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FHE Lesson 1: Revelation on the Priesthood

Primary source material for this lesson: “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” Edward L. Kimball, BYU Studies Quarterly, 47:2

1. Before June of 1978, the Church prohibited blacks from the priesthood. What did this prohibition consist of?

  • Black men could not receive the priesthood or hold priesthood leadership positions. Black men and women could not serve missions or receive temple endowments, though they could be baptized for the dead and black children could be sealed to adoptive parents of other races. They could receive patriarchal blessings, serve as secretaries (but not ward clerks), teach classes, and participate in the music program. Women could be visiting teachers, but men couldn’t be home teachers.
  • The prohibition wasn’t related to personal worthiness. Also, skin color wasn’t the determining factor, but perceived lineage from black Africans (e.g., Australian aborigines weren’t prohibited). If lineage was unknown, the Church erred on the side of leniency. If errors later came to light, ordained men were asked to suspend use of their priesthood.
  • The prohibition was termed a “policy” rather than a doctrine, but one that couldn’t be changed without revelation.

2. Did the Church always exclude blacks from holding the priesthood? Reportedly some persons of mixed heritage received the endowment before 1907. Also, at least two African Americans were ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime:

  • Elijah Abel was ordained an elder on March 3, 1836. Zebedee Coltrin ordained him a Seventy on December 20, 1836. He continued his Church activity in Utah, even after ordination of other blacks ceased.
  • Walker Lewis was ordained an elder by Apostle William Smith in 1843 or 1844. Lewis continued his involvement in the Church until at least 1852 when he visited Utah.
  • Although there is no historical record of Joseph Smith teaching that blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood, some members believed these ordinations either were mistakes, exceptions, or the result of Joseph’s still imperfect understanding.

3. If Joseph Smith was not the source of this policy, where did it come from? We don’t know for sure. Some possibilities include:

  • Societal pressure surrounding slavery. Joseph was opposed to slavery and favored emancipation by government purchase. Though he held the common view of the time that blacks had been degraded by slavery, he also believed they could rise if given opportunity. But the fledgling Church, itself a persecuted group, didn’t want to draw the antipathy of its slave-owning neighbors. See D&C 134:12.
  • Christian beliefs of the day. Many thought blacks were descendants of Cain whom God cursed for killing Abel (Gen. 4:11-12). Canaan, son of Ham and grandson of Noah, was assumed to be a descendent of Cain because his mother Egyptus was black (Abr 1:21-24). Noah also cursed Canaan and it was assumed that cursing passed to his descendants (Gen. 9:25).
  • Statements from Church leaders. The first recorded statement was by Brigham Young in 1849: “The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the lives of Abel. … The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.” Wilford Woodruff also reported him saying in 1852: “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane [sic] in him Cannot hold the priesthood & if no other Prophet ever spake it Before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. I know it is true & they know it.” Brigham felt this restriction on lineage was similar to ancient practices of restricting priesthood to patriarchal lines or Levites.
  • Other scriptural interpretations. Some members developed their own rationales for the prohibition. They reasoned that, just as some premortal spirits were noble and great (Abr. 3:22), others were less than noble and great. They believed these lesser spirits were sent to earth through the lineage of Cain to experience mortality, but with­out priesthood.

4. What scriptural evidence is there against these justifications? After Spencer W. Kimball became president of the Church in 1973, he asked Bruce R. McConkie to study the issue. Elder McConkie concluded there was no scriptural barrier to changing the policy. Here are the major points:

  • Cain’s punishment was that the earth would not yield its strength to him and he would be “a fugitive and a vagabond” (Gen. 4:12). The scriptures say nothing about denial of priesthood.
  • Cain’s mark was given to protect, not punish (Gen. 4:15). Also, the mark is never described, and no scripture says either his punishment or his mark would pass to his children. Though Cain’s descendants were later said to be black (Mos. 7:22), this blackness is never specified as the mark of Cain.
  • The scriptures never identify the Canaanites as descendants of Cain. It was assumed because both groups were in some way “black.” But the Canaanites blackness “came upon them” after they slaughtered the people of Shum (Mos. 7:7-8). Also, there is no reference to priesthood, though Enoch was told not to preach to them.
  • Abraham’s Pharaoh belonged to a “lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood” (Abr. 1:27). Though this was traditionally thought to refer to black lineage, it may have referred to the fact that Pharaoh descended from Noah through Ham’s daughter and thus had no claim to the priesthood in a patriarchal society (Abr. 1:21–25).

5. If there was no scriptural barrier, why did the policy continue for so long? We don’t know for sure. Some possibilities include:

  • Human error. Even those called by God are imperfect (see Appendix to Lesson 1). See the title page to the Book of Mormon: “… if there are faults [in the Book of Mormon] they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” The Lord has long allowed his people to make mistakes. For example, he granted the children of Israel a king even though he expressly warned them against it (1 Sam. 8:18-22). Moses gave the children of Israel a divorce law because of the hardness of their hearts, not because it was a good thing to do (Mat. 19:8). The Lord allowed Joseph Smith to loan the 116 pages to Martin Harris, against his warnings (D&C 3, 10). (Other examples?)
  • Church members weren’t ready. In a letter to President Kimball, Chase Peterson suggested, “Could it be that the Lord has been both preparing us to accept the black man into full Priesthood fellowship and preparing the black man for Priesthood responsibility? ... [Perhaps the Lord] is waiting for us to be ready, and if we fail to demonstrate our readiness, there may not be a [right] time again [soon].” President Kimball later mentioned to his grandson Miles S. Kimball that Peterson’s letter was “very helpful” to him. Also, Joseph Smith once said: “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith).

6. How was the policy eventually changed? By revelation. Things that drove the need for new revelation included:

  • Requests for missionaries flowed in from Ghana and Nigeria. Church leaders didn’t feel they could continue to deny them, but how would they function without priesthood?
  • Society had gradually shifted away from racism. This prepared white Mormons to welcome blacks as full participants.
  • Study by General Authorities and scholars weakened the claim that Joseph Smith taught priest­hood exclusion or that scripture justified it.
  • Church growth in Brazil (including its temple) created a dilemma because of the country’s racially mixed society. Enforcing the policy would be next to impossible.
  • The person leading the Church had changed. Gordon B. Hinckley later said of Spencer W. Kimball, “Here was a little man, filled with love, able to reach out to people. … He was not the first to worry about the priesthood question, but he had the compassion to pursue it and a boldness that allowed him to act, to get the revelation.”

7. How was the revelation received? Like most revelation is received: ask a question, study it out, form a tentative answer through prayer, and receive spiritual confirmation (D&C 9:8). Events progressed roughly like this:

  • President Kimball wanted “to find out firsthand what the Lord thought about [the priesthood policy].” He felt it wasn’t enough to wait for the Lord to take the initiative. He believed “Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on the couch or while playing cards or while relaxing. I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems.” He spent long hours counseling with others, studying, and praying in the temple. In spite of his preconceptions and loyalty to the past, there grew in him “slowly a deep, abiding impression to go forward with the change."
  • As the time for change approached, spiritual premonitions increased. As one of many examples, F. Briton McConkie was giving patriarchal blessings in Manila during the spring of 1978. He promised a woman of African descent she would receive the blessings of the temple. He promised a black man named Alonzo Harris that he would receive the priesthood and the blessings of the temple in his lifetime. When he returned to Utah, Brit told his brother Bruce R. McConkie about the blessings. Elder McConkie responded, “I am glad to know you have given those blessings.” (Personal note: Brit McConkie gave me my patriarchal blessing and also sealed my husband and me in the temple.)
  • President Kimball felt it was important to get consensus from the Twelve, so he increased his visits to the temple and asked the Lord to make his will known to all of them. After much spiritual struggle and preparation, he met with the Twelve on Thursday, June 1, 1978 for a special meeting. During two hours of positive discussion, they tentatively agreed the restriction should be lifted. Then President Kimball led them in prayer. In the words of Elder McConkie, the long-awaited spiritual confirmation finally descended:

    “On the day of Pen­tecost in the Old World it is recorded that cloven tongues of fire rested upon the people. They were trying to put into words what is impossible to express directly. There are no words to describe the sensation, but simultaneously the Twelve and the three members of the First Presi­dency had the Holy Ghost descend upon them and they knew that God had manifested his will. … I had had some remarkable spiritual experi­ences before, particularly in connection with my call as an apostle, but nothing of this magnitude.

    “All of the Brethren at once knew and felt in their souls what the answer to the importuning petition of President Kimball was. … Some of the Brethren were weeping. All were sober and somewhat overcome. When President Kimball stood up, several of the Brethren, in turn, threw their arms around him.”

8. How did people react to the policy change? The change was announced to the media on June 9, 1978. It spread like wildfire, and in some Mormon communities telephone circuits became overloaded. The momentousness of this occasion can be compared to Peter announcing a major policy change in the ancient church that allowed gentiles to be taught and baptized (see Acts 10; 11:1-18). Public reactions were largely positive. Here are some accounts:

  • Heber Wolsey, the Church’s managing director of Public Communication: “On returning to the office, I opened the door and saw Darius Gray [a black LDS businessman and good friend] looking fondly out the window at the Salt Lake Temple. He rushed to me, and we threw our arms around each other and wept for gratitude and joy. … Darius looked at me, then out the window at the temple, and then at me again. He closed his eyes, opened them slowly, and said softly, ‘God is good.’”
  • Robert Stevenson: “After hearing the news, I called my wife at work and told her to come home immediately. When she was home I told her the news and she broke into tears and laughter at the same time. We are already planning our temple marriage.”
  • A local reporter who had been antagonistic to the Church: “I sensed a lot of happiness at the Church offices … a great burden being lifted. There was a sense of joy; people were genuinely thrilled. … I experienced a change in feelings toward the Church that day.”
  • Mary Frances Sturlaugson recorded how a friend told her the news in a downtown office. She said, “Please don’t joke with me about something like that.”
“At that instant a young man who had been talking on the phone stood up and, with his fists stretched above his head, shouted, ‘All right!’
“Cold chills went completely through my body. All I could say was, ‘I don’t believe it’s happened.’ An older man beside me kept repeating, ‘I’ll be darned, I’ll be darned.’
“As I walked outside, crying like a happy kid at Christmastime, horns were honking like crazy. I stopped for a red light and a car pulled up. The driver asked me if I had heard what he had just heard. I half mumbled and half nodded a disbelieving yes. He whooped and started blowing his horn as he drove off. When I arrived at my apartment my roommates ran out to meet me, and we jumped up and down screaming with joy. Finally we went inside and each said a prayer, sobs punctuating every one.”

Conclusion: How do you feel about the things we’ve learned tonight? If you have doubts or questions about a Church teaching or leader, what do you think you should do? How would you go about seeking for personal revelation? (Bear testimony as appropriate.)

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