Part 32: CES Letter Prophet Questions [Section F]
by Sarah Allen
Last week, we discussed the history of race in the Church up to the institution of the Priesthood restriction on black members. This week, I’d like to finish the history of the ban and discuss the shifting reasoning people came up with to justify it. I was thinking this week would wrap up the entire subject, but I don’t think it will all fit. I think we’ll probably have to extend this topic for a third week. It’s still a lot to cover, so I’m just going to dive right in.
Before I do, though, I need to remind everyone that we’re going to be discussing some extremely offensive comments today, and I’m not going sugar-coat or excuse the things being said. However, no matter how distasteful some of this may be, we need to remember that these were flawed children of God who deserve our charity rather than our judgment. It’s not always easy. I struggle with it sometimes, too. But God doesn’t call perfect people to achieve His plan. If He did, the Savior would have been the only one He ever called. The rest of us can and do make mistakes. We need mercy from Him and from each other. Let’s all try to keep that in mind, please?
And again, the first part of this history is taken chiefly from Lester Bush Jr.’s Mormon Negro Doctrine, Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color, and his 2015 FAIR presentation, unless otherwise noted. When we reach President McKay’s tenure, the main source for that information is an article entitled Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood by Edward Kimball.
Throughout the bulk of Brigham Young’s tenure as president of the Church, the primary rationale for the Priesthood restriction was that black people were descended from Cain, the lineage having been preserved during the flood through Ham and his Canaanite wife, and that his curse carried on to them in the present day. Slavery was both proof of that curse and the result of it, in a fantastic piece of circular logic that makes absolutely no sense today. Brigham added that, after all of Adam’s other children have had the chance to receive the Priesthood, then would the children of Cain be allowed. He believed this would take place after the Second Coming and Millennium, because he seemed to believe that this meant that it would happen after every single person from every other race had their temple work done.
This idea included the idea that, when Cain murdered Abel, he deprived Abel of his posterity and “of extending his heavenly kingdom by multiplying upon the earth.” Brigham believed that those who had been meant to have been from Abel’s lineage had already been assigned to him. So, they would all have to be reassigned to other lineages, be born, and also receive their temple ordinances before any of Cain’s posterity would be able to receive theirs. Those descendants of Cain were aware of that decision in the premortal life, but that “rather than forsake him they were willing to bear his burdens and share the penalty imposed upon him,” and come to Earth even knowing it would mean they would have to wait to receive the Priesthood and temple ordinances. They wanted a body so badly, they were willing to accept whatever trials they had to in order to achieve that goal.
This rationale was being taught from the 1850s through the 1870s, or the rest of Brigham’s life. But as early as 1844, another, more unsettling idea had begun to be taught. Orson Hyde seems to have been the first person to suggest it—and remember, this predated the Priesthood ban as far as we know, because there’s no evidence that Joseph taught it in Nauvoo despite some speculation that he may have. That idea, of course, is that black people were neutral in the War in Heaven, and were sent to Earth under Cain’s cursed lineage as a consequence of that.
In 1844, Hyde stated that, “At the time the devil was cast out of heaven, there were some spirits that did not know who had authority, whether God or the devil. They consequently did not take a very active part on either side, but rather thought the devil had been abused, and considered he had rather the best claim to government. These spirits were not considered worthy of an honorable body on this earth. … Now, it would seem cruel to force pure celestial spirits into the world through the lineage of Canaan that had been cursed. This would be ill appropriate, putting the precious and vile together. But those spirits in heaven that lent an influence to the devil, thinking he had a little the best right to govern, but did not take a very active part any way, were required to come into the world and take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the Negro or African race.”
Orson Pratt, often touted as the progressive anti-racist model everyone back then should have followed, echoed Hyde a few years later, saying that it was “highly probable that there were many who were not valiant in the war, but whose sins were of such a nature that they could be forgiven.”
This theory sprang up because the 2nd Article of Faith teaches us that man must be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression, which contradicts the curse of Cain/Ham idea. In order to reconcile the two beliefs and create a cohesive explanation, that’s the unfortunate idea some people came up with. This theory is especially offensive to me as some of the very strongest, most faithful people I know are black or biracial. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that.
When Brigham Young was directly asked if there were neutral spirits in the War in Heaven, he rejected the idea, stating, “No, they were not, there were no neutral [spirits] in Heaven at the time of the rebellion, all took sides. … All spirits are pure that came from the presence of God. The posterity of Cain are black because he committed murder. He killed Abel and God set a mark upon his posterity. But the spirits are pure that enter their tabernacles.”
But Brigham and many other members of the Church and of society at large at the time believed that black people were naturally inferior and of a lower intelligence than white people. It was a pervasive belief during those days, so widely accepted that it was unfortunately printed in a semi-official Church publication as one of the most appalling things I’ve read in a long time.
The Juvenile Instructor was created in 1866 by George Q. Cannon and his family. He was its first editor. It began as a private, unofficial paper and was aimed at the children and youth, sort of like the Friend or the New Era. By 1868, however, it was being used as the Deseret Sunday School Union’s main publication/teaching aid. Eventually, it became an official Church magazine.
That year, 1868, a series of seven articles by George Reynolds (of the infamous Reynolds v United States court case and who would later become the assistant editor of the magazine) was published. It was titled “Man and His Varieties” and there are two in particular I wanted to quote from, “From Caucasian to Negro” and “The Negro Race.” This series is one of the most racist things I’ve ever read in my entire life. But in the name of being honest and not skipping over controversial things, these articles read, in part:
Of the five races before spoken of the Caucasian claims our first attention. In it are included the people of nearly all the nations who have ruled or now rule the world; those who are the foremost in the arts, sciences and civilization. All the other families of men are, as a rule, unequal to them in strength, size, beauty, learning and intelligence. In almost every case where the different races have met on the field of battle, the Caucasians have proved the conquerors. The general traits of the race are that they are usually fair, their faces are oval, their foreheads broad, their hair of various colors and soft and flowing (not woolly like the negroes); … Next in order stands the Negro race, the lowest in intelligence and the most barbarous of all the children of men. The race whose intellect is the least developed, whose advancement has been the slowest, who appear to be the least capable of improvement of all people. The hand of the Lord appears to be heavy upon them, dwarfing them by the side of their fellow men in every thing good and great.
The Negro is described as having a black skin, black, woolly hair, projecting jaws, thick lips, a flat nose and receding skull. He is generally well made and robust; but with very large hands and feet. In fact, he looks as though he had been put in an oven and burnt to a cinder before he was properly finished making. His hair baked crisp, his nose melted to his face, and the color of his eyes runs into the whites. Some men look as if they had only been burned brown; but he appears to have gone a stage further, and been cooked until he was quite black.
And, from the second one:
… Some, however, will argue that a black skin is not a curse, nor a white skin a blessing. In fact, some have been so foolish as to believe and say that a black skin is a blessing, and that the negro is the finest type of a perfect man that exists on the earth; but to us such teachings are foolishness. We understand that when God made man in his own image and pronounced him very good, that he made him white. We have no record of any of God’s favored servants being of a black race. All His prophets and apostles belonged to the most handsome race on the face of the earth … [The pure Negro’s] skin is quite black, their hair woolly and black, their intelligence stunted, and they appear never to have arisen from the most savage state of barbarism.
This and other similar attitudes persisted for decades among the Saints and the Western World at large. In 1856, slavery and polygamy were called “the twin relics of barbarism” and after slavery was abolished during the Civil War, national attention turned toward abolishing polygamy, too. This is very important to understand going forward, because it influences a lot of the Church’s thoughts on race for essentially the next century.
Monogamy was considered something that white people engaged in, while polygamy was something that Africans and Asians participated in. So, when the Saints began practicing plural marriage, they were seen as “race traitors.” From that point on, every effort was made to cast the Saints as less white than their monogamous counterparts. The reason this is significant is because, at the time in the United States, white people were afforded the full rights of citizenship but other races were not. By designating the Mormons as “not white,” they were able to strip them of the civil rights they should have been granted under the law as white citizens of the United States. This included voting rights, property rights, First Amendment rights, etc. Political cartoons continually published images of polygamous Church members with children and wives of multiple races (and remember, the “threat” of interracial marriage was one of the driving forces behind pro-slavery rhetoric). You can see some of those cartoons reprinted in Martha Ertman’s article, Race Treason: The Untold Story of America’s Ban on Polygamy. There was even a popular song written and performed on Broadway that furthered this stereotype, which you can listen to on YouTube, revoltingly named “The Mormon Coon.”
In 1857, Dr. Roberts Bartholomew was sent West with the army for the Utah War, and he gave a report to the US Senate in 1860 after coming home. In that report, he talked about what he supposedly observed in the Saints over the past few years. This report would be widely published and passed around afterward. It got international attention.
He says, “The Mormon, of all human animals now walking this globe, is the most curious in every relation.” Mormonism is a great social blunder, he argues, which seriously affected “the physical stamina and mental health” of its adherents.
Polygamy, in his mind, was the central issue. It created a “preponderance of female births” because one man is paired with multiple women. He argues that you are going to have more female children than male children. He says it produces a high infant mortality rate. And he says it also produces “a striking uniformity of facial expression,” which included “albuminous and gelatinous types of constitution” and “physical conformation” among “the younger portion” of Mormons. It gets better. He said that polygamy forced Mormons to unduly interfere with the normal development of adolescents and was, in sum, “a violation of natural law.” Mormon men were constantly seeking “young virgins, [so] that notwithstanding the preponderance of the female population, a large percentage of the younger men remain unmarried.” Girls were married to the waiting patriarchs “at the earliest manifestations of puberty,” he wrote, and when that was not soon enough, Mormons made use of “means” to “hasten the period.” It doesn’t specify what magical means the Mormons had discovered, but nonetheless, this is his argument. He also argues that the progeny of the “peculiar institution” demonstrated its “most deplorable effects” in “the genital weakness of the boys and young men.” I have no idea the kind of research the good doctor is about, but nonetheless, this is his argument. Polygamy created a “sexual debility” in the next generation of Mormon men, largely because their “sexual desires are stimulated to an unnatural degree at a very early age, and as female virtue is easy, opportunities are not wanting for their gratification.”
He basically argues that polygamy will solve itself. The next generation of men will go sterile. The problem is that Mormons are so successful at winning converts from overseas that you have this constant influx of new blood into the system that will perpetuate it into the next several generations. But remember, Mormonism becomes a foreign problem. In 1879 the US Secretary of State issues edicts to its consuls in Europe trying to prevent Mormon immigration into the United States. So Dr. Bartholow thinks that if we could cut off immigration the next generation of Mormon boys will be sterile and it will solve itself. All of this, in his mind, will produce the “degraded Mormon body.” In fact, he argues that polygamy is giving rise to a new degraded race in the 19th century: “[A]n expression of countenance and a style of feature, which may be styled the Mormon expression and style; an expression compounded of sensuality, cunning, suspicion, and smirking self-conceit. The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair; and the lank angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.” “[T]he degradation of the mother,” he says, “follows that of the child, and physical degeneracy is not a remote consequence of moral depravity.”
I particularly like the bit about how we all look like zombified Children of the Corn. It’s so ridiculous. Immediately, this report was picked up and passed around the globe. Near the end of that same year, there was a medical conference at the New Orleans Academy of Sciences all about the “degraded Mormon body” and the creation of a new race of people in the Great Basin area. Every single doctor at that conference but one was in complete agreement that this was the truth and needed to be shared and reshared throughout the medical community. The lone holdout did not do so because he disbelieved the claims, but because he felt that, as the religion had only existed for 30 years, it wasn’t enough time to properly study this new race and declare its existence as established fact, so they should go out and conduct experiments and study the Mormons for another 30 years to be sure they had the full range of facts before publishing any papers on it.
So, the Saints were othered as an entirely new, degraded, deformed race of people who were not white and didn’t have the same civil rights as “real” Christians. In order to defend themselves and counter those claims, some suggested instead that, because plural marriage was ordained by God, the “new race” created would instead be angelic, celestial, holy, and divine, resulting in a “regeneration of mankind.” There were “no healthier, better developed children than those born in polygamy,” who were of “a more perfect type of manhood, mentally and physically.” Even George Q. Cannon claimed that, “the children of our system are brighter, stronger, and healthier in every way than those of the monogamic system.”
Regrettably, in the minds of many, becoming more divine and perfect also meant becoming more white. Remember, if, as they claimed, God and His Son and all His angels and prophets and apostles were white, and the white race was favored above all others and at the pinnacle of arts, science, civilization, world leadership, beauty, and intelligence, then all other races were inferior. If their new “regenerated” race was to be “a more perfect type of manhood,” it had to be more white.
To me and, I’m sure, most of you reading this, those beliefs are nauseating and unbecoming of children of God. But again, people aren’t perfect, and when we’re hurt and angry, we sometimes lash out in ways that do not reflect the divine nature we strive to possess. This is not an excuse for anyone latching onto those thoughts and championing them to others. It’s just an explanation of what was going on. Their repentance is between them and God, and if we believe in the Atonement and its healing power, we have to believe that they had the chance to repent for holding those beliefs and attitudes.
After Brigham’s death, a report circulated that Joseph had allowed black men to be ordained and said they were entitled to the Priesthood. As nearly every teaching and policy of the Church at that time was instituted by Joseph, the idea that the Priesthood ban hadn’t come from him was a surprise to many who just assumed it did. President John Taylor went to Zebedee Coltrin to investigate, since Coltrin was supposedly the one Joseph said this to. Coltrin basically said, “Actually, he told me the opposite,” and Abraham Smoot backed him up by saying he’d said the same thing to him, too. President Taylor told the Twelve this, and Joseph F. Smith disagreed with their reports, including the ones specifically regarding Elijah Abel and the supposed revocation of his Priesthood ordination. President Taylor made the comment that mistakes had been made in the early days of the Church which had been allowed to stand, and believed that this was also true in Brother Abel’s case.
So, the question then became what the policy had been under Joseph Smith. They weren’t debating whether or not black men were allowed to hold the Priesthood, mind you. They fully believed that it was instituted by God. They simply wanted to know what Joseph had said about the matter.
By this time, Abel was continually petitioning the president and the Twelve for the right to take out his endowment, and he was being continually told no. After his death, Jane Manning James took up doing the same thing, and Wilford Woodruff, who was the president at the time, went to the Twelve to ask for advice again. Again, Joseph F. Smith said that Joseph supported Abel’s ordination, implying that he believed that Joseph would support their going through the temple. George Q. Cannon replied that Joseph taught the Priesthood restriction to them. None of the other members of the Twelve seemed to be aware of that, and they were caught off-guard by the announcement. Remember, Brigham Young had never claimed the restriction came from Joseph. He always simply said it came from God.
Cannon continued to state over the next few years that the teaching came from Joseph. A white woman who had been formerly married to a black man was denied the opportunity to be sealed to her second, white husband under his direction, because she had children with her first husband and it would be unfair to exclude them from the sealing and it’d create future complications. He also denied the ordination of a white man who was married to a black woman. A lot of this seemed to have been because he was concerned about children being able to be sealed to their parents, but it still seems a little harsh to today’s sensibilities.
Then, it was discovered that another two black men had been ordained, and they needed to figure out what to do about it. Cannon said that they already knew what to do because there was a restriction in place, and that it came from Joseph Smith. President Snow said he thought it needed more consideration, but Cannon said “that as he regarded it the subject was really beyond the pale of discussion unless he, President Snow, had light to throw upon it beyond what had already been imparted.” President Snow backed off.
By the time Joseph F. Smith became the president of the Church in 1901, he went through all of the statements he could find on the matter by Brigham and Joseph, and again reminded everyone that Abel had been ordained during the days of Joseph Smith.
In 1908, he recounted the same story for the fourth time, but this time, it was different. This time, he said that the ordination had been “declared null and void by the Prophet himself.” Why Joseph F. Smith reversed his statement after 30 years of proclaiming the opposite, we don’t know. Somehow in those 7 years, he completely flipped his opinion on the matter. He made other statements that were not fully true, like that Wilford Woodruff had denied Abel the chance to do his temple ordinances despite the fact that Abel died five years before Woodruff became the president. So, it’s possible his memory was just clouded on the subject. We don’t really know what happened.
That very same year, however, he contradicted himself when responding to someone who asked if it was possible that someone could still remain a member of the Church if his Priesthood had been declared null and void. He wrote back that “once having received the priesthood it cannot be taken … except by transgression so serious that they must forfeit their standing in the Church.” As that’s exactly what he said happened with Elijah Abel, I honestly don’t know what was going through his mind with any of it.
After that, though, nobody questioned that it came from Joseph. Everyone believed Cannon and Smith and stopped arguing the matter. In the meantime, another justification for the ban had cropped up: that the Pearl of Great Price taught that the Pharaoh, a descendant of Ham and therefore a black man, was cursed pertaining to the Priesthood, so that must mean that all black men are cursed regarding the Priesthood. The Pearl of Great Price theory, first proposed by B.H. Roberts in 1885, became the chief justification of the restriction for decades. There are a lot of problems with this theory that Bush enumerates in his article, but they were ignored and it was used far and wide.
The reason this was so widespread was because, by 1908, the idea that black people were descended from Cain or Ham had gone out of favor and wasn’t nearly so well-known or popular has it had been 60 years earlier when the restriction was instituted. Protestant churches had veered away from that teaching and it just wasn’t something that many people believed anymore. Additionally, scientists had been growing increasingly loud in saying that Adam may not have been the first man on Earth and that there was no evidence of a worldwide flood. Darwin’s theory of evolution was growing in popularity, as well. So, by using these verses to back up the teaching, the Church leaders were able to continue rationalizing it using the same teachings as before. It hadn’t needed to be supported at the time because it was a common belief, but by the early 1900s, things had shifted so much that they needed that additional support for the claim.
This was also the same time that ignorant beliefs about the abilities and intelligence of black people were starting to be challenged. Public sentiment was starting to change, though most white people still believed that black people were inferior in other ways. At one point, President Taylor even said that the lineage of Cain had been preserved during the flood “because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God…” which just boggles my mind. And Wilford Woodruff did finally allow Jane Manning James into the temple for a sealing ordinance, but not to be adopted into Joseph and Emma’s family the way all three of them had wanted. Instead, he compromised by allowing her a completely unique sealing, that of being sealed to Joseph as a servant.
During Joseph F. Smith’s tenure, the question also came up of what exactly defined a descendant of Cain if someone was predominantly white. That’s when they started referring back to Brigham’s mis-recorded statement about one drop of Negro blood preventing someone from obtaining the Priesthood. That became another widespread justification for denying people ordination for the Priesthood, and he never even said it.
LaJean Purcell Carruth, the woman who transcribed all of the shorthand transcripts for Brigham Young and others, said the following:
Wilford Woodruff recorded Brigham Young’s speech in his journal at the beginning of 1852, notes only, partial notes. They are undated and in my opinion copied from elsewhere. Wilford Woodruff recorded Brigham Young as saying that any man with one drop of African blood could not hold the priesthood. This document was known. It was the cited document. It was used in ecclesiastical judgments. This document was the one known source for what Brigham Young had actually said. Unfortunately, Wilford Woodruff took the social construct of one drop that was used to legally determine who was African in the Southern states. If you had one drop of African blood, as long as it came through the maternal line, you were considered an African. Somehow, his memory put this into Brigham Young’s sermon.
George D. Watt’s notes of Brigham Young’s speech do not contain the words “one drop.” I have searched my shorthand records and Van Wagoner’s compilation of all published manuscript accounts of Brigham Young’s speeches. This phrase is not there. Brigham Young did not say it, but the record we had included it. The clarification of Brigham Young’s words are of vast importance to us.
So, decades after their deaths, the origin of the Priesthood restriction had been misattributed to Joseph Smith, and the “one drop” phrase supposedly by Brigham Young that was used repeatedly to justify banning biracial men from Priesthood ordination was never said by him. But people at the time didn’t know that. They believed they were passing along correct information. It wasn’t done out of malice, it was done out of a mistaken belief that they were right. I’m sure we’ve all shared information that we thought was true until we learned otherwise. That’s what happened here.
When missionaries reached South Africa in the early 1900s, they were told not to proselytize to black people, just white people. If black people wanted to join, they could be baptized, but the missionaries shouldn’t seek them out. They did, however, begin allowing black people to do baptisms for the dead.
In 1912, despite Brigham Young’s earlier statement that nobody was neutral in the War in Heaven, it had again gained widespread popularity as a justification that black people had been neutral and the Priesthood restriction was their punishment. The First Presidency wrote in response to an inquiry about it that “there is no revelation, ancient or modern, neither is there any authoritative statement by any of the authorities of the Church … [in support of the idea] that the negroes are those who were neutral in heaven at the time of the great conflict or war, which resulted in the casting out of Lucifer and those who were led by him. …” This did not stop the rumors from circulating, however.
Skipping ahead to 1931, Joseph Fielding Smith published a book called The Way to Perfection which went through everything the Twelve believed they knew about the ban, the history and the policies and the scriptural basis for it and all of that. This was considered for a long time to be the definitive source on the topic.
The biggest innovation in that book was his ability to seemingly reconcile the position of Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith with that of those who believed in the “neutrality in the War in Heaven” theory. He very carefully outlined the difference between neutrality and those who simply “did not stand valiantly,” who “were almost persuaded, were indifferent, and who sympathized with Lucifer, but did not follow him.” The “sin” “was not one that merited the extreme punishment which was inflicted on the devil and his angels. They were not denied the privilege of receiving a second estate, but were permitted to come to the earth-life with some restrictions placed upon them. That the negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits, few will doubt. …” He went on to say, “It cannot be looked upon as just that they should be deprived of the power of the Priesthood without it being a punishment for some act, or acts, performed before they were born.”
If that sounds pretty much exactly like the same thing as the neutrality argument to you, you’re in good company. There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, difference between the two ideas. It seems clear that he believed that theory but didn’t want to openly contradict his father or Brigham. He did comment on Brigham’s statement about pure spirits, however: “They come innocent before God so far as mortal existence is concerned.”
This book and the ideas it supported were so popular, his remarks formed the backbone of the 1949 statement from the First Presidency on the topic. This statement said that the ban was the result of a direct commandment from the Lord and dated from the very organization of the Church, that black people would eventually hold every blessing white people then held, and that the conduct of the spirits in the pre-existence had some bearing on where they ended up in this life.
As missionary work expanded, especially into Hawaii and Brazil, it became harder and harder to tell who had African blood and who did not. The situation was growing increasingly complicated, and the Church leadership didn’t have any real answers. The advice typically amounted to, “Just do the best you can and if a problem arises, we’ll sort it out later.”
Jumping ahead to David O. McKay, his tenure is when things really started to change. South Africans no longer had to trace their lineage out of Africa to be ordained. Black people who didn’t have African heritage were ordained in Fiji and elsewhere. Missionaries would be allowed to proselytize directly to black people. On a one by one basis, black children were approved to be sealed to non-white parents. And President McKay began praying in earnest about lifting the ban entirely. He believed it was policy, rather than doctrine, but that it was policy instituted by God and therefore could not be lifted except by Him. So, he prayed constantly about it, hoping to get the revelation to change the policy.
At one point, he told Marion D. Hanks that he’d pleaded and pleaded with the Lord, but hadn’t received the answer he wanted. Elder Adam S. Bennion reported that McKay had prayed “without result and finally concluded the time was not yet ripe.” But he didn’t give up.
Sometime between 1968 and his death in 1970 he confided his prayerful attempts to church architect, Richard Jackson, “I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.”
The time for change wasn’t there yet, and McKay wouldn’t be the one to enact it. However, he did help issue another First Presidency statement calling for equal Civil Rights for all and for members of the Church to support that effort.
After his death in 1970, not much really changed until President Kimball’s tenure. Three prophets had died in four years: McKay in January, 1970; Joseph Fielding Smith in July, 1972; and Harold B. Lee in December, 1973. Both Smith and Lee held more traditional views on the subject, though they both supported the idea that change would come eventually. Lee broadly allowed black children to be sealed in the temple to non-black parents. McKay had allowed it on an individual basis, as mentioned, but Lee opened it up to everyone. Lee died unexpectedly just a year and a half into his calling as president of the Church.
After President Kimball’s setting apart, the floodgates started to open. Patriarchal and other blessings suddenly started being given to black members saying that they’d enjoy the blessings of the Priesthood, missions, and the temple during their lifetime on Earth. The patriarchs were a bit freaked out and sent them up the chain to President Kimball, who approved them. Others who gave blessings of healing or comfort requested that the blessing stay between those in the room because they didn’t know what was going on. They’d spoken according to the Spirit, but couldn’t understand why they were being directed to make those promises when they were, at the time, impossible.
President Kimball cared deeply about the question and kept a notebook filled with articles and letters on the topic as he pondered and prayed over it. A new temple was announced in Brazil, which was going to complicate things still further. And while protests had mostly died out, there were still occasional ones popping up. The tide had shifted and most members of the Church were eager for the change to come.
Because of all of this, he started praying even harder over the matter. He asked the Twelve to join him in studying the previous statements by leaders of the Church in trying to understand the situation. The issue was discussed repeatedly in First Presidency and Quorum meetings. For most of the year leading up to the revelation, Kimball studied the topic intently, trying to work out every possible reason for it to have been enacted in the first place and for it to still be in effect that day. He was so consumed by the question it started affecting his health. President Packer asked him once why he didn’t put the question aside for a few months and rest, and then answered his own question, saying, “Oh, you can’t, the Lord won’t let you.” He was constantly in the temple, sometimes more than once per day, seeking revelation. He had the entire Quorum fast and pray numerous times over it.
Eventually, he started feeling like the time might finally be right, but he wanted unity in the Quorum over it and he didn’t have it yet. He wanted everyone to receive a clear answer so there would be no question about going forward with the change. He prayed for that unity and met with each of the Twelve individually. His counselors in the First Presidency knew his feelings and supported him in his endeavors. During one of the meetings, LeGrand Richards believed he saw Wilford Woodruff, long dead, sitting in the back of the room near the organ.
One day, after their prayer meeting in the temple, President Kimball asked everyone to remain behind. Elder Stapley was in the hospital and Elder Peterson was in South America, but the rest of the Quorum was all there. They’d been fasting all day and were supposed to break the fast with a lunch, but President Kimball asked them to stay in the temple with him instead and told them the progression of his thoughts and impressions, and asked for theirs. Everyone there spoke in favor of a change. He then led them in prayer, kneeling around the altar, asking for a confirmation that their feelings were right. He told the Lord that if it was wrong, he would defend the Lord’s decision with everything he had, but if it was right, please let them have a clear manifestation of the Spirit so they could all know for certain.
What happened next is one of the most important revelations in our Church’s history. The men in that room all described it as feeling like the day of Pentacost, with a rushing wind and being surrounded and filled with the fire of the Holy Ghost, and a deeply personal, incontrovertible feeling that the time was finally right. Many of them said later that they had never felt anything of that magnitude before, that it was so breathtaking they couldn’t speak afterward, and that they were never the same again.
It was during this prayer that the revelation came. The Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. … And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.
… 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 answer came, and none of them had any doubt as to what it was.
Next week, we’ll talk about the announcement of the revelation, its aftermath, and finish out Jeremy’s statements on the subject. I’d also like to talk a little about the essay on Race and the Priesthood and what it says and doesn’t say, and what it all means for us today.
For now, I’d just like to leave you with my testimony that, regardless of how or why this restriction was put in place, I know beyond all doubt that Heavenly Father lifted it when the time was right and the Quorum of the Twelve and the membership of the Church were mostly unified on the answer. I don’t know if that’s what He was waiting for or not, but I do know that it was by His will that it was changed. I know that was truly a revelation, not caving to social pressure or whatever other cynical brush-off critics might claim. You cannot read the statements of the men in that room that day without knowing that it was a revelation from God.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.