting the salaries of members of Congress from $8 a day to $2 a day, according to Margaret Robertson in BYU Studies Quarterly.

His goal was to move quickly. He wanted to pay to free all slaves by 1850.

“Break off the shackles from the poor black man and hire him to labor like other human beings,” his campaign materials said. “... Restore freedom! Break down slavery!”

The Rev. Dr. Carter said Thursday about Joseph Smith that:

“In 1844, based on a text in the Book of Mormon, which we have printed in today’s program for you to see, he made the decision to run for president of the United States on a platform of compensation emancipation. It was a very hostile environment to freeing the African slaves. If he had won, I think most of the Negroes in the United States would have become Mormons and not Baptists and Methodists, because he was going to free the enslaved and get the federal government to pay reparations to the slaveowners.”

The Rev. Dr. Carter said President Nelson had led the Church of Jesus Christ to pay for Black students to study at two historically Black colleges.

An oil portrait of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, hangs in the International Hall of Honor with President Abraham Lincoln.
An oil portrait of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, hangs in the International Hall of Honor with President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Ira Helfand at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

President Nelson announced in 2021 that the church would donate $3 million to the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) for scholarships for Black students. More than a dozen students who have received scholarships and are studying at Morehouse College and nearby Spelman College attended Thursday night’s event.

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The church also donated $6 million to the NAACP to help inner-city Black communities and $250,000 to fund a fellowship to send dozens of Black American students to Ghana to study their African roots.

Under President Nelson’s leadership, the church and the NAACP have collaborated since 2018 to provide customized self-reliance programs for inner-city Black populations.

The Rev. Dr. Carter said to President Nelson:

“You have worked tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than create walls of segregation. You have led your great church to link arms with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People better known as the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, Morehouse College and Spelman College to help more people enjoy the light of participatory democracy.”

During the ceremony, the Rev. Dr. Carter unveiled new portraits of President Abraham Lincoln and President Nelson, which now hang side by side in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College.

The Rev. Dr. Carter said that Lincoln’s thinking about Black people and slavery evolved over time. Historians say the same is true of Joseph Smith.

In 1833, he reported a revelation that slavery is immoral: “Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.”

In 1842, his journal reports that he said he had always advised slave owners to take their slaves into free states and release them.

“Educate them & give them equal Rights,” he said.

“In many ways, slavery was the issue of the day, but for Joseph, it was also a matter of right versus wrong,” said Sister Ruth L. Renlund, who serves alongside her husband, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“He understood from restored doctrine that all the human family are God’s spirit children,” she said of President Smith in a presentation two years ago. “He believed in the dignity and equal rights of all humankind and he was in sympathy with them for their rights were trampled upon, just as his had been.”

In 1843, Joseph Smith contradicted a popular belief of his era that Black people did not have souls. He said that given the same opportunities as white people, they would have the same level of accomplishment, wrote Anita Stansfield, a Black Latter-day Saint woman.

The concept of compensation emancipation was well-known among abolitionists in the 1830s. By 1844, some were pushing for more radical measures to achieve instant freedom for slaves, Robertson wrote for BYU Studies.

Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a mob in June 1844, months before the election began in November.

In April 1862, Congress passed — and Lincoln signed — the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. It freed slaves in the District of Columbia and compensated owners up to $300 for each freeperson. D.C. commissioners paid to grant freedom to 2,989 former slaves, according to a history page on the U.S. Senate website.

The Compensated Emancipation Act marked the first time the government officially liberated any group of slaves, according to U.S. Archivist David S. Ferriero.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South eight months later.