Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
Impact of the LDS “Negro Policy”
[p.37]Research on LDS African-Americans has often focused on priesthood denial and ignored the limitations other churches have placed on blacks even when they did not have a public policy of overt discrimination. Perhaps a greater omission is the impact on individual LDS African-American members before and after 1978. Why were blacks willing to join the Mormon church knowing they could not have all the privileges of other members? How did they view this policy, and what difference did the change in policy make? How do blacks who have joined since 1978 view that historic restriction?
EARLY BLACK LATTER-DAY SAINTS
After the LDS church was organized in 1830, missionaries taught the “restored” gospel to blacks who sought them out and baptized a few. It was impossible then, as it is now, to know how many blacks joined the new church. The only indication comes from a frequently quoted remark by Apostle Parley P. Pratt, “One dozen free negroes or mulattoes never have belonged to our society in any part of the world, from its organization [in 1830] to this date, 1839.”1 Historians have pieced together the histories of a few early black members.
[p.38]Born in Maryland in 1810, Elijah Abel was baptized into Joseph Smith’s church in 1832. He moved to Kirtland, Ohio, to be with the rest of the Saints, and in June 1836 he was ordained an elder, a position in the Melchizedek priesthood. Six months later he became a seventy and received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr. Rather than declaring Abel to be a descendant of one of the tribes of Israel, as was common practice, Abel was told he was “an orphan.” He was promised, “Thou shalt be made equal to thy brethren, and thy soul be white in eternity and thy robes glittering.”2
Like many early priesthood brethren, Abel worked as a missionary during the late 1830s in New York and Canada. In 1839 he moved from Kirtland to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he performed baptisms for the dead and, according to Abel’s accounts, was appointed by Joseph Smith, Jr, to be an undertaker.3 He worked in Nauvoo as a carpenter until 1842 when he moved to Cincinnati, continuing in the same profession. There he married a black woman, Mary Ann Adams.
During this time Joseph Smith spoke highly of Abel. In 1843 Smith explained, “Go to Cincinnati… and find an educated negro (sic), who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the power of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability.”4 Just six months later, however, three apostles, a “Traveling High Council,” visited the Cincinnati branch and questioned Abel’s high profile as a black Mormon. John E. Page explained that he “respects a coloured Bro” but “wisdom forbids that we should introduce [him] before the public.” After some discussion a resolution was adopted which stated that to accommodate the “duty of the 12 [Apostles]… to ordain and send men to their native country Bro Abels [sic] was advised to visit the coloured population” of Cincinnati in his missionary work.5
[p.39]In 1853 Abel moved to Utah. By the time he arrived, LDS church leaders had already taken steps to prevent blacks from being appointed to the priesthood. However, there were no attempts to take away Abel’s priesthood authority. He settled in Millcreek in Salt Lake Valley where he was rebaptized in 1857 during the “Mormon Reformation.” He continued to be an active member of the Third Quorum of Seventies. In 1883 Apostle Joseph F. Smith set apart Abel, then in his early seventies, as a missionary to Ohio and Canada. However, Abel became ill and returned to Utah where he died in December 1884.
Abel continued to participate in quorum activities. But when he asked Brigham Young if he could be sealed to his wife and children in the temple, he was denied. A later appeal to Young’s successor, John Taylor, was referred to the Council of the Twelve and also denied.6
As the church’s Negro doctrine developed, Abel’s ordination became an embarrassment and caused a debate in the hierarchy. In 1879 Zebedee Coltrin insisted that Abel had been ordained a seventy because he had worked on the Nauvoo temple, but Smith had “dropped [Abel] from the quorum” because of his lineage. Joseph F. Smith denied Coltrin’s claim, pointing out that Abel had two certificates listing him as a seventy, one issued in Salt Lake City. Other church leaders such as John Taylor explained that Abel had been given the priesthood, which had later been removed. By 1908 Joseph F. Smith had reversed his 1879 stand, saying that even though Abel had been “ordained a seventy… in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith … this ordination was declared null and void by the Prophet himself” In 1920 Andrew Jenson explained in his Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia that an exception had been made in Abel’s case and the “general rule of the Church” was against ordaining blacks. In 1955 in a letter to a member of the church, Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith suggested there had been two Elijah Abels—one white and one black. However, just as Smith was trying to “bury the ghost of Elijah Abel,”7 others were discovering his unique position as a priesthood holder. He remains an obstacle to those who try to trace priesthood denial to Joseph Smith.8
Jane Manning James
[p.40]A free-born servant, Jane Elizabeth Manning was born in the late 1810s or early 1820s and grew up in Connecticut during the 1820s, earning her living as a domestic. When Mormon missionaries came to the area, she listened and along with other family members joined the church. In 1843 eight members of the Manning family started toward Nauvoo but became separated at Buffalo, New York, when they were refused passage on a boat because they were black. The Mannings set out on foot and, after experiencing illness, threatened imprisonment, and extreme cold, finally arrived in Nauvoo where Joseph Smith welcomed them into his home. Before the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, Jane Manning married another black Mormon, Isaac James. James, a native of New Jersey, had converted to Mormonism in 1839 at the age of nineteen and immigrated to Nauvoo. Their first son was born at Winter Quarters in 1846. The couple had six more children in Utah. In 1869 Isaac left the family, selling his property to Jane. He returned to Salt Lake City approximately twenty-one years later just before he passed away. When he died in 1891, Jane held his funeral in her home.
Jane Manning James was a member of the female Relief Society and donated to the St. George, Manti, and Logan temple funds. She repeatedly petitioned the First Presidency to be endowed and to have her children sealed to her. During the time that Isaac was gone, Jane asked to be sealed to Walker Lewis who, like Elijah Abel, had been ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
After Issac died, Jane asked that they be given the ordination of adoption so they would be together in the next life.9 She explained in correspondence to church leaders that Emma Smith had offered to have her sealed to the Smith family as a child. She reconsidered that decision and asked to be sealed to the Smiths. Permission for all of these requests was denied.
Instead the First Presidency “decided she might be adopted into the family of Joseph Smith as a servant, which was done, a special[p.41] ceremony having been prepared for the purpose.” The minutes of the Council of Twelve Apostles continued, “But Aunt Jane was not satisfied with this, and as a mark of dissatisfaction she applied again after this for sealing blessings, but of course in vain.”10
Jane Manning James bore a testimony of Mormonism to the end of her life: “My faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the word of wisdom, I go to bed early and rise early, I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.” When she died in 1908, church president Joseph F. Smith spoke at her funeral.11
Samuel D. Chambers
Another early black Mormon, Samuel D. Chambers, first heard about the Mormon church as a thirteen-year-old slave in Mississippi in 1844. He was baptized secretly and then lost contact with the church until after the Civil War. “Tho’ lacking age and experience yet God kept the seeds of life alive in me,” he reported. As a free man, Chambers worked as a shoemaker and a sharecropper to save money to emigrate. When he was thirty-eight years old, he moved with his wife and teenage son to Utah. Although he could not receive the priesthood, Chambers assisted deacons in the Salt Lake City 8th Ward, attended meetings, prayed, and bore testimony in public meetings. In 1873 forty-two-year-old Chambers expressed his feelings about the LDS church: “I know we are the people of God, we have been led to these peaceful rallies of the mountains, and we enjoy life and many [p.42] other blessings` I don’t get tired of being with the Latter-day Saints, nor of being one of them. I’m glad that I ever took upon me the name of Christ …. I’ve been blest from youth up, although I was in bondage for 20 years after receiving the gospel, yet I kept the faith. I thank God that I ever gathered with the Saints.” Chambers died in 1929 at the age of 98.12
Mary Lucile Bankhead
Most early black converts were strengthened by such compelling spiritual experiences that they overlooked prejudice and discrimination. Their children did not always share their parents’ enthusiasm. In fact rarely did a second or third generation of African-Americans remain in the church. Mary Lucile Perkins Bankhead is an exception. She is a fourth generation descendant of the pioneer blacks who came to Utah. Her ancestors include Green Flake, who drove Brigham Young’s wagon into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and Jane Manning James. Bankhead recalled having asked to be baptized: “my mother didn’t have to tell me.” She faithfully attended the Wilford Ward in Salt Lake City, sang duets with her brother for events in the stake house, and states, “We have never been ostracized.”13
Mary Lucile was courted by Roy Bankhead, whom she married. The Bankheads were from Cache Valley, and according to Mary Lucile, the family “were all Mormons,” but Roy and his immediate family were not. The newlyweds settled in Salt Lake City where they raised six sons and two daughters. Mary Lucile recalled that she and the children “would all go to church together every Sunday morning,” although none of her children or grandchildren were active Mormons at the time of the priesthood announcement in 1978. Although their decision pained her, she accepted it. “When they get older in their thirties and forties, it is their responsibility, not mine.”14
[p.43] Mary Lucile talked about the church’s stand during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Church leaders “were not doing much speaking out about civil rights. Only a few of them would say that the Lord is no respecter of persons. They would say that once in awhile. I think they were quite slow in giving advice and saying what they felt.” She acknowledged racism in Salt Lake City: “I cannot understand why people cannot live and why some of them have to be racist …. My blood is just as red as theirs even if my skin is dark. The Lord made us all.”15
When asked about priesthood restriction, she replied, “I don’t know as it affected me. I knew about it, and I knew that they did not want us to have it. But I prayed that they would. I told people in the ward,… ‘It is coming, and we are going to have it. I do not know what day.'” She continued, “It surely came, but when it came and they called me … I did not believe it at first because it had been so long in coming.” It took a second phone call to convince her, and she concluded simply, “It is nice. I am glad.”16 However, she recognized that this would not cure racism, explaining for “deep dyed Mormons in the South… that have had [racism] dealt in them from childhood ·. it is going to be hard for them to take a black bishop or priest.”17
BLACK CONVERTS BETWEEN 1900 AND 1960
Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James, and Samuel Chambers are among the best documented black church members between 1840 and about 1900. Stories of other blacks who converted after the pioneer period are more difficult to reconstruct. While the Charles Redd Center was conducting oral history interviews, relatives and acquaintances provided information about deceased members who joined around the turn of the century.
Len Hope, Sr., and Mary Lee Pugh Hope
Len Hope, Sr., was born on 10 October 1892 in Magnolia, Alabama. Accounts vary about how he came in contact with the[p.44] Mormon church, but he was baptized in Alabama on 22 June 1919. After he served in France during World War I and returned to the United States, non-Mormon whites reportedly threatened him unless he removed his name from the records of a “white” church. However, he remained a committed Latter-day Saint. On 25 January 1920 he married Mary Lee Pugh, a woman ten years his junior. She was born 11 October 1902 in Larnison, Alabama. Five years after their marriage, she was baptized on 15 September 1925.18
While they were in the South, they were unable to attend church because of resentment of other Latter-day Saints. They eventually moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, with their children (ultimately six) seeking better employment in the industrial North and fewer Jim Crow laws. At first the Hopes attended the LDS branch in Cincinnati but soon made their own arrangements for worship. Some sources say they were asked not to attend. Others report they made the decision on their own.19
When I interviewed Marion D. Hanks, who had served a mission in Ohio and stayed with the Hopes once when he was ill during the 1940s, I asked, “Do you know of any particular case of someone going and telling them they couldn’t go to church?” Hanks replied, “No, I think it was more subtle than that. It was just understood. It had been made known to them that they were not to be there.”20
[p.45] But they did not lose faith. In 1936 future LDS apostle Mark E. Petersen, who was then working for the Deseret News, was assigned to study newspaper practices at the Cincinnati Enquirer. He attended a missionary-organized meeting in the Hopes’ home. Petersen recalled that the branch president showed him Len Hope’s tithing receipts. He faithfully paid $1.50 per week. Hope told Petersen that he often had to peddle berries to earn the money, adding that he was the only black he knew in his neighborhood with a job during the 1930s depression and attributed the blessing to paying tithing.21 Mary Hope’s last bishop said, “I never sensed any kind of frustration, impatience, or resentment of any kind” about those years of restricted activity, although “I could tell from Sister Hope’s expression that she was disappointed that they could not attend church. They would have loved to have been Latter-day Saints in a full sense.”22
Marion D. Hanks recalled that in the early 1940s the Hopes were allowed to attend district conferences. On those occasions the whole family lined up at the door and greeted the missionaries’ special guests. He recalled that some visitors and members “were not advanced in their sense of the value of other human beings but geared that to their own sense of ethnic purity and color.” These people avoided greeting the Hopes. Hanks, however, felt “some defensiveness. I used to go stand by them while the guests arrived with other missionaries …. I was not able to accommodate other people’s sense of propriety in trying to keep black people away.”23 Hanks continued, “One interesting thing about the Hopes not being accepted at the normal worship service in the Cincinnati, Ohio, branch of the one true church was they held a meeting at the Hope home every first Sunday of the month. There would be a testimony meeting and an instruction period followed by a meal which the Hopes would prepare for those who came …. When I learned of that, I began attending immediately. For nearly a year in Cincinnati, I spent my first Sunday afternoons at the Hope home. They would bear testimony in order from Len, Mary, Rose, down to Vernon who could barely talk.”24
[p.46] Len Hope was forced to take early retirement because he developed a form of black lung from working on a fiberizing machine. In 1947 after he retired, the Hopes visited Utah and stayed with Hanks and his mother. They were so well received that they decided to move to Utah. Hanks explained, “I tried to dissuade them. They had a nice home. The branch by now was treating them more courteously. Their children were there …. It just looked like they would be better off where they were with friends and associates.”25 However, one day he received a call that the Hopes had arrived.
The Hopes were members of the Millcreek Ward where Len attended high priest group meetings and Mary went to Relief Society. Hanks explained, “As far as I am aware, they were treated well in the church. They were curiosities, but out in the Millcreek area were the descendants of the Flake family and other black folks who were church people.”26
The Hopes had not been in Salt Lake City long when Len became ill and was admitted to the Veteran’s Hospital. Hanks gave him a blessing, sensing that “he was not long for this world.” One Sunday in September 1952 when Hanks was supposed to speak at a sacrament meeting, he felt uneasy. Instead of going to the meeting, he called the Hopes and was told that Len had just passed away.27
Following her husband’s death, Mary moved to Philadelphia, where some of her children were living. She received church welfare assistance. Joseph T. Lindsey, who served as her bishop, recalled taking her supplies in 1955.28 After Lindsey was released, Loran Stephenson, Hope’s home teacher, was called to be bishop. He continued his monthly visits and explained, “I think during that period of time, outside of the members of her family, I probably knew her better than anyone else in the world.”29 When asked how Mary was accepted in the ward, Stephenson replied,[p.47]
There was no problem there …. I think she felt comfortable with all the members of the church there. I never heard anybody from the time that I was bishop or any other time express any negative views towards her or her family. I did not see any indication whatever of social or personal ostracism. She was never asked to serve in any calling that I know of, but I did not think as bishop that she was physically able to perform much of anything or that it was wisdom to give the responsibility to her. Sister Hope was such a non-threatening personality that it would be difficult for anybody to respond negatively to her.30
Stephenson told of Mary’s faith. “I’ve heard her bear her testimony a number of times in testimony meeting about the truthfulness of the gospel, the heart-felt way she felt about the Lord Jesus Christ, the truthfulness of the Church, the divinity of the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith, and the truth and proper authority of the priesthood.”31 When Mary died in 1971, Stephenson made arrangements to fly her body to Salt Lake City, where she was buried next to her husband.
Regarding the priesthood, Hanks remembered: “Brother Hope in bearing his testimony always said that the day would come and that they could wait. They knew the Lord knew their hearts. I think he said it maybe with a smile and a hint now and then that when the white people were ready the time would come.”32 According to Hanks, “He had found the gospel and found it in a miraculous way. He was content to wait patiently for the day when the full blessings of the gospel were available through the priesthood.”33 As with many early black members, such patience was not passed on to their children. Most of the Hope family eventually converted to Islam.34 During the June 1978 meeting in the salt Lake temple, Hanks, now a general authority, bore his testimony about Len Hope, whom he described as a “pure, beautiful, patriotic, heroic man who was ready to give his life rather than surrender his membership.”35
Three Generations of Sargents
In 1895 Mormon missionaries knocking on doors in a rural area of Caroline County, Virginia, contacted the Sargents. For the next ten years missionaries stopped at this home where they shared their gospel message, and Nellie Gray Patron Sargent fed them, washed their clothes, and mended their shoes. On 19 August 1906 the mother and all seven children were baptized. According to a daughter, Novella Sargent Gibson, her father John “wasn’t a member, but he was administered to. He liked the Mormons, but he was never baptized.”36 Although others in the area listened to missionaries and joined the church, they were white and emigrated to Utah. Soon the Sargents were the only Latter-day Saints left in the area. Although isolated from other members, ridiculed, and excluded by the black community, the mother remained faithful.
One at a time the Sargent children moved to Washington, D.C., seeking employment. Novella moved in 1908 when she was sixteen years old. Two years later she found members of the LDS church meeting in a rented hall. After that she attended as often as her work schedule permitted. She recalled one incident of racial discrimination. It was a conference so the room was “filled up with people. I don’t know who this man was, whether he was a Mormon or whether he wasn’t. There was a seat left by me. I was sitting there, and there was one seat here. The place was crowded. He wouldn’t sit down. He just stood there. It was very noticeable. Everybody was bound to see it. Sister [Alpha Mae Eldredge] Smoot [wife of LDS apostle and Utah senator Reed Smoot] got up from her seat and came back and sat by me. He went there and sat in her seat.” Novella added, “Those things don’t hurt me. Just pray for them. That’s all because they really don’t know what they are doing.”37
Novella Sargent married Joseph Milton Gibson on 18 June 1915.[p.49] He did not discourage her involvement in the church. After he died in 15 October 1966, she had him vicariously baptized and ordained. Novella commented, “I hope he is [a member] by now.”38
One of Novella’s sisters, Mary Virginia Sargent, stayed in Caroline County, Virginia, and married Julius Keys. Like her mother, Mary Virginia’s only contact with Latter-day Saints was literature and rare missionary visits. According to her daughter Ethel Keys Kelly, she once became ill. While her husband went for the doctor, the Mormon missionaries arrived and gave her a blessing. When Julius returned, she was sitting up in bed preaching. After this miraculous recovery, her husband joined the LDS church.
The Keys had little contact with the church because as Ethel Kelly said it was “too far to travel… and we had no transportation.” The children were baptized in a Baptist church, but Virginia Keys Wright recalled that her mother “never stopped telling Us about the Mormons and the Mormon church. She never would try to force it on us. But if anything would happen, she wanted us to get in touch with the Mormons.”39
Even without attending church three of the children—Ethel, Virginia, and Raymond—later became interested and were baptized. Ethel moved to Washington, D.C., where she married James Kelly and then moved to New York City. She wrote to her aunt Novella asking for a copy of the Book of Mormon and was referred to the church in New York. She was baptized in 1961.40 Her sister Virginia lived with Ethel at the time and took the missionary lessons. Later she returned to her home in Richmond, Virginia, became very ill, and after a series of miraculous experiences decided to be baptized in 1976.41 Ethel asked missionaries to visit her brother Raymond, who was baptized in 1981.[p.50]
Samuel Magee and Ardella Bickham Magee
Samuel and Ardella Bickham Magee were taught and baptized by a white neighbor, John Israel, in their rural village of Tylertown, Mississippi. The couple traveled by wagon about fifteen miles to Darbun to attend quarterly district conferences whenever possible, held morning and evening family prayers, and read the scriptures together. Freda, their fourth of eight children, was baptized in a creek near Tylertown in 1908 at the age of nine. Freda divorced her first husband, and on 3 February 1938 married Rudolph Beaulieu. Although Beaulieu was not a member, he encouraged her to pay tithing and once telephoned the branch president in New Orleans to administer to her.42
Freda Beaulieu described the effects of the Mormon church on her life. “I feel I have been blessed with good health all these years from living the Word of Wisdom, as my parents taught me many years ago.” She was “really excited when the blacks were given the opportunity to receive the priesthood in June 1978.” She felt the announcement opened up new opportunities for her: “July 21, 1978 was the happiest day of my life. I went to the Washington Temple for my own endowment and to be sealed to Rudolph [who had passed away] for time and eternity.”43
BLACK CONVERTS BETWEEN 1960 AND 1978
White missionaries in the 1960s and 1970s, sensitive to discrepancies between black and white Mormon experiences, were cautious about proselyting blacks. The stories of some of these black members have been published; others are available in libraries and archival collections.[p.51]
Alan Cherry joined the LDS church on 9 May 1968 at age twenty-two. His published autobiography is entitled It’s You and Me, Lord.44 Cherry grew up in New York City with his mother, father, and half-sister. After he graduated from high school, he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., for one year. He enlisted in the air force just before he would have been drafted. In 1966 he was stationed in Texas where he reported: “I was at my permanent duty station, already engrossed in a unique plan called ‘Boredom, And How to Eat Ten Meals a Day.'”45 After several months of “my experience with the immorality of downtown Abilene, the view I was developing of race, relationships and how this seemed symbolic of the nation …. I wondered if that was what America was really all about—what life was about, or if there was perhaps something more ….Was there any truth?”46
For several months he searched for “absolute truth.” After reading philosophy and scripture he decided, “I had to dedicate my life to Christ.”47 With this new resolve, “I decided that the next day I would stop work. I knew I would probably be apprehended and then placed in confinement, but if that was what was necessary to sever connections with the world in which I found myself, then I was most willing to do it.”48 On 19 January 1968 when he refused to report to work, he was placed in the base confinement facility. In mid-February he found the LDS pamphlet Which Church Is Right? He requested information and was eventually referred to the Mormon missionaries. The missionaries came to the confinement facility on 13 April 1968. When they arrived, he defused any apprehensions by announcing, “I already know the doctrine of Negro and the priesthood.” He had read about it in a Reader’s Digest article about Mormons.
Cherry was released from confinement twelve days after his first meeting with the missionaries and had all of the lessons in the next [p.52] ten days before he was baptized. He was discharged from the military on 24 May 1968 and returned to New York City. After working and attending church there, he decided to enroll at BYU the fail of 1969. For the next ten years he worked, performed with several BYU and Mormon-related groups, and started an acting career.
Following the 1978 announcement he was ordained an elder. In 1982 he accepted a call to serve in the California Oakland Mission. I met him soon after he returned from his mission. At his suggestion the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies conduct interviews with LDS African Americans, and he donated four years to completing the interviews. One of the people he interviewed was Janice Barkum of Gulfport, Mississippi, whom he married in the Salt Lake temple five months after they met.
When Cherry published his book in 1970, he explained his reaction to the priesthood ban: “I guess when it all comes out in the end the important thing in God’s Kingdom will not be who leads us there, but simply who gets there.”49 In 1985 he reflected on his experiences: “Priesthood restriction was culturally administered very poorly. It turned me and perhaps many black Latter-day Saints into shadowy figures who in effect were asked to languish in the shadows to minimize discomfort of other Latter-day Saints …. It was an inequality born out of ignorance and mismanagement rather than deliberate disenfranchisement.”50
Helen Kennedy, who grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, was working at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah in 1969 when her co-workers gave her some Mormon church literature. When the forty-eight-year-old single mother showed interest, other fellow employees sent missionaries to her home. She recalled, “The first thing they told us was the blacks could not have the priesthood and that we were going to get a greater blessing later in life. It wouldn’t happen in our lifetime, but there would be a greater blessing.” When the missionaries asked if they could return, Helen’s daughter Candace, who had attended [p.53] LDS religion classes adjacent to her high school, told her to say yes because “the gospel’s beautiful.”51
Helen took the lessons and prayed. She recalled, “Pretty soon one night I was praying. I went to sleep with just a really good feeling, but I didn’t know if the church was true. Then during the night I woke up, and I was saying, ‘It’s true.'”52 She was baptized on 19 May 1969.53 Candace was baptized in 1979 when she was in her twenties and living in California.54
Before Helen’s conversion she had sung in the New Zion Baptist church choir. Candace recalled that members of their former congregation “said things like, ‘The Kennedys always thought they were too good for everyone. They’ve joined Mormonism. They’re too good for the New Zion Baptist church now. Mormons don’t like blacks. I don’t know what they are doing in that religion.'”55
Helen was elated but shocked when she heard about the 1978 announcement. “I thought the world was going to come to an end because the missionaries said that we wouldn’t get that in my lifetime. … It was just a beautiful surprise. No bells rang, no stars started down, but it was just really something.” Elaborating, she said: “Sometimes I think, ‘Why did the Lord wait so long?’ I had a kind of a rough time with my kids. I know that the gospel really helped me …. My kids would always say, ‘My mom has really changed.’ And I know that I did. … I am proud of the things that I have learned about the Lord, about forgiveness, about the plan of salvation, and about love.”56
James Henry Sinquefield
James Henry Sinquefield’s first contact with Mormons came in 1970 when he was twenty-seven years old and living in Chicago. He enjoyed the weekly broadcasts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and [p.54] when he heard in 1970 that two black women had joined the choir, he wrote to Salt Lake City applying to sing. The choir public communications department wrote back explaining that members of the choir had to be Mormons. Sinquefield recalled, “For some reason that did not discourage me or dampen my enthusiasm for wanting to know more.”57
When someone from the choir asked if the missionaries could come by, Sinquefield agreed. He listened to the missionaries and believed them. “I thought, ‘These young men have brought an answer to my prayer.'” As a result of his faith and his acceptance of Mormon doctrine, Sinquefield moved to Utah in 1972 where he was baptized in January 1974. He began taking private music lessons, and five months later he auditioned and was accepted into the choir.58
When the missionaries told him about priesthood restriction, Sinquefield commented: “My immediate feeling was that this was something that Father in Heaven himself had allowed …. I joined the Church feeling that after I had accepted the principles and the teachings of the gospel and lived them it would make me worthy of the priesthood in the life hereafter.”59
Katherine Warren first came in contact with the LDS church in 1968 in Connecticut when someone gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon. She was then a single mother working as a nurse’s aide and living with an aunt. Returning to her home state of Louisiana, and eventually locating in New Orleans, she decided: “I wanted to find the church of Jesus Christ, so I looked in the telephone directory. I found the ward and started going there. I investigated the church for about three years. They were prejudiced in that church. They didn’t want any blacks. There weren’t any blacks there. Yet I felt good when I would go. I kept going, even though nobody said anything to me.”60 [p.55] Confused about how she could join the church, she wrote to church president Kimball.
Soon she received a visit from the missionaries who, with painful candor, explained: “It’s hard to become a member of this Church. Have you heard Joseph Smith said that it wasn’t time for the blacks as yet?… [But] if the blacks come to us, we will receive them. We can’t cast them out.”61 Warren took all of the lessons in 1975, but her husband refused permission for baptism until late 1976. Eager to share her church with her brothers and sisters and their families, she started holding Bible study with them on Sundays in Baker, near Baton Rouge. Since then four generations of relatives have followed her lead.62
When asked about priesthood restriction, Warren replied: “The bishop came to visit my house one day and told me that the blacks would never receive the priesthood, but they will when Jesus comes in his glory. I said, ‘They’re going to receive it before then.’ About two weeks later the bulletin came over that the Lord had told President Kimball that now was the time.”63
Riccardo Wright recalled that he first learned about Mormons in 1974 when two missionaries came to his dog ranch in Aldie, Virginia. He was busy but invited them back that evening. Wright was twenty-eight years old, divorced, and remarried. He recalled: “I think now that I had been prepared spiritually in a lot of ways for their coming. In retrospect I can see a lot of things where it was just a question of timing, and I was ready. The elders did come back. We did a lot of challenging them, and we made them go home and do a lot of homework.”64 After a year and a half of studying, Wright and his wife Nancy were baptized on 4 July 1976.
The priesthood doctrine “bothered Nancy [his white wife] more [p.56] than it bothered me. For me,” he explained, “the priesthood wasn’t in itself the issue. Once I got to the point where I could accept that Joseph Smith… did translate the Book of Mormon and started to appreciate what I considered the major principles of the gospel as a priority, then the black issue became actually a secondary thing.”65
Linda Reid was in her twenties and living in Denver, Colorado, when she was contacted by missionaries. The topic of the priesthood restriction did not come up until about a week before her scheduled baptism. Then the uncomfortable senior companion, not sure how to bring the subject up, began “going in circles.” Finally the junior companion interrupted: “The Lord loves you very much. He wants you to be baptized …. We don’t understand everything. The Lord hasn’t revealed to us why. But at the present time the blacks cannot hold the priesthood.”
Reid’s response was immediate: “I politely asked them to leave my house. I said, ‘Go away for a while because I need to think about this.’ I stayed up all night and tried to figure it out.” While she felt convinced that she had found the right church for her, she could not understand why it was “separate but equal.” She continued, “They came over the next day after I called them. Unbeknownst to me, they had been up praying and fasting all night in my behalf.”
The missionaries gave Reid a copy of Alan Cherry’s book and told her of another black member in the stake. They felt she would not want to attend church the next day, but she assured them she needed a fide. Unsure how she would react, they told her that it would be a fast and testimony meeting, a monthly meeting where members stand and express their beliefs. She remembered: “I was sitting in this fast and testimony meeting, and these people were talking like they ate breakfast with Him …. They talked about how they knew the Savior and how much they loved Him.” When an eight-year-old child said, “I know this Church is true,” Reid wondered how. She said she then realized, “I’ve got to accept some things on faith because the Lord’s not going to reveal everything to me.” After the meeting, “I went home, got down on my knees, and had a long talk with the Lord.[p.57] Basically it was my decision as it always has been …. I just said, ‘Yes, I’m willing to sacrifice.’ I have no regrets. It is the hardest thing that I have ever done.”66 She was baptized on 9 April 1977.
Later the missionaries confessed that the mission president had told them, “It would be easier to just tell her to continue to reinforce her beliefs in her religion whatever it is and tell her to stay close to the Lord. But don’t encourage her. Don’t return.” The missionaries felt that they should continue to teach Reid and that “the Lord would provide a way.” Reid said she was grateful the missionaries did not give up.67
MISSION POLICY ON PROSELYTING
As these examples illustrate, prior to 1978 missionaries were reluctant to teach blacks. Some did not tell prospective converts about the priesthood restriction until late in the teaching process. Church members were not free of prejudice, and black members felt stigmatized. Yet despite these odds, those who joined felt they were where God wanted them to be. Although they did not come to the same understanding of why the church discriminated, most felt they were obeying God’s will and that present restrictions would not limit their opportunities to receive full rewards in the next life.
H. Selby Berry who served as a missionary in the South during the 1930s recalled that when he met blacks: “I just spoke to them and passed on, because we were instructed not to proselyte the blacks because it wasn’t their day. Now if one persisted and was very persistent, then we’d take the time to talk with him. But our mission was not to the black race, we were told.”68 Historian Newell G. Bringhurst collected typical statements about missionary instructions during the 1940s and 1950s. One mission president instructed missionaries to avoid areas “where it is known that color does actually exist,” and in 1947 the First Presidency wrote to another mission president, “No special effort has ever been made to proselyte among the Negro race.”[p.58] In 1958 Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to black people.”69 In 1961 Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith told a mission president in South America to “avoid seeking out the Negro.”70
Most of these instructions were given to individuals. No doctrine was announced. Yet this idea percolated through informal discussions. J. Kenneth Davies, in the New England Mission from 1946 to 1948, recalled asking his mission president, S. Dilworth Young, about working with a black minister who was interested in the church. He was told that he should not attempt to convert him.71 A missionary who served in New York City during the 1960s recalls telephoning referrals from the World’s Fair. If a black family made an appointment, missionaries gave a brief overview of Mormon beliefs and practices but did not return unless the family insisted. With families of other races, missionaries would press for a return invitation.
This was the informal policy in the Canada Haliflax Mission where I served from 1974-76. When we knocked on the door of the only black family I encountered in Fredericton, New Brunswick, my companion gave them a pamphlet and encouraged them to attend the church of their choice. After we left she explained that the mission policy was not to teach blacks. I never heard my mission president discuss the issue nor did a missionary ever ask about it in any meeting I attended.
Given this policy, the few blacks who did join usually had to take the initiative. The unofficial aloofness had many causes. Church leaders probably assumed that blacks would not be interested in light of such clear racial bias. It may be that leaders were also concerned about how blacks would be treated by other members. Many Latter-day Saints were unacquainted with, uninformed about, and ambivalent about black people. Leaders also reflected the common prejudice of the period. Even those uncomfortable with the policy could not challenge such a basic teaching without appearing to question their church’s unique claims.
[p.59] The willingness to proselyte blacks after 1978 was so dramatic that it suggests that there had been personal discomfort with the policy. The priesthood announcement opened up new neighborhoods and missionaries were quick to work there. Many felt that black Americans were more willing to discuss religion than whites. Those who had no interest in joining a new church were often willing to talk about religion. “Elder Pinnock,” a missionary in the North Carolina Charlotte Mission interviewed by KSL Television in 1988, described blacks he talked with as “very religious people. They are willing to talk about the Bible and Jesus Christ at any time. So we find it really open to us.”72 Bryan Waterman, who served a mission in Newark, New Jersey, affirmed that they had “the most success” in the black community.73
LDS AFRICAN AMERICAN CONVERTS AFTER 1978
With increased missionary efforts among African-Americans, blacks are joining the Mormon church. In large metropolitan areas this often means a return to neighborhoods that Mormons had abandoned with the white flight to the suburbs. Examples of inner city growth include Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Los Angeles; Chicago; and Detroit, Michigan. Educational backgrounds of black converts range from graduate school to less than sixth grade. There is no typical black Mormon convert.
Joan and Daniel Mosley
Joan Mosley, an attorney, and Dan Mosley, a businessman, were in their thirties and living in Phoenix when they were interviewed in 1985. They had been looking for a church when they adopted their son Danny in 1974 but were not satisfied with any they attended. In 1978 they moved from New York to California because of Dan’s poor health. Two years later while in California, neighbors sent over Mormon missionaries. Joan let them in initially because she was interested[p.60] “not from a religious point of view but basically from an intellectual, being informed on what Mormons thought.”74 Dan joined the church in 1981. Joan and Danny attended church with him for two years. Then Joan joined.
Joan’s views on the 1978 change in policy were clear: “I feel that probably the denial of the priesthood to black males was part of the times. I think it was just plain out racism, however else it may be justified by the Church.”75 Dan saw more reason for the policy. He stated: “I feel that it is unique that such emphasis on priesthood restriction is announced with regards to Latter-day Saints. If a person would be clinical, every Christian denomination in America has discriminated against the blacks even for walking in the doors of the church, having a membership, being buried in the church.”76
James Johnson’s first memories are of working in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, because his mother was single and was ill. As a small boy he polished shoes to help meet expenses. Later he caddied at a golf course. When he was eighteen he married and joined the military at the end of World War II. He served for two and a half years. Shortly after he was released, he and his wife separated. He worked in the textile industry for over nineteen years. Then health problems forced him to retire, and he received military disability. In the meantime he remarried but was separated at the time he was interviewed in 1986. He had been a member for less than a year.
He told about giving his $65,000 home in Charlotte to his second wife and living in a “front” house in Monroe, North Carolina, that sold “bootleg liquor by the drink.” He had been praying for help to quit drinking and saw the missionaries’ visit as an answer to his prayer. When they invited him to meetings, he started attending regularly, stopped drinking, and prepared for baptism. When the elders came to interview him on a Saturday, he talked to them in the car because[p.61] he did not want to invite them into the liquor house on its busiest day of the week. He told Alan Cherry he had never heard of the priesthood restriction, which had been lifted eight years earlier. In answer to the question, “What are your feelings about priesthood?” he replied, “I love being a part of the priesthood. I want to learn more about it and get stronger in it, so I can voice myself in it. I think that the more I learn the more I am able to voice myself in it.”77
Thomas Harrison Johnson
Thomas Harrison Johnson was born in 1907 and grew up in a middle-class family in Philadelphia. He was active in sports: “I was a class athlete in my day. I chose track because of the discrimination in the other sport events.” He “just missed being on the Olympic team in 1936.”78
Johnson was active in bands during Word War II, became an accomplished musician, and was a volunteer music teacher at Temple University when he was interviewed in 1986.
As a Catholic, Johnson was part of “one of the highest orders of the Catholic church… twenty years.” He recalled, “Then I began to realize there was something missing in Catholicism …. I began running into some discriminatory problems that bothered me.”79
Still, he was not thinking of leaving Catholicism when he accepted the invitation of some neighbors to see a film on Mormonism in 1979. As a result he met the missionaries and converted in January 1980. While investigating the church, he “heard all these adverse rumors about the Mormons. One of them was that they didn’t allow Negroes … to have any offices …. I knew that if I was to be a part of something, I would like to be in it with my whole heart and soul …. There was no sense of my jumping into another religion where I was going to have trouble with discrimination.” Reading the announcement eliminated his fears.80
Ollie Mae Lofton
Ollie Mae Lofton was in her twenties and working as a computer operator for the federal government in South Carolina when she first came in contact with the LDS church in 1978. Two years earlier she had a dream in which an angel told her “the Lord had a work” for her. When missionaries started to teach her, she recognized her angel as Moroni in an illustrated copy of the Book of Mormon. Ollie’s father was a Baptist minister, and her parents were concerned when she told them she was going to be baptized again. “They didn’t think that was right because they believed in one faith, one Lord, and one baptism.” However, she pursued her decision and was joined a year later by her sister Rose.
Racial equality was important to her: “I have always said that if I had heard [about priesthood restriction] before joining the Church I am sure it would have been very difficult to join. I know that the Lord would have had to touch my heart in that way to accept [the church].” Lofton served a mission to California and was attending Brigham Young University at the time she was interviewed in 1985.81
Emma Williams, feeling that her Methodist and Presbyterian baptisms were inadequate, visited several ministers when she was in her sixties asking them to baptize her. They refused because she did not want to join their churches. Williams had already lived a full life, having survived two husbands and was married to a third, Bill Williams. When he died she began traveling but always felt as if “someone was speaking to me saying, ‘Repent, believe, be baptized.'” Three years later in 1984 she was praying for a resolution to her question and “in walked the missionaries.” When she asked them if they would baptize her, they said, “The Lord sent us here.” After quitting smoking, she was baptized even after her son threatened not to speak to her. (He later accepted her decision.) Williams shared her testimony with others in her hometown of Hickory, North Carolina, a number of[p.63] whom converted.82 She received her temple endowments in November 1985.
REACTIONS TO PRIESTHOOD RESTRICTION
Missionaries faced a dilemma after 1978: What should they tell black investigators about the past? Some blacks had never heard of the priesthood restriction, and young missionaries, eager to share their message and lacking a clear explanation of why blacks had not been ordained historically, often avoided the subject. Bryan Waterman, from Snowflake, Arizona, said most of the blacks he taught during his 1989-91 mission in Newark, New Jersey, had never heard they could not be ordained to the priesthood prior to 1978. He and his companions did not mention it unless they were asked. He said that some blacks were uncomfortable with the Book of Mormon description of the Lamanite curse of dark skin. They wondered what this implied about their own skin tone. Waterman confessed that he felt relieved that most investigators did not read that far. In fact he suggested to other missionaries that they “razor” out the page in the children’s Book of Mormon reader when they used it with less literate investigators.83
Carl Angelo Simmons, a black football player at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, was born in Oakland in 1963, where he was raised Baptist. By the time he went to junior college, he had no formal religious affiliation. He learned about the Mormon church while he was at USU and joined in 1984. A year later he drew a blank when Alan Cherry asked him about priesthood restriction. After Cherry’s brief explanation, Simmons replied laconically, “None of the missionaries ever told me about that at all.”84
This became a problem for Edwin Allen Burwell, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1975 when he was in his early twenties, Mormon missionaries often came into a sandwich shop where he worked, ordered a single sandwich[p.64] between them, and drank only Sprite. He befriended them, expressing interest in the church. He recalled: “At that particular time they told me I couldn’t [join]. They said, ‘There are not that many blacks in the church and you would not feel comfortable. There are certain things in the church blacks cannot do.’ They never explained it to me. I thought, ‘I do not want to be a member of your church anyhow.’ They said that they did not want to offend me. They tried to explain it the best they knew how. They stopped coming.”85
After the revelation Burwell came in contact with Mormon missionaries again. He and his wife Retha were baptized in February 1985. The next month the first counselor in the mission presidency was ordaining Edwin to the priesthood, but he first gave a “little speech” about how he “was getting ready to do something that blacks were not allowed to at one time.” Burwell added analytically, “It was like Satan just took that, and he used it to his best advantage. At that particular time I said, ‘If blacks were not allowed to have it, I don’t want it [now].'”86 Retha corroborated, “He just felt like … walking out because it seemed like some of the missionaries or somebody would have told him this before.”87
Misunderstandings about what priesthood restriction really meant led to further complications. A few early converts had been told not to attend priesthood meetings even though nonmember males investigating the church were allowed to attend.88 Robert Lang, who[p.65] was baptized in 1970, attended a ward in Inglewood, California. The bishop made him the secretary of the Senior Aaronic priesthood group because Lang was at the meetings every week. In a later reorganization, the bishop told Lang he could not attend. Lang commented wryly: “That was my time to quit then, but apparently I had a testimony …. I continued to go to church.” Lang decided to find out why the change had been made and found out that the stake president had “misunderstood” the instructions of a general authority. “I sent a letter, and they straightened it all out. They said, ‘This man can attend the quorum meetings. Even though he does not hold the priesthood, he is a member of the Church.’ The next Sunday the bishop called me up and asked me if I would come back in the quorum meetings they would appreciate it. It had all been straightened out.”89 Alan Cherry had a similar experience in Queens, New York, in 1969. The bishop requested that he not attend priesthood meeting. Cherry did not contest the decision, but when he moved to Provo to attend BYU later that year, he asked the bishop about attending priesthood meeting and was welcomed.90
Prior to the announcement black women faced other forms of confusing regulation. Black men could not serve missions, but white women served full time as missionaries without being ordained. Were black women also eligible for missions? Jerri Allene Thornton Hale (later Harwell), half black and half native American from Detroit, joined the church as a college sophomore in 1977. She asked if she could serve a mission and was told she could when she was twenty-one. However, a counselor in the bishopric was subsequently told that this would not be possible.91
Mary Frances Sturlaugson, who grew up in Tennessee, went to Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota during the 1970s. She joined the church her second year in college. Later she transferred to BYU, where she continued her studies. “A few of the young men I’d grown really close to,” she wrote in her autobiography, “were [p.66] preparing for their missions. Seeing their joy each time one of them received his mission call made my heart ache to receive a similar call.” She confided her desire to her bishop, who made an appointment with the stake president, BYU professor Jae Ballif. Sturlaugson recalled that Ballif “told me he would discuss it with the Brethren in Salt Lake City.” The reply came back no. And although Sturlaugson repeated her request “after a period of time,” she continued to be told, “The time is not yet.”92
Joelle Margot Aull, who was born in 1968 and raised Catholic in Lake Forest, Illinois, felt that the priesthood restriction had not been fully explained when the family joined the church in 1976. “I don’t think we knew that blacks weren’t allowed in the priesthood because when my mom found out I remember she went into the bishop’s office one Sunday and was talking to them. She came out crying and full of tears …. She wanted to go to the temple and be sealed. The bishop told her no, that blacks weren’t allowed in the temple.” Joelle could not understand why her white stepfather could go to the temple while she, her mother, and her sister could not.93
These were shattering experiences for black members. Hale was “upset” when she was told she could not serve a mission. “I just told [the member of the bishopric] I felt the church was prejudiced, and I didn’t want anything more to do with it. I was not [coming] back.” When he suggested that she pray, she retorted that she would not pray to a God she felt was prejudiced. “I went home that Sunday resolving not to pray. I didn’t for two or three days. It seemed like it was on a Wednesday when all of a sudden I found myself on my knees praying and saying, ‘Why can’t blacks hold the priesthood?’ A comforting feeling came over me saying, ‘I have not given a reason why, but eventually blacks will hold the priesthood with all the blessings.’ … That calmed me down.”94
Mary Frances Sturlaugson came to a similar resolution: “No one, except my Father in heaven, will ever be able to know how I hurt[p.67] during that time. All I wanted to do was to go forth, but because of the color of my skin, I had to wait.” But she added: “Don’t misunderstand me. I hurt at being rejected for a mission, but I never once failed to accept the will of the Lord.”95 Both Hale and Sturlaugson served missions after the priesthood revelation.
Joelle Aull reacted similarly. “I think in my days when I was really confused about what I really thought the truth was, that question always came up. I was bitter about it, and I thought that was a silly rule. If this was the truth, why? Someone said no one knows, and we’re just going to have to accept it the way… it was. It’s sad that it had to be that way. I’ve just learned to accept it.”96 She added, “When we got the news that we could be accepted in the temple, it was a happy time for my family, and we went as soon as possible.”97
As would be expected the 1978 announcement was a great relief to black members. Gilmore Chappell, an American working in Holland, had been a church member for six months and had never been invited to priesthood meeting. One morning he impulsively decided to go. As part of his faith Chappell had previously assured other members that he ultimately expected to receive the priesthood. As matters turned out the announcement had been made that week. One of the members read the announcement aloud and then added to Chappell, “You told me it was going to be this way.” Overcome, Chappell “immediately… turned around, walked out, sat in my car and laughed and cried until I got myself back together again. Then I went back into priesthood and they welcomed me in with open arms.”98 Most black Latter-day Saints recalled hearing about the announcement in much the same way. It was a time for personal reflection and introspection.
Darrin Bret Davis, a high school student from Summit, New Jersey, was baptized in 1977. He hesitated joining because he was not[p.68] sure he wanted to make the commitment. His girlfriend Sharon did not want to join because of prejudice. Later she began investigating the church more seriously and decided to join in 1978. The newly ordained Darrin was able to baptize her.99
Barbara Ann Pixton, serving with the U.S. military in Italy, planned to marry a white Latter-day Saint. At the time of their engagement, “he told me that he wanted to make sure that his sons would be able to hold the priesthood. Out of the dear blue sky that year the prophet had the revelation that gave the priesthood to all men.”100 Barbara joined the church in January 1979.
Gehrig Leonard Harris, a high school principal in White Castle, Louisiana, said the announcement was made the summer he was taking the missionary discussions. “I was excited because I wasn’t limited [by not holding the priesthood] and it was good not to be limited.”101 He was baptized in December 1978.
The announcement also interested blacks who did not join the church at the time. Elizabeth Taylor Baltimore, born in 1943, was working for a company owned by a Mormon in Washington, D.C., at the time of the announcement. Some of her coworkers had not known about priesthood restriction until the announcement. They were upset that they had been working for someone whose church denied equal rights. Baltimore told them crisply, “You should be saying, ‘Thank God there’s somebody governing the church that will listen to God.'”102
Catherine M. Stokes, a nurse in Chicago, was flying to Hawaii. The pilot, after pointing out the Mormon temple from the air, told about the announcement and suggested the passengers visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. Stokes remembers that the announcement “kind of[p.69] caught our attention, but I didn’t have any feelings one way or another about it.” She did, however, visit ‘the church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center and the visitors’ center at the temple, where she filled out a referral card. She was impressed how promptly the missionaries came to her home in Chicago. She was baptized in 1979.103
Rosa Lee Green Taylor, a grandmother at the time she was interviewed in 1985, remembered seeing a movie about Mormons when she was fourteen. She came home and told her mother that she was going to be a Mormon when she grew up. Her mother retorted, “They don’t have black Mormons.” In 1978 she was living in Phoenix. Acting on an impulse, she went to the visitors’ center at the temple in Mesa and filled out a referral card. She was leaving on vacation when the missionaries called but promised to telephone when she returned. The missionaries were flabbergasted when she did. She was baptized six weeks later.104
Some black members were disappointed that there were not more baptisms following the policy change. Hale stated: “I got a lot of static about why blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood. I ran into so many blacks who did not even know they could be members in the Mormon church …. When the revelation came, I thought maybe there were thousands and thousands and thousands of blacks in the church, and they would all come out of the woodwork when the revelation was announced. None came. There were still very few.” Hale assumed it was because blacks did not know that they could be members.105
Mavis Odoms, a Baptist during her childhood in Fremont, California, joined the LDS church in 1980. She felt that African Americans did not join because they did not want to belong to a church that had previously restricted them.106
Robert Lang, who had little religious training growing up in[p.70] Mississippi and lived in the Los Angeles area, disagreed. On the basis of his experience in the Southwest Los Angeles Branch, which was nearly all-black, he explained most African Americans “did not know anything about the priesthood being withheld from blacks. They had never heard of the LDS church before.” He added that he did not think priesthood was going to make people flock to the church. For most it had never made a difference.107
THEORIES ABOUT PRIESTHOOD RESTRICTION
Why blacks were not given the priesthood has never been clear. Early LDS church leaders linked blacks to Adam’s son Cain, who the Bible says killed his brother Abel, as well as to pre-earth decisions. The 1969 First Presidency statement simply said the restriction was “for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to men.”108 About three-fifths of African-American Mormons interviewed (63.5 percent) accepted the policy as “the Lord’s will.” Of the rest 29.4 percent were “concerned” about the policy’s implications, while 7.1 percent were “appalled.”
For those who saw priesthood restriction as God’s will, there was no need to seek further explanation. They felt that just as they did not understand God’s actions in other areas, they should accept the principle on faith. Sarah Kaye Gripper, a single mother from Springfield, Illinois, who became a Mormon in 1987, asked both her home teacher and another member why there had been a restriction. Neither had an answer.
All they could tell me basically was the blacks had the priesthood, it was taken away, and then it was given back. From my understanding, a lot of people could not accept that, white or black. It was coming from the prophet, so that was the reason for it. They don’t know what the reason was, but there was a reason why they got it back too. No one can really answer that question. You just have to go on faith is what the bottom line is on that.109
Sherrie Honore Franklin first learned about the LDS church when she and her husband were vacationing in Hawaii in 1984. Then they visited Temple Square during a layover in Salt Lake City and were delighted when missionaries came to their home in New Orleans. They joined the church in 1984. “All we knew was that we believed in what the church teaches and Heavenly Father had some reason for it being that way,” Franklin summed up. “No one understands, so why question it, because you’re not going to get an answer. I don’t think the prophet understood why. All they knew was the revelation said to.”110
Emanuel Reid, originally from Roopville, Georgia, joined the LDS church there in 1979, served a mission to Oakland, and then attended BYU. Although he accepted the church’s position, he still had questions. “Was it Heavenly Father? Were the members not ready? I still had no solid answers, but I had no reason to doubt what went on.”111
Annie Wilbur grew up in a black neighborhood in Pennsylvania as one of thirteen surviving children. After high school she moved to New Kensington, Pennsylvania, a largely white area, where she joined the Mormon church in 1983 at the age of forty-four after missionaries came to her home. She explained, “I do not know what the true story is, but I do know that there is more to it than meets the eye. But our Heavenly Father will let us know one of these days. He has the right to do whatever He wants.”112
Burgess Owens, a professional football player, and his wife Josephine, an airline stewardess, joined the Mormon church in 1982. When their first daughter was born, they began looking for a family religion. Fellow Oakland Raider Todd Christensen and his wife Kathy introduced them to the Mormon church. Burgess privately questioned the priesthood doctrine at first. But his question was resolved when a mission president spontaneously counseled him to accept the church and its teachings on the basis of his present knowledge, promising that[p.72] he would receive more. Burgess felt at peace and accepted the policy as the will of the Lord: “I realize that it is the Lord’s wisdom, not mine, that counts. As long as I see the fruit and I know how it is going to impact my kids and my wife and my family and it does a good job, I am not going to concern myself over it. That is really the bottom line.”113
James Henry Sinquefield, who had become a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, summarized: “I never [had] a feeling that the priesthood was something that was withheld from my race of people because of discrimination or some of the negativeness that man has tried to make it be. I really believed that it was of God, that it was His will to be that way. That is just my personal opinion. I feel it is right.”114
Others felt a need to explain the restriction at least to themselves. Some, like Kenneth Bolton, Sr., a twenty-seven-year-old resident of Jackson, Mississippi, pointed out that the priesthood had not always been available to everyone. During much of the Old Testament, only the tribe of Levi was eligible.115
Some hypothesized that nineteenth-century prejudice made it impossible for the church to give priesthood to blacks. For example, Doris Nelson Russell, who joined the church in the Los Angeles area in 1980, felt first that it “was a very unpopular thing for” white Mormons “to be so closely connected with the black men in the church.” She explained that “the majority of black men up to that point were slaves and had the mentality of slaves If you have been a slave all of your life, you hardly feel worthy of anything else but the experience of a slave.”
I felt that the church was growing and had gone through some very traumatic experiences as far as being driven from the east coast to the west, to a barren place like the wastelands of Utah. They didn’t need to deal with more than they could handle at the time. They had already been[p.73] chased out of everything they had and had been killed and persecuted. The issue of the black people had to wait until the church could become stronger and more established, to give time to the rest of the nation to catch up with the idea that we were emancipated, we are God’s children, and we do have a right to be considered God’s children just like everyone else. The mentality of the American whites was not really ready for that—and still isn’t to a great extent.116
Peter Tabani Gillo, a Ugandan immigrant converted in 1983 in Chicago, held the same view:
My personal understanding in that regard is in the first place the gospel was true for the Jews first. After the Jews it was for Gentiles. That’s what Jesus Christ Himself said. Many people did not question that. But people question about the Mormon church …. Maybe God did not think that black people were ready to join the church …. When the church was established …. many white people had an attitude toward the black people. They did not accept them …. Maybe the white people would have left and the church would not have grown. Maybe it was right in the beginning to keep the blacks out and allow the church to grow and become strong and then allow the blacks in. We never know what God had in His mind, what plans He has.117
Others saw the LDS position as being little different from that of other churches which, while not denying priesthood, had discriminated in other ways. For example, J. Joseph Faulkner, a member of the Mount Pilgrim Baptist church in Gadsden, Alabama, before he became a Mormon in 1983, stated: “I had no problem with blacks in particular and other races also not holding the priesthood in the church. In other denominations you could not only not hold the priesthood, but you could not attend the so-called white churches ….If you attempted to go, you would get lynched.” When other blacks asked why he would join a church that had denied his race, he rejoined:
I was in the Baptist church for forty-five years and never did hold the office of deacon …. I never was found worthy by the pastors that I was under to even be mentioned to hold the office of deacon. Deacons in the[p.74] church only serve at the pleasure of the pastor. I have many problems with that …. Within two months after I was baptized in the Church, by my age… and being found worthy, I was ordained a deacon, teacher, and priest.118
Finally many felt the restriction was human in origin. Brenda Elaine Combs, a divorced single mother from St. Louis who joined the Mormon church in 1981, phrased her position gendy: “I’ll put it this way. I haven’t seen a perfected person yet….Sometimes we say God told us to do this, and God didn’t tell us to do it. Let’s put it that way. A lot of times we listen to the imaginations of our own hearts and not that of God’s.119
William T. Johnson, who first came in contact with the LDS church from talking to some Mormons on a plane in 1978, recalled: “One day in the newspaper in 1978 on the front page was a story about the revelation that blacks were to be received into the priesthood in the Mormon church. That really upset me. I thought, ‘What an insult.'”120
He talked to a Mormon who gave him LeGrand Richards’s A Marvelous Work and a Wonder to read. He read that and started reading the Book of Mormon, but the passages about dark skin upset him. He was about to return the book, but somehow he was still interested. Johnson continued to have contact with Mormons and joined the church a year later.
Priesthood restriction was a concern. He told Alan Cherry when he was interviewed in 1987, “That has been the greatest obstacle that I ever had to overcome in order to get into the church, and it has been something that I have struggled with to this day I wonder sometimes if they [church leaders] had not really inquired of the Lord back during the 1800s or even in the early 1900s would they have not received that same revelation.”121 Jerry Willis, a Methodist minister,[p.75] then pastor of a nonaffiliated church in St. Louis, joined the Mormon church in 1982. He expressed the same feelings, “I know even if church fathers were off-centered. They didn’t verbally put themselves in a position of prayer to receive the answer, or if they received the answer, they didn’t act on it.”122
Others were more direct. Ruffin Bridgeforth, who joined the LDS church during the 1950s, summarized crisply: “Priesthood restriction was a church doing. The Lord tolerated it.”123 Catherine M. Stokes was equally forthright: “We don’t believe that the church made a mistake. Yet we don’t profess to believe that any of us are infallible. We don’t believe in the infallibility of the prophet. I have to tell you that I think it was a mistake. That’s based on my belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive, not exclusive. I’m glad that it’s remedied.”124
Priesthood aside, many were uncomfortable with Cain-Ham, pre-earth life explanations. Annette E. Reid, who joined the church when she was attending college in 1980, was initially satisfied when a Mormon counselor at her college told her no one knew exactly why there had been priesthood restriction. But during her mission, she said: “I started to get angry about the whole situation. I didn’t understand why so many church leaders were coming out making statements on something they knew nothing about, something that had not been revealed.” Not having an explanation “meant more to me than any explanations that you get from people—being neutral in the spirit world, playing basketball during the war in heaven, not being worthy enough to be born white.”125
Crystal Gathers Clark, whose parents joined in 1981 in North Carolina, was married in a Mormon ceremony in the ward meeting-house. She and her husband Matthew converted in 1985. When she asked about priesthood restriction in a Raleigh Sunday school class[p.76] she said “they didn’t really answer the question …. They went on the curse thing.”126 Janis R. Garrison decided as a high school student in Arkansas that she wanted to attend Brigham Young University. She joined the Mormon church in 1979. “When I first became a member, I was told everything about blacks and the priesthood as far as from being a bench sitter to descendants of Cain. I thought, ‘This is just absolutely ridiculous.’ I do not think I have ever been a bench sitter in my life, and I do not think I could have been one in the pre-existence either.”127
The issue of priesthood exclusion affected people in different ways before and after the announcement. Those who were baptized before 1978 came to terms with it. After June 1978 converts dealt with it as a historical condition that had signaled a change in their status. Some felt that nothing changed. Robert Lee Stevenson, who converted as a serviceman in Germany in 1971 and was elected to a BYU student body office in the mid-1970s, told people that “the gospel is just as true without priesthood as it is with the priesthood.”128 Tom Porter first met Mormons in Europe as a serviceman in the 1950s. He was baptized in the states in 1958. When asked why he would join a church which denied him priesthood, he replied, “I could not get excited about not having the priesthood because if Heavenly Father wanted me to have it, He would make arrangements for me to have it.”129
Ruffin Bridgeforth’s pre-1978 position was: “We are going to see this priesthood restriction as a blessing and therefore man cannot curse you. He can try to put restrictions on you, but because of the Lord above, you will be blessed and you will not lose any blessings for[p.77] anything if we have been denied anything.”130 Robert Coleman Brown, who joined in the 1970s after he had trained to be an AME minister, pointed out one possible blessing of not having the priesthood: “I think I appreciated the priesthood a lot more when I didn’t have it. When I didn’t have the priesthood, I depended on it and called on other people to help me, to use it, and to exercise it. At the same time I wanted it so badly… that I appreciated it more.” He wondered if he appreciated it as much after his ordination.131
Some of those who joined after the announcement expressed doubts about whether they would have considered affiliating with Mormonism before priesthood became available. David E. Gathers, an automobile sales representative, moved from New York to a white neighborhood in North Carolina where missionaries found him in 1981. He mused: “It is a good thing that the elders came when they did because I never took a back seat to anything. If they had come and said that they had a priesthood but I could not get it then, although I knew I was joining the church of Jesus Christ, there is no way at all I would have been there. I would have probably chased them out of the house.”132
Joan Mosley, who worked for the Peace Corps in Africa and for the NAACP when she met her husband Dan, expressed the same concern: “I am glad I did not have to face … joining the church in that period of time. It would have been a lot harder for me, I am sure, than it was.”133 Melvin D. Mitchell of Columbus, Ohio, baptized in 1985, said he was happy he found the LDS church later. If he had joined and then learned about the ban he would have “gone insane.”134
Ollie Mac Lofton said that being black in a largely white church is still difficult, but she saw herself as a pioneer, one of the first[p.78] post-1978 black members. “I know that it is the will of the Lord that gives me strength and understanding to stay and be involved where I am a minority.”135
For LDS African-Americans who converted prior to the lifting of the priesthood ban, each had to deal not only with discriminatory restrictions but also with blatant prejudice in a white church whose members had little contact with any ethnic group. Those who joined since 1978 have had to deal with similar concerns, conceding much of their heritage to world view where isolation more than conflict has shaped their expectation. Mormons have not been hostile as much as ambivalent—and sometimes intimidated—by racial differences. Contact with people who stayed when they did not seem wanted softened many members of the church. Though the priesthood change did not open mission floodgates to thousands of ethnic converts, the change had a tremendous impact on those who had prayed for its coming and even more so on the white majority whose theologically-based prejudice quickly evaporated.
1. Quoted in Newell G. Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” in Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, Lester E. Bush, Jr., and Armand L. Mauss, eds. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984), 132. For more information, see the short biographical information in Kate B. Carter, The Story of the Negro Pioneer (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1965); other articles in Neither White Nor Black; and Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981).
9. For discussion of the law of adoption, see Gordon Irving, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830-1900,” Brigham Young University Studies 14 (Spring 1974): 291-314.
10. “Excerpts from the Weekly Council Meetings of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Dealing with the Rights of Negroes in the Church, 1849-1940,” George Albert Smith Papers, University of Utah, quoted in Henry J. Wolfinger, “A Test of Faith: Jane Manning James and the Origins of the Utah Black Community,” 18, Manuscript Collection, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Wolfinger’s study was also published in Social Accommodations in Utah (Salt Lake City: American West Center occasional papers, University of Utah, 1975).
13. Mary Lucile Bankhead Oral History, 11, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1985, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University (hereinafter cited as LDS Afro-American).
19. Loran Stephenson, Mary Hope’s bishop at the time she passed away, recalled her story of a visit from the Cincinnati branch president. “I don’t know anything about him other than the fact that she called him Brother Anderson,” he said. “Brother Anderson was red-eyed; he was just crying. He told them that this was the hardest visit that he had ever made to anybody in his life. He would rather give up his right arm than to have to make this call, but there were objections in the branch to them attending church just because they were black.” The branch president then offered to come to the Hopes’ home once a month to bring them the sacrament and to have a meeting with them. See Loran Stephenson Oral History, 2, interviewed by Jessie L. Embry, 1989, LDS Afro-American.
36. Novella Gibson Oral History, interviewed by Chad Orton, 1985. Gibson was interviewed as part of the Mormon Outward Migration program conducted by G. Wesley Johnson, a professor of history at BYU, and his students. Due to mechanical problems with the tape, I only have a partial transcript in my possession.
42. . The information regarding Freda Lucretia Magee Beaulieu is from a talk she wrote and was read at a stake conference and from a letter to James Kimball from Robert B. Evans, 20 Feb. 1982, both in LDS archives; see also Katherine Warren Oral History, 10, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1987, LDS Afro-American; and Elder Parker P. Warner, “Negro Members of the Church Display Great Faith,” Church News, 16 Dec. 1944, 4.
Cherry, 1985, LDS Afro-American.
71. J. Kenneth Davies Oral History, 11, interviewed by Yvette Young, 1992, LDS Missionary “Without Purse or Scrip” Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Lee Library.
88. Later a First Presidency letter to “All General Authorities, Regional Representatives, Stake and Mission Presidents, Bishops, and Branch Presidents,” 21 Apr. 1980, explained that with the consolidated meeting schedule there would be nonmembers and those who had been disciplined by a church court who would want to attend priesthood meeting during that block of time. The letter stated, “While attendance at priesthood meeting has generally been limited to those who hold the priesthood, it is felt that men in the categories mentioned may well be invited to attend the priesthood meeting with the understanding that they not participate in the discussions, or any business transacted.” Copy of letter in my possession.