Celebration of Expanding the Priesthood to All Worthy Men

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.

Background

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.

More Commentary

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.

Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. Matthew 17:21
  3. 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.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

15 thoughts on “Celebration of Expanding the Priesthood to All Worthy Men

  1. This is a great story of human fallibility and imperfection, and how God loves us anyway and wants to help us, but only once we’re ready. I love it.

  2. “In 1969 President McKay announced his intention to ordain Monroe Fleming”

    Am I reading the Gospel Tangents transcript right . . . that Harris refuses to document this claim until his book comes out in 2019?

  3. Maybe. For historians like me, there is no problem with thinking out loud (with sources cited) in blog posts. But for formal historians who wish to claim credit, they are sensitive about being scooped. So if Professor Harris is being cadgey about that source, it may be that he doesn’t want to get scooped before his book publishes.

  4. “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.”

    In 1972, President Lee said: “For those who don’t believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks …. It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.” Unless President Lee was tone-deaf to revelation, there was no need to kill him to have the ban rescinded. Seeing revelation happen on the local level on a regular basis, I believe the Lord is more than capable of communicating with His Prophets and that His Prophets are more than capable of hearing Him.

  5. Awesome quote. Could you provide us a citation? In case google fails us.

  6. – Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published November 16, 1972.

    The quote seems to have filtered through a few places, with the original not able to be located by my own quick research.

    As for myself, I am one of those who believes the Ban was very much a Prophetic doctrine of the Church. I hold this because the Prophets are given authority to act in the name of God and second that Two or Three witnesses shall establish the Word. My resent research indicates it was because of slavery, with Joseph Smith not allowing until they were free and Brigham Young extending to all Blacks until attitudes of whites and lifestyle of Blacks could be reconciled and repented.

  7. Hi Jettboy,

    I echo your feeling that there was prophetic prompting regarding the ban, as expressed in my post from a few years ago:

    https://www.millennialstar.org/racial-strife-the-norfolk-17-and-virginias-campaign-of-massive-resistance/

    That said, I don’t think it is correct to call the ban a doctrine, at least as I understand that word. As indicated by numerous prophets, there was always expectation that the ban would eventually go away, even on the part of those who resisted President McKay’s attempt to make it go away by fiat (Latin for doing something, i.e., ordaining a faithful Black member). The ban then was policy, even if a policy that was not trivial to change.

  8. “…lifestyle of Blacks…”

    Jetboy, please elaborate. Please emphasize the specific Black only lifestyle choices that prophets cited as a reason for the ban.

  9. Hi PassTheChips,

    I dare say Jettboy could have found a more benign phrase. The objection voiced to my own parents’ inter-racial marriage was that cultural expectations were sufficiently different that there would be severe stress on the marriage. Intermarriage of individuals from different races can therefore create unusual levels of strain, all other things being equal (though they never are equal).

    In my OP I mentioned the untoward actions of select Black individuals. Those actions were significantly untoward.

    Not that I actually know what Jettboy intended, and I may be as offended as you are clearly prepared to be.

  10. Maybe it would have been more correct to have said the social position of blacks in the larger American culture. Isn’t the negative history of race relations the reason for even current controversy? There needed to be, in my believe, less division in the class structure that the Civil Rights helped eleviate. That said,no matter what I say will be taken as offensive because that is the world we live in.

  11. Meg,

    The ban certainly was doctrine back in the old days. We can only call it a policy today with benefit of hindsight and liberal use of presentism. But to Latter-day Saints from Brigham Young through Spencer Kimball, it was bona fide doctrine. David O. McKay’s thought that it was policy and could be changed was kept Top Secret from the rank-and-file of the Church.

  12. I was always raised to believe the ban would be lifted. Other than a class at BYU in the 1980s where the teacher taught the conjecture that there were three types of premortal allegiances roughly aligned with Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Which was weird, since by then the ban had been eliminated.

  13. Hi Jettboy,

    My bookgroup recently read Hidden Figures, which documents the way the overwhelming need for computers (then individuals who could perform computations) to calculate the physics of aerodynamic physics forced NASA to hire Black individuals where prior custom had forbidden Blacks from being considered.

    The Black lifestyle you intended by your comment, then, was a thing forced on a racial group by prejudice. And the abrupt expansion of air travel and then space flight became the social disruption that powered Black individuals into the kind of respectable occupations that can allow parents to provide hope for their children.

    The early Baptist Church (prior to the Revolutionary War) was one institution that saw all of God’s children as equal. Initially all were permitted and encouraged to worship together, slave and master. Robert Carter, the richest man in America at the time and a contemporary of Washington and Jefferson, was a Baptist at some point in his life. He put in place mechanisms to free all of his slaves (he had inherited over 500 of them, IIRC). History erased Robert Carter for his actions, according to his biographer (I think Carter has only had one biographer).

    Could the LDS Church have been like the early Baptist Church? I think so. However I don’t know what the burden of flouting prevalent convention would have been. Even with the ban, Mormons were widely believed to be practicing miscegenation, creating a mogrel race. In the battles Brigham chose to fight after Joseph’s death, he prioritized making it possible for every woman to be sealed to a righteous man.

    Ultimately, we can never know what would have happened had Brigham not instituted the ban followed the devastating vote allowing the Act in relation to Servitude. LaJean Carruth’s excellent work on the shorthand transcripts has proven that Brigham was reacting to the Act, not instructing the representatives on how to vote, as has long been believed.

    As to the word doctrine, I see a doctrine as something that is eternal. Christ is our Savior. God loves all mankind. Children can be united with their mother and father in eternity. A policy is something that is not eternal. The priesthood ban was never envisioned by Church leadership as being eternal, even if some thought it wouldn’t be rescinded until Christ’s Second Coming.

  14. I heard the announcement on the car radio in downtown Logan, Utah and pulled over and wept. What a thrill it was to have an immediate affirming witness. I am ever reminded of Jacob 5. This world is the Lord’s orchard. The Church is a precious tree which he dungs, prunes, and grafts with the kind of understanding of needs only a master may possess. And so I believe, He pruned and He grafted, in His own due time to preserve the tree and the fruit for the time

    Thank you Meg. Respectfully crafted and presented with your typical thoroughness. With a few tidbits I was not aware of.

  15. Sorry, I am a week late to this discussion, but I am still somewhat surprised that some, like jettboy, continue to view the priesthood/temple ban as doctrine.

    Considering all the work that has been done with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and the ongoing effort to make available more and more of the records we have of early church leaders, it is still remarkable that there is zero contemporary evidence of a revelation instituting the ban. I agree that the only way such an entrenched policy was going to be overturned would require revelation, and I applaud the months long struggle that President Kimball invested in trying to get answers.

    Certainly some of the events you allude to do indicate that there were concerns about the actions of some black members of the church in the years after Joseph Smith’s death. Brigham Young expressed, as did others, concerns about intermarriage between black and Caucasian members of the church. At this point I would refer to Jonathan Stapley’s excellent book, “The Power of Godliness.” As Brigham Young understood the sealing power at that time, Abel’s descendants had been cut off when Cain murdered him, Young conflated the curse of Cain with a skin of blackness and that his descendants could never have the priesthood until Abel’s posterity had been restored. How that was supposed to happen is not clear. In 1847, Young first verbalized this concept to Wilford Woodruff when Woodruff expressed his feeling that those of black African descent had great blessings in store as they accepted the gospel. It also had to do with a different understanding of a material heaven being “forged, link by link upon the altars of the temples,: to use Stapley’s description.

    After Brigham Young’s death, this concept mostly fell away, with sealings being done to direct ancestors, regardless of their church membership, rather than only to faithful priesthood holders. Young’s perspective on the seed of Abel and Cain no longer made sense, and that led to the rise of other explanations for the ban, such as the “fence-sitters” idea. By the 1960s, even Joseph Fielding Smith, when challenged by Eugene England and a few others, had to admit that there was not a scriptural basis for the ban, but that is what he had always been taught. Bruce R. McConkie also in his written statements to President Kimball came to the same conclusion in 1978.

    The ban had “prophetic origins,” it appears, only because it was instituted by Brigham Young while he was the ordained Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the time. While there are many reasons why I dislike the so-called Samuel principle, ie that Israel would have to suffer through the many negative results of desiring to have a king, it makes some sense that the Lord would let us suffer as a church because of the choice made to exclude blacks of African heritage from priesthood and temple blessing. Currently, the church’s fastest growing region, at 10% a year, is Africa, while US and European growth is stagnant, and Central and South American growth has dropped off to more modest levels.

    There is still a lot that we don’t understand, but without any evidence for a divine origin for the ban, it behooves us, as we have often been reminded, to forget everything we thought we knew, and adhere to the reality as promised in 2 Nephi 26:33, “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord…and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female…and all are alike unto God…”.

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