Blacks & the Priesthood – A Personal Perspective

In Honor of “Official Declaration-2” and “Juneteenth”

My Personal Struggle

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-130.png
Joseph “Billy” Johnson of Ghana, “Greatest LDS Missionary”

I have always struggled with the LDS Church policy denying the priesthood to men of black African heritage. We are all God’s children. After all, the Book of Mormon proclaims that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female.” (2 Ne. 26:33)

However, I have always had a testimony of my Savior and the His Restored Church. The Book of Mormon is the “keystone” of that testimony. And so, I continued to “follow the Brethren” in “patience and faith.” (D&C 21:5)

Of course, some church members were racist, as the new “official” Church history highlights. (“Saints Vol. 3”) These racists had no problem with the policy because they agreed with it.

Excuses and Rationalization

Some church leaders came up with lame reasons for the exclusion policy.  The Lord usually gives the “what” and “how,” but He rarely gives the “why.” So, we speculate and rationalize. We were taught these absurd explanations in church.

“African Saints”

One reason given was that blacks inherited the curse/mark of Cain/Ham.  This belief was commonly held by Christian denominations in the 1800’s. Some people who joined the LDS Church brought this teaching with them. Some church leaders, including Brigham Young, adopted this belief.

A second reason given was that blacks were neutral, or less valiant, in the pre-mortal war in heaven.  This never made sense to me.  For example, if children who die before the age of accountability “automatically” inherit the celestial kingdom (not accurate), then there might be more blacks in the celestial kingdom than whites, because of disparities in infant mortality rates. This would suggest that blacks were more valiant in premortality.

Brigham Young and Utah History

Jane Manning – Great Latter-day Saint

During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, black male members were ordained to the priesthood. During Brigham Young’s administration, the church stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.

Three black slaves entered Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young in 1847. By the end of 1847, there were 12 African Americans living in the Salt Lake Valley, among them were 8 slaves, and a family of four free African Americans.  By 1848 there were approximately 50 African Americans living in the Utah Territory.

In 1850, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, which allowed U.S. territories to decide the slavery issue, and slavery was legal in Utah.

The Utah legislature debated the issue. Latter-day Saints included both abolitionists and slave owners.

Green Flake – Great Latter-day Saint

A bill was proposed for “gradual emancipation.”  Slaves would remain slaves, but their descendants would be free. Apostle Orson Pratt, an abolitionist, objected to perpetuating slavery: “The angels in heaven will blush if we pass this legislation.”

Because white slave holders would not accept blacks presiding over them, it was agreed that blacks would not be ordained.

Despite the church policy, there were many faithful prominent African-American pioneers and members, like, Jane Manning, Green Flake, Elijah Able, Mary Ann Perkins James, Samuel and Amanda Chambers.

On June 19, 1862, Congress abolished slavery in Utah and all other US territories.

Given this long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy, and they continued efforts to understand what should be done.

David O. McKay

By the late 1940s and 1950s, racial integration was becoming more common in American life and the church.

Elijah Able – Great Latter-day Saint

President David O. McKay clarified that the restriction applied only to men of black African descent. It did not apply to “black” Pacific Islanders or Australian Aborigines

President McKay was known for inclusion and compassion.  He presided over discussions among the leadership on the issue of blacks and the priesthood.

He prayed fervently in the solitude of the Salt Lake Temple, and as he toured the world, for an answer. The answer he got was the same, “Not Yet.” (See: Prince and Wright, “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” U. of Utah Press, 2005)

Armand Mauss – A Voice in the Wilderness

Mary Ann Perkins – Great Latter-day Saint

In the 1960’ and 1970’s Professor Armand Mauss, a faithful Latter-day Saint and leading sociologist on religion, published articles questioning the revelatory origin of the practice.  He disclosed that Joseph Smith had ordained blacks to the priesthood.  He discredited the justifications proffered by Brigham Young and other church leaders.

Professor Mauss wisely had his local priesthood leaders review his manuscripts before publication.  When a general church leader suggested that Brother Mauss face church discipline, the local leaders pushed back.

Ultimately, Professor Mauss was vindicated, and his research was incorporated in official church articles on the subject. 

Widespread Public Pressure on the Church

Samuel & Amanda Chambers – Great Latter-day Saints

I vividly remember in the late 1960’s, and early 1970’s, that the church was under widespread attack for its “discriminatory” policy.  Universities shunned BYU sports and academics. There were large protests around Temple Square and violent disruptions of BYU events. 

There was intense political and legal pressure. The church was threatened with lawsuits and sanctions for violating civil rights. BYU accreditation and LDS Church tax exemption were questioned.

Challenges in Brazil

In the mid-to-late 1970’s Brazil presented many challenges for the church. Brazil prided itself on its open, integrated, and mixed race heritage.

In 1975, the church announced a temple in Brazil. As the construction continued faithful blacks and mixed-race Latter-day Saints contributed to the building of the temple, even though they would not be allowed to enter once it was dedicated.

Furthermore, some mixed-race male members were ordained only to discover later through genealogy that they had African ancestors.

Apostle James E. Faust presented these challenges to President Kimball and the church leaders.

Hundreds of Baptisms in Ghana

Converts in Africa

During this time, thousands of black Africans, especially in Ghana and Nigeria, received a spiritual witness and were anxious to join the church.  These conversion stories impressed church leaders.  Also, for decades, there was a shortage of priesthood leadership in African congregations.

Patriarchal Blessings

Blessed with the “spirit of prophecy and revelation,” some patriarchs in Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S. started giving blessings promising male church members of black African heritage that they would hold the priesthood, serve missions, and be sealed in the temples.

One stake president concerned enough that he sent such a blessing directly to President Kimball asking for advice. President Kimball wrote on the blessing, “Nice Blessing,” and sent it back.

Senator Brooke First Presidency Meeting and BYU Talk

In early 1978, I was present in the BYU Marriott Center when Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, an African American, spoke at the Tuesday devotional. He had been meeting with the First Presidency. He pleaded with the church to change its policy because the church would gain so much from blacks, and the black community would benefit so much from the church.

Final Temple Meeting, Vision and Revelation

President Spencer W. Kimball

During this time period President Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency, and Twelve struggled with the  priesthood policy believing that only the Lord could change it.  They did extensive research and held lengthy discussions.  They repeatedly “inquired of the Lord.”  But “the heavens were silent.”

On Thursday, June 1, 1978, the Brethren met in the Salt Lake Temple and again discussed the matter for the last time. The apostles shared their thoughts and testimonies, each taking turn.

Vision of Wilford Woodruff

Elder LeGrand Richard, said: “Brethren, I have something to tell you.  A little while ago, I saw a man seated above the organ there and he looked just like that.”  (He gestured toward President Wilford Woodruff’s portrait.)  He added, “I saw him just as clearly as I see any of you Brethren.”

Elder Richards later explained: “He [Wilford Woodruff] was dressed in a white suit and was seated in an armchair.  I thought at the time that the reason I was privileged to see him was probably that I was the only one there who had ever seen President Woodruff while he was upon the earth.  I had heard him dedicate the Salt Lake Temple and I had heard him give his last sermon in the Salt Lake Tabernacle before he died.  I thought it wonderful that the Lord could project, without mechanical means, the likeness of a man long since dead.”  (Quoted by Boyd K. Packer; Personal Notes: Talk by Elder Francis M. Gibbons, Secretary to the First Presidency, OC J. Reuben Clark Society Sep. 2001; Lucile C. Tate, LeGrand Richards: Beloved Apostle, 1982 Bookcraft, 291-292.)

Helvecio Martins, First Black General Authority

This vision was significant because it was President Woodruff who had struggled with the fallout from the practice of plural marriage, and who, after wrestling with the Spirit and receiving revelation, had issued Official Declaration-1 discontinuing the practice. Elder Richard’s vision was a sign miraculous from God.  

Revelation and Spiritual Confirmation

As the meeting recessed, President Kimball prayed alone in the holy of holies.  Afterward, he announced to the Brethren that the Lord had revealed to him that now was the time for all worthy male members of the church to receive the priesthood.

Peter Johnson, General Authority

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley recalled: “There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. For me, it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his Brethren. … Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing. … Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that. Nor has the church been quite the same.”

Elder Bruce R. McConkie recalled: “On this occasion, because of the importuning and the faith, and because the hour and the time had arrived, the Lord in his providences poured out the Holy Ghost upon the First Presidency and the Twelve in a miraculous and marvelous manner, beyond anything that any then present had ever experienced. The revelation came to the president of the church; it also came to each individual present. There were ten members of the Council of the Twelve and three of the First Presidency there assembled. The result was that President Kimball knew, and each one of us knew, independent of any other person, by direct and personal revelation to us, that the time had now come to extend the gospel and all its blessings and all its obligations, including the priesthood and the blessings of the house of the Lord, to those of every nation, culture, and race, including the black race. There was no question whatsoever as to what happened or as to the word and message that came.” (“All Are Alike unto God,” BYU Devotional, Aug 18, 1978)

Bruce R. McConkie’s “Retraction”

Joseph Sitati, General Authority

Elder McConkie had made very public statements that blacks would not receive the priesthood prior to the millennium.  He told church members: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young … 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 matter anymore.”

Edward Dube, General Authority

“It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about [this] matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. 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.” (“All Are Alike unto God,” BYU Devotional, Aug 18, 1978)

The Announcement and My Personal Celebration

There are certain historic events that are indelibly burned into my memory. I can visualize exactly where I was when I learned of: the assassination of President Kennedy, the lunar landing of Apollo 11, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the 9-11 terrorist attack. The announcement of Official Declaration 2 is one of those events.

I was working as a summer law clerk in the O.C. District Attorney’s Office.  Early June 1978, I had just returned to my office after a lengthy court battle. I was “spent.”

My wife called. She was super excited and choked up.  She shared that the church just announced that all worthy male members are eligible to receive the priesthood regardless of race.

I recorded the event in my journal:

What thrilling news!  What a happy day!  I quickly closed my office door and shed tears of joy.  This was something that I have long awaited. This is something I never liked and prayed that it would change.  However, I followed the Brethren with ‘patience and faith’ …

“Importantly, this revelation did not come at a time when the church was under pressure to change its position…. Because the church was under no political, legal, or economic pressure to change its policy at this time, no one can say that the revelation was a “convenient” response to outside forces….

“For me, this revelation is the most important change in the church in my lifetime.”

Official Declaration -2 Presented to the Church

The policy change was presented in General Conference, September 30, 1978 as “Official Declaration – 2.” It was sustained UNANIMOUSLY!

(See: “History of African Americans in Utah,” “Green Flake,” Armand Mauss,” Wikipedia; Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” BYU Devotional, Aug 18, 1978; Personal Notes: Talk by Elder Francis M. Gibbons, Secretary to the First Presidency, OC J. Reuben Clark Society Banquet, Sep. 2001; Lucile C. Tate, LeGrand Richards: Beloved Apostle, 1982 Bookcraft, 291-292; See: Prince and Wright, “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” Univ. of Utah Press, 2005; Dallin H. Oaks, “Be One,” 40th Anniversary Celebration, Conf. Center, SLC, June 1, 2018)

(See Blogposts: “Joseph ‘Billy’ Johnson of Ghana, Greatest Modern Missionary; “Can I Have a Strong Testimony and Still Doubt”)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s