This page addresses the history of the priesthood ban, specifically by sharing several chapters from Lengthen Your Stride, by Edward Kimball.
- Shouldering the Cross: How to Condemn Racism and Still Call Brigham Young a Prophet
- Understanding pre-1978 statements by members and leaders of The Church
The Question of Priesthood Denial – Chapter 20
from Lengthen Your Stride, by Edward Kimball
“We realize we do not know all there is to be known about this problem.”
The most dramatic moment of the Kimball administration and probably of Church history in the twentieth century occurred in June 1978 when the First Presidency announced a revelation allowing worthy men of all races to be ordained to the priesthood. Until then, Latter-day Saint men of black African ancestry had been denied the priesthood. They could serve as teachers and in other callings not requiring the person to be a priesthood bearer, but they could not serve as missionaries. After the revelation there were no restrictions. Where previously the only temple ceremony open to them was being baptized on behalf of their ancestors and others, now they could be endowed and sealed, opening the door to exaltation, without having to wait any longer for a promised future time when the priesthood would be available to them.
The 1978 revelation did not come easily to President Kimball and his associates in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, because they were all reared in an America where prejudice toward non-whites was the norm. They also were reared in a church in which most people were taught and believed that it was God’s will that black men should not hold the priesthood, because they had been less valiant in their premortal life as spirits.
President Kimball was an old man when he set out to know with certainty for himself whether God wanted black men admitted to or excluded from the priesthood. Most would expect a man at his age to be firmly set in his ways, but instead he was able to reconsider the teachings of a lifetime and accept radical change.
Origins of the Priesthood Restriction
President Kimball’s first steps toward the events of June 1978 were years of asking why the restriction existed. The explanations he found relied sometimes on strained scriptural interpretations and doubtful historical understandings.
The origin of the priesthood policy was unclear. While later Church leaders asserted that Joseph Smith instituted the practice, no contemporary record exists indicating Joseph Smith said anything directly on the subject of blacks and priesthood. A statement made by Zebedee Coltrin thirty-five years after Joseph’s death attributed the restriction to the Prophet, but that statement is dubious, because Joseph was fully aware that in 1836 a black man named Elijah Abel (also spelled Able) was ordained an elder and then a seventy, a calling in which he was active the rest of his life in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Utah. Furthermore, Elijah Abel was ordained a seventy by the same Zebedee Coltrin.
It appears then that the practice was likely instituted during Brigham Young’s tenure as president, whether instituted by inspiration or by misunderstanding of the doctrine of the priesthood and the principle of individual responsibility for sin. He said in 1849 of “the Africans”: “The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the lives of Abel. . . . The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.” Three years later he again attributed priesthood denial solely to a man’s ancestry, not to color, appearance, or premortal behavior: “Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] in him Cannot hold the priesthood & if no other Prophet ever spake it Before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. I know it is true and they know it.”
By the early twentieth century, when Spencer came to adulthood, the restriction—whatever its origin—had become fully entrenched. Church members generally accepted without question that it was God’s will that “colored” or “Negro” members of the Church could not receive the priesthood. They assumed without proof that the restriction must have come from Joseph Smith and that Brigham Young merely perpetuated the teaching.^1 The few Church members who were aware of Elijah Abel accepted his ordination as an exception or as an aberration resulting from Joseph Smith’s still-developing understanding. 2
The scriptures relied on to explain the restriction were ambiguous. 3 Although Brigham Young offered only descent from Cain as justification for the restriction, later Church leaders began to find in the distinctive Mormon doctrine of a premortal spiritual state a justification for the policy that otherwise seemed unjust. The reasoning ran this way: We know that blacks are denied the priesthood and that a just God holds individuals accountable only for their own shortcomings; therefore, withholding priesthood from blacks who have lived worthily in mortality must reflect some kind of sin committed before they were born.
David O. McKay, counselor in the First Presidency, explained his views in a 1947 letter:
“I know of no scriptural basis for denying the Priesthood to Negroes other than one verse in the Book of Abraham (1:26); however, I believe . . . that the real reason dates back to our pre-existent life.
“This means that the true answer to your question (and it is the only one that has ever given me satisfaction) has its foundation in faith— (1) Faith in a God of Justice, (2) Faith in the existence of an eternal plan of salvation for all God’s children.” 4
Other Church leaders generally concurred. Although they differed about when it would be, Brigham Young and other Church Presidents posited that eventually righteous blacks would receive all the blessings now available to others. This ameliorated the restriction somewhat by characterizing it as time-limited and subject to divine oversight.
Effects of the Policy
Because of the priesthood restriction, missionaries were instructed not to proselytize in black areas, although they were not to refuse teaching blacks who expressed interest.^5 The experience of blacks who did join the Church varied from place to place, but at times they were not accepted in full fellowship. For example, when black members Len and Mary Hope moved to Cincinnati, the branch president asked them to hold meetings in their own home because some white members objected to their presence in the chapel. They complied. A later branch president invited them to attend district conferences. 5
Although the priesthood restriction deeply disturbed many members of the Church, particularly after the civil rights movement of the 1960s raised consciousness about issues of racial discrimination, the matter remained largely abstract. So few blacks joined the Church that most white members never personally saw the effects of the ban. Most white Americans did not accept blacks as their equals, so those Church members who also did not were in the comfortable majority and they had available to them a pat religious basis for their different treatment of blacks.
Those blacks who did accept baptism implicitly accepted their restricted status. If converted, they believed in the Church’s prophetic leadership, and they could not easily challenge the Church’s settled practice. Mary Hope, speaking the feelings of many black Saints in 1947, said, “We are not too much worried about the priesthood. We know that the Lord will take care of it. There is so much of the Gospel for us to live up to that we have a great responsibility and about all we can do.” 6
The policy repeatedly required the Presidency to deal with difficult borderline cases. For example, in 1948, during the George Albert Smith administration, missionaries in the Philippines did not know how to handle natives of a group called “Negritos,” who had black skin but no known African ancestry.^7 The First Presidency authorized ordination, saying descent from black Africans was the disqualifying factor, not skin color or other racial characteristics. 7
President McKay was more concerned that no eligible person be excluded than that no ineligible person be ordained. His approach was to err on the side of inclusion. In South Africa, for example, converts had been required to trace all ancestral lines out of Africa to establish they had no black African forebears. The requirement proved burdensome and impossible in some cases, and in 1954, President McKay discontinued it. 8 In some areas of Brazil, 80 percent of the population was thought to have at least traces of Negroid ancestry, but records were generally not adequate to provide evidence one way or another. In 1965, President McKay directed that male converts in Brazil should be assumed qualified to receive the priesthood in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Soon afterward he extended that policy to all countries. 9
President McKay said several times in private conversations that the restriction on priesthood was not doctrine but was a policy and thus subject to change. But he did not mean that such a change could come by a simple administrative decision. With a century of precedent, change would require divine intervention. President McKay is said to have wanted and sought such a revelation, but he did not receive it and “finally concluded the time was not yet ripe.”
Interest in the Church by Black Africans
For a church that seeks to take its message to every corner of the earth, the priesthood restriction was a particularly vexing problem in Africa. In South Africa there was a Church presence but understandably very little interest among blacks. Ghana and Nigeria had no Church organization but produced a stream of letters, at least as early as 1938, begging for missionaries to come teach large numbers of blacks already converted to the Restoration message by reading Church literature.
LaMar Williams was sent to Nigeria in 1961. As secretary to the Church Missionary Committee, he had answered dozens of letters from Africa. He was met at the airport by ten pastors he had been corresponding with and discovered that many of them were unaware of one another. Williams returned with the names of 15,000 unbaptized converts who were said to be waiting for the Church to come to them. In December 1962 newly ordained apostle N. Eldon Tanner spent two weeks in the Lagos area, visiting three groups that used the Church’s name, one claiming 4,000 adherents. Elder Tanner reported to the First Presidency “cautious optimism” about missionary work, and in early 1963 President McKay called five couples to serve missions in Nigeria. He set LaMar Williams apart as presiding elder of Nigeria with tentative plans to establish Sunday schools headed by Nigerians, supervised by white missionaries who would teach and would administer ordinances. The plan, however, foundered when a March 1963 editorial in the newspaper Nigerian Outlook condemned the Church as racist, and the Nigerian government denied visas to the missionaries. Not long afterward the Biafran civil war broke out in Nigeria. And after the war ended, political instability continued until a peaceful military coup in July 1975.
As awareness of the priesthood policy grew in the United States and Europe, many white potential investigators found it offensive and refused to listen to the missionaries. Technically the ban was not inconsistent with full civil or legal rights for blacks,^10 and the policy did not affect men of all other races, including blacks not of African descent. But these distinctions did not persuade most people. Also largely ineffectual was the argument that those who did not believe in the truthfulness of the Church should have no interest in who had access to its priesthood anyway. 10
In 1963 the Utah chapter of the NAACP threatened to picket October general conference but dropped the plan when President Hugh B. Brown indicated to NAACP leaders that he would read to the conference a statement supporting full civil rights. The statement, approved by President McKay, said that the Church had “no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed. . . . We call upon all men . . . to commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God’s children.”
Between 1968 and 1970 at least a dozen demonstrations or violent acts occurred when Brigham Young University athletic teams played other schools. Opposing players refused to participate or wore black armbands. One spectator threw acid, and another threw a Molotov cocktail that failed to ignite. Stanford University severed athletic relations with Brigham Young University. 11
Changing Perceptions of the Policy in the Church
The possibility for changing the policy increased subtly as scholarly efforts to trace the restriction to its source showed uncertain beginnings and shaky reasoning in support of the practice. A 1967 article by Armand L. Mauss pointed out the speculative nature of the explanations based on premortal conduct and the “curse of Cain.” He concluded that the policy rested on tradition, not on scriptural mandate.
A 1970 book by Stephen Taggart proposed that the policy began in Missouri in the 1830s to reduce the tension between abolition-tending Mormons and their slave-holding neighbors. Lester E. Bush Jr. responded to that argument in 1973 with a lengthy study concluding that the earliest clear evidence of priesthood denial dates only to Brigham Young’s presidency. 12
As the doctrinal foundations of the policy grew increasingly problematic, members focused on its social aspects. Armand Mauss, Eugene England, and Marion D. Hanks, among others, hypothesized that changing the policy perhaps depended on LDS members’ developing a willingness to accept black men and women in true fellowship. 13 Lowell Bennion, highly regarded Institute of Religion teacher at the University of Utah, encouraged members to pray for change. In 1963, he said:
“God’s revelations . . . depend upon our minds, our eagerness, upon our search, upon our questions, upon our moral disturbances, if you will, upon our needs. . . . It may be that the Lord can’t get through to us sometimes on things. Therefore we ought to be thinking and searching and praying even over this Negro problem.”
But others thought it presumptuous for members to do anything but wait patiently and faithfully defend the Church’s position. Spencer W. Kimball, to whom loyalty was an article of faith, placed himself in this latter group. In letters to his son, he explained:
“Perhaps what the prophet needs is not pressure, not goading, not demands. He needs in every city and place defenders—a million men and women to encourage patience, understanding and faith . . . saying: ‘President, we realize we do not know all there is to be known about this problem. We have faith and confidence in you and in the Lord that if relaxation is to come, it will come when the proper time comes. We shall stand and defend as did Peter, ‘though the whole world be against us.’ . . . The very fact that he has not yielded to the public clamor sets him up in my mind as a courageous person, for it would be relatively easy to yield if it were his decision. . . . I have never heard any of the brethren say that the Negro is inferior as a man, nor have I felt the inference. We all know that there are many Negroes who are far superior to numerous whites. . . . The conferring of priesthood, and declining to give the priesthood is not a matter of my choice nor of President McKay’s. It is the Lord’s program. . . . When the Lord is ready to relax the restriction, it will come whether there is pressure or not. This is my faith. Until then, I shall try to fight on. . . . I have always prided myself on being about as unprejudiced as to race as any man. I think my work with the minorities would prove that, but I am so completely convinced that the prophets know what they are doing and the Lord knows what he is doing, that I am willing to rest it there.”
Elder Harold B. Lee, convinced that the ban was doctrinally fixed and wishing to reaffirm the traditional Church position at a time when President McKay was incapacitated, persuaded First Presidency counselors Brown and Tanner to send a letter to that effect in December 1969 to bishops and stake presidents. This statement included strong affirmation of civil rights, 14 but it also attributed the policy on priesthood to Joseph Smith and explained that the reason for the exclusion “antedates man’s mortal existence” and is “for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.” 15
Despite defending the policy, Church leaders sought to make the Church a more welcoming place. In June 1971 three black Mormons in Salt Lake City—Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr—petitioned the Church for help in keeping and reactivating the relatively small number of black members in the city. A committee of three apostles, Elders Hinckley, Monson, and Packer, met with them a number of times, and in October they set Bridgeforth apart as president of the new “Genesis” branch, assigned to the Salt Lake Liberty Stake. 16 Gray and Orr became his counselors. Genesis members attended sacrament meeting in the wards where they lived but came together weekly for Relief Society, Primary, and youth meetings. Once a month they met to hear speakers and to bear testimony. 17
Spencer and Camilla attended a Genesis picnic, visiting with the adults and holding little children on their laps. While President of the Twelve, Spencer personally took Christmas gifts to the homes of the Genesis presidency.
During the time Harold B. Lee was President, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and the issue unquestionably occupied his mind. He asked Marion D. Hanks what answer Elder Hanks gave when asked about the policy on race and priesthood. Elder Hanks responded that he believed change would come through inspiration when whites had sufficiently matured spiritually. President Lee approved a general policy that black children could be sealed to non-black adoptive parents, whereas such sealings had been previously approved ad hoc. 18
In December 1973, President Lee died unexpectedly, and the thorny issue of restriction on priesthood passed to his successor, Spencer W. Kimball.
Spiritual Premonitions of Others
Looking back after the revelation a number of people identified unusual experiences that seemed to signal the change to come. In a 1973 patriarchal blessing, Oscar L. McFarland, patriarch of a stake in Covina, California, promised Theadore Britton, a black Sunday School superintendent, that if he remained faithful he would one day enjoy all the blessings of the priesthood. It was clear from the context that “one day” meant in mortality. Frightened by what he had said, the patriarch called his stake president, who told him, “Send me a copy. I’ll send it on to President Kimball.” The blessing transcript later came back with a red question mark by the passage in question but no annotation. The responsive note from President Kimball said only, “A fine blessing.”
Blessings received by other black male members indicated that they would have opportunities not presently available to them—promises that included priesthood, missions, or temple blessings. People generally accepted these promises as things that would occur in the next life or in the Millennium, not as a prophecy of imminent change. 19
In 1974, Helvécio and Rudá Martins and their son Marcus received extraordinary patriarchal blessings that promised things that seemed impossible. The patriarch told Helvécio and Rudá that they would be privileged to live on the earth in the joy of an eternal covenant. He also promised their son Marcus that he would preach the gospel, and the language the patriarch used suggested to them a full-time mission. Despite their uncertainty the Martinses opened a mission savings account for Marcus.
In 1976, Bishop Fujio Abe, a high councilor in the Greensboro North Carolina Stake, heard a knock late one evening. He found black member Joseph Freeman and his wife, Isapella, standing on his doorstep, carrying their one-year-old son, Alexander, who had a high fever that would not respond to medicine. While Brother Freeman held the child, Bishop Abe administered a blessing. Halfway through Brother Abe felt impressed to say that the child would one day hold the priesthood and serve a mission. Both men felt the fever leave the child as the blessing was pronounced. His temperature dropped to normal.
The bishop had scarcely said, “Amen,” before Sister Freeman asked, “Do you realize what you just said?”
“Yes,” Brother Abe replied, “I do. Those were not my words. I suggest that it be something private and sacred, between us. Others would not understand.”
In March 1978, Jae Ballif, president of the New England Mission, interviewed a black woman and her young son for baptism. They knew the racial restrictions, and she confided, “After I was told of it, my son and I wept and prayed. Then as I prayed by myself a voice came to me that said, ‘Just leave it alone.’” They both sought baptism, trying to prepare themselves emotionally for a lifetime, if need be, without some of the blessings of the priesthood. Also, in May 1978, while confirming a black nurse who had just been baptized, Ballif felt inspired to promise her things not possible under current Church policy.
In the spring of 1978, shortly before the revelation announcement, F. Briton McConkie was in Manila by assignment, giving patriarchal blessings. To a woman of African descent, he promised she would receive the blessings of the temple. To Alonzo Harris, a black man, he promised that he would receive the priesthood and the blessings of the temple in his lifetime. Upon his return to Utah, Briton told his brother Bruce McConkie about the unusual blessings, and Bruce responded noncommittally, “I am glad to know you have given those blessings.” 20
Several people in Africa experienced premonitions of the coming change. In the spring of 1978, Joseph William Billy Johnson, the leader of a number of congregations of unofficial Latter-day Saints in Ghana, felt impressed to tell them that soon the leaders in Salt Lake City would recognize the Church in Ghana and send representatives to help them. It was an extraordinary statement.
In only a few days, these mystifying events would be seen as a foreshadowing.
- Although the first known declaration of priesthood restriction dates from Brigham Young’s presidency, many assumed he would only have done this if following a pattern established by Joseph Smith. In 1908, Joseph F. Smith stated his understanding that Joseph Smith himself declared Elijah Abel’s ordination “null and void.” However, President Smith offered no basis for that assertion and Abel himself did not believe that his ordination had ever been nullified. Indeed, twenty-nine years earlier, in 1879, Joseph F. Smith himself noted that Abel had two certificates identifying him as a seventy, one of the certificates issued in Utah.
- Harold B. Lee also asserted that Joseph Smith had declared the ordination void, an assertion not supported by the evidence; Andrew Jensen wrote: “He [Abel] was intimately acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
- The scriptural statements and the arguments drawn from them went more or less like this:
God cursed Cain for killing Abel and placed a mark on him, and Cain’s descendants were black. Inference: The mark of Cain was blackness, which passed to his children.
Response: The scriptures say that the curse upon Cain was personal, that he would be a “fugitive” and unable to derive a livelihood from the earth. If the mark placed on Cain was blackness, it was not a curse, because its purpose was to keep Cain from being killed (see Moses 5:39–40). There is no reference in these passages to priesthood.
The Canaanites were black.
Inference: The Canaanites were descendants of Cain.
Response: The Canaanites became black as a curse upon them, probably for their slaughter of the people of Shum (see Moses 7:7–8). Thus their blackness does not necessarily indicate their lineage. There is no reference to priesthood in these passages.
Pharaoh, who was descended from Ham and his wife, Egyptus, had Canaanite blood and was black.
Inference: Cain’s blood line survived the Flood through Egyptus.
Response: It was the Canaanite black line that survived the Flood, not Cain’s black line, if there was such a line.
Although Pharaoh was righteous, he was of a “lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood” (Abraham 1:27).
Inference: The denial of priesthood was because of Pharaoh’s descent from Cain as marked by his blackness.
Response: In a patriarchal society Pharaoh could trace his lineage back to Noah only through a maternal line, whereas Abraham laid claim to priesthood leadership through his paternal line back to Noah, saying that he “became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right . . . through the fathers” (Abraham 1:2–3).
Some premortal spirits were noble and great (see Abraham 3:22).
Inference: There were spirits of all qualities in the premortal sphere, among them spirits unworthy to bear the priesthood in mortality. These must be the ones without “the right to the priesthood.”
Response: This inference depends on the premise that there is a black lineage group that should be denied priesthood and that being denied the priesthood was a penalty rather than a challenge.
- It should be noted that Joseph Smith, who translated the Book of Abraham, probably in 1835, never connected the references in the Book of Abraham to premortal life and a priesthood curse.
- The Council in Jerusalem arrived at a somewhat similar practical compromise, allowing teaching the gospel to the gentiles but asking them to keep part of the Mosaic law (Acts 15:28–29).
- Spencer W. Kimball quoted Sister Hope as saying, “We are not worrying about the priesthood. We have so many blessings now to live up to that we have our hands full, and we are deeply grateful, and we are expending our every energy to magnify our present opportunities.”
- While in the Philippines to dedicate the land for proselytizing, Joseph Fielding Smith observed native peoples who appeared to be negroid. Despite this, he said in the dedicatory prayer, “I bless the native inhabitants both black and white with the blessings of the gospel and the priesthood—Amen.” When asked about it then, he responded, upset, “That is what the Lord required me to do.” He confirmed several years later that the event occurred and said, “I would not want it to be supposed that I gave the priesthood to the negroes.”
- Gregory A. Prince wrote, “[David O. McKay] thought that unless the requirement was changed the increasing inability of converts to accomplish this genealogical task would eventually leave the Church without sufficient men to assume the necessary leadership roles. He also thought that in the overwhelming majority of South African cases there was no black ancestry, and that errors subsequently discovered could simply be corrected.” President McKay made the change “without consulting anyone.” Afterwards, President McKay notified his counselors and the Twelve and received their endorsement.
- Missionaries first went to Fiji itself in 1954; a decision was rendered in 1958 that Fijians, though black, could be ordained. The abandonment of genealogical proof was intended to be Churchwide in 1954 but was applied in Brazil only in 1965 and announced more generally in 1967.
- Among those most dogmatic about the priesthood restriction, Joseph Fielding Smith affirmed in about 1952 to Sterling McMurrin his belief in equal civil rights. However, integration, with its increased likelihood of intermarriage, worried Elder Smith. As race became diluted, it would be difficult to know whether a prospective marriage partner had some negroid ancestry so that temple marriage would be barred and children of such a marriage would be ineligible for priesthood or temple blessings.
- These athletics-related demonstrations generated enormous negative publicity for the school and the Church. Heber G. Wolsey, BYU’s public relations director, visited several universities where demonstrators planned protests and defused the situation, in most cases, by explaining the Church’s position on civil rights more fully. He took with him Darius Gray, a black Church member.
- Bush suggests also that the Church should feel no embarrassment that a nineteenth-century prophet held nineteenth-century secular views about race. Bush suggests that even if Joseph did not believe in racial equality, he did not carry that view so far as to deny all black men the priesthood. Bush further points out that Brigham Young did not use the premortal-conduct rationale that later Church leaders saw as crucial to the “justice” of the policy.
- Mauss wrote, “Perhaps . . . the chief deterrent to a divine mandate for change is not to be found in any inadequacy among Negroes, but rather in the unreadiness of the Mormon whites, with our heritage of racial folklore; it is perhaps we whites who have a long way to go before ‘the Negroes will be ready’ for the priesthood.” Eugene England urged that God was waiting for the general membership of the Church to change. Marion D. Hanks said, much later, “For me it was never that blacks [were unqualified but that] the rest of us had to be brought to a condition of spiritual maturity . . . to meet the moment of change with grace and goodness.” In 1964, President McKay explained that to change the policy then would be divisive in the Church, like the question among early Christians of preaching to the Gentiles. In like manner, Matthew 19:8 explained that Moses allowed divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts.” And God gave Israel a king because of the people’s insistence, not because it was a good thing to do (see 1 Samuel 8:18–22).
- President Brown signed reluctantly and then only after insisting that a statement about civil rights be included.
- President Brown said, “As to the consensus, the Brethren are all united now that the time has not come until the President speaks on it.”
- The first meeting took place on October 19, 1971, with 175 in attendance.
- The idea for something like the Genesis Group had been suggested in the Quorum of the Twelve at least as early as 1954. A survey in the Salt Lake area showed about fifteen active black members and perhaps one hundred thirty others who were inactive or were family of members. After a brief lapse in interest after the 1978 revelation, the group resumed its activity. Bridgeforth led the group until his death in 1997, when Darius Gray was called by the First Presidency to succeed him. Genesis meets monthly and has Primary and Young Adult activity programs, as well as Relief Society compassionate service.
- Arrington asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord’s will on the question of blacks and priesthood during “three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple, . . . but the only answer he received was ‘not yet.’” Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee’s son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful, although President Lee did say, “It’s only a matter of time.”
- There is no way of knowing whether the frequency of such promises increased in the time just before the revelation or whether the promises were merely reported more often in light of their quick fulfillment. In a solemn assembly in December 1975, President Kimball instructed, “One of our patriarchs in a blessing promised a black man the priesthood. The patriarch made a mistake. The man should be treated with full respect, but he cannot have the priesthood.”
- In conversation after the blessing, the patriarch also predicted that Brother Harris would be called upon to ordain a member of the patriarch’s family to office in the Melchizedek Priesthood. In about 1982, Daniel McConkie, nephew of patriarch McConkie, was attending law school and received a calling to be stake mission president. Rather than personally ordain Daniel a seventy, the stake president felt impressed to ask Alonzo Harris to ordain him. Elder Harris was noticeably moved emotionally as he performed the ordinance. Afterward he related the prophecy made by Daniel’s uncle four or more years earlier.
The Questioner – Chapter 21
He had the direct, personal responsibility to discover the Lord’s will.
In his first press conference, held shortly after his ordination, President Kimball faced a number of predictable questions. In response to questions about the restriction on priesthood for blacks, he answered straightforwardly:
“[I have given it] a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord. But we believe in revelation. We believe there are yet many more things to be revealed from the Lord. . . . We are open to the Father on every suggestion that he gives us, to every direction he gives us, to every revelation of [his] desire for change.”
At the time, no one saw this statement as a harbinger of change. Similar statements had been made before and had been interpreted as a kind of hedge: change could come, but it would take a miracle, so don’t count on it.
It is difficult to know President Kimball’s inner feelings as he made these statements, whether he was putting the best face on a policy he believed was right or if he was expressing a deepening hope and desire that the time for change had come. Although he was sensitive to the concerns of minorities and although in speech and action he did not denigrate blacks, he also gave no encouragement to others who pressed for change. “I decided long ago that I would be loyal to the Brethren,” he once said in reference to this issue. He reacted especially negatively to militant protests against the Church and to coercive attempts to change the policy, particularly when those protesting had no interest in becoming priesthood holders. Spencer believed that external pressures made revelation even less likely to come. 1 Force invited resistance.
During his life Spencer had few close personal contacts with blacks. Inevitably, he absorbed general social prejudices against blacks, but they were vague, based on assumptions and the attitudes of other people. His twenty-five years as an apostle working closely with native peoples in North and South America did give Spencer a greater degree of comfort with ethnic and racial diversity than that of many Church members. He was the first Church President to call non-Caucasian General Authorities: Adney Y. Komatsu, a Japanese-American; and George P. Lee, a Navajo. 2
His response to individuals was generous and compassionate. As a stake president in Arizona, he approved the use of the Lebanon Ward chapel for graduation ceremonies of a black school, despite some member opposition. In 1959, he recorded meeting a member in Brazil who had a remote Negro ancestor, giving him about 5 percent negroid heritage. “My heart wanted to burst for him,” Spencer wrote. He sympathized with and admired Monroe Fleming, who worked at the Hotel Utah for many years and who had suffered with patience and dignity the scorn of other blacks for his faithfulness to the Church. Of a faithful black LDS family in Brasilia, Spencer wrote, “My heart went out to them and I thought of . . . many people who almost ignore their priesthood when this man would give his life for it.”
In the April 1954 general conference Elder Kimball made an impassioned plea for respect toward Native Americans. When these sentiments were reprinted in Faith Precedes the Miracle in 1972, Elder Kimball broadened the language by adding:
“Some members of the Church would justify their own un-Christian discrimination against blacks because of that rule with respect to the priesthood, but . . . it is not for us to add burdens upon the shoulders of our black brethren. . . . And those who remain faithful to the end may expect that God may finally grant them all blessings they have merited through their righteousness.”
Spencer’s personal position toward blacks was the uneasy and ultimately unsatisfactory one of “separate but equal.” He opposed interracial marriage with blacks because the partners could not be sealed in the temple and their children would be similarly limited. In contrast, while advising couples about other types of interracial marriage (in his experience most often of a Native American with a Caucasian), he frankly pointed out the social and psychological risks for the couple and their children but reassured them that the decision was personal and involved no theological issues. 3
Spencer affirmed his good will but always returned to the traditional position.
“If I did not believe in the pre-existence and in the scriptures, I think I would be inclined to fight strongly for the colored man even to Priesthood and temple privileges. I think I have never abused nor been unkind to a colored person. I think I have never rejected one on the grounds of his race or color.”
To an unbeliever the Church position looked like simple bigotry; to Spencer there seemed no way to explain the policy without being misunderstood, so he talked very little about it:
“I never bring up the subject, not because I am afraid of it but because it is futile. Many cannot understand because of their limited knowledge of spiritual things; many will not understand, since they feel their superior training or brilliance entitles them to make their own independent deductions.”
Obviously, however, it weighed on his mind for years, and on occasion he did raise the question. In 1967, when he reorganized a stake presidency in Salt Lake City, he called Arvil Milne as a counselor to the new stake president. Expecting questions about his worthiness, Brother Milne was startled when Elder Kimball’s first substantive question was, “Brother Milne, what do you think about black people receiving the priesthood?”
Milne reflected for a moment and then responded, “I suppose when the Lord decides it is time he’ll let the prophet know. Until then they’ll have to get along without it.”
Elder Kimball said, “Thank you.” That ended the questioning, and he went on with making the call.
In April 1969, while interviewing James Polve for employment as a professor of engineering at Brigham Young University, Elder Kimball asked him only one question, “What do you think about whether the Negroes should receive the priesthood?” Surprised, Polve assumed the question was a test of his orthodoxy and knowledge of Church teachings. He responded with a traditional answer. The interview so mystified him that he did not dare even write it in his journal.
Perhaps such questions were intended to probe loyalty; if so, they also reflected how much the question was on Elder Kimball’s mind. 4
Elder Kimball always responded to questions about policy and doctrine with traditional, orthodox explanations, even within his family. But it appears from these and other incidents that inwardly he struggled with the priesthood issue and wished the Lord would permit a change. He felt compassion toward those excluded and perhaps guilt that faithful men were banned from a responsibility and blessing he himself prized.
The Presidential Years before 1978
From his statements to the press at the time he became President, few expected any change. Probably President Kimball himself did not. But one huge factor was different; now the ultimate responsibility for the policy fell to him. His duty was no longer to be a loyal supporter. He had the direct, personal responsibility to discover the Lord’s will by study, faith, and prayer, and he was determined not to be motivated by earthly pressures. He had a hundred other things that demanded his immediate attention, but the matter of priesthood continued to hang heavy on his mind.
Spencer had maintained a notebook full of correspondence and clippings about blacks and priesthood. The range and extent of the notebook’s content show that the matter concerned him greatly. But the latest item is dated about 1975, well before the 1978 revelation. Perhaps his presidential schedule did not allow him to maintain the notebook, or perhaps he turned more to internal seeking.
By the time Spencer became President, external pressures to change the priesthood policy had waned, but they did not disappear. For example, substantial national publicity came from the excommunication of Douglas A. Wallace in 1976 for ordaining a black man in Seattle in defiance of Church policy. Wallace continued his protest at the next general conference by storming down the Tabernacle aisle with two associates, yelling, “Make way for the Lord! Don’t touch the Lord!” Ushers swiftly escorted him and his two companions out. Outside he announced to news representatives that he was endeavoring to put President Kimball “on trial.” Other protests kept the issue alive.
When in 1975 President Kimball announced a temple in São Paulo, Brazil, there was speculation about how the Church would determine who, in such a racially mixed country, would be eligible to enter. He later said that at that time he “was not thinking in terms of making an adjustment.” He thought, rather, that the Church would simply have to inquire carefully into the racial background of members seeking recommends.
As President, Spencer consistently authorized granting the priesthood when circumstances were unclear. The family of John L. Pea, for example, came to October 1976 general conference to be sealed in the temple after the First Presidency rescinded an earlier denial. Spencer recorded:
“Forty-three years ago Brother Pea was judged by the mission president to have some possible Negro lineage. As a result he and 4 sons never had the Priesthood and none have been to the temple. Recently the Genealogical Society investigated the circumstances and the First Presidency then reviewed the facts and determined that there was no justification for withholding the Priesthood from Brother Pea and authorized the bishop and stake president to ordain the brethren and give approval for temple recommends for those worthy.
“Thirty members of the family came for conference and to be sealed. The whole group met with the First Presidency and sang for them.”
A First Presidency letter of February 1978 reaffirmed to local leaders the principle established by President McKay that “the fact that there may be some question as to a man’s ancestry cannot be rightfully considered as evidence that he has Negro blood. . . . If there is no evidence to indicate that a man has Negro blood, you would not be justified in withholding the priesthood and temple blessings from him, if he is otherwise worthy. However, if you find convincing evidence that he has Negro blood, then the priesthood and temple blessings should be withheld.” 5
- An exception is the 1890 Woodruff Manifesto (Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1), which gives the government’s imminent threat to confiscate the Church’s property, including the temples, as a motivator for Wilford Woodruff’s seeking further guidance.
- Arrington expressed the personal opinion that of all the General Authorities Spencer was the most personally inclined to disregard race.
- In 1977 “it was the sense of the discussion that while the Brethren will counsel against interracial adoptions for the same reasons they counsel against interracial marriages, there will be no prohibition against Church adoption agencies arranging interracial adoptions where there appears to be good reason for doing so.”
- In 1966 when a stake was first organized in Brazil, Antonio Camargo was called as a counselor in the stake presidency. In the interview, Elder Kimball asked him, apparently as a testing question, “What do you think about polygamy?”
- In spring 1978, black male members in Brazil could be assigned as home teachers to accompany priesthood holders. In times past blacks had sometimes been appointed “acting deacons.” Black members could be auxiliary leaders, and black men could attend priesthood meetings.
Decision and Confirmation – Chapter 22
“It was as though another day of Pentecost came.”
The days leading up to June 1978 offer a classic illustration of the pattern that often precedes revelation—an urgent question, intense consideration, a prayerfully formulated tentative answer, and a spiritual confirmation. 1
“Here was a little man,” President Hinckley is reported to have said, “filled with love, able to reach out to people. . . . He was not the first to worry about the priesthood question, but he had the compassion to pursue it and a boldness that allowed him to act, to get the revelation.”
President Kimball said in a news interview that his predecessors had sought the Lord’s will about the priesthood policy, and for whatever reason “the time had not come.” But now that the ultimate responsibility was his, it was no longer enough to rely on the understandings of previous prophets or to wait for the Lord to take the initiative. He wanted “to find out firsthand what the Lord thought about it.”
Years earlier, writing about revelation in general, Spencer said in a letter to his son Ed:
“Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on a couch. . . . I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems.”
He prayed long and intently, trying not to prejudge what the answer should be. Should we maintain the long-standing policy, or has the time come for the change? He received no immediate answer. President Kimball also undertook to study the history of the policy and to ask for the perspective of others. He remembered well that the question had become divisive during the McKay administration. Hoping to maintain harmony as the question was explored again, he asked the apostles to join him as colleagues in extended study and supplication. In May 1975 he discussed with his counselors various statements by early Church leaders about the reasons black men could not hold the priesthood and asked for his counselors’ reactions. In June 1977 he invited at least three General Authorities to write memos about the doctrinal basis of the policy and how a change might affect the Church. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote a long treatise concluding that no scriptural barrier existed to a change.
Francis M. Gibbons, secretary to the First Presidency, observed that during the year before the revelation was announced President Kimball seemed focused on the issue. The President repeatedly invited the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to discuss the issue at length and urged them to speak freely. A few said little or nothing when the topic was raised, and President Kimball invited them to talk with him in private. He could not let the matter rest. He seemed so intent on resolving the issue—with full unity among the leadership—that others worried. Elder Boyd K. Packer said to him, “Why don’t you forget this?” But he quickly answered his own question: “Because you can’t. The Lord won’t let you.”
President Kimball went to the temple after patrons and workers had left. Some days he went more than once, always alone. He obtained a key so he could enter the temple night or day without troubling anyone else. He later recounted those months:
“Day after day, and especially on Saturdays and Sundays when there were no organizations [sessions] in the temple, I went there when I could be alone.
“I was very humble. . . . I was searching for this. . . . I wanted to be sure. . . .
“I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.”
Few knew about his contemplation in the temple except the security men who watched over him. One of them mentioned it to President Kimball’s neighbor, who told Camilla. So she knew that much, but she had no idea what problem so preoccupied her husband. He always maintained strict confidentiality where Church business was concerned. She sometimes good-naturedly complained that he could not remember what was confidential and what was not, so he solved the problem by never telling her anything. She had to read about new developments in the Church News. Now, with her husband as consumed as she had ever seen him, she remembered Spencer’s anguish over the excommunication of an apostle thirty-five years earlier and worried that something similar might be happening again. When President Kimball learned about the security officer’s breach, he gently suggested to the security supervisor that his men should be careful about what they divulged.
On March 9, 1978, three months before the policy change, the topic was again discussed when the First Presidency and Twelve met in their regular meeting in the Salt Lake Temple. The apostles unanimously expressed the view that any change would require revelation received and announced by the prophet. President Kimball agreed but also wanted them to learn the will of the Lord for themselves. He urged them to fast and pray individually over the question.
Through the many days in the temple and through the sleepless hours of the night, praying and turning over in his mind all the consequences, perplexities, and criticisms that a decision to extend priesthood would involve, President Kimball gradually found “all those complications and concerns dwindling in significance.” They did not disappear but seemed to decline in importance. In spite of his preconceptions and his allegiance to the past, assurance came that a change in policy was what the Lord wanted—“there slowly grew a deep, abiding impression to go forward with the change.”
On March 23, President Kimball reported to his counselors that he had spent much of the previous night in reflection and his impression was to lift the restriction on blacks. His counselors said they were prepared to sustain him if that were his decision. They went on to discuss the impact of such a change and decided there was no need for prompt action; they would discuss it again with the Twelve before a final decision.
Francis Gibbons sensed that President Kimball had already come to know God’s will and was now struggling with how to unify all Church leaders in support. 2 President Kimball wanted more than anything to have his fellow servants share with him a witness of the Lord’s will. He sensed resistance from some, which he fully understood. He knew that others did not always fully share his views, and he may have feared that this change in policy would be seen as his personal objective. He did not push, lobby, pressure, or use the power of his office to induce compliance. Instead, he increased his visits to the temple, imploring the Lord to make his will known to these good men who all their lives had quoted other Presidents of the Church that it was not yet time. The wisdom of the dead often seems loftier than the word of an imperfect living spokesman.
Camilla noted that in their prayers together at home, where he had always asked for “inspiration” or “guidance,” he began to plead for “revelation.”
He continued to spend many hours alone in prayer and meditation in the temple’s Holy of Holies. He later described the burden of his prayers in an extemporaneous talk to missionaries in South Africa:
“I remember very vividly the day after day that I walked over to the temple and ascended up to the fourth floor where we have our solemn assemblies, where we have our meetings of the Twelve and the Presidency. And after everybody had gone out of the temple, I knelt and prayed. And I prayed with such a fervency, I tell you! I knew that something was before us that was extremely important to many of the children of God. And I knew that we could receive the revelations of the Lord only by being worthy and ready for them and ready to accept them and to put them into place. Day after day I went and with great solemnity and seriousness, alone in the upper rooms of the Temple, and there I offered my soul and offered our efforts to go forward with the program and we wanted to do what he wanted. As we talked about it to him, we said, ‘Lord, we want only what is right. We’re not making any plans to be spectacularly moving. We want only the thing that thou dost want and we want it when you want it and not until.’”
On May 4, at the end of the joint meeting of the Presidency and the Twelve, when the priesthood policy had been discussed, Elder LeGrand Richards asked permission to make a statement. He then reported:
“I saw during the meeting a man seated in a chair above the organ, bearded and dressed in white, having the appearance of Wilford Woodruff. . . . I am not a visionary man. . . . This was not imagination. . . . It might be that I was privileged to see him because I am the only one here who had seen President Woodruff in person.”
To friends Spencer appeared worried or distressed. And Spencer’s counselors shared his anxieties. President N. Eldon Tanner’s family saw him during this time “greatly concerned, as though he carried the burdens of the world.”
The question was still open for discussion. On May 25, Mark E. Petersen called President Kimball’s attention to an article that proposed the priesthood policy had begun with Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith, and he suggested that the President might wish to consider this factor. 3
On May 30, President Kimball read his counselors a tentative statement he had written in longhand; it removed racial restrictions on priesthood. He said he had a “good, warm feeling” about it. They reviewed past statements and decided to ask G. Homer Durham, a Seventy supervising the Historical Department, to research further the historical basis of the policy. 4 They also concluded to alter the pattern of their next Thursday meeting with the Twelve by canceling the traditional luncheon in the temple and asking the council members to continue their fasting while they sought an answer.
On Thursday, June 1, 1978, President Kimball left home early, as usual, so engrossed that he left his briefcase behind and had to send back for it. His journal for the day records, with striking blandness:
“After meeting with my counselors for an hour this morning from eight until nine o’clock, we went over to the temple and met with all of the General Authorities in the monthly meeting we hold together.
“Returned to the office for a few minutes and then went over to Temple Square for the dedication services of the new Visitors Center South, which was scheduled to commence at 3:00 p.m.
“The services lasted for about an hour, after which we returned to the office where I worked at my desk until six o’clock.” 5
The day proved far more significant than this entry suggests. On this first Thursday of the month, the First Presidency, Twelve, and Seventies met in their regularly scheduled monthly temple meeting at 9:00 a.m., all fasting. As usual, they bore testimony, partook of the sacrament, and participated in a prayer circle. The meeting lasted the usual three and a half hours and was not notably different from other such meetings until the conclusion, when President Kimball asked the Twelve to remain. Two had already left the room to change from their temple clothing in preparation for the regular business meeting of the Presidency and the Twelve that normally followed. Someone called them back. Ten of the Twelve were present. Elder Delbert L. Stapley lay ill in the hospital, and Elder Mark E. Petersen was in South America on assignment.
As men present later recalled, President Kimball said:
“Brethren, I have canceled lunch for today. Would you be willing to remain in the temple with us? I would like you to continue to fast with me. I have been going to the temple almost daily for many weeks now, sometimes for hours, entreating the Lord for a clear answer. I have not been determined in advance what the answer should be. And I will be satisfied with a simple Yes or No, but I want to know. Whatever the Lord’s decision is, I will defend it to the limits of my strength, even to death.”
He then outlined the direction his thoughts had carried him—the fading of his reluctance, the disappearance of objections, the growing assurance he had received, the tentative decision he had reached, and his desire for a clear answer. Once more he asked the Twelve to speak freely and without concern for seniority. Elder McConkie spoke in favor of the change, noting there was no scriptural impediment. President Tanner asked searching questions as Elder McConkie spoke. Elder Packer also favored the change, speaking at length, quoting scriptures (D&C 124:49; 56:4–5; 58:32) in support. Eight of the ten volunteered their views, all favorable. President Kimball called on the other two, and they also spoke in favor. Discussion continued for two hours. Elder Packer said a few weeks later, “One objection would have deterred him, would have made him put it off, so careful was he . . . that it had to be right.”
They then sought divine confirmation. President Kimball asked, “Do you mind if I lead you in prayer?” He had reached a decision after great struggle, and he desperately wanted the Lord’s confirmation, if it would come. They surrounded the altar in a prayer circle. President Kimball spoke to the Lord at length. If extending the priesthood was not right, if the Lord did not want this change to come in the Church, he said, he would fight the world’s opposition. Elder McConkie later recounted, “The Lord took over and President Kimball was inspired in his prayer, asking the right questions, and he asked for a manifestation” confirming the decision. 6
During that insistent prayer, those present felt something powerful, unifying, ineffable. Those who tried to describe it later struggled to find words. Elder McConkie said:
“It was as though another day of Pentecost came. On the day of Pentecost in the Old World it is recorded that cloven tongues of fire rested upon the people. They were trying to put into words what is impossible to express directly. There are no words to describe the sensation, but simultaneously the Twelve and the three members of the First Presidency had the Holy Ghost descend upon them and they knew that God had manifested his will. . . . I had had some remarkable spiritual experiences before, particularly in connection with my call as an apostle, but nothing of this magnitude.
“All of the Brethren at once knew and felt in their souls what the answer to the importuning petition of President Kimball was. . . . Some of the Brethren were weeping. All were sober and somewhat overcome. When President Kimball stood up, several of the Brethren, in turn, threw their arms around him.”
Elder L. Tom Perry recalled:
“While he was praying we had a marvelous experience. We had just a unity of feeling. The nearest I can describe it is that it was much like what has been recounted as happening at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. I felt something like the rushing of wind. There was a feeling that came over the whole group. When President Kimball got up he was visibly relieved and overjoyed.”
Elder Hinckley said soon afterward that the experience defied description: “It was marvelous, very personal, bringing with it great unity and strong conviction that this change was a revelation from God.” Ten years later he said:
“There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. For me, it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet. . . . And by the power of the Holy Ghost there came to that prophet an assurance that the thing for which he prayed was right, that the time had come. . . .
“There was not the sound ‘as of a rushing mighty wind,’ there were not ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’ as there had been on the Day of Pentecost. . . .
“ . . . But the voice of the Spirit whispered with certainty into our minds and our very souls.
“It was for us, at least for me personally, as I imagine it was with Enos, who said concerning his remarkable experience, ‘. . . behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind.’
“ . . . Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that.”
As President Kimball arose from his knees, he first encountered Elder David B. Haight, the newest apostle, and they embraced. Elder Haight could feel President Kimball’s heart pounding and his intense emotion. The President continued around the circle, embracing each apostle in turn. Others spontaneously embraced.
President Kimball was overjoyed that his Brethren now knew, as he did, that the time was right. Elder Perry said:
“I don’t think we’ve had a president more willing to entreat the Lord or more receptive since the prophet Joseph. We knew that he had received the will of the Lord. . . . It was just as though a great burden had been lifted. He was almost speechless. It was almost impossible for him to contain his joy. Nothing was said or had to be said. We sensed what the answer was, the decision was made. There was a great feeling of unity among us and relief that it was over. As I have talked with other members of the Twelve since then, they felt the same as I did. I don’t think the Twelve will ever be the same again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 7
After their experience—so sacred that some would not discuss it and the thought of it brought tears—every man stood resolute in support of the decision.
- A major source of information concerning the 1978 revelation is a July 5, 1978, interview by the author with Spencer W. Kimball, a month after the announcement of the revelation. The author’s description based on that interview was read and amended on July 8 by Spencer W. Kimball and Camilla Kimball. Additions were made on July 12, after interviews with President Marion G. Romney and Elders Boyd K. Packer and Gordon B. Hinckley. Nearly four years later, on May 12, 1982, the author met with Elder Bruce R. McConkie and with Francis M. Gibbons, secretary to the First Presidency, to discuss the 1978 Draft. Neither pointed out any errors. Gibbons provided additional information by reading from the June 1978 council minutes in his possession. The resulting composite document is found in Edward L. Kimball, Journal, May 12, 1982. Another important recital is a document by Bruce R. McConkie, “The Receipt of the Revelation Offering the Priesthood to Men of All Races and Colors,” June 30, 1978, which Elder McConkie sent to President Kimball with a cover letter stating, “Pursuant to your request I have prepared the attached document. . . . It summarizes what I said in the home of Dr. LeRoy Kimball in Nauvoo on Wednesday, June 28, 1978.” President Kimball made minor editorial changes on nearly every page of the document, suggesting that he agreed with the text, as amended. Six times he changed “priesthood” to “priesthood and temple blessings” as having become available to all worthy men.
- Elder Gibbons has confirmed that his description of “events leading up to and surrounding the revelation on priesthood are based upon personal, eyewitness knowledge and are supported by my diary entries made soon after they occurred.”
- The reference almost surely is to the 1973 article by Lester Bush in Dialogue.
- Events overtook that request, for confirmation of the rightness of change came just two days later.
- One suspects the entry was made by Arthur Haycock.
- “It was one of those occasions when the one who was mouth in the prayer, prayed by the power of the Spirit and was given expression and guided in the words that were used.” —Elder Bruce R. McConkie
- President Kimball later said, “Finally we had the feeling, we had the impressions from the Lord who made them very clear to us that this was the thing to do to make the gospel universal to all worthy people.” And: “This revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it.”
Announcement and Reactions – Chapter 23
“Have you heard?”
Ordinarily, after their prayer circle the Presidency and Twelve would change out of temple clothing and continue meeting to conduct Church business. Because of the spiritually charged experience they had just had, one suggested that they cancel the further meeting. But President Kimball, intent on moving the Church forward, asked them to continue. They did so, but because of their intense feelings they were reluctant to bring forward any business that could wait. They set no immediate course, and the Twelve received no instruction. They separated.
Among the undecided business items was how to announce the decision, and President Kimball asked Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Boyd K. Packer, and Bruce R. McConkie each to propose in writing a course of action. 1
Preparing the Announcement
Though the decision had been made and the Twelve were unified, President Kimball continued to go to the temple, praying that the rest of the General Authorities would accept this momentous change. During the next week, Camilla thought he was as agitated as she had ever seen. She still had no idea what was causing him such concern.
On Wednesday, Francis Gibbons presented to the First Presidency his composite draft of the three proposed announcements from Elders Packer, McConkie, and Hinckley. The First Presidency spent substantial time in revising the language.2
On Thursday, June 8, the Presidency presented the proposed announcement to the Twelve. Discussion resulted in minor editorial changes.^3 Then they discussed timing. Some thought it best to wait for October general conference. Others suggested making the announcement at the mission presidents’ seminar the next week. But Elder McConkie urged immediate release. Despite tight security, employees at the Church Office Building sensed that something important was afoot, although no one knew exactly what. Rumors had already begun to spread. “It will leak,” said Elder McConkie, “and we have to beat Satan. He’ll do something between now and then to make it appear that we’re being forced into it.” 3
After discussion, the First Presidency and Twelve adopted Elder Packer’s suggestion that they announce the change in the form of a letter to local Church leaders throughout the world. Before sending the letter, they would release it to the media, making the new policy known to the whole world simultaneously.
After the meeting, Spencer felt tremendously weary but pleased at the sense he had of continuing unity.
About 4:00 p.m., President Tanner went to see Heber Wolsey, managing director of public communications. He asked Wolsey to be standing by at 7:30 the next morning to handle “an important announcement.”
That same afternoon Bill Smart, editor of the Deseret News, attended an unrelated meeting with Elder Thomas S. Monson, who quietly told him, “Reserve space for an important announcement tomorrow.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t say anything now; it is confidential.”
“Can you tell me whether to put it on the front page or on B-1?”
“You’ll know when you see it!”
Seeking Final Unity
Two of the Twelve had not attended either Thursday meeting. Mark E. Petersen was still on assignment in South America, and Delbert L. Stapley was seriously ill in the LDS Hospital. President Kimball telephoned Elder Petersen in Quito, Ecuador, and informed him what had happened. He had Francis Gibbons read him the announcement about to be published, and Elder Petersen approved. All three of the First Presidency visited Elder Stapley in his hospital room. He, too, approved. Support from the Twelve was unanimous.
Now President Kimball wanted the support of the remaining General Authorities. He asked them to come Friday morning, fasting, to the fourth-floor temple council room. They were asked to postpone travel if possible and cancel any conflicting appointments without advising their secretaries or anyone else of the meeting. The regular monthly meeting of all the General Authorities had been held in the temple just the week before, so the purpose of this special meeting generated considerable speculation.
On Friday, June 9, 1978, the meeting commenced at 7:00 a.m. All were dressed in their temple clothing. After the hymn President Ezra Taft Benson offered the prayer. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, then a Seventy, later said, “I had no inkling what was going on. And as we knelt down to pray, the Spirit told me what it was going to be . . . and after that prayer, President Kimball began the description. I began to weep.”
As Paul H. Dunn recalled, President Kimball said:
“Thank you for making the necessary arrangements to be here. I want to tell you about some important things. As a boy in Arizona I wondered why the Indians were so poor and looked down upon. I asked my father, who was kind and never too busy to answer my questions, and he told me about the Book of Mormon and its connection with the Indians and their condition. My father never lied to me. Later I asked him about blacks and the priesthood. My father said that the time would come when they would receive the priesthood. I believed him, although it troubled me. I was called as a stake president. When one of the Twelve came I asked him. He said, ‘I don’t know, but the time will come.’ I became a General Authority and asked President Grant, ‘If I am to represent you and the Lord, I need to be able to answer questions about race and priesthood.’ He said that the time would come when that restriction would change.”
By now, the General Authorities realized where President Kimball was going. They were first stunned, then ecstatic.
According to Elder Dunn, President Kimball continued:
“Then one day the mantle fell on me. Brethren, you will never know how many times when you have gone home at night, instead of going home I have come to this room and poured out my heart. Now the Lord has answered me and the time has come for all worthy men to receive the priesthood. I shared that with my counselors and the Twelve and after getting their response I present it to you. But I won’t announce it to the world without first counseling with you. We are not in a hurry. I want to hear from you.”
Francis Gibbons read the text of the proposed announcement, and President Kimball asked for comments. President Marion G. Romney said:
“Brethren, . . . I have a confession to make. I knew President Kimball was searching for an answer and whenever we discussed the question, I told him, ‘If you get an answer I will support you with all my strength,’ but I did not expect him to get an answer. If the decision had been left to me, I would have felt that we’ve always had that policy and we would stick to it no matter what the opposition. I resisted change in my feelings, but I came to accept it slowly. I have now changed my position 180 degrees. I am not just a supporter of this decision. I am an advocate. When the revelation came I knew the mind and the will of the Lord had been made manifest.” 4
Another said, “I would have voted against such a proposal until I experienced the feeling that I did in this room this morning.” Others called on endorsed the proposal. Elder Hanks, nearly overcome with emotion, said, “I thank God I lived long enough to see this day.” A vote approved the decision unanimously.
President Kimball put his hand on President N. Eldon Tanner’s knee and said, “Eldon, go tell the world.”
President Tanner returned in a few moments and reported, “It’s done.”
The General Authorities were instructed not to interpret or editorialize but to let the announcement speak for itself. The First Presidency would not be available for media interviews concerning the revelation.
By the time the General Authorities had dressed and returned to their offices, phone lines were jammed.
The Announcement: June 9, 1978
Without addressing questions of history or justification, the announcement said simply that God had revealed that the day had come for granting priesthood and temple blessings to all who are worthy. 5 The critical part of the final text, canonized as Official Declaration—2 in the Doctrine and Covenants, read:
“[The Lord] 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. . . .
“Sincerely yours, . . .
“The First Presidency”
Earlier that morning Heber Wolsey waited for the announcement President Tanner had told him to expect. When President Tanner handed him a copy of the letter and he read it over, he wept. “You’re not the first to shed tears,” said President Tanner. He then instructed Wolsey to release the statement.
Back in his office, Heber said to colleague Jerry Cahill, “What would you consider ‘an important announcement’?”
Perhaps a new temple, said Jerry. Then Heber joyfully handed Jerry the letter. At his first free moment, Jerry Cahill closed the door to his office and knelt to pray, overwhelmed by a feeling that swept through him like a wave. He could not utter a formal prayer but experienced the most striking expression of divine power he had ever felt, confirming to him the revelation.
Despite their emotions, all the employees in the Public Communications office had to deal with the business at hand. They were under instructions to get the widest possible dissemination of the full text of the letter but to offer no explanations or commentary. Primary concerns were accuracy, simplicity, and dignity.
When Duane Cardall, religion reporter for KSL-TV, got the call that an important announcement would be made, he queried, “What is it?”
“We can’t tell you.”
“Come on, what is it?”
“The blacks are going to get the priesthood.”
“Come on, what is the announcement?”
“No, it is serious.”
Cardall rushed in a microwave truck to the Church Office Building, ran into the building, and hurried to the Public Communications office on the twenty-fifth floor. With a copy of the statement in hand, he sped downstairs and broadcast a news bulletin, standing on the street, interrupting regular programming.
By late morning all the news media had copies of the release. With no advance notice, the story hit like a bolt out of the blue. It was a stunning, revolutionary development.
The word spread like lightning through official Church channels, over radio and television, and by word of mouth. In some heavily Mormon communities, the telephone circuits became so overloaded that it was nearly impossible to get a call through. Exultation, gratitude, and excitement competed for place.
While Camilla was working in the garden late that morning, the telephone rang, and she came in to answer it. Her daughter, Olive Beth, asked excitedly, “Have you heard the news?”
“About the revelation that all worthy men can receive the priesthood!”
Camilla sat down on the floor and wept in joy and relief—joy for the revelation and relief for her husband. She understood now what had weighed so heavily on Spencer’s mind. She went into the bedroom and poured out her heart in a prayer of gratitude and in hope that this development would not burden Spencer with new controversy. She worried that it might cause a schism in the Church, that there would be those who could not accept a change.
Spencer tried soon afterward to call Camilla with the news, but she was back in the garden and did not hear the telephone. He then called Olive Beth to ask if she knew where her mother was. Olive Beth did not know but said, “I just heard the wonderful news. It is marvelous!”
Spencer responded, “It is the most earthshaking thing that has happened in my lifetime.”
That evening the story led the national NBC News broadcast. The story ran on the front page of major newspapers across the country—the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post. Time and Newsweek stopped their presses to include the news in their weekly runs. Most newspapers reported neutrally: “The Mormon Church announced Friday a revelation from God will give its priesthood to all worthy male members.” Some commentators scorned the “convenience” of a “revelation” that allowed a way out of an embarrassing bind, but others noted that it had been some years since there had been any significant demonstrations against the Church or Brigham Young University. External pressure was the lowest it had been for years.
Because Church leaders declined to comment, reporters began to interview leaders of other local churches, NAACP officials, and men and women on the street for reactions. The responses were almost uniformly positive. The media next turned to black members of the Church, who fielded questions—sometimes barbed—with tact, patience, and humility. An elderly lifetime member said, “We have all waited for this, but I didn’t think it would come in my lifetime.” Monroe Fleming expressed his happiness by saying, “It’s like not feeling you’re a guest in your father’s house anymore.” Joseph Freeman said, “What a difference a day makes! All those years that I’d desired more than anything else to be a minister.”
Among members the news brought nearly universal rejoicing. They were grateful the full blessings of the priesthood would now be available to worthy families who had been denied them. They were also thankful for dramatic evidence of the Church teaching that revelation continues to the present. As the news spread through Utah and beyond, people embraced and cried and rejoiced. As with such events as Pearl Harbor and the John F. Kennedy assassination, Latter-day Saints remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
A local television reporter who had been somewhat antagonistic to the Church later said, “I sensed a lot of happiness at the Church offices . . . a great burden being lifted. There was a sense of joy; people were genuinely thrilled.” He understood then that Mormons had not been acting out of bigotry, as he supposed, but out of loyalty to their leaders. “I experienced a change in feelings toward the Church that day.”
Mary Frances Sturlaugson, a young black woman, recorded that she was in a downtown Provo office when a friend told her the news. She responded, “Please don’t joke with me about something like that.”
“At that instant a young man who had been talking on the phone stood up and, with his fists stretched above his head, shouted, ‘All right!’ Cold chills went completely through my body. All I could say was, ‘I don’t believe it’s happened.’ An older man beside me kept repeating, ‘I’ll be darned, I’ll be darned.’
“As I walked outside, crying like a happy kid at Christmastime, horns were honking like crazy. I stopped for a red light and a car pulled up. The driver asked me if I had heard what he had just heard. I half mumbled and half nodded a disbelieving yes. He whooped and started blowing his horn as he drove off. When I arrived at my apartment my roommates ran out to meet me, and we jumped up and down screaming with joy. Finally we went inside and each said a prayer, sobs punctuating every one.”
In Brazil, Helvécio Martins returned home from work to find his wife Rudá ecstatic. “I have news, amazing news!” The wedding invitations for their son, Marcus, had already been distributed when the announcement came. But he and his fiancée, Mirian Abelin Barbosa, decided to postpone the wedding because he now could serve a mission. He became the first black missionary called after the revelation. 6
A week after the announcement, Ruffin Bridgeforth, leader of Genesis, had not yet been ordained because his local leader with that responsibility was out of town. Elder Boyd K. Packer discussed the situation with President Kimball and asked whether Brother Bridgeforth might properly be ordained a high priest rather than an elder in light of his long and faithful service. “Yes, that’s right. You do that,” said President Kimball. After being ordained by Elder Packer, Brother Bridgeforth asked him to give his wheelchair-bound wife, Helena, a priesthood blessing. Elder Packer later recalled, “I laid my hands on her head and just as I was to speak, I thought, ‘Ruffin, you can now give this blessing.’ And when he began that blessing—and he needed no coaching—‘by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood,’ that . . . was a moment in Church history.”
For Latter-day Saints who harbored racial prejudices, the revelation came as a shock. A few people did reject the revelation and left the Church, and some lapsed into inactivity out of dissatisfaction. But there was no schism. Most of the Mormons who might have protested tended to also have a strong commitment to obedience, and they did not object publicly. One white member had for years made his position clear: if blacks ever receive the priesthood, “that’s the day I walk out the door.” But the Sunday after the announcement, he showed up at church, explaining, “A lot of people didn’t [expect to see me here], but they never gave me any credit for growing up.”
Within a few days of the announcement President Kimball received a large number of positive letters, nearly all from members expressing elation and gratitude. He also received about thirty negative letters, nearly all from non-Mormons, 7 most calling him a fraud in claiming revelation 8 or a traitor to his race. 9 President Kimball took the criticism in stride: “We do not expect the people of the world to understand such things, for they will always be quick to assign their own reasons or to discount the divine process of revelation.”
The day after the announcement, as Spencer’s barber trimmed his hair in preparation for a trip to Hawaii, he found Spencer “happy, buoyant, and warm . . . [with] a great weight off his shoulders.”
When reporters in Hawaii asked about the revelation, President Kimball answered, “It is a different world than it was twenty or twenty-five years ago. The world is ready for it.” They asked him for details about receiving the revelation, but he said it was “a personal thing.”
President Kimball desired that people not sensationalize the revelatory experience. “Some people would try to figure it out that I had a personal visitation from the Almighty as in the First Vision. I would not want to make the revelation different from what it was.” Still, he had no doubts that he had received a revelation and that its source was divine. The strong, distinct, sacred impression he experienced banished for him even the thought of questioning its source.
Speaking to seminary and institute teachers a few months after the revelation, Elder McConkie described the events in poetic language that some misunderstood. He said of the experience:
“From the midst of Eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. . . . And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.
“President Kimball’s prayer was answered and our prayers were answered. He heard the voice and we heard the same voice.”
His ecstatic phrasing left some with the mistaken impression that the group had heard an audible voice speaking specific words. When President Kimball read the talk as published in 1981, he asked Elder McConkie to revise the statement to avoid possible misunderstanding. 10
A few weeks after the announcement, Elder Hinckley said, “It is a tremendous thing. It came as a result of great effort and prayer, anxious seeking and pleading. Anyone who does not think that is a part of receiving revelation does not understand the process.”
Elder Packer said of President Kimball’s role in the revelation: “I have feared we might lose him, now that this great work is done. I hope there is something else only he can do, to keep him here. No one else could have done this; there is none so innocent and open, so sensitive.”
- President Kimball said, “There was a gradual and general development of the whole program, in connection with the Apostles.” Without understanding the whole story, this comment could be taken as a description of an essentially rational, administrative decision-making process, but with a deeper understanding of the usual revelatory process, the description meshes well with a spiritual explanation.
- “President Kimball dictated the declaration [in final form] to Arthur [Haycock], who took it down in shorthand and transcribed it.”
- Bruce R. McConkie says that during this process he felt a renewed assurance of the rightness of change.
- President Romney made a similar statement a few weeks after the events: “I knew President Kimball was moved in his spirit with the problem of permitting blacks to receive the priesthood. This had been going on for months, at least. . . . We as his counselors encouraged him to get it off his mind, to rest. The idea of change was new to me. I had gone eighty years defending the Church position. I am a Romney, you see, and a stubborn man. I was personally slow to accept change. I prayed hard that the Lord would give the president the right answer, but I did not presume to urge that the answer be yes or no. I was most interested that he be sure. And from the experience we had in the temple I was sure that he had the answer. I got a witness in my own soul; I would not have gone along without a witness that he had received the answer he sought. I felt a quiet warmth and whisperings of the Spirit. I didn’t want to get excited; I wanted to be rational. It was not an emotional thing with me, but I was as sure as I have ever been of anything. This is the most far-reaching event of his administration, an historic event that opens up to vast numbers of people all the blessings of the gospel. It ranks well up with Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto in importance in Church history.”
- The revelation itself was not reduced to text. A forged document purporting to be the revelation itself is in circulation, phrased as an answer from God that he had heard the cries of his dark-skinned children, who had borne the burdens of others; that the Church should without delay extend missionary efforts to them; that priesthood should be given to those who are worthy; that racial intermarriage was “for the present” inadvisable because of social prejudice; that the end-time is near; and that the faithful will receive exaltation.
The document is typed, headed “A Revelation,” and labeled in pen on the upper left corner “First Draft.” At the end appears a signature block: “Faithfully yours,” signed by President Kimball. Shadows of paper edges on the photocopied document show it to be a composite of four segments: the letterhead, two poorly aligned parts of the body, and the signature block (which appears to be from a different typewriter). The ending, “Faithfully yours,” hardly fits a revelation purporting to be the words of God. Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Church Historical Department, reports that copies of unknown origin circulated as early as October 1978.
- Soon afterward Jacques M. G. Jonassaint, of Haiti, was called to the Florida Spanish Mission, and Mary Sturlaugson, of Provo, Utah, went to the Texas San Antonio Mission as the first African-American woman missionary.
- The few protesting Church members wrote to President Kimball vituperatively: “You senile old bastard. . . . [They] are laughing at us and even planning for the ‘take over’ as they call it. . . . You stupid fool. . . . Our Church shall curse the day you were born.”
“I request that my name be taken off the LDS Church records. You gave the N_____ the priesthood. This tells that you are liers [sic] and The Book of Mormon is a fraud.”
“I could have accepted and respected your decision if you had been honest enough to make the following statement: ‘The doctrine is being changed due to changing times and pressures from the bureaucratic government.’ To claim a vision and lay the church open to further ridicule I can’t accept with a clear conscience. . . . My only wish is to have my name removed from the records of membership.”
- For example, “You ostensibly had a ‘revelation’—opportunistically, one fears.” “I and many others really got a big laugh about your recent revelation.” “Kimball, you faker.” “A senile old man claims he had a revelation.”
- For example, “The N_____ and the Jews they taking over the world.” “You are setting a path of distruction [sic] and caious [chaos?] for the Mormon Church.” “Christian-white societies are inundated with parasitic colored.” “God ‘changes not,’ and he does not accept Negro race priests.” “You are a traitor to your own race.”
- Alexander B. Morrison equates Elder McConkie using the phrase “voice of the Lord” with Enos’s experience, but Elder McConkie said he did not experience a “voice in the mind” as Enos did. The change President Kimball recommended was not made.
Aftermath and Africa – Chapter 24
“We spoke with a limited understanding.”
In conversation with his son Ed soon after the revelation, Spencer talked about some of the consequences he anticipated would gradually come about. Missionary work would spread to more blacks in the United States and in Africa. Black members would augment the missionary corps. Some whites would join the Church who otherwise would not have. Interracial marriages would likely increase, despite the Church’s expressed concern for the social consequences of interracial, intercultural, and interclass marriages. Blacks would begin to hold Church administrative responsibilities. Some Church members whose prejudices ran deeper than their faith might become disaffected. But, he concluded, “I think there will not be much, if any, criticism.”
Allegations that the policy evidenced bigotry would decline, but Spencer predicted that those who had criticized the priesthood restriction would merely shift their attack to some other ground. Ultimately, he believed, their concerns were not tied to a particular issue but arose from the fundamental question of whether God guides the Church.
A 1988 study by Armand Mauss reported that before 1978 Latter-day Saints were not much different in their racial prejudices from other individuals. But after 1978 prejudice lessened in both groups, and Latter-day Saints were in some respects more favorable to blacks than the national population generally. Surveys of LDS students showed a consistent reduction from 1975 to 1979 in the students’ social distance from other ethnic and racial groups, the reduction being greatest with respect to blacks.
After priesthood and temple ordinances were open to people of all races, Church officials continued to recommend marrying within one’s race. Some members interpreted that counsel to mean interracial marriage was contrary to fundamental gospel principles.
When Mary Sturlaugson, the first black woman missionary, returned from her mission and began dating a white man, she was cautioned by friends not to get serious with him because marriage across racial lines was wrong. Troubled, she asked several General Authorities for their understanding. They told her the Church had no objection. But she wanted further reassurance and arranged an interview with President Kimball. She recorded his counsel and loving concern:
“I don’t know if President Kimball knew the turmoil I had suffered, but as I expressed to him my sincere desire to know the Lord’s will on interracial marriage, tears slowly rolled down his face. Reaching out, he gently embraced me as one would a delicate and small child. Then he quietly but emphatically whispered, ‘My child, it is not wrong. It is not wrong. The only reason we counsel against it is because of the problems the children could face. As far as its being incompatible with the Lord’s gospel, or with your Father in Heaven, it is not.’ He paused, still looking into my eyes. I felt that he saw into my soul. Then with another brief embrace he uttered, ‘Be of good cheer; the Lord loves you dearly.’” 1
Persistence of Traditional Explanations
Once the policy changed, most Church members had little inclination to dwell on questions of the past or to wrestle with the reasons for the change. They wanted to move on. But some members, black and white, continued to wonder whether explanations traditionally offered for the superseded policy had validity. Brigham Young was clearly mistaken about when the restriction would be lifted; was he also mistaken about its origin? If the priesthood ban had been sanctioned by God for a shorter time than expected, what determined the shortening of that time? Or had the ban not been God’s will but a mistaken understanding that he allowed to stand until both leaders and members of the Church could accept blacks as full equals in the kingdom? Or had the restriction been, not a curse, but a challenge, allowed by God but not imposed by him, to see how some premortal spirits would react to the disadvantage of being denied the priesthood because of race and how others would react to being “advantaged”? Would those born black still accept the truthfulness of the Mormon claim to unique status with God? Or does God simply move in unknowable ways (see Isaiah 55:8–9)?
The announcement of the revelation avoided questions of history or doctrine. But in a much-quoted statement to Church educators, Bruce R. McConkie acknowledged that previous statements by Church leaders—including himself—were made without full understanding. Rather than explain the basis for the pre-1978 policy, he focused on the fact that this new revelation overrides all previous statements on this subject:
“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
“ . . . It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation.” 2
President Kimball’s most pointed rejection of previous notions was made during an interview with Richard Ostling from Time magazine. Ostling reported in 1978 that President Kimball “flatly [stated] that Mormonism no longer holds to . . . a theory” that blacks had been denied the priesthood “because they somehow failed God during their pre-existence.”
Despite this strong language from President Kimball and despite official criticism of racial prejudice, the traditional explanations, especially the notion that all blacks were somehow less worthy in premortality, lingered in some Church members. On the twentieth anniversary of the revelation, several members urged that the time had come to formally disavow the traditional explanations. The Church did not take any such formal action, 3 but people speaking for the Church clearly distanced present Church policy from the earlier statements. Alexander Morrison, a Seventy, said that not only the official explanation but the real explanation why priesthood was not given to all men before 1978 is that “we do not know.” He also stated that it is a sin to discriminate against people because of their race. 4
Consequences in Africa
The effect of the revelation in Africa was immediate. On June 9, 1978, Joseph William (Billy) Johnson in Ghana came home from work discouraged by criticism from some of his followers about his unfulfilled prediction that soon missionaries would be sent. In the midst of these feelings, he began to experience an unexplained inner excitement. He felt an impression to try to listen to the BBC, something he had not done for a long time. Patiently he tuned his shortwave radio for an hour. Finally at midnight he made the connection. The first thing he heard amid the crackles of static was a BBC news flash that the Mormon Church had opened its priesthood to all worthy men of all races. He could scarcely believe what he heard—the fulfillment of his hopes after fourteen years of struggle.
During the months before June 1978, Dale LeBaron, mission president in South Africa, puzzled over the unprecedented number of inquiries about the Church he had begun receiving from black men and women. The number increased even more after the revelation, even though few of the inquirers knew anything about it. He saw the interest as evidence that “the Lord had poured out his Spirit upon Africans, who had long been deprived of the fullness of the gospel blessings and ordinances.” 5
First Missionaries to Nigeria and Ghana
For many years the Church had received persistent requests from black West Africans that missionaries be sent to teach them the restored gospel. Nowhere in the world did the revelation on priesthood make as much immediate difference as in Nigeria and Ghana.
In President Kimball’s discussions with David Kennedy, Kennedy had frequently reminded him that there was little point in working to improve missionary access to black Africa because the Church would not succeed there without priesthood leaders. When they conferred over an open atlas, Kennedy would put his hand over Africa and say, “There is no use talking about it.” As President Kimball returned to his office from the temple on June 9, 1978, he stopped at Kennedy’s door and said, “You’re going to be a happy man. You can take your hand off Africa.”
Speaking to the Church News immediately after the revelation, President Kimball said Africa would be the focus of new missionary effort. In a regional representatives’ seminar, he spoke of going to “the African continent,” where black Africans “have waited so long already.” “It is a large continent,” he acknowledged. “Roads are at a premium, and homes are usually far less than we are used to here. Poverty is widespread. Country after country has scarcely over $100 per year per person income for an economic base. But can we ask them to wait any longer? I believe that we cannot.”
In September 1978, President Kimball called two couples, Rendell and Rachel Mabey and Ted and Janath Cannon, to serve a one-year mission in Nigeria and Ghana, primarily among the several thousand individuals who knew something of the gospel and had already organized themselves into groups. 6
“How soon would you like us to leave?” Mabey asked.
The prophet promptly responded. “Yesterday.”
By November 21 the Mabeys and Cannons had arrived in Nigeria, where one-fifth of all Africans lived. The first person baptized was Anthony Obinna, who had waited since 1970. Others had waited even longer. The couples also made a trip to Ghana and performed many baptisms there. 7 Joseph William (Billy) Johnson had organized unofficial congregations in many villages within a seventy-mile radius of his home in Ghana. The two elders baptized two hundred in a single day. 8
Very soon black men were ordained and could perform baptisms. 9 By March nearly a thousand persons had been baptized in the two countries. Assimilating so many proved difficult because very few had any experience that would help them in Church administration.
By the end of a year, 1,723 people had been baptized. Nigeria had thirty branches in three districts; Ghana had five branches in two districts. Others who desired baptism were asked to wait until the first wave of new members had become settled. 10 On July 1, 1980, the Africa West Mission was organized with Bryan Espenschied serving as president. Because of Espenschied’s earlier work with him on Lamanite issues, President Kimball trusted him with this challenging assignment.
President Espenshied sharply slowed the rate of baptisms by requiring the teaching of the missionary lessons as a prerequisite to baptism and disallowing baptism for anyone under eighteen unless another Church member lived in the same household. He assigned his few missionaries to find the thirty-three hundred members already baptized in Nigeria and Ghana and, if necessary, reteach them before seeking more new members. His strategy was “to strengthen the foundation without expanding the base.” He felt that too many of those baptized, however genuine their desire, had no real understanding of what Church membership entailed. 11 As a consequence of these policies, the total membership at the end of President Espenschied’s service was smaller than at the beginning, but those who remained were stronger.
Missionaries expended tremendous effort on leadership training, overcoming language and tribal barriers, building meetinghouses, and helping members with basic survival. Many members struggled with inadequate water, food, sanitation, and medical care. 12 In 1983, the Church sent two shipments of rice, corn, beans, oil, sugar, milk, and salt from Welfare Square to Ghana for members and for relief agencies. In January 1984, the Church announced it would no longer supply direct food aid but would provide a tiller for each branch so that members could plant gardens and establish cooperatives. Members were instructed to sun-dry surplus food and fish for times of need.
All these actions were in keeping with President Kimball’s vision for Africa, whose poverty had concerned him from the first. “We will need to help educate the youth of these congregations and teach them the principles of growth and development.”
South Africa and New Missions
South Africa presented a special situation because of apartheid, a form of racial segregation legally established in 1948. Apartheid continued to be the law until the 1990s, although in the later years it was not generally enforced in Church meetings.
Some observers had expected that white South Africans would leave the Church en masse if it opened congregations to blacks. But they were wrong, mission president LeBaron reported. “I was not aware of a single instance of anyone leaving the church over the issues, and as leader of the church for all of South Africa, I would have been aware of any such actions.” That did not mean there were no problems. Some white members did cease active involvement in the Church, although they might not officially leave it.
Because LDS Church units are geographical, they tended to be in either black or white areas in South Africa, leading to a high degree of incidental segregation. However, in stake meetings or in the temple, blacks and whites met and worshipped together with no apparent difficulty. Considering the racial history of South Africa, the level of acceptance and cooperation was striking. 13
For many years, black South African missionaries could not serve effectively in their own country because of the hostile reactions they received from many whites. And black members sometimes faced ridicule from other blacks for belonging to a “white” church. Nevertheless, the Church flourished in South Africa after 1978 in a way not possible before the revelation.
After 1978 the Church established new missions in other areas with large black populations: Puerto Rico San Juan (1979), Dominican Republic Santo Domingo (1981), West Indies (1983), Haiti Port-au-Prince (1984), and Jamaica Kingston (1985). Three new Brazilian missions created between 1979 and 1985 helped convert large numbers of members with mixed racial ancestry.
In some areas missionary work struggled under the continuing perception of the Church as racist. Almost a decade after the revelation, missionaries in Barbados faced organized opposition—including allegations of racism—by other churches. Jamaica permitted the Church to operate, but the Church’s petition for corporate status was delayed because of allegations of racism.
Greater Numbers of Black Members
By President Kimball’s death in November 1985, seven years after the revelation, Africa had four missions: one in Nigeria, one in Ghana, and two in South Africa. A substantial number of the missionaries came from Africa itself. And members joining the Church in Africa were as a group zealous, remarkably well educated, and disproportionately male.
Because Church records do not identify race, it is impossible to know the exact number of black members at the time of the revelation, but ten years after the revelation there may have been 75,000 to 100,000 total, with 20,000 to 30,000 in West Africa, 28,000 in the West Indies, and many more in the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere. The revelation had opened wide a door through which a throng then surged.
- She did marry a white man, John Eyer.
- Despite this sweeping language, it is possible that Elder McConkie changed his views only about when the curse should be lifted. In the 1979 revision of the second edition of his Mormon Doctrine, he continued to express the view that those of black African lineage descend from Cain and that at least those who lived before 1978 came to earth under a curse related to their premortal lives. While he said in “The New Revelation,” “the ancient curse is no more,” he also said, “We can only suppose and reason that it [the restriction of Blacks] is on the basis of preexistence and of our premortal devotion and faith.”
- It may be that any such statement was made less likely by the fact that those urging a statement had “gone public” with the issue.
- President Hinckley made this statement to an Australian interviewer: “I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at that time.” The current student manual for the seminary system says only that from the beginning “there has been a group of people who have not been allowed to hold the priesthood of God. The scriptural basis for this policy is Abraham 1:21–27. The full reason for the denial has been kept hidden by the Lord. . . . On 1 June 1978 the Savior revealed to President Spencer W. Kimball that the ban . . . was lifted.”
- In September 1978, President Kimball said, “There seems to be a great movement afoot in many nations to prepare people for the further light and knowledge that only we can give them.”
- In 1978 an estimated two thousand Nigerians met in twenty “LDS” congregations. By 1978 the instability following the Biafran War had declined, and opposition political parties were allowed.
- Sam Bainson said, “My baptismal interview was 1:30 in the morning because there were so many of us that had to wait in line. And I was in the first group of converts there, baptized in the Atlantic Ocean in December of 1978.”
- Christian missionaries had laid a groundwork of faith in Christ.
- The missionaries had been instructed not to confer the Melchizedek Priesthood on converts immediately after baptism, but they did ordain some former ministers to the office of elder.
- Wholesale baptisms were “ultimately counterproductive. Every individual had to be taught, every individual had to make commitments.” The Church gained government recognition in Ghana in 1980 and in Nigeria in 1982.
- Teaching and worthiness had suffered in the missionaries’ responding to the urgent demands for baptism. The numbers baptized may be misleading because African religions are characterized by great fluidity; people joined and left church congregations easily. Some continued to engage in immoral conduct and had to be expelled for lack of repentance. However, overall the faithfulness is very high. Sacrament meeting attendance in Africa now is very near the highest of any area in the world.
- Deseret Hospital, established in the 1980s by Dr. Emmanuel Kissi, a counselor in the mission presidency, received otherwise unobtainable medicines through Friends of West Africa, a group organized by and made up mostly of American missionaries returned from West African missions.
- In interviews with hundreds of black members, LeBaron found that there was almost no report of discrimination.