Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
The LDS Church and African-Americans
[p.15]The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was rooted in the religious revivals of the nineteenth century. Many who moved to western New York sought a new spiritual life as well as economic improvement. The Second Great Awakening in 1799-1800 was followed by irregular waves of religious fervor. One surge occurred in the 1820s when various denominations held camp meetings, sent out traveling ministers, and encouraged Americans to return to faith.1
Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, and his family responded to this pious excitement. Smith’s mother, two brothers, and a sister joined the Presbyterian church. Because of the “confusion and strife among the different denominations,” Smith later recorded in his history, “it was impossible for a person as young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.” As a result, “I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit.” He leaned toward joining the Methodist church, which would have brought the religious conflict directly into his home.
To resolve his confusion Smith turned to the Bible, prayed fervently for enlightenment, and, after a series of visions over the next decade, felt authorized to organize a new church—a restoration of [p.16] biblical faith. On 6 April 1830 he and a few people who had accepted his revelations organized a church in New York. Since the Book of Mormon, a new scripture Smith had dictated, was considered a history of the American Indians, some of the first missionaries were sent to preach to native Americans.
These missionaries were not successful, but they did interest and baptize a large number of white Americans in Ohio. As a result Smith and many of his followers moved there in 1831. Smith then received a revelation that a New Jerusalem was to be built in Missouri, and church members dutifully moved to that frontier.
Their attempt to live a communal lifestyle and their northern antislavery views led to conflicts with neighbors. Twice they were forced to leave Missouri, once in 1833 and again in 1838-39. The second time they found refuge in Illinois, where they established Nauvoo, “the City Beautiful,” on the Mississippi River.
Four years later after a period of intensifying conflicts with neighbors, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed. In the ensuing confusion over succession, some Saints elected to follow the Quorum of Twelve, headed by Brigham Young, west. Others stayed in the Midwest and eventually formed other churches, the largest of which is the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headquartered in Independence, Missouri.2
Many of the early LDS church’s conflicts stemmed from its theological innovations such as polygamy, communalism, and political unity. Mormonism was contemporary with such utopian religious groups as the Oneida community and the Shakers. In comparing these three groups, non-Mormon historian Lawrence Foster noted:
These movements were either founded or attracted many followers in western New York State—an area similar to California [in the 1980s] as a source and magnet for all manner of religious and social causes …. These three movements were characterized by their unusually intense concern to overcome perceived social disorder, their intellectual and social roots in the Protestant Reformation, initial leadership by charismatic or prophetic figures, and a membership which may not have been significantly different from the generality of Americans of their period.3
Rather than a short-lived experiment with an idealized lifestyle, Latter-day Saints adapted their beliefs to mainstream America, and by the early twentieth century, Mormons had abandoned polygamy and political separatism. Their economic communal attempts gave way to the Protestant work ethic. Sociologists Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney described Mormons as having risen from the lowest position on the bottom rank of the “status hierarchy of the denominations” in 1945 to the highest position of the middle rank by 1987.4
The church’s most rapid growth came after World War II. From 1955 to 1965 it was the fastest growing church in the United States. From 1965 to 1975 it dropped to third behind the Assemblies of God and the Seventh-day Adventist churches.5 Thus, it followed a pattern typical for the United States. Sociologist Andrew M. Greeley argued that earlier church membership had been determined by the “old lines of class, race, ethnicity, region” and family.6 As these factors waned, mainline religions’ membership dropped while churches that “strongly emphasized local evangelism, maintained a distinctive lifestyle and morality apart from mainstream culture, maintained a unitary set of beliefs, and de-emphasized social action and ecumenism … grew.”7
These characteristics were all true of Mormons.8 In a 1978 study [p.18] of seventeen denominations, the LDS church rated first in lack of ecumenism, first in central authority, first in distinctive lifestyle, third in emphasis on evangelism, and third in unwillingness to allow independent beliefs among its members.9
By the 1990s the LDS church was no longer a regional church with most members in the western United States. Eighty-one percent lived outside of Utah. The population also shifted away from Euro-Americans. In 1988 and 1989, for example, when a million converts were baptized, 60 percent came from Mexico and Central and South America10 Determining ethnic membership for the United States is difficult because like Catholics, the LDS church prides itself on not identifying race or ethnic origins on membership lists. Thus there is no practical way to determine how many Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Polynesian Americans, or African-Americans are members.11
The church’s policies toward its ethnic members have cycled over the years. A clear example is the LDS church’s views of native Americans.12 The Book of Mormon contributed to the nineteenth-century discussion about Indian origins and the nature of American identity, declaring native Americans to be descendants of the House of Israel. The Book of Mormon stressed that this continent had been reserved [p.19] for a righteous people (including the Pilgrim fathers) and recorded a visit to the ancestors of the native Americans by Jesus Christ.
The Book of Mormon also answered a dilemma facing Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As God-fearing people how should they relate to the native Americans? The Book of Mormon identified contemporary Indians as descendants of a rebellious branch of the family, lazy and violent, whom God cursed with a dark skin. This group, the Lamanites, was contrasted with the record-keeping branch of the family—the peace-loving, urbanized, agricultural Nephites. In the end the Nephites became more wicked, and the Lamanites annihilated them. The Lamanites then broke up into wandering tribes and continued their wicked lifestyle. Thus native Americans constituted a people opposed to and in disfavor with God.
One of the stated purposes of the Book of Mormon was to return the Lamanites to God. Although the first missionaries sent to native Americans were not successful, they demonstrated a philosophical commitment to “redeem” this “chosen” but “fallen” people. Mormons shared the common American view that Indians were savages to be either converted and redeemed or confined to reservations so that Christians could make better use of the land. Mormons had conflicts with Indians on more than one occasion, but they also attempted to convert and “civilize” them by teaching them western farming methods. These efforts were suspended during the later decades of the nineteenth century due to the church’s struggle with the federal government’s suppression of polygamy.
Native American missionary activities remained in limbo for almost half a century. Then during the 1930s exclusive native American missions were established in the American southwest and Dakotas. In the 1940s Apostle Spencer W. Kimball, later church president, supervised the Southwest Indian Mission. He not only worked closely with members and missionaries there but championed the cause of native Americans among all Mormons. In a 1949 talk, he urged members to care for Indians as the Good Samaritan cared for the wounded man on the road to Jericho. The only way that Euro-Americans could “justify our invasion of these Americas, and our conquest of this promised land,” he said, was to care for the original inhabitants.13
A project started during this time was the Indian Student Placement Program. Children from reservations boarded with white [p.20] Mormons and attended public schools. Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, sponsored special academic programs and support services for native Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1975 George P. Lee, a Navajo, was called to be the first native American general authority. The time seemed ripe for Mormons to become the “nursing fathers and nursing mothers” prophecied by the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 6:7).
Instead church emphasis on Lamanites dropped sharply during the 1980s. In 1989 Lee was excommunicated for “apostasy.” Afterwards he distributed two letters to the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve complaining about the lack of attention native Americans received in the church and the unjust treatment he had received as a general authority. Lee felt that the church was neglecting its Book-of-Mormon-mandated responsibilities.14 He did not recognize other reasons for this de-emphasis, including mounting resistance to the Placement Program from the American Indian Movement, improved educational and social service programs on reservations, and a dramatic surge in baptisms in Third World countries.15
Church policies toward other ethnic groups varied over the years. Like Catholics, Mormons went through cycles in their attempts to serve the needs of its ethnic members. Historian Jay Dolan explained that Catholic immigrants to the United States dealt with cultural differences by establishing ethnic-based parishes “to preserve the religious life of the old country.” The local parish served a variety of purposes: “For some it was a reference point, a place that helped them to remember who they were in their adopted homeland …. It helped them cope with life in the emerging metropolis or the small town.”16
During the twentieth century the Catholic church put greater [p.21] emphasis on integration. Dolan explained that separate parishes “reinforced the ethnic differences of the people and enabled neighbors to build cultural barriers among themselves.”17 In 1980 the National Catholic Council of Bishops “urge[d] all Americans to accept the fact of religious and cultural pluralism not as a historic oddity or a sentimental journey into the past but a vital, fruitful and challenging phenomenon of our society.” Rather than separate ethnic parishes, churches “that serve more than one nationality” were encouraged. Segregated parishes “were ill-conceived [and] were based on mistaken perceptions of cultural affinities.” These new “dual purpose parish centers (based upon the notion that religion will bind the ethnically diverse newcomers)” were to “have the advantage of shared resources” and eliminate the “logistical problem for church authorities” of parishes with different languages and cultures.18
Mormon approaches to ethnicity varied from segregated congregations with some Euro-American leadership to full integration into the mainstream with and without translation support. In the 1960s, for example, Apostle Kimball actively organized Indian congregations (generally called Lamanite branches) and other ethnic groups, including a Chinese branch and a German-speaking ward. But in the early 1970s church leaders once again questioned the utility of separate congregations and urged wards and stakes to integrate ethnic members. However, before the end of the decade a Basic Unit plan again encouraged ethnic branches.19
These plans operated from mutually exclusive premises. Both met some of the needs of ethnic members and failed to meet others. Integration into multi-cultural, multi-lingual units was based on the ideal—and idealized—philosophy that gospel unity produces social unity. Paul H. Dunn, a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, articulated this view in 1988 when rededicating a chapel in Oakland: “Do you think when we get to the other side of the veil the Lord is going to care whether you came from Tonga or New Zealand or [p.22] Germany or America?… No. That’s why we call each other brothers and sisters …. The color of skin, the culture we represent, the interests we have are all quite secondary to the concept of the great eternal family.”20
The contrasting philosophy of ethnic independence recognized language handicaps. John H. Groberg, an LDS area president in southern California, explained, “Our prime role… is not to teach people English or how to become American. Gospel principles … don’t vary from language to language. We declare Christ, not English, our mission is not limited to culture.”21 Joyce L. Jones, a Euro-American stake Relief Society president supervising ethnic Relief Society units in Oakland, felt similarly that ethnic groups would “learn better in their own language surrounded by other members who shared the same ethnic/cultural background.”22
In practice, church policy has vacillated because language and cultural barriers weaken the uniting ties of religion. Whether ethnic Latter-day Saints were Swiss-German immigrants to Logan, Utah, during the early twentieth century, Tongans settling in Oakland, or Navajos on the reservation, they have faced the same isolating barriers. The difference, however, is that Swiss-Germans were integrated in one generation; other ethnic groups were not.
THE PRIESTHOOD BAN
Mormons experienced a more fundamental problem in dealing with blacks—whether they were black Americans, black Brazilians, or black Africans. Whether blacks should be integrated into the regular wards and branches was almost a mute issue because there were few black members. This stemmed from the policy that until 1978 barred black men from the lay priesthood. After Joseph Smith’s death a policy developed which prevented black men from holding certain church positions open to men of all other races. Black men and women were also excluded from receiving temple ordinances.
Like most Northerners, early Latter-day Saints opposed slavery. But like nearly all Euro-Americans, they believed that blacks were [p.23] mentally and morally inferior. At least two black men, Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis, were ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Religious discrimination can nonetheless be traced to Smith’s early statements. In 1841 he said that biblical Ham had been cursed with a dark skin by his father Noah and that this curse continued to the “posterity of Canaan.” The next year he identified “negroes” as “sons of Cain.” In May 1844 just before his death, he declared, “Africa, from the curse of God has lost the use of her limbs.”23 Such rhetoric was not unique to Mormons. Southerners also linked blacks with Ham and Canaan as did Northerners who argued against abolition.24
After Smith’s death in 1844, Mormon opinions about blacks became more prejudiced. A church newspaper, the Times and Seasons, reiterated Smith’s statement in 1845 that blacks were “the descendants of Ham.” Apostle Orson Hyde subsequently wrote that blacks “did not take an active part on either side” in a pre-earth life conflict between Satan and a pre-mortal Jesus. Anglo spirits, according to Hyde, supported Jesus, while those who sided with Satan were denied an earth existence. By the time Mormons had reached Winter Quarters, Nebraska, on their way west, Apostle Parley P. Pratt could declare that William McCary, a self-proclaimed prophet, had “the blood of Ham in him which linege [sic] was cursed as regard [to] the priesthood.”25
These 1840s statements shaped Mormon views. No blacks were ordained after that period although previous ordinations were not rescinded. Although Elijah Abel was a faithful member the rest of his life, he was not allowed to receive temple blessings. Jane Manning James, a black woman who joined the church, moved to Nauvoo, and then traveled to Utah, also petitioned leaders to receive her temple endowment but was denied.26
Over the years Mormons continued to reinforce priesthood denial by attributing apocryphal statements to Joseph Smith. In 1879 Abraham O. Smoot, a former Southerner who served a mission there, [p.24] claimed that Joseph Smith had told him in 1843 “what should be done with the Negro in the South, as I was preaching to them. He said I could baptise them by consent of their masters, but not to confer the priesthood upon them.”27
In 1887 Apostle George Q. Cannon asserted that “the Prophet Joseph Smith taught this doctrine: That the seed of Cain could not receive the priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the priesthood.” In 1904 Joseph F. Smith, then church president, assumed the policy had come from Joseph Smith and, four years later, claimed that Abel’s priesthood “ordination was declared null and void by the Prophet himself’ because of his “blackness.”28 In fact, Abel had participated in the Third Quorum of Seventies up until 1883. Joseph F. Smith himself had even ordained Abel to go on a mission in 1884, a mission Abel was unable to complete because of illness.29
The First Presidency did not issue an official public statement of priesthood denial until 1949: “The attitude of the church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.”30 The statement was a reaction to the growing number of blacks moving to Utah during World War II.
In 1963 the First Presidency tried with limited success to separate priesthood exclusion from the Civil Rights movement. In an official statement, they said: “During recent months, both in Salt Lake City and across the nation, considerable interest has been expressed in the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the matter of civil rights. We would like it to be known that there is in this Church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the [p.25] enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed.”31 Church observers generally agree that this statement was made because the NAACP had threatened to picket Temple Square. The statement, a concession that prevented such action, continued by affirming equal opportunities in housing, education, and employment while still maintaining the right of the church to deny priesthood.
Just a few weeks after this statement was issued, Joseph Fielding Smith, the son of Joseph F. Smith and later church president, told Look magazine, “‘Darkies’ are wonderful people and they have their place in our church.” The next year he stated that “the Lord” established priesthood denial.32
In 1965 the NAACP, noting that the church-owned Deseret News had not endorsed a state civil rights bill, threatened to picket the church’s administration building. The newspaper responded by confirming the 1963 church statement, and the state legislature passed the public accommodations and fair employment acts.33 Yet not all church leaders supported civil rights. Ezra Taft Benson, then an apostle and later church president, claimed that the movement was “fomented almost entirely by the communists.”34
As the Civil Rights movement made gains nationwide, Mormonism’s exclusionary policy came under repeated attack. In addition to NAACP action, universities refused to play Brigham Young University in athletic events. Black members of the New York City Planning Commission threatened to block construction of a Mormon-owned building near the Lincoln Center. The NAACP filed a suit against the Boy Scouts of America because a black could not be a scout leader in Mormon patrols. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir canceled an engagement in New England because black clergy opposed its appearance.35
Coupled with national pressure came growing dissent from within the church. Lowry Nelson, a Mormon sociologist, wrote to the church’s leadership in 1947 protesting the exclusionary policy. In 1952 he announced his public opposition in Nation. Sterling McMurrin, a [p.26] philosophy professor at the University of Utah, also corresponded with LDS church leaders and spoke against the Mormon view of blacks during the 1960s.36
In 1969 the counselors of then incapacitated church President David O. McKay signed a statement confirming priesthood denial but omitting references to Cain and Ham and to a premortal life. “From the beginning of this dispensation,” the statement read, “Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the Church have taught that Negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to men.”37 This concession was insufficient. LDS historians and sociologists tracing the roots of the policy could find no historical evidence that it was based on revelation.38
At the same time some Mormon activists tried unsuccessfully to force the issue. Douglas A. Wallace, a Vancouver, Washington, attorney, baptized and ordained a black, Larry Lester, in 1976. The ordination was declared void and Wallace was excommunicated. In 1977 Bryon Marchant, a Boy Scout leader in Salt Lake City, was excommunicated for voting against Spencer W. Kimball as church president at general conference in protest of the church’s racial policies.39 Other members lobbied church leaders in other ways.40 Still the church held firm, enduring bad publicity and refusing to engage in debate.
By 1978 most protests had died down. Doubtless many Mormons experienced increased social, educational, and professional contacts with blacks as a result of the Civil Rights movement. They sensed that the nation had moved to a new place and felt the gap between the [p.27] nation’s and church’s positions. However, few if any expected the policy to change soon, which may explain the shock that accompanied the First Presidency’s 9 June 1978 declaration:
As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows there from, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
CAUSES OF THE REVELATION
Most observers agree that foreign trends had more impact on the policy change than external pressure or internal debate. Non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps, writing in Christian Century, explained: “The June 9 revelation will never be fully understood if it is regarded simply as a pragmatic doctrinal shift ultimately designed to bring Latter-day Saints into congruence with mainstream America …. This revelation came in the context of worldwide evangelism rather than… American social and cultural circumstances.”41
At least two pressure points can be identified. First, since at least 1946 blacks in Nigeria had been asking for missionaries to come to that country and had organized churches using the Book of Mormon.42 At one point in 1963 missionaries were called, but the Nigerian government refused to admit them after learning of the priesthood restriction. Some general authorities also questioned committing resources to Africa at all. Still, LaMar Williams, an employee of the missionary department, visited the would-be Mormons in Nigeria several times and was impressed with their spirit and eagerness to accept the church, including priesthood restriction.43
Second, church membership in Brazil had grown enormously during the 1960s and 1970s. Determining who was black had always been a sensitive issue in the racially mixed country. In 1978 a temple, from which blacks would be excluded, was under construction. Complicating the problem was the perplexity of determining which deceased men were “eligible” (that is, not black) for proxy ordinations to priesthood.44 (Mormons believe in vicarious proxy baptisms, priesthood ordinations, and marriages for the dead.)
A third important ingredient in the timing of the revelation was the personality of church president Kimball. Long viewed as the “Lamanite apostle,” Kimball also supported other ethnic groups. At general conference in April 1954, he commented, “It pleases me greatly to notice that at each succeeding conference there is a larger sprinkling of Japanese and Chinese brothers and sisters; of Hawaiians and other islanders; of Indians, Mexicans, Spanish-Americans, and others.” Kimball explained his talk would be “on behalf of those minorities.” While most of the talk focused on Native Americans as part of the tribe of Israel, he denounced racial prejudice as “a monster.”
[p.29] … Often we think ourselves free of its destructive force, [but] we need only to test ourselves. Our expressions, our voice tones, our movements, our thoughts betray us …. Until we project ourselves into the very situation, we little realize our bias and our prejudice.”45
Kimball was well acquainted with black Mormons. For example, when he went to Brazil, he often visited with black members there. Helvecio Martins, who became a general authority in 1990, was present at the cornerstone laying for the Brazilian temple in 1977. Kimball called him to the podium, embraced him, and told him, “Brother, what is necessary for you is faithfulness. Remain faithful and you will enjoy all the blessings of the Church.”46 According to Edward L. Kimball, “My father always had a personal feeling for minorities, deprived people.”47
President Kimball’s own discussion of the announcement focused on human needs of church members. Speaking to missionaries in South Africa in October 1978, he confided:
I remember very vividly that day after day I walked to the temple and ascended to the fourth floor where we have our solemn assemblies and … our meetings of the Twelve and the First Presidency. After everybody had gone out of the temple, I knelt and prayed. I prayed with much fervency. I knew that something was before us that was extremely important to many of the children of God. I knew that we could receive the revelations of Lord only by being worthy and ready for them and ready to accept them and put them into place. Day after day I went alone and with great solemnity and seriousness in the upper rooms of the temple, and there I offered my soul and offered my efforts to go forward with the program.48
During one of the sessions at the dedication of the Brazilian temple, Kimball mentioned his extended pleadings in prayer. He said that the policy of priesthood exclusion was one he had always [p.30] defended and supported. He pledged to the Lord that he would continue to support it but sought to know “if there was any way at this time that the destiny of [black] people in the Church could be changed.” It was after that long petitionary process that he received the answer.
Other general authorities were touched by the plight of Brazilian members. During Kimball’s prayer dedicating the Brazilian temple, Gordon B. Hinckley, Kimball’s first counselor, wept and during his address spoke tenderly about the revelation. He said the First Presidency had been aware that black members in Brazil had given financial support to the temple, never expecting to enter the building themselves.49
Apostle James E. Faust, who supervised church activities in Brazil, recalled in an oral history interview how black members had worked alongside whites to construct the temple. He told the First Presidency that black members helped “to make blocks for the temple just like anybody else.” He remembered that church leaders had discussed the priesthood revelation prior to its public announcement.50
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie provided the most detail. Speaking to a group of Church Educational System employees, he set the scene as the first Thursday in June, a day when the First Presidency and apostles regularly met in the Salt Lake temple. Except for those ill or out of town, everyone was present. They had come fasting, which was also customary, and after a three-hour meeting also attended by the Seventies, the Twelve and the First Presidency remained in session. McConkie recalled: “When we were… by ourselves in that sacred place where we meet weekly…, President Kimball brought up the matter of the possible conferral of the priesthood upon those of all races. That was a subject that the group of us had discussed at length on numerous occasions in the preceding weeks and months.”
Kimball told about his prayers. McConkie continued: “He said that if the answer was to continue our present course of denying the priesthood to the seed of Cain, as the Lord had theretofore directed, he was prepared to defend that decision to the death. But, he said, if the long sought day had come in which the curse of the past was to be removed, he thought we might prevail upon the Lord so to indicate.” [p.31] Kimball then asked for comments, and McConkie recalled those present “all [responded] freely …. There was a marvelous outpouring of unity, oneness, and agreement in the council.”
After two more hours Kimball asked if they could have a formal prayer and if he could be the voice. McConkie continued, “It was during this prayer that the revelation came. The Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.” The message was that the priesthood was to go to all, regardless of color or race, “solely on the basis of personal worthiness. 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.”51
Ten years after the revelation, Elder Hinckley spoke at a “fireside” sermon for teenage boys. Looking back ten years he recalled his feelings during that “remarkable” experience and clarified the sequence. The meeting described by McConkie had occurred a week before the revelation was announced on 1 June 1978. On the first Thursday of each month, the general authorities gather for a testimony meeting. After the Seventies left, President Kimball offered a prayer. Hinckley did not recall the exact words but said he felt the heavens open. “The spirit of God was there, and by the power of the Holy Ghost” he was assured that all men should receive the priesthood. There were no rushing winds, “but there was a pentecostal experience because the Holy Ghost was present.” A week later on 8 June 1978, the announcement was made to the Seventies and other general authorities. A statement was issued to the press on 9 June 1978. Hinckley added, “Gone now was every element of discrimination; extended was every power of the priesthood of God.”52
Heber Wolsey, director of the LDS Public Communications Department, was assigned to make the dramatic announcement that stopped presses across the nation. Time magazine initially planned to run the news as its cover story.53 There was a rush to collect the [p.32] reactions of black Mormons, scholars of Mormonism, leaders of other religious groups, and black leaders.
Most of the responses were positive. Jimmy Carter, then president of the United States, wrote President Kimball, “I welcome today your announcement …. I commend you for your compassionate prayerfulness and courage in receiving a new doctrine. This announcement brings a healing spirit to the world and reminds all men and women that they are truly brothers and sisters.”54 Stealing McMurrin called “it the most important day for the church of the century.”55
When one non-Mormon ecclesiastical leader called it simply an internal matter, the non-Mormon newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, editorialized: “If Salt Lake City and Utah were not so closely identified with the LDS church and all Utahns not in some way affected by its policies, this significant action could be called a strictly Mormon matter. But it is much more than that. In a very real way a burden has been lifted from all Utahns, whether members of the LDS faith or of other beliefs.”56 The Church News, a weekly tabloid insert in the church-owned Deseret News, carried a story entitled “Priesthood News Evokes Joy” in its 17 June 1978 edition that included reactions from black members.57
The excitement continued as ordinations immediately began. Joseph Freeman, Jr., who lived in Salt Lake City at the time, reportedly the first black elder ordained, was interviewed repeatedly. Robert Lang, who joined the church in 1970 after talking to a Mormon store owner, recalled that, besides calls from friends, “someone from the Salt Lake newspaper called to interview me …. The following weekend Channel Two [in Los Angeles] called and wanted to interview me and [p.33] my wife down in front of the temple.”58 Lang later became president of the Southwest Los Angeles Branch in the Watts area.
Ironically, Douglas Wallace called the development “a revelation of convenience” like the 1890 manifesto banning polygamy. He thought the change would have “very little impact unless the church begins to work among minorities,”59 which it did in fact.
ATTITUDES TOWARD EQUALITY
What had been Mormon attitudes towards blacks, and did those views change with the policy? The Salt Lake branch of the NAACP issued a statement of mingled congratulation and reproof in response to the announcement: “We have been of the opinion for many years that your prior practice of exclusion of blacks from progression… has extended into secular affairs and has done much to sustain discrimination in areas of employment, education, and cultural affairs.”60 It is difficult to prove or disprove this statement. It is true that Marian Anderson was not allowed to stay at the church-owned Hotel Utah when she toured Utah in concert during World War II.61 Marion D. Hanks, retired from the First Quorum of Seventies, recalled that after World War II blacks from the Phoenix College in Arizona stayed at his mother’s because they could not find other lodgings when their group performed in Salt Lake City.62 Anecdotal reports of blacks begin discriminated against at Brigham Young University and at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, occasionally still surface.
These experiences are not unique to Mormons. Mirroring national attitudes, most Mormons held pro-Civil Rights views. Using material gathered by Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Mormon sociologist Armand L. Mauss argued as early as 1966 that Mormons’ [p.34] “secular attitudes towards Negroes” were similar to those of the nation as a whole. Using three LDS congregations in northern California, Mauss found “no systematic differences in secular race attitudes… between Mormons and others.” The differences he did find were related more to education, occupation, and rural/urban settings than Mormon orthodoxy.63 Over two decades later Roof and McKinney reached a similar conclusion. Mormons as a group were slightly more willing to accept minority rights than national averages and were considerably more willing to do so than white fundamentalist/pentecostal churches.64
An important exemplar of changing attitudes was Apostle McConkie, who had become a prolific theologian. His 1966 Mormon Doctrine, used by some members as a dictionary of theology, contained the following justifications for the black exclusion policy: “Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain.” He went on: “Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.”65 Two months after the announcement, he declared to a group of church-employed teachers:
There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things …. All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever 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. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness, and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t [p.35] matter any more. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year . It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles.66
The LDS church, which arose at the same time as other nineteenth-century utopian organizations, survived far beyond the others. As it eliminated polygamy and other practices viewed as un-American, it moved closer to mainstream U.S. churches. Like other religions it has not been sure how to deal with ethnic groups who are not a part of that middle-class upperwardly mobile image. As a consequence policies concerning native Americans, Hispanics, and others have varied over the years, driven simultaneously by Christian feelings and procedural awkwardness. The policy towards blacks was stable during the long period in which they were denied priesthood ordination, an exclusion explained at various extremes as God’s curse and a mystery with reasons known only to God. In actuality the Mormon policy was not much different from that of other white churches.
An important and unique barrier for blacks was lifted in 1978 when the First Presidency announced a revelation allowing priesthood for all men regardless of race, and proselyting began among blacks worldwide. Though responses have varied, most of those by Mormons and non-Mormons have generally been positive, even celebratory.
1. Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Aftred A. Knopf, 1979), 3, 7.
4. Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 110. This classification is based on income, education, profession, and social class. Their findings are discussed further in chap. 4.
5. Dean R. Hoge, “A Test of Theories of Denominational Growth and Decline,” in Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950-1978, eds. Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1970), 187.
9. Ibid., 185. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Seventh-day Adventist rated higher than Mormons in evangelism. The Seventh-day Adventist and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod demanded more rigid belief patterns.
11. According to Carl J. Fisher, an African American Catholic bishop in Los Angeles, “We do not really keep statistics by way of race, and many of the estimates are guesstimates.” Interview in America 164 (13 Apr. 1991): 417.
12. See David J. Whittaker, “Mormons and Native Americans: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Winter 1985): 33-64. Much of the general information in this section comes from this article.
29. Newell G. Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, eds. Lester E. Bush, Jr., and Armand L. Mauss (Midvale, U’T: Signature Books, 1984), 138.
42. For a complete description of the events leading to missions in West Africa, see James B. Allen, “Would-Be Saints: West Africa before the1978 Priesthood Revelation,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 207-47.
57. Church News, 17 June 1978, 3-4. Since then the Church News has occasionally carried articles about black members, focusing more on conversion stories and positive service than on their experiences as blacks per se or possible problems. Most articles have focused on international rather than American blacks. Newell Bringhurst has kept a dipping file of such articles, which he kindly loaned me.
58. Robert Lang Oral History, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 21 Oct. 1985, 4, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter LDS Afro-American).