In June 1978 excited Mormons told each other the great news: the priesthood could now be bestowed on all worthy men.
My husband remembers hearing the news from his mother, hearing it on the radio as well, then going to the MTC to teach and finding everyone absolutely excited by the news.
Part of the excitement was knowing that this was no mere policy change, but direction obtain by revelation. While those present in the room at the time of the revelation still lived, they were able to tell us of the manifestation of the spirit they had received. I recall hearing Elder David B. Haight describe the events of that day when he addressed a gathering in Annandale, VA.
Dennis Horne gives us Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s account of the June 1 meeting where the revelation was received in his book, I Know He Lives. From the excerpt posted at Kurt Manwaring’s site, Elder McConkie recorded the event as follows:
In recent years the counselors in the First Presidency and all members of the Council of the Twelve and Presidency have had an acute awareness of the desire of President Spencer W. Kimball to learn the mind and will of the Lord relative to conferring the Holy Priesthood upon worthy males of every race and color. In recent months one aspect or another of this matter has come up for informal discussion in various regular meetings of the First Presidency and the Twelve….
On two occasions in recent months President Kimball has invited the members of the Twelve, if they felt so inclined, to give him written memorandums expressing their personal views together with any doctrinal explanations as to whether it would be appropriate to give the priesthood to worthy members of all races and colors. Some of the Brethren responded to this invitation and sent documents to the President….
On Thursday, June 1, 1978, the Twelve met as usual at 8 a.m.
[After the normal prayer meeting] President Kimball took the unusual step of inviting the members of the Presidency and the Twelve to remain in the room… and then excused the other Brethren…. On this occasion on the first of June, President Kimball said to the Twelve, that he would like them to continue during the balance of that day to fast with the Presidency and that the normal luncheon at the end of the business meeting had been cancelled. President Kimball then advised the members of the Presidency and the Twelve that in recent months he had been giving extended serious, prayerful consideration to the matter of conferring the priesthood upon the Negroes and that he felt the need for divine guidance. He said that in recent weeks he had spent many hourrs alone there in the upper room in the temple pleading with the Lord for counsel and direction. He said he hoped the Lord would give a revelation one way or another and resolve the matter. He indicated that if it was the mind and will of the Lord that we continue in the present course, denying the priesthood to the descendants of Cain, that he was willing to sustain and support that decision and defend it with all its implications to the death. He said however, that if the Lord was willing to have the priesthood go to them, he hoped for a clear affirmation of this so there would be no question in anyone’s mind.
There followed a near two-hour period in which there was complete, extended and free discussion on the matter…. None were in any way inhibited in setting forth their views. Each one spoke….
After full discussion and full expression on the part of all concerned, President Kimball suggested that we go forward with the prayer….
While President Kimball prayed, the revelation came. When he ceased to pray, there was a great Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit such as none of those present had ever before experienced. There are no words to describe what then happened. It was something that could only be felt in the hearts of the recipients and which can only be understood by the power of the Spirit.
As has been discussed here at M* in the past, the original practice of excluding Black individuals from priesthood ordination and temple participation arose after the death of Joseph Smith. Three factors came into play: extreme wrongful behavior of select Black individuals, prejudices of some members against intermarriage between Blacks and Whites, and the act of the United States creating Utah Territory as a location where slavery was expected to be permitted as part of the Compromise of 1850.
During the administration of President George Albert Smith, a statement was prepared indicating that a time would come when Blacks would be given access to the priesthood. In 1954, David O. McKay requested that historians study the origin of the priesthood ban. The historians reported that the ban was not doctrinal, but had arisen as a matter of policy. As early as 1955, President McKay hoped to change that policy.
In 2015 the University of Illinois Press published The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History, edited by Professors Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst. In the last few weeks conversations with Dr. Harris have been posted at Rick Bennett’s Gospel Tangents website. Dr. Harris gives additional insight into the struggle that took place before President Kimball could remove the priesthood ban.
In 1955 there remained strong advocacy for retaining the ban. In addition to those in the Quorum of the Twelve who advocated for retaining the ban, there was significant concern about those members who would be unable to accept the proposed change, particularly Mormons in the Southeastern United States.
In 1969 President McKay announced his intention to ordain Monroe Fleming, a Black member who worked at the Hotel Utah and was therefore well-known to all members of the LDS leadership. However this move to revoke the ban by fiat was strongly opposed. A generous view considers that the ban was so ingrained in Mormon culture that a report of an ordination would not have sufficed. On the other hand, one of the advocates for retaining the ban specifically said they would blame President McKay if the advocate’s grandchild married a person of color at BYU. This was a hot topic at the time because Utah had only recently ended its anti-miscegenation laws, though before the Supreme Court ended all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had been involved in attempting to protect non-White Mormons who had married White Mormons 1
President McKay’s concern was heightened by awareness of how Wilford Woodruff’s abrupt termination of plural marriage had ruptured the Mormon leadership. Professor Harris is wrong to say half the Quorum of the Twelve was excommunicated–my ancestor, Apostle John W. Taylor, was the only one excommunicated, and that didn’t occur until 1911. But David O. McKay was called as an apostle in 1906, during the fallout from the Second Manifesto of 1904 when death and disfellowshipment had created several vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
President Kimball was one of those who had supported President McKay’s desire to end the ban. But President Kimball knew that such a policy “goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” 2
One of President Kimball’s first acts was to announce construction of a temple in São Paulo, Brazil. The majority of Mormons in Brazil have some Black ancestry. Thus the Brazilian Saints sacrificed and worked to build a temple many of them expected they would be barred from attending.
As the Brazil temple neared completion, President Kimball sent out his requests for written memoranda, so that he might fully understand the position of the Apostles. By requesting written documents, President Kimball invited all to externalize their feelings and impressions. He also armed himself with an understanding of the logic of those in favor of ending the ban as well as those opposed to ending the ban.
I conjecture that a minor factor could have been knowledge that President Harold B. Lee had been one of those who had opposed ending the ban during the Presidency of David O. McKay. It might have occurred to some of those present in 1978 that, had God wished the ban to continue, He could have retained President Lee. President Lee had been younger and in better health than Spencer Kimball. No one had ever expected Spencer Kimball to become the prophet. Yet here was the frail Kimball, his every word a testament to the many surgeries he had endured. And Spencer Kimball was pleading with them to seek God’s will.
And thus it was that on June 1, 1978, the heavens were opened with love, cloven tongues of inspiration confirming to all in that room that God does love all His children, that the ban could be, should be ended with God’s full approbation.
For those members who might have rejected a mere policy change, they could not as easily reject the report of Divine approval when reported by those known to have previously advocated retention of the ban. Any who continued to embrace the ban could be neatly labeled as rejecting the leadership of the Twelve, untenable for the hyper-orthodox folks most likely to have difficulty with removing the ban.
Confirming the Word of God
President N. Eldon Tanner presented the official declaration of the revelation at the fall general conference on 30 September 1978. The declaration was sustained unanimously by those present at the conference.
In 1979 a new LDS edition of the King James Bible was released, followed in 1981 by a new edition of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. It had taken 18 years for the Doctrine and Covenants to include even excerpts of the Official Declaration regarding the end of mortal plural marriage. 3 But now the Official Declaration extending priesthood to all worthy men was now included in scripture within less than three years.
In today’s LDS Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews Russell Stevenson, author of For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism. Stevenson’s book details the relationship between African and Afro-diasporic peoples and the Mormon tradition, particularly regarding the temple and priesthood restrictions. Latter-day Saints are often aware of the priesthood/temple restrictions but feel ill-prepared to discuss it. Stevenson provides some points of entry for Latter-day Saints who hope to acquire to information necessary to speak about Mormonism and racism in a way that is faithful to the documentary record.
- In the case of my Chinese aunt, N. Eldon Tanner was the individual attempting to protect her from the multi-faceted attacks of her outraged mother-in-law. ↩
- Matthew 17:21 ↩
- The Manifesto ending the practice of plural marriage was presented to the Church in 1890, but the Doctrine and Covenants did not include this until 1908. ↩