Friday, June 8, 2018
Remembering June 9, 1978
In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the announcement of the revelation that ended one of the two LDS priesthood bans, I am posting here a few paragraphs from the second of my two articles on priesthood and authority that Dialogue is in the process of publishing. The first appeared in the most recent issue (vol. 51, no. 1). The second will appear in the next issue (vol. 51, no. 2).
I have a confession to make. I grew up a racist. No, I wasn’t a member of the junior Ku Klux Klan. But I grew up in North Ogden, Utah, a very Mormon suburb of Ogden. I attended Weber High School. There was not one black student in the entire school of 1,500 students. We had maybe three or four Asian-Americans, a couple of Native Americans, and perhaps a couple of Hispanics (I don’t think either of them spoke Spanish). We did have a few genuine cowboys, but that’s another ethnic category altogether. In short, this was a very, very Caucasian school. Lily white. The student body came from the suburbs north of Ogden, the farming communities west of Ogden, and the frozen villages over the mountains in Ogden Valley where David O. McKay grew up. To my knowledge, I did not meet a black person until I played high school basketball against Bonneville High, and even then my only interaction with my black opponent was maybe a foul or two. We didn’t strike up a conversation during free throws. So I grew up believing the racial stereotypes that prevailed in a school such as Weber in the early 1970s. And I am not too proud to admit that I likely used a racial slur or two. This was simply the culture I grew up in. It was based on ignorance.
Then I was called on a mission to Germany. In my second assignment, we had a black member in the ward. He was a sweet, humble man from the Ivory Coast who accepted the fact that he couldn’t hold the priesthood. He impressed me, even though he spoke very meager German and English. Later, in my fourth assignment, my companion and I were street contacting in the city one day and spoke with a blond-haired German farmer who told us we could visit him at his home. We bicycled out into the countryside east of town one day and found an ancient farmhouse with an attached barn and a heavy thatched roof. We knocked on the door, and Hans invited us in. He then introduced us to his wife, Josephine, who hailed from Ghana. What a shock. As it turned out, he was as spiritually alive as a piece of petrified wood. She was very interested in our message. So we began teaching them, and soon Josephine told us she had some friends who would be interested.
Her friends were Leo and his wife (whose name I can’t remember). They were from Nigeria, and Leo was attending the university in Hamburg. Leo was perhaps the most Christlike man I had ever met. I knew instantly that he was a better Christian than I would ever be. He was intensely interested in our message and soon developed a conviction that Joseph Smith was a prophet. This was 1977. We knew we were not supposed to actively proselytize black people, so we were careful in our teaching. I counseled with the mission president a couple of times. I remember two things he said. First, “Elder Terry, I’m glad this is your problem and not mine.” I think he meant this simply as a vote of confidence that I would handle the situation with care. Second, “Whatever you do, don’t offend the Lord.” Well, that gave me something to think about.
We taught our three black investigators slowly and carefully, and we eventually reached the point where we had to tell them about the priesthood ban. I think the most difficult day of my mission was the day I had to tell Leo that he couldn’t hold the priesthood. He took it hard and wanted to know why. So we opened up the Pearl of Great Price and read a bit. We tried to explain how he and his people had been fence-sitters in the premortal world. We taught him about the blood of Cain that he obviously had running through his veins and the curse that attended it. In other words, we taught him all the standard LDS rationales for the priesthood ban. And everything we taught him was false.
Fast forward now a little more than a year into the future. It is June 1978, and I am teaching German-speaking missionaries at the MTC (it may have still been called the LTM at that point). One day, after teaching, I bounced on over to the teachers’ lounge. As I was entering the building, another teacher passed me and said, somewhat excitedly, “Have you heard the news? Blacks can have the priesthood.” Something in the way he said it made me think he was joking. I replied, “That’s not funny.” He insisted, “No, I’m serious. President Kimball’s had a revelation.” I ran out to my car and turned on the radio, and of course it was the only thing everyone was talking about. I sat there in that hot car and wept. I wept for the change, and I wept for Leo.
Fast forward again to 2007. I had been working for BYU Studies for just over a year. I was reading Ed Kimball’s biography of his father’s years as Church president, Lengthen Your Stride. But I wasn’t reading the Deseret Book version. I was reading the longer account that was on the CD pocketed inside the back cover. BYU Studies had edited and prepared the CD. In that version, I found four chapters describing in great detail the history of the priesthood ban and the events surrounding the revelation. Ed had access to his father’s journals, so this was possibly the most complete and moving version of these events that will ever be written. I said to myself, “We need to get this out where people will read it.” I knew few would take time to read the longer version of the book on the CD. So I combined those four chapters into a long article, worked with Ed to make sure he was happy with it, and published it in BYU Studies as “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.”1 It is an incredible account and is available free for download at the BYU Studies website. Over the years, as I have studied and contemplated the reason it took so long for this change to come, I, along with others, have reached the conclusion that it did not come earlier because, essentially, the Church wasn’t ready for it. The members, not the Lord, were quite likely the reason for the delay. David O. McKay prayed about this issue frequently during his administration and was eventually 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.”2 My own suspicion is that there were too many Mormons who shared the culturally embedded racism that I grew up with. It was only after the hard-fought gains made through the civil rights movement that much of this racism dissipated. My views changed because of Josephine and Leo. By 1978, enough Latter-day Saints were ready for the change that there were celebrations in the streets and many prayers of gratitude from Saints in all walks of life. The Church, as a whole, was ready in 1978.3
As a postscript here, let me mention that I learned later that Josephine had joined the Church but had not stayed with it. When I was working at Church magazines, I had access to membership information if it was relevant to a story. What a story it would make, I thought, if Leo had joined the Church. So I called and asked if they could check and see if Leo had ever been baptized. It turns out he had, in 1984. But they had lost track of him, so they had assigned him to what the Church refers to as an “administrative unit,” a ward that exists only on a computer where lost members reside until they are found. I have to assume that Leo, like Josephine, didn’t stay with Mormonism.
1. Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 5–78. Available for download at https://byustudies. byu.edu/content/spencer-w-kimball-and-revelation-priesthood.
2. Church architect Richard Jackson, quoted in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 104.
3. Eugene England called for Latter-day Saints to prepare and pray for the priesthood ban to be lifted. See his “The Mormon Cross,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8, no. 1 (1973): 78–86.